(From Planeta magazine): Mexico's fiery cuisines stand in sharp contrast not only with traditional European cooking but also with each other. The regional variations and menus make Mexican cuisine one of the most sophisticated in the world. In a new book published as part of the University of New Mexico Press's Dialogos series, author Jeffrey Pilcher uses food itself to provide a unique, insider's guide to Mexican history and politics.
ÁQue vivan los Tamales!: Food and the Making of Mexican Identity (ISBN 0-8263-1873-8, 234 pages, University of New Mexico Press, 1998,$16.95 or $37.50 hardback (ISBN 0-8263-1872-X) examines the evolution of mestizo recipes - the blending of Old and New World spices to make the famous turkey mole or gourmet flourishes, such as cuitlacoche rolled in crepes and covered with bechamel sauce.
The author praises the creative role cookbook authors played in unifying the country's taste buds, especially in the 19th and 20th centuries when a national identify was being forged and the construction of railroads and highways lowered the costs of distribution of exotic agricultural products so that local specialties could be enjoyed throughout the country.
Much of the book traces the differences and debates stirred by promoters of maize and wheat. Elites often criticized maize, and even suggested that the corn-eating population was at a serious disadvantage in terms of development. Their reasoning: the wheat-consuming Europeans were on top of the world, not the corn-eating Americans or rice-eating Asians. But such prejudices were not easily resolved. The problem was (and is) that corn simply grows better in Mexico than wheat.
It's hard to understand the desire upper-class Mexicans had to break from their indigenous heritage. Throughout the colonial period, corn was under attack and likewise the construction of homes and buildings using adobe, a centuries-old technique used the world over and perfected in many of the regions in Mexico.
Instead, colonial architects favored European-styled architecture, European-styled clothes and European-styled foods. Pilcher explains the logic of the time: "One did not have to be born a European, it was sufficient to act like one, dress like one, and eat like one."
In reality, Pilcher says that "the tortilla discourse really served as a subterfuge to divert attention to social inequalities... Rural malnutrition resulted not from any inferiority in tortillas; instead, poverty, particularly the lack of land, made it impossible to obtain a well-balanced diet."
The book is loaded with colorful tidbits, such as Christopher Columbus' description of lizard : "tastes like chicken," he said -- perhaps using this present-day cliche for the very first time.
Pilcher also recounts how during the colonial period more beef was available than wheat bread. Priests were slow and often hesitant to use corn for communion wafers, though chocolate was sometimes consumed (covertly) at mass.
The author's dry humor exerts itself in numerous passages, such as the discussion of how Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera's criticisms of the then-prevalent prejucides against indigenous culture (and food) were subsequently taken up by the Middle and upper classes themselves.
The end of the book reviews 20th century innovations, focusing on the automation of the corn milling and tortilla-preparing appliances, the development of the chain supermarkets and the new fame given to cookbook authors, such as Diana Kennedy, who received the Aztec Eagle award, the Mexican government's highest honor given to foreigners.
If there is a problem with this book, it would be the author's penchant for odd transitions. He discusses the artful blending of recipes and fiction in the best-selling novel Like Water for Chocolate and moves effortless from a discussion of eroticism to a discourse on public hygiene. I read this paragraph several times without understanding the tread of logic.
His criticisms of Taco Bell and U.S. fast food franchises in general bring the book to a close, but perhaps this, too, is a form of cultural blending that could be examined with a little more depth.
But it's best not to be too harsh on the author, who has compiled an encyclopedic amount of information in ÁQue vivan los Tamales!. The author's clever synthesis of nutrition facts, national politics and regional idiosyncrasies breaks new ground.
Author Pilcher would be the ideal dinner guest at any Mexican table. It's obvious that any omissions in Que vivan los Tamales! were a result of a lack of space, not knowledge. This book serves up a veritable smorgasbord of ideas, history and observations and is highly recommended.