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The Language of Mexican Food

Rafael Hernandez does not consider himself a “foodie” but he knows a good taco when he tastes it. Not to mention good salsa, a good enchilada, and a good margarita.

The chairman of the SCSU World Languages and Literatures Department has just published his latest book, Food Cultures of Mexico: Recipes, Customs and Issues. The volume, part of Greenwood Publishing Group’s “Global Kitchen” series, examines the history, meaning, and influences of everything from appetizers to dessert. And it all makes for great food for thought.

“I was studying Latin American literature and colonial history from the early 20th century up to the present and came across a lot of references to food and how it was used to identify and demarcate class and status, and so I got very interested in Mexican food history,” Hernandez says. He’s also used his research to develop a course called Tacos and Revolution that he hopes to offer in the fall.

What the world knows today as Mexican cuisine was not always appreciated. Colonial influences and socio-economic differences made traditional Mexican food seem lowly. In the 1800s and early 1900s, the wealthy and aristocratic society preferred French cuisine.

“What we consider to be Mexican food — enchiladas, tacos, quesadillas — was not considered to be the national food. A national food didn’t really exist,” Hernandez explains. “These were more regional, they were considered food for the lower classes, for people traveling, easy to eat. The food of the aristocrats was more dried fruits, meat and game…the rich were eating in French restaurants with Mexican ingredients mixed in.”

Those local ingredients have always been important. The basis of Mexican cuisine is comprised of corn, beans, chilis, tomatoes, and spices. Eventually those dishes that were once considered lowly became appreciated and even revered in and outside of the country.

The political dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz in the late 19th and early 20th century was followed by years of political unrest and eventually the Mexican Revolution. In 1921, the democratically elected government wanted a concrete, physical declaration of the unity and autonomy of the Mexican people, and so they hosted a giant celebration of food and folk art, called La Noche Mexicana. All the different states were invited to send representatives to Mexico City and to have stands offering the specialties of their region. Two things happened: the food that was best was portable so that people could walk around and enjoy the festival; and the food was served to the common people by the regional representatives, who were now considered like the aristocracy.

“Food is one of the most meaningful and one of the most effective systems of communication after language,” Hernandez says. And because of this festival, the food of the common people had been elevated.

In 2010, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) identified Mexican cuisine — the first cuisine to be so designated — as representative of the “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.” The honor is the work of a good advancement campaign, Hernandez observes, but, more importantly, it serves as a point of national pride. It elevates once again, not only the ingredients and how they are assembled, but the entire human process comprising farming techniques, culinary practices, and the communal and familial customs that surround food.

For Hernandez, those customs are a huge part of his love for his native fare. He recalls family gatherings and celebrations centered around long-established recipes, particularly El Dia de Los Reyes, or Three Kings Day. Derived from the Christian Epiphany, Three Kings Day is the 12th and final day of the Christmas season and is celebrated in many Latin cultures with customs such leaving children’s shoes by the window and giving gifts.

“For me there was always a connection between food and childhood at Christmastime,” he says, admitting he pined for an Easy Bake Oven as a child. And although Hernandez muses that he never got to experience the “magic of baking with a lightbulb,” he does love the Rosca De Reyes that is served on Three Kings Day. The recipe for the sweet bread baked in the shape of a crown and bejeweled with dried fruits, is, of course, featured in his book.

As a child growing up in northern Mexico, Hernandez recalls, the main meal of the day for his family was served in the early afternoon and usually included three parts: a soup, pasta, or rice; a main dish that was likely chicken or beef in a flavorful sauce; and some fruit for dessert. Rice and beans together were not a staple in his household, though there might have been a bowl of beans on the table. Tacos were not common for meals and would never be offered to a guest. It would be more of a midnight snack. And Hernandez admits he never even had a burrito until he came to the United States. And churros, he says, are a breakfast food…not a dessert.

Hernandez also emphasizes that Mexico, like many countries, has different regional ingredients and dishes. In southern Mexico, fish and seafood play a more prominent role and the fruits are more tropical fruits like plantains and pineapple, whereas in northern Mexico where he grew up there was a greater emphasis on grilled meats, cheeses, and fruits like apples, bananas, and grapes.

His book includes recipes for each part of the meal, including dessert, though in Hernandez’s opinion, Mexicans are not great at dessert. Rice pudding and flan are not really his taste, and he calls the well-known tres leches cake an “abomination.” He points to the Nestle corporation’s arrival in Mexico in the mid-20th century as the reason for this. Because they were manufacturing canned milk products, it made sense to promote their products by creating recipes that relied heavily on evaporated milk and sweetened condensed milk. And he is not a fan of Jello, which is also very popular in Mexico.

“In my opinion, the best way of ending a meal is with ice cream,” Hernandez declares.

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