Tag Archives: Mexican

Fruits of the Oven: Pastries

Today I’m posting a piece, “Letter from Mexico: Fruits of the Oven” that I wrote back in 2001 about a visit to a traditional bakery that made frutas de horno (pastries) in the small Mexican town of Comonfort in the central state of Guanajuato.  It will link up with a piece coming soon on glass.  And the story of this piece follows the text.  Sorry, none of my own photographs, the bakery was far too dark for that.

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Sundays are busy days in Mexico. Everyone goes to the center of town to attend mass, see friends, and buy a few things for the big meal at mid-afternoon. This Sunday in May, the hottest month of the year, was no exception. At noontime the town square of Comonfort, shaded by the Indian laurels that no town square in Mexico is without, was thronged with people.

I joined the crowd lining up for the fruit drinks, the aguas frescas of jamaica, lime, rice and tamarind gleaming crimson, lime green, milky white, and chestnut brown in big glass barrels. I wandered round the stands selling ices, freshly frozen that morning in metal buckets floating in barrels of ice.

I approached the mother and daughter selling small frutas de horno, fruits of the oven, from a table covered with a plastic tablecloth. Frutas de horno are pastries. Some are puff pastries: campechanas, layers sprinkled with sugar, and gasznates, cylinders with a white or pink filling, rolled in sugar. Others are more like cookies: coronitas, a scone-shaped pastry with a white or pink topping or polveroncitos, a little like what we call a Mexican wedding cookie. And then there are turnovers, empanadas in Spanish, filled with fruit conserves, or spicy minced meat, and sponge cup cakes, called mamomes.

I had come to Comonfort to learn more about frutas de horno. Comonfort is a small town on the high central plateau of Mexico. It differs from dozens of others, if at all, only in that it is slightly wealthier.

A river, a rarity in these parts, runs through it.

It was probably the water that attracted the pre-hispanic peoples who built a small pyramid on a hill just out of town, though it’s never been investigated because Mexico is burdened with more ruins than its archaeologists can begin to investigate.

It must have been the water that made the Spanish settle here. Haciendas ruined in Mexican Revolution are scattered all through the valley.

It is certainly the water that accounts for the prosperous farms around town that grow garlic for export to the US.

This water and the wealth it brings means that people have money for pastries.   I bought a few from the women at the stand and asked where I might find out more.

The mother and daughter sent me off to their family home. I walked the better part of a mile through the streets. On each side, blank walls bounced sun off the plastered facades. Young men off to see their girlfriends and young wives hurrying covered dishes for mother-in-law’s Sunday meal hugged the small sliver of shade. So did I as I scanned an iron garage door here, a front room converted into a shop there, in search of 125A.

A small girl let me and asked me to sit down while she fetched her father, the pastry maker. There were no windows and the floor was tiled so it was deliciously cool, if a little on the murky side. I groped for a chair. It was part of a modern over-stuffed three-piece suite arranged around a plastic and glass coffee table, the other objects in the room being two bicycles propped in one corner and a couple of sacks of flour in another.

After about five minutes, Señor Rafael Centeño bustled in and shook hands. As soon as he heard I was interested in his pastries, he began dictating recipes as he disappeared through the door to the back of the house. Within seconds, he emerged with a plastic plate of samples covered with a paper napkin.

I asked if he could show me where he made his wares. He led me down a dark corridor past one, or possibly two rooms on the left, emerging in the kitchen that stretched, like the front room, the width of the house.

The window at the back faced on to a small patio dominated by a portly rubber tree. It let in so little light that it was a few seconds before I could make out the freestanding kitchen cupboards of the kind that were popular in the United States in the 1930s, the small gas stove, and the large wooden table perhaps 5 feet by 3 feet.

Gesturing, Señor Cateño showed me how he piled the flour on the table, added the sugar and lard, mixed it all in various proportions with or without water and spices depending on the pastry. He always used vegetable shortening. Some of his relatives had gone over to oil, but their pastries tasted rancid within the day.

