Wednesday, May 05, 2010

But is it really Mexican?

Today, in case you are living in a space totally void of food column news and didn’t know, is Cinco de Mayo (‘Fifth of May’) – the anniversary of the day in 1862 when a little Mexican army defeated a French army twice its size. And don’t we all love it when the underdog wins?

There is no dearth of food suggestions for the day - the great mass of American food columnists, cooking magazines and foodie Internet sites have been flooding cyberspace for a week with Mexican food ideas. So, not to be left out, I thought I would offer you some insights into historic concepts (from outsiders) of ‘Mexican’ food.

I trolled the historic cookbooks of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that had pretensions to ‘international’ coverage, and came up with very little. Such recipes that I did find seemed to scream out their lack of authenticity – but who am I to judge? I am hardly an expert on Mexican cuisine, so please dont shoot me.

I cannot resist the following recipe – on the basis of its name alone it must be included. It is from
One Hundred & One Mexican Dishes, by May E. Southworth, (San Francisco,1906) - a book totally lacking in preface or author credentials.

Fry in a tablespoonful of olive-oil a large slice of onion and eight chopped green peppers; to this add a cupful of uncooked rice and stir constantly until the rice is nicely browned; then put in a half-can of tomatoes and fill up the skillet with rich soup stock and cook slowly, without stirring, for an hour.

My second choice, to my totally Mexican-food ignorant mind, smacks of some authenticity on account of its complexity. I eagerly await comments from those of you knowledgeable about such things.

Chicken Tamales.
This recipe will require a “Metata,” which can be purchased at any Spanish store.Boil in water with half cup of lime, two quarts of yellow, dried com. When wellcooked, wash thoroughly, then grind on the “Metata” three times, until very fine. Boiltwo medium-sized chickens until quite tender; cool and cut in small pieces. Mix with corn enough of the water in which the chickens were cooked to make a soft dough, and add two small cups of lard; season with salt and knead well. Then take three red chilli peppers, remove seeds and roast in oven for a few minutes; take out, place in tepid water, then grind on the “Metata” several times, with two cloves of garlic. In a saucepan put tablespoonful of lard; when hot drop in one chopped onion and [one?] tablespoonful of flour; let cook a minute, then add the chili, then cut the chicken, one cupful each of seeded raisins and stoned olives, and salt and pepper to taste; let come to boil, take from stove and cool.
Have some dry com husks, well soaked for several hours in cold water; shake them well and spread a thin layer of the dough on the half of each leaf; then put a spoonful of the stew on the prepared leaf, and cover with the prepared leaves; tie the ends with strings made of the leaves. When the tamales are finished, place them in a large pot with a little boiling water, and boil gently for one hour. Any other meat can be used.
Fifty choice recipes for Spanish and Mexican dishes (1905)

Quotation for the Day.

I think the great Mexican cuisine is dying because there are fast foods now competing, because there are supermarkets, and supermarkets can't afford to keep in stock a lot of these very perishable products that are used for fine Mexican cooking. Women are working and real Mexican cooking requires enormous amounts of time.
Alma Guillermoproprieto.


Mike said...

Both of those recipies strike me as perfectly authentic. The first is a few spices short of what I'd do for "spanish rice" (arroz espanol, which confuses the heck out of Spaniards, who call it arroz mexicano), but it would certainly not stand outside the bounds of that dish's range. The second would definatley produce a decent tamale, although now a days you can buy the masa pre-made almost anywhere.

Ruth T. Alegria said...

Oh my! these recipes are anything but authentic and I would say that the dates and the fact that they were written by non-Mexican is the cause.
The use of a 8 green peppers with one slice of onion seems so badly out of balance flavor wise not to mention that green bell peppers are NEVER OR RARELY used in the Mexican kitchen and if they were hot peppers i.e. jalapaneos the rice would be inedible.
The case is the same for the use of olives in the tamal recipe, I won't comment on the rest of the recipe. Olives can be found in the foods of Veracruz, a port city with heavy Spanish influence in the cuisine, but not as far as I know in tamals.
If you go further south to Central America olives are found in the tamals of those countries.

Here some info on Mexican tamals

ans recipes from the grand dame of Mexican cuisine Diana Kennedy

Rachel Laudan said...

I basically agree with Mike. The first is a arroz rojo substituting locally available peppers for chiles, canned for fresh tomatos.

The second might be being made in a Mexican kitchen today without much alteration.

The Old Foodie said...

I love these "authenticity" debates! I particularly love the idea that tomatoes appear in "authentic" Spanish cuisine - not before 1492 they didnt! What are the criteria for authenticity? Anyone care to hazard a comment?

Shay said...

At any rate, they are better than the recipe for Insalata Sombrero I found in Gebhardt's "Mexican Cooking for American Homes."

(Gephardt was a Texas-based canner and shipper of tomatoes, beans, chili, etc. I blogged about this booklet here:

Insalata Sombrero was a mound of cottage cheese on a slice of pineapple, sprinkled with chile powder.

Anonymous said...

In response to the person who says 'no bell peppers', there are quite a few mild-medium hot green peppers that are indigenous to Mexico. And they have certainly been available and used in Mexican food for a long, long time. 'Green peppers' does not automatically mean bell peppers.