Early Fusion Food: Inside A Colonial Mexican Kitchen

articles Food & Cuisine

reviewed by Karen Hursh Graber

One of the rewarding aspects of investigating the history and evolution of Mexico’s rich and varied cuisine is the availability of authentic sources. The Spanish chroniclers took painstaking notes on nearly every aspect of indigenous life upon their arrival, including food and cooking techniques, and continued, after the Conquest, to keep household journals, diaries and recipes. Many of these manuscripts have been carefully preserved, reflecting Mexico’s pride in both its history and its food. Although printed cookbooks did not appear until after independence from Spain was won, manuscript cookbooks provide an insight into the culinary fusion of the Colonial era.

This column has covered a variety of pre-Hispanic foods and their preparation, including the many dishes based on corn, beans, chiles and Mesoamerican herbs. These gastronomic elements were combined with those brought to the New World by the Europeans to form the basis of one of the world’s great cuisines.

Exploration of the fusion that took place during the Colonial period has been opened up considerably by the CONACULTA (National Counsel for Culture and Arts) publication of the Colección de Recetarios Antiguos (Collection of Old Recipes) with introductions and notes by Mexican historians. This series provides the Mexican public with glimpses into the formation of the social landscape, since cuisine played a significant part in the blending of cultures that shaped modern Mexico. Care has been taken to transcribe these hand-written pieces into texts that are very nearly complete versions of the originals, with experts like Teresa Castello Yturbide providing glossary-type guides to antiquated cooking terms.

One such volume, written in 1780, is the Libro de Cocina de Fray Geronimo de San Pelayo, the cookbook of a Franciscan friar in the kitchen of Mexico City’s San Fernando monastery. The convento cooking of the Colonial nuns and friars has long been considered among the most important contributions to the development of a mestizo cuisine, and several writers and historians have delved into this area. The convent-born mole poblano alone has been the subject of a whole literary genre exploring the origins of the dish, with Salvador Novo, Paco Ignacio Taibo and others contributing to the discourse. However good these modern takes on Colonial culinary creativity may be, the 300-year-old work of a cook who hand-wrote the recipes for what was prepared in his kitchen on a daily basis is exciting for both its intimacy and authenticity.

Although the friars followed a humble diet that reflected their vow of poverty, they were ordered by Church officials in New Spain to observe a less rigid regimen, so that they would have the strength to preach. Feast day meals, however, especially those dedicated to the Virgin, were elaborate affairs.

As written by Friar Geronimo, the menus for these meals consisted of two principios (appetizers) followed by soup, ham, chicken, grilled meat, dessert, wine and fruit. In addition to the many Catholic feast days, the Franciscans especially celebrated those of the saints who had been members of their order and anniversaries of the tonsures of their prelates. There were less festive days as well, specified as “soup days” or “rice days” according to the liturgical calendar. During Lent, the friars ate lentils, potatoes, fava beans and various kinds of eggs. Friar Geronimo included a list of which dishes were appropriate for each day and, like a modern-day head chef, he kept careful count of the quantities of ingredients needed for each meal.

There were seventy friars living in the convento during the time Friar Geronimo wrote his cookbook, and the ingredients he used came from a variety of sources. Some were raised by the friars themselves, some were donated to the convento and others came from haciendas. From the chinampas, the floating gardens that were reached via canals, came fresh vegetables. The friars also went to the city’s market plazas to buy products from other parts of Mexico and the coasts.

Looking through the recipes, it is clear that the author was familiar with a wide variety of both Old and New World ingredients. Many of them reflect Spanish and Arab influences, along with those of Italy and France. There is an Italian estofado (a thick stew) and fideos (thin pasta) along with a French fricassee. The majority of the vegetables found in the recipes were of European origin – beets, chards, spinach, carrots, peas, lettuce, celery, cauliflower, cabbage – but native squash, chayote, pumpkin and tomato were also used.

An understanding of how to combine indigenous ingredients is evident in the recipes, such as beans with epazote. New World fruits were widely employed in the preparation of desserts. Mamey, mango, pineapple, coconut and camotes were only a few of those that were well suited for the making of ante – fruit pudding – which became one of the typical Mexican desserts. For seasoning, there were native and European herbs, a variety of spices that were introduced into Spanish cooking by the Arabs- pepper, cloves, saffron, cinnamon- and the Mesoamerican chiles and chocolate. The recipes indicate that by the time Friar Geronimo wrote his cookbook, Colonial Mexican cooks had reached a sophisticated level of creativity in bringing diverse ingredients together to produce new and appetizing flavors.

When these ingredients arrived in the kitchen, they were prepared according to a variety of techniques, the descriptions of which give a picture of the kitchen itself. But first, a prayer may have been said to San Pascual Baylón, the Franciscan ascetic who became, and remains, the patron saint of Mexican cooks and whose image is still displayed in kitchens as far north as New Mexico.

Whether inspired by the good saint or not, the techniques described by Friar Geronimo show that the cooks of New Spain had adapted several elements of pre-Hispanic cooking to suit their own culinary needs. Tequesquite, the cal used by the indigenous people to soften dried corn kernels for tortilla dough, was used to soften fruit rinds and seeds. The comal, originally used to bake tortillas, was adapted for a technique called dos fuegos – literally, cooking with “two fires.” The comal was placed atop the cazuela, or cooking pot, and hot coals were placed on it, so that the pot was heated by both the fire beneath it and the coals on the comal. This method was used most frequently for meat and vegetable stews and produced results similar to today’s casserole dishes. The clay pots that held these stews and the wooden utensils used to stir them were similar to those found in Mexican markets today. Wooden paddles were also used in a technique called fuego encima, or “fire above” which entailed heating the paddle to produce flames and placing it on top of a plate of milk custard, caramelizing the top with a low-tech version of the kitchen torches used by today’s chefs. This Leche quemada -“burnt milk”- was a custard, not the candy called leche quemada today.

Other techniques were purely European in origin, such as the thickening of sauces and stews with breadcrumbs, toasted or fried bread, or wheat flour.

The introduction of wheat was as important to European culinary needs as cooking with oil, but because the olive oil customarily used in Spanish cooking was an expensive import, Colonial cooks used lard most frequently to fry or brown, a practice still popular in Mexico. Both olive oil and butter were luxuries for many people, used for special meals. Butter was sold por pieza, “by the piece”, which meant, and still does in many Mexican markets, the quantity that would fit in the fresh corn husk used to wrap it. (Many cheeses are still sold this way.)

Hornos de bóveda, vaulted ovens, were used for baking bread and smaller ovens were employed for roasting whole turkeys and hams. The native turkey was well suited to European methods of poultry preparation, and once chicken was introduced it became a popular food, as did cow, pig and lamb. Fresh whitefish, catfish, trout, pompano and dried, salted cod were also important dietary elements.

In reading Friar Geronimo’s cookbook, it is clear that the cooks of his time had so many more ingredients and techniques to work with than either the Europeans or the Mesoamericans had before the Conquest, that the resulting culinary fusion was not surprising. The indigenous mullis evolved into the Colonial moles and clemoles and the Spanish pepper-based pebres into the rich, modern Mexican dish of the same name.

Following are recipes adapted from Friar Geronimo’s versions which, like others of his time, do not provide measurements and assume that the cook is familiar with the techniques (something that many Mexican recipes still assume.) Although Marco Buenrostro and Cristina Barrios provide the book’s cooking notes, with an introduction by Elsa Cecilia Frost, they have not changed the text in any way, so that all measurements and proportions provided below are my own, with a little taste of Mexican culinary history in every bite.

Published or Updated on: January 1, 2005 by Karen Hursh Graber © 2008
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