Señor Cateño had no mixer. For mixing large quantities of egg and sugar he used a hand held beater. For making powdered sugar, he poured granulated sugar into a blender–standard equipment in even the humblest of Mexican kitchens. For rolling out pastries, he had a home-made pin about one inch in diameter and for cutting them, an old saw blade.

When he made flaky pastry he told me, he needed the entire table surface cutting off the surplus that fell over the edges. His wife made the white and pink fillings and topping (pastas) by making a sweetened flour paste (pasta) in a great copper cauldron that was balanced in a hole in the typical brick counter stove.

He led me across the patio, dodging the rubber tree, to see the real oven, the horno, where the baking was done. He had built it himself, he said, following the traditional methods. He had begun by using local single-fired bricks to construct the walls of the base about five feet square and something over three feet high. Then he filled it: first went in a layer of earth, then a layer of gravel, and then a layer of granulated salt to hold the heat. He sealed it with baldosa (flooring tile or stone).

This traditional horno in Guevea de Humboldt, Oaxaca, Mexico gives an idea of what Señor Cateño's was like, although his was in much better shape. Lon&Queta, Flickr, Creative Commons

This traditional horno in Guevea de Humboldt, Oaxaca, Mexico gives an idea of what Señor Cateño’s was like, although his was in much better shape. Lon&Queta, Flickr, Creative Commons

Now came the tricky part. He used more bricks, mortaring them in ever diminishing circles without any scaffolding (as we popularly suppose igloos are constructed) until the dome was complete. He covered it with a smooth layer of cement. I contemplated the structure in the sweltering patio.

Mopping sweat from his face, Señor Cateño explained that he spent the first two days of each week collecting firewood from the orchard behind the house. He dried it in the residual heat of the oven.

On baking days, he got up about three in the morning. He stacked logs in the center of the oven and lit them with newspaper. In half an hour, the oven was hot and the logs crumbling down to ashes. Using a long oar-shaped peel, he swept the ashes to the front left corner of the horno. Then he inserted the trays of pastries he had prepared in the meantime. He watched carefully as they baked and then slid them out and stacked them on home-made bamboo shelves to cool.

If he got up at three, he could have all his baking done (at least three hundred flaky pastries, not counting the others) by about ten in the morning, ready to take to market. He wrapped the pastries in clean tea towels, arranged them in baskets and trays, and packed them into the large square superstructure welded on the front of his bicycle.

From ten to four he went back and forth to the market , replenishing the stall that his wife and daughters tended. At four, the family ate dinner, and then he collapsed in bed.

Tour completed, Sr Centeño pushed his bicycle out again and I took my leave clutching the plate of pastries. I’d love to say they were the best I’ve ever tasted. Like all of us I’d love to believe that small artisans turn out something better than our modern kitchens. But that’s not always true and it wasn’t in this case. I’m used to light and tender pastries and to frostings richer than a flour and water paste flavored with a little sugar. Those are luxuries beyond the bakeries of small Mexican towns and their customers. So although I liked the simplest flaky pastries the the rest were, to my pampered taste, so so.

The taste might not have been overwhelming but the echoes of the past were. Señor Cateño built his oven according to techniques that went back to Roman times, that were taken to Spain in Antiquity, and to Mexico with the Conquistadors.

For all those centuries, bakers–and their customers–believed that such ovens, in which flour and water miraculously rose by the action of yeast or air or eggs were imitation wombs. They had in mind the womb of the earth that, warmed by the heat of the sun, created the fruits of the earth. And just as important, the womb of the mother that, fired by her internal heat, brought to full growth the embryo, the fruit of the loin. Fruits of the oven are human’s puny attempt to imitate Mother and Mother Nature.

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Originally “Letter from Mexico: Fruits of the Oven” was published in Simple Cooking, the newsletter that John Thorne  published from 1983 for about twenty years.  If you don’t know his writing on food, check it out on the web or order one of the six books he published, most of them growing out of his newsletter.

Those of us interested in thoughtful, sensuous writing on food waited anxiously for the mailman to bring us each issue of Simple Cooking.  Those in charge of awards, awarded John every award in the book.  I still have all his treasured newsletters carefully stored on my bookcase.

