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.

Thomas Gage’s Chocolate Recipe and Regimen of 1655

By R.A. Kashanipour

In A New Survey of the West-Indies of 1655, the English friar Thomas Gage celebrated the ubiquitous consumption and qualities of chocolate throughout the early modern Spanish Atlantic World, particularly in New Spain. “Chocolate,” wrote the Dominican priest, was consumed in “all the West-India’s, but also in Spain, Italy, and Flanders, with approbation of many learned Doctors in Physick.”  He lavishly described chocolate as “unctuous, warm [with] moist parts mingled with the earthly” all the while defining it as “one of the necessariest commodities in the Indias.” Gage noted that seemingly everyone in seventeenth-century Mexico and Guatemala imbibed in the frothy and sweetened beverage. According to the friar, Indians produced it, women demanded it, Spaniards celebrated it, and doctors healed with it. [1]

Thomas Gage, A New Survey of the West-Indias, second edition (1655). Courtesy of the Kislak Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.
Thomas Gage, A New Survey of the West-Indias, second edition (1655). Courtesy of the Kislak Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

 

Arriving to Mexico in the port of Veracruz in 1625, Gage reported that his first meal among his Dominican brothers was a lavish affair in which “no fowls were spared, many capons, turkey cocks, and hens were prodigally lavished.” The entire party was entertained “lovingly with some sweetmeats, and everyone with a cup of the Indian drink called chocolate.” In the Maya highlands of Chiapas, two cloisters of Dominican nuns, “talked about far and near,” were renowned not for their spirituality and devotion, but rather for their skill in making chocolate. The consumption of beverage was so commonplace that the bishop of Guatemala threatened to excommunicate women that consumed chocolate during Mass, presumably in lieu of the Eucharist. [2]

Thomas Gage, "Chapter XVI - Concerning two daily common Drinkes, or Potions," A New Survey of the West-Indias, (1655), 106.
Thomas Gage, “Chapter XVI – Concerning two daily common Drinkes, or Potions,” A New Survey of the West-Indias, (1655), 106.

 

Gage detailed a recipe for the Mesoamerican “chocolatical confection” that was a rich mixture of indigenous and European herbs and spices.[3]

Put into it black pepper which is not well approved of by the physicians because it is so hot and dry, but only for one who hath a cold liver, but commonly instead of this pepper, they put into it a long red pepper called chile which, though it be hot in the mouth, yet is cool and moist in operation. It is further compounded with white Sugar, Cinnamon, Clove, Anise seed, Almonds, Hazelnuts, Orejuela [anona], Vanilla, Sapoyall [mamey], Orange flower water, some Muske, and as much of these may be applied to such a quanitie of Cacao, the several dispositions of Achiotte, as it will make it look the colour of a red brick.[4]

To prepare properly, he noted that the ingredients must be dried and ground with an Indian metate. The cinnamon and chiles were to be first beaten with warm water and powdered cacao. Subsequently the anise and other herbs and spices were to be individually added to the confection before being “searced” or sifted to remove the shells and hulls. Finally, powdered achiote was to be added to enrich the beverage with a hearty color and earthen flavor.[5]

Far from a mere observer, the friar admonished the regular and remedial qualities of a fine cup of chocolate. “For myself,” he wrote, “I must say that used it twelve years constantly, drinking one cup in the morning, another yet before dinner between nine or ten of the clock, another within an hour or after dinner, and another between four or five in the afternoon.” When he needed to study late into the night, he “would take another cup about or seven or eight at night, which would keep me waking till about midnight.” This four to five cup-a-day, twelve-year regimen of chocolate kept him “healthy, without any obstructions or oppilations, not knowing either ague or fever.” However, if on occasion, he neglected his regular routine, he found himself weak and infirmed with a “stomach fainty.”  He was, in other words, completely habituated to the consumption of chocolate.[6]

[1] Thomas Gage, A New Survey of the West-Indias, second edition (London: E. Cotes, 1655), 106, 110.
[2] Gage, 23.
[3] Gage, 107.
[4] Gage, 108.
[5] Gage, 108.
[6] Gage, 109.

Additional Resources:

Sophie Coe and Michael Coe, The True History of Chocolate (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996).

Martha Few, “Chocolate, Sex, and Disorderly Women in Seventeenth-and Eighteenth-Century Guatemala,” Ethnohistory 52:4 (2005), 673-687.

Marcy Norton, Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures: A History of Tobacco and Chocolate in the Atlantic World (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2010).

A Cartography of Chocolate

by Kathryn E. Sampeck

While in some ways colonization happened in people’s heads—through formal edicts and informal conjuring of new attitudes and affiliations—colonial change occurred also through bodily, tactile encounters. The work of creating new combinations of objects and spaces to re-order a sense of self and community, the doing of colonizing, relied upon sensory experiences such as taste. Because colonization ineluctably involved geographic links, recipes provide an opportunity to map out a history of taste using Geographic Information Systems (GIS), a powerful program that displays spatial associations of evidence. GIS gives us the chance to see with fresh eyes. GIS mapping[1] of the ingredients for colonial cacao drink recipes gives a nuanced view into colonial entanglement by more precisely defining taste networks stretching across the Atlantic from the sixteenth through the early nineteenth century.

