Visualizing the Plate: Reading Modernist Mexican Cuisine Through Colonial Botany

Lesley A. Wolff

Fig. 1: José Jernónimo Triana, Zamia muricate Willd, from J.C. Mutis, Drawings of the Royal Botanical Expedition to the New Kingdom of Granada (1783-1816), Royal Botanical Garden, Madrid.

The eighteenth century’s Age of Enlightenment signaled an era of standardization for the visual and textual colonial taxonomies of resources in the Americas. These illustrations were intended for export to European elites, many of whom would never touch foot in the Western hemisphere. In his late eighteenth century illustration of the species zamia, for example, José Jernónimo Triana showcased the rows of fleshy seeds hidden below leaves on the cusp of unraveling from the core (Fig. 1). Created for José Celestino Mutis’s Royal Botanical Expedition to the New Kingdom of Granada (1783-1816), this image and others like it (Figs. 2-3) appears at once orderly and geometric, a generalization of the species, with only minor imperfections providing specificity.

Fig. 2: José María Carbonell, Heliconia latispatha Benth, from J.C. Mutis, Drawings of the Royal Botanical Expedition to the New Kingdom of Granada (1783-1816), Royal Botanical Garden, Madrid.

These Enlightenment era illustrations, intended to train the European eye to “assess, possess, and order” the natural world of the Americas (Bleichmar 2009, 449), quietly espouse the slippery power of “visuality” (Mirzoeff 2011), in which the gaze is harnessed as a vehicle to control historical and social imaginaries. By demonstrating what we “know,” these illustrations also promote an amnesia of that which the Spanish empire does not want to remember. What at first glance appears to be an objective rendering of an indigenous cycad is instead a subjective, highly editorialized image that conflates stages of floral maturation and form (Bleichmar 2017, 146). Further, by extracting the species from its ecological context and setting it upon a bare, white background, Triana depicts the flora as nomadic, readily removed from its natural landscape and ripe for intellectual export to Spanish imperial stewardship. I suggest that the manner in which these imperial spectacles supplanted the realities of colonized lands and peoples have again today resurged in the zeitgeist by way of the scientific and objective knowledges that underscore global Modernist Cuisine.

Fig. 3: Francisco Javier Matis Mahecha, Brownea Rosa de Monte, from J.C. Mutis, Drawings of the Royal Botanical Expedition to the New Kingdom of Granada (1783-1816), Royal Botanical Garden, Madrid.

From the colonial era onward, Mexican cuisine has held a privileged place in the global and national imagination as a material signifier of the nation’s layered cultural past. In 2010, the nation’s foodways were declared Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. Simultaneously, the new gastronomic guard of Modernist Cuisine took hold over restaurants across Mexico City. Most notably, chef Enrique Olvera’s modernist Mexican restaurant, Pujol, has been a consistent occupant on the list of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants since its opening in 2000 and has launched Olvera into global fame as the ambassador of Mexican cuisine to the Western gastronomic consumer.

This modernist attention to the innovation and intellectualization of cuisine has led the popular media to ask, “Is food art?” This question signals a curiosity about the chef-artist as facilitator of emotive and intellectual experiences rather than, or in addition to, gustatory ones. We see Olvera couched within this discourse in television shows like Chef’s Table (Netflix 2016), which depicts Olvera crafting dishes to the tune of classical music, like a sculptor modeling a Neoclassical figure. This grappling with the “genius” of the chef, however, masks complex relationships between the plated dishes and the cuisine’s perceived value. Much like colonial botany, modern gastronomy is not only about the pleasures of the palate, but also about the production of cultural knowledge rooted in extraction and re-contextualization.

As defined by Nathan Myhrvold, Modernist Cuisine emerged out of the striving toward innovation, discovery, and revelation of the original modernist restaurant, elBulli, in Catalonia, Spain, where chef Ferran Adriá became known for translating cookery into “concepts” (Myhrvold 2011, 39). Myhrvold invokes the term “Modernist” to equate this cuisine with the avant-garde artists of 19th century Europe. This is an approach to foodways that purports to be about newness and “discovery.” Yet, these notions are as old and fraught as “modernity” itself and the violent power structures upon which today’s globalized world was built (see Mignolo 2011).

Although Pujol resides in Polanco, the most exclusive neighborhood in all of Mexico City, the chef roots his gastronomic narrative in the impoverished economy of means out of which Mexican cuisine evolved. In short, the visual program that underscores Olvera’s modernist culinary empire has been built on the idea, the imaginary, of Mexico City’s working class—a community and landscape to which Olvera purports to be our guide. In his 2015 cookbook Mexico from the Inside Out, Olvera juxtaposes photographs of his dishes with portrayals of Mexican street vendors and outdoor markets. The viewer oscillates between elegant, closely cropped views of Olvera’s compositions and vibrant scenes of Mexico City’s working-class neighborhoods. These photographs offer up Olvera’s dishes as specimens for study, much like those of Spanish scientific expeditions three hundred years earlier.

Fig. 4: Green Salsa Salad. From Enrique Olvera, Mexico From the Inside Out (London: Phaidon, 2015), page 44.

The Green Salsa Salad shows the plate from above, such that the composition appears to be an ecology, a world unto itself (Fig. 4). The individual ingredients that comprise the dish, such as cilantro, fried scallions, and purslane sprouts, make themselves known, but the internal cohesion among the items also exhibits careful, deliberate composure. Nothing appears too heavily manipulated—even the small dices of serrano chiles and onions can see be discerned cube by cube, and individual flakes of kosher salt sparkle atop the white plate—such that the viewer can recognize the dish as an amalgam of its discrete parts, parts that harken back to the foodstuffs sold at the informal, open-air markets sporadically pictured throughout the cookbook. Likewise, the Bass al Pastor (Fig. 5) as well as the Fried Pork Belly (Fig. 6) showcase a taxonomy of ingredients that, rather than being wholly new, actually draw upon the artifice of colonial order seen in the Royal Botanical Expedition’s illustrations with blank backgrounds, overhead vantage points, and recognizable parts that comprise the whole.

Fig. 5: Bass al Pastor. From Enrique Olvera, Mexico From the Inside Out (London: Phaidon, 2015), page 54.

There is a frankness to Olvera’s dishes and the illustrations alike that render them self-evident, as though the images have been presented to us at their most honest, most vulnerable, and therefore most knowable state. We feel a connection to the “discovery” of these specimens as the triumph of human mastery over nature. Thus, societal values and morals reside at the very heart of these seemingly scientific renderings, a testament to the oft-overlooked reality that if food is indeed art, then it, too, is equally as capable of shaping the “visuality” of our socio-historical gaze.  

Fig. 6: Fried Pork Belly, Smoked White Kidney Bean Puree, and Purslane Salad. From Enrique Olvera, Mexico From the Inside Out (London: Phaidon, 2015), page 52.