Need I say that when he invited me to write a piece on food in Mexico, I buckled at the knees? I knew my prose was no match for his, but I wasn’t going to miss the chance.

Chinese Takeout in the Brown House, Providence

What About Food Heritage?

Last week I attended a conference entitled Food: Heritage, Hybridity and Locality hosted by the American Studies Department at Brown University. It was a small conference, always the best, with just over a dozen papers in two days and time to meet and talk to people.

Heritage, Hybridity and Locality

From top left. Sidney Mintz giving the keynote; Silvana Chiesa, Jean Duruz and Olivier Bauer; Paul Freedman; Robert Lee, Chi-hoon Kim, Paul Freedman,and Casey Man Kong Lum; Program; Rachel Laudan; John Eng-Wong. Thanks to Emily Contois

I should begin by saying that I am less than enthusiastic about food heritage.  Having had the chance to listen the backers of Mexico’s successful attempt to have  Mexican cuisine recognized by UNESCO, I came to the conclusion that when it’s given institutional backing by nations or UNESCO, it all too often freezes food customs at a particular moment, excludes outsiders, and quells innovation.  

When it’s just a personal matter, it is fluid and frequently changing. Perhaps because I have happily skipped about the world benefitting from the heritages of all the places in which I have lived, as well as the heritages that follows from my activities, family and social relations, beliefs, and so on, it’s just not something I get exercised about.

So I was curious what others would say about heritage, as well as about hybridity and locality. We had a dozen or so stories, fascinating stories I must say, all of them from the twentieth or twenty first centuries.

But, as is usually the way with academic conferences, we all left before we had time to compare or contrast them, or to draw any general conclusions. What follows is not a synopsis, but a (long, be warned) personal attempt to capture what I found interesting and useful before the memory fades. If I have misrepresented any participants, please let me know and I’ll post a correction.

Heritage and the State

Not everyone however has the luck to choose their culinary identity (which most speakers took to be the unproblematic result of culinary heritage). There are those who are forced into more rigid senses of heritage and identity by the power of the state or of economic position.

How Fascist politics shaped Italian culinary traditions was addressed by both Silvana Chiesa and Stefano Luconi. Asking how polenta had been transformed from a food of poverty to a heritage food, Silvana argued that it was the result of its endorsement as good food by the Fascist government as they prepared the public for economic hard times and war.

The Fascist government, according to Stefano, seeking to boost exports also put out propaganda to persuade Italian emigrants, largely in the Americas, that the only true Italian foods were produced in Italy and that American pasta, for example, was but a second-rate imitation. (Ha, and wasn’t it true that much Italian pasta had been made of imported American wheat.  And ha, here is one more reason why those who migrate and their food are also regarded as second class).

The WPA America Eats Project simply did not know what to do with immigrants like Italians, according to Camille Bégin. One photo she showed from the archive featured an Italian cook in Tennessee preparing spaghetti, fried chicken, and white bread.  Industrialized white bread and fried chicken were luxury foods beyond the wildest imagination of poor, rural Italians condemned to polenta or other foods of poverty.  So too was spaghetti made of wheat flour, probably American-made spaghetti. Yet the largely progressive writers hired by the project had been told to search for the pre-industrial, local, rural American cuisine of yeoman farmers or original inhabitants. Italians enjoying fried chicken, bread, and spaghetti did not fit this origin story.

WPA Photograph of Mexican woman grinding on Olvera Street, Los Angeles

WPA Photograph of Mexican woman grinding on Olvera Street, Los Angeles

Ironically, the abundant fossil fuel that made possible industrialized food also made possible tourism by train, by car, and later by plane.  The photo Camille showed of Mexican women grinding and making tortillas in Los Angeles was not taken in a Mexican neighborhood. Instead it was set up on Olvera Street, then just recently made over as a place tourists could go to experience the Mexican culture that had once ruled in the area.  Olvera Street is still a tourist destination.