Figure 1. Branch, fruit, seed, and flower of a cacao tree. Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library, Brown University.
Figure 1. Branch, fruit, seed, and flower of a cacao tree. Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library, Brown University.

Pre-Columbian texts as well as sixteenth-century chronicles of colonization of Central America and Mexico described cacao beverages [Figure 1]. The particular flavor, scent, and appearance of these drinks distinguished different concoctions that were iconic of a region [Figure 2]. Most sources state that the cacao beverage “chocolat” came from colonial Guatemala.[2] ‘Chocolat’, a word from the southern Central American language Pipil (Nahuat) [3], is one of few untranslated American food names, unlike ‘maize’ versus ‘corn’ or ‘tlilxochitl’ versus ‘vanilla’. People every day and across the world speak a little Pipil when they ask for chocolate.

Figure 2. A depiction of each stage of indigenous cacao beverage making. From Montanus, Arnoldus, 1671, De Nieuwe en onbekende Weereld: of Beschryving van America, Amsterdam, Jacob Meurs Boek-verkooper en Plaet-snyder, op de Kaisars-graf, schuin over de wester-markt, in de stad Meurs. Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library, Brown University.
Figure 2. A depiction of each stage of indigenous cacao beverage making. From Montanus, Arnoldus, 1671, De Nieuwe en onbekende Weereld: of Beschryving van America, Amsterdam, Jacob Meurs Boek-verkooper en Plaet-snyder, op de Kaisars-graf, schuin over de wester-markt, in de stad Meurs. Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library, Brown University.

One of the earliest references to chocolate was a poem on an allegoric arch erected in Guatemala in 1579 that stated chocolate was cacao flavored with achiote.[4] As more and more people on both sides of the Atlantic consumed chocolate, exactly what chocolate was became a shifting target across space and over time. Indigenous American recipes in materia medica, cookbooks, and treatises had common ingredients of chile, vanilla, and achiote. Frequent European flavors were cinnamon, almonds, anise, ambergris, and musk. How then, to compare what literally are apples and oranges?

The Jaccard similarity coefficient calculates the percentage of common ingredients. The result has spatial information—the geographic source area for the recipe—and a measure of the degree of similarity to other recipes, represented by the thickness of the arrows in the GIS map [Figure 3].

Figure 3. GIS map based on the degree of similarity of chocolate recipes. Courtesy of Jonathan Thayn, Illinois State University.
Figure 3. GIS map based on the degree of similarity of chocolate recipes. Courtesy of Jonathan Thayn, Illinois State University.

These culinary paths show that Guatemalan, Mexican, and European cacao recipes significantly differed from each other. These are sharply divided lines, formed perhaps by an inception in Guatemala, then “speciation” in other regions. Untranslated in name, the wide array of kinds of chocolate did communicate sensory experiences of sweetness, spices, colors and scent that were a mimesis by colonists of Mesoamerican values.[5] This simulacra of taste, however, was fundamentally altered from the substance that inspired it, a process that created instead icons of chocolateness rather than rote copies of Pipil chocolat [Figure 4]. At the same time, one, untranslated term, chocolate, grew to incorporate a much wider realm of meaning, referring to a broad class of conditions, flavors, and colors. The colonizing process made chocolate intimately unfamiliar. Chocolate is the epitome of the discordant core of colonialism.

Figure 4. European man grinds cacao in the same manner as a Native American. From Chez Thomas Amaulry, 1687, Le bon usage du thé, du caffé, et du chocolat pour la preservation & pour la guerison des maladies, Lyon, ruë Merciere, au Mercure Galant. Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library, Brown University.
Figure 4. European man grinds cacao in the same manner as a Native American. From Chez Thomas Amaulry, 1687, Le bon usage du thé, du caffé, et du chocolat pour la preservation & pour la guerison des maladies, Lyon, ruë Merciere, au Mercure Galant. Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library, Brown University.

[1] The GIS map was created by Jonathan Thayn of the Geology and Geography Department of Illinois State University.

[2] Mariscal Haz, B. (ed.) Carta del Padre Pedro de Morales. (Mexico City, Colección Biblioteca Novohispana, V. Centro de Estudios Lingüísticos y Literarios, El Colegio de México. 2000 [1579])

[3] a language of southern Central America (colonial Guatmala) from the same language family as Nahuatl of the Aztecs

[4] Mariscal Haz (2000) p. 57.

[5] Norton, Marcy  “Tasting Empire: Chocolate and the European Internalization of Mesoamerican Aesthetics.” The American Historical Review 111(3), .(2006), 660–691.