||Review from Comet, Lonely planet newsletter
'World Food Mexico' author Bruce Geddes may never eat another tortilla.
He's not sick of them - quite the contrary. But after a tortilla-making
lesson from Laura Esquivel, the author of 'Como Agua para Chocolate (Like
Water For Chocolate)', the best-selling novel that left more than three
million readers in 30 countries salivating uncontrollably, he can't find a
taste sensation that compares back home in Canada.
Food and identity are closely linked in Mexico. The old expression 'You are
what you eat' takes on new meaning in a country where the cuisine is, above
all, 'mestizaje' (literally, a mixture). Like the nation itself, it was
born of the fusion of the native and Spanish. This element fascinates Laura
'What is interesting about the mestizaje is that to achieve it, you have to
have a congruence between at least two cultures,' she says. 'A balance was
found in the religion (the Christian image of the Virgin of Guadalupe
appeared with Indian features); the same is to be found in Mexican cuisine.
For example, before, chocolate (the ubiquitous foamy drink) was mixed with
water because there were no cows. It was only since the arrival of the
Spanish that we began to take it with milk. 'Sopes' ('antojitos' or small
portions of classical Mexican dishes served as appetisers or snack food for
street eating) were not fried because we did not have pork lard. There was
no cheese, no cream. The mestizo then, is one who has grown accustomed to
taking foods from other cultures and assimilating them to make them his
One of the reasons tortilla-making came so late to Esquivel's life is that
her mother was born in the north and therefore ate wheat tortillas, which
are made from already milled flour. But more than this, as a teenager and
young woman, she saw the kitchen as a symbol of oppression. The kitchen was
a stagnant place; no wealth ever came from the 'molcajete' (a heavily
textured mixing bowl), no revolutions could be launched with a 'comal' (a
flat iron pan used to cook tortillas).
'I belong to the generation that believed that to be in the kitchen was the
worst kind of slavery, that the action, knowledge and life was outside.
Things worth fighting for were outside the kitchen. Inside there was
nothing but death. And with the passing of time I have realised that life
is in the kitchen and recuperation of the soul is there and if one doesn't
recover this it becomes impossible to confront a totally materialist world
- a world that is destroying us, a world that doesn't care about the
destruction of the people, of nature, all in the name of obtaining more
The key to her realising that the kitchen was a central part of her life
was leaving it. It's an observation that can be applied in analogy to those
of us who have ventured outside our own country for any significant length
of time. When you're away from your country, you gain a new appreciation
for it, and the role your own national culture has played in shaping your
life - whether you like it or not.
One of Esquivel's first forays back into the kitchen is described in a
piece from her book 'Intimas Suculencias', a collection of food-related
articles, essays and speeches. At the time the story takes place, she is
living in New York with a group of students and, feeling homesick, for the
'mole' (the quintessential, chile-based Mexican sauce) her mother used to
prepare, decides to cook up a batch herself. The result is disastrous - the
mole burns, the fire alarm is triggered and the sprinkler system dumps
litres of water into her preparation. At the end, a less-than-pleased
room-mate suggests that if she misses her mother's cooking so much she
should go back to Mexico - which, of course, is sort of what she was trying
to do in the first place.
Yet most Mexicans will rarely leave Mexico and, as a result, will miss out
on what it means to be Mexican. Cookbooks offer another example: most
kiosks will have a stack of cookbooks and they seem as popular in Mexico as
anywhere else. Yet, says Esquivel, very few Mexican cookbooks contain the
basic information that Mexican cooks must understand to make Mexican food:
the roasting of chile, the grinding of pumpkin seeds, the wrapping of
tomal, even how to make tortillas from scratch.
And so we make tortillas. From scratch.
- Taken from 'World Food Mexico' by Bruce Geddes. Other new titles in this
pocket-sized series include Morocco, Italy, Spain, Thailand, Vietnam and,
coming soon, Ireland.