The error of thinking that food heritage can be simply linked to religious or national groups was made quite clear by Cathy Gallin’s talk about two immigrant Jewish groups in Barcelona: observant Sephardic Moroccans and socialist Argentinean Ashkenazis.  The first related Jewish food heritage to dishes served on religious holidays, the second to family, and the two groups had little to do with each other.  And neither, it emerged in response to Paul Freedman‘s question, was concerned about the wildly inventive medieval Jewish culinary tourism in nearby Girona. (And ha, about the long and not always happy history of Jews in Spain, including under Franco).

According to Chi-hoon Kim, Korean Airlines, reeling from a sequence of crashes in the 80s and 90s, revamped their food service as part of their reorganization.  Bibimbap, unlike the kimchee which had previously been seen as the Korean signature dish, delighted airline customers and did in fact help set the airline on the way to profitability.

This success was, in part, that led the Korean government to choose bibimbap as the signature Korean food when they decided to launch their campaign to make Korean one of the five top cuisines in the world by 2017.  Why have certain governments decided to invest heavily in cuisine in the past couple of decades? Thailand being the other obvious example.  It cannot be accident and it would be interesting to discover what was learned, whether there were direct contacts, how the agencies work.

The-Kesen-Numa-Rias-Shark-011

The Japanese city Kesen-numa, which has been promoted by local businesses as shark city complete with museum and sharkfin dish, was  devastated by the 2011 tsunami.  Following that, it Kesen-numa turned not to UNESCO but to Slow Food for support, said Jun Akimine.  It has banned shark finning. It has invented a shark instead of a shark fin bowl as the local delicacy. Whole bodies are now brought to port (though heads and innards may be discarded at sea for sanitary reasons.  The real business of Kesen-numa is processing shark flesh into fish paste, best known in the US as kamaboko but available in various different forms in Japan.

Vegemite

Finally, Vegemite, the dark, salty spread so popular in Australia, failed to make it in the American market in spite of a vigorous advertizing campaign, explained Emily Contois, who managed to squeeze this in while busy doing a lot of the administration of the conference. Only with increased American awareness that Australia had fine sportsmen and a flourishing film industry were the conditions ripe for even a modest incursion of the delicacy.

 Ethnicity,Hybridity, and Dining

Although no one used the term hybridity, the issues of mixed cuisines turned up chiefly in papers on eating away from home, particularly multicultural eating,  by Casey Man Kong Lum, Sidney Cheung, and Paul Freedman.

Political events and scarce housing have meant that ordinary Hong Kong people have needed to eat away from home in the past century.  Sidney traced two kinds of Hakka restaurants, a long-standing “fresh water Hakka” style that served simple dishes—salt-baked chicken, stuffed tofu—and a newer salt water style that ties in to fresh and local movements.

Milk tea, a bun and eggs for breakfast in a chachaanteng restaurant.

Milk tea, a bun and eggs for breakfast in a chachaanteng restaurant.

Sidney told me that many of the earlier dishes made their way into the mixed Chinese and European menus of the Hong Kong chachaanteng eateries .  As Casey described these little mom ‘n pop places that had catered to working people, I was reminded of Hawaii’s Local Food served at plate lunch places, a comparison that also occurred to Robert Lee of the American Studies Department at Brown. And just as “Hawaiian” (actually Local) restaurants are now making their way to the US mainland, chachaanteng are making their way into Shanghai.

I wondered about the technology behind these. Did suppliers of ingredients, and even technologies as happened with British fish n chips or American fast food, or even with the plate lunch people in Hawaii.

In the case of “ethnic” restaurants in the United States, Paul Freedman gave details about the behind-the-scenes activity: the Fujianese network that monitored the US for areas without Chinese restaurants, put up money to start them, and supplied the waiters.  And he mentioned the Chinese restaurant in New York where no English-speaking waiters were hired so that customers could feel they were enjoying an authentic experience. And how recipes like Mongolian beef or deep fried cheese wonton passed around the system as satisfying to customers.

So what are heritage, hybridity, and locality?

I was struck by how little attention participants paid to defining or criticizing heritage, hybridity, and locality. No one referred to the outpouring of work on cultural heritage, including food, that began before but was accelerated by the UNESCO intangible heritage program.

No one used the term hybridity nor talked about how scholars have used hybridity in the last couple of decades to reassess the colonial period. That has its advantages since much of that is an obscurantist bog.  Indeed Sidney Mintz, in an articulate, generous, and charming keynote, suggested that since hybrid had a specific biological definition, we might be better off talking about mixing and mixtures.  Glancing at the audience, I had the sense this suggestion was happily accepted.

The obvious disadvantage, though, is that if we do not understand the historical or cultural context of the terms we use, they can take on a seeming inevitability and, all too often in food politics, the power to command assent without understanding.

Other conceptual issues relevant to the conference topic were taken up by some participants beside Mintz.

Food historians might find it useful to think of contact between cultures as taking place along a scale from total rejection to total acceptance, a scale that had already been used to  analyze the contacts between Christian missionaries and the native Canadians, said Olivier Bauer.  Worth thinking about. He used it to untangle Jewish bagels and smoked meats at the intersection of Francophone and Anglophone Montreal.

Olivier Bauer pointing out the location of Jewish smoked meat and bagel shops between Anglophone and Francophone Montreal.

Olivier Bauer pointing out the location of Jewish smoked meat and bagel shops between Anglophone and Francophone Montreal.

The term “ethnic” to describe restaurants that were neither American nor French was introduced in 1959 by Craig Claibourne, pointed out Paul Freedman. What terms, I wonder, were were used before then? Simply Italian?  Simply Chinese? Is there an equivalent term for “ethnic” in French, or German, or Japanese?

Ethnic takes two: the included and the excluded, said Sidney Mintz.  And I ruminated, two are necessary for heritage, identity, and locality too.  A single group, out of touch with others, just takes their past, their present, and their place as unproblematic.  Indeed pairs (or triads) are everywhere: food manufacturers and customers, advertisers and consumers, governments and citizens, restaurateurs and diners (as pointed out by Paul Freedman) all have to come to terms.

Simple notions of locality and heritage just don’t do justice to the way the spice mixture ras el hanout has jumped around the world, argued Jean Duruz, migrants and cookbook authors helping it hop from Morocco to the immigrant areas of Paris, from Morocco to Australian lamb roasts.

I had a go at locality as well. I drew a distinction between foods associated with/assumed to be the product of and definitive of extended spaces or territories and foods produced in specific locations.  The first are often assumed to travel with mass migrations, their authenticity being diluted along the way.  The latter are disseminated by networks with back and forth traffic between the nodes and only limited constraints of states or empires.  The “Cornish” pasty did not originate in Cornwall and travel from there to the US and Australia as the territorial theory might suggest. Instead it was codified in Australia (and perhaps elsewhere) and transferred around a worldwide network of Cornish miners.

The world's cuisines neatly divided by territories

The world’s cuisines neatly divided by territories

Finally, Sidney Mintz pointed out what had not come up in the papers: that food heritage may bring people together and sustain them but that it also divides and, all too frequently, hurts, harms, or kills. Something that given the dark side of many of the cuisines described needs to be borne in mind constantly.

Food Heritage in Providence

The best conferences are more than just papers and discussions. John Eng-Wong made sure that our experience in Providence added to the formal sessions. Providence is a city that has always faced seaward. Its wealth came from sugar, slavery, and the China trade.

John Brown House. Rhode Island Historical Society

John Brown House. Rhode Island Historical Society

Eighteenth-century Providence was brought to life by a tour of the house of John Brown, slave trader and China trader, the shelves of its butler’s pantry laden with three china services from China, and the hall table adorned with an oval Staffordshire platter depicting the Cape Coast Castle on the Gold Coast (Ghana), the major slaving market.

A platter similar to that in the John Brown House. Z.K. Antiques

A platter similar to that in the John Brown House. Z.K. Antiques

By chance, I sat next to Meg Ferguson of Bee and Thistle Antiquarian Books during Sidney Mintz’s keynote.  She told me that her father had invented a special sieve for centrifuged sugar in Providence.  The factory still makes these sieves, selling them, among other customers to Chinese sugar manufacturers.

The gilded age in Providence was evident in the Biltmore Hotel where we stayed.

The Grand Staircase in the Providence Biltmore

The Grand Staircase in the Providence Biltmore.

When the Biltmore opened in the 1920s, diners could push a button to summon a Bacchante Girl. According to the hotel literature “She would appear in her costume, which featured a diaphanous, see-through skirt. The bar area had a glass floor which was under lit with pink lighting, a feature which showcased the girls’ beautiful legs.”

Bacchante girls at the Providence Biltmore

Bacchante girls at the Providence Biltmore

That’s a particular bit of culinary heritage that has now been consigned to the hotel web site. There were no signs of pink tinted lights under glass floors in the bar.

Then there was the moment when the group collectively gasped as an “Italian” gondola complete with passengers and gondolier drifted past on the river, celebrating the Italians who had come to work in the factories around the turn of the twentieth century.  Stefano, who had studied Italians in Providence explained that these had been the brainchild of the current leading candidate for mayor, of whom much more could be said.

Celebrating Providence's Italian heritage

Celebrating Providence’s Italian heritage

And for the final meal we repaired to the dining room of the Nightingale-Brown house, of the same Brown family. It was restored recently with funds from the sale of the Brown family’s secretary-style desk for $12,000,000.  What a delight to see the American foam clamshell boxes of take-out Chinese food lined up on the table.

Chinese Takeout in the Brown House, Providence

Chinese Takeout in the Nightingale-Brown House, Providence. Perfect. (Sidney Mintz in the background)

Thank you Sidney Cheung for encouraging John Eng-Wong to put on this conference, thank you John Eng-Wong and team for a great conference, and thank you Priscilla Eng-Wong because I suspect it was you who added much-needed umbrellas to our swag bags.

Understanding heritage

In Charlotte Airport on my way home I laughed out loud over a menu of Dakota pea soup, Sedona tortilla soup, Tuscan hummus, Hawaiian pizza, Thai chicken pizza, and fresh, local beer.

And I thought about John Eng-Wong’s question to me. How do we become aware of the many networks and linkages that shape food heritage and identity?

How indeed?  How can we understand the world we live in and, if not control it, at least not pass through it sleep walking?

 

 

 

 

Worried That Big Food Is Deciding What You Eat?

Take heart then, as I do, from this little book that I picked up in a small secondhand store in the south of Mexico City.

 

Cooking with Campbell's

A Campbell’s Recipe Book
Cooking with Soups
Roasts, sauces, broths, stovetop dishes, baked dishes, soups and seasoning combinations

It was published in 1973.  A little more than two decades earlier in 1952 Cooking with Condensed Soup had propelled tuna casserole, green bean casserole and all kinds of other dishes using condensed soup as a sauce to previously unimagined popularity.

Campbell’s, which had been in Mexico since 1959, had published 55,000 copies, a really huge print run for Mexico.

The classics are there: atún y tallarines al horno (tuna and noodles baked in the oven) on p.110; molde de ejotes (mold of green beans) on p. 75.  And there are some 400 other recipes including macaroni and cheese, stroganoff with mushroom soup, meat loaf with tomato soup, and a series of cakes to which “tomato soup imparts a mysterious flavor of je ne sais quoi (“la sopa de tomate imparte un misterioso sabor de un ‘no-sé-que.'”)

Campbell's recipes for Mexico

On left. Super simple vegetables à la crème.
On right. Tuna casserole with potato chips
Pork chops in cream sauce.

Net result on Mexican cooking. That I can see, zilch, nothing, nada.

Unaccustomed to cream sauces, unaccustomed to using cook books, the middle class housewives that this book targeted went their traditional ways.  In all my years in Mexico, I never saw another copy of this book, never heard a housewife who used condensed soups to make sauces, never saw condensed soup sauce recipes in magazines or books.

Which isn’t to say that housewives don’t buy the popular crema de chile poblano and crema de elote (corn) or that they don’t use the beef broth for tortilla soup. They do.

But just as American housewives never budged on adding a soup course to the evening meal, Mexican housewives were never persuaded to eat tuna casserole with mushroom soup.  They stuck to empanadas de atún.

There’s only so much a housewife will take.

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