NOTES ON CULTURAL APPROPRIATION PART II. Atoles para la Tamaliza: Cinnamon and Cacao Flower, Guava, and Champurrado.

Guest contributor Catalina Hallinan Mueller

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Guest contributor: Catalina Hallinan Mueller

Photos by Emily Valentine

(…Continued from a previous post, click here to read the first part).

On the other hand, Cata’s adoption of Mexican Salsas resembles the process of acculturation of tacos al pastor but in an opposite direction: by her being a member of the prevalent culture into which the traditional food of a migrant community —in this case, a Mexican community— was assimilated (this is also is a particular exchange since it has been going on longer than the two countries have existed).

Mexican food is a part of Cata’s identity because of the place where she grew up. Later, she chose to strengthen those bonds by living in Guadalajara with relatives. Her grandmother, Cecilia Armenta, had always urged her to travel and adventure; she was of Latin blood herself, her parents were Colombian and she grew up in different countries, including Spain, France, Venezuela, and México… She lived in Parque México in DF with her sister when she was 18, before moving to the United States. She has been a huge influence in my culinary exploration and my love of the Spanish language, Cata explains.

So, when Cata arrived in Guadalajara in 2017, she felt like in a second home for two simple reasons: the Latin roots that tied her to Nana and the food she grew up eating and loving: By spending time in México my understanding of my own hometown grew deeper… I am proud of where I grew up. I am proud of the Mexican influence in my life. I am proud of my neighbors who immigrated to California to work, create homes, and support so much of the vibrancy of life in my small town. But, does her love for México entitle Cata to make a living out of this cultural bond? She is still a white-American woman…

English cookbook author, Diana Kennedy made a living out of her appreciation for Mexican culture, and she managed to do it in a conscious and ethical way. She celebrated Mexican food by being true to its origins. Her respect for culinary wisdom and those who pass it on was expressed through her work, and she properly referenced and acknowledged, everyone and everything. She became both, a respected scholar and an esteemed member of the community. Diana Kennedy never took a mole recipe that belonged to the culinary memory of someone else’s family, extracted it from its symbolic context, deformed its sense of collective value, disguised it in a pretentious narrative (based on a sly sense of artistry and sophistication), and turned into a self-promoting business opportunity. We Mexicans can do that for ourselves.

What I think makes the difference between small, American-owned, Mexican food-focused ventures like Cata’s, and personality-led high-end Mexican restaurants is that, while the first are the result of a linear human chain of fair-trade and equal-recognition practices, the latter reproduce an imperialist-minded business model in which fame, money, and power are vertically distributed.

To decolonize Mexican food, we have to decolonize ourselves first. We seem to suffer from a “Tlaxcalteca complex” (Elena Garro was right, it’s their fault[i]). What seems to me most unfair about this pyramidal food-scheme in the context of Mexican culture is the fact that not only does it sustain itself over the millenary knowledge of the oppressed minorities, but it also displaces the historical accomplishments of women cooks of all classes, into the lowest level of the pyramid: it makes them invisible.

It has taken Mexican cocineras thousands of years to perfect, revolutionize, and safeguard Mexican cooking wisdom and the symbolic space that develops around it, but it can take only one, first-generation indigenous male cook to “earn his whites”, translate his abuelita’s recipes into a Frenchified language (literally, technically, and esthetically), and pass it through the judgment of a culinary elite (kind of like a “Tubby’s Clubhouse” of the cooking world), for centuries of indigenous wisdom to be finally recognized as “artistry”.  

In a nutshell, hundreds of brilliant women cooks who have historically been the caretakers of their families, have managed to earn public recognition and economic gratification for the job they do (which is no less than the management of human welfare, along with all of the talent and creativity that derive from it) only through the mediation of a male figure; a partner, a son, or whoever is the “owner” of her labor.

I have cited the following quote before in this newsletter, it is from American-Italian scholar Silvia Federici and I think it is pertinent to repeat it as many times as necessary because I truly believe that most of our social problems arise from this unbalance, from this “small” miscalculation of the capitalist doctrine: Through salary, says Federici, a new hierarchy is created, a new organization of inequality: man gets the power of salary and turns into a supervisor of women’s unpaid labor. He also gets the power to discipline. This organization of work and salary that divides the family into two parts, one that is waged and one that is not, creates a situation where violence is always latent.[ii]

Some traditional Mexican cocineras, whose recipes have been reproduced by white-male chefs, say that they don’t care about recognition. And many times it is true and understandable because they are happy with what they have and are supported, protected, and pampered by their families. The problem is that that does not work the same way for all women. By not recognizing the worth of our own labor —inside of the home and out— we devalue the work of all women and make those who are less privileged than us, become more vulnerable.

Our hearts get crushed when we listen to real-life horror stories about out-of-this-world warriors like Marisela Escobedo, in The Three Deaths of Marisela Escobedo (a must-watch documentary on Netflix), and then we go to the streets and we obviously want to break everything because we are sad, we are mad, we are scared, and we are sick and tired of living or watching or listening to stories like that one, once and again. But then, in our day-to-day lives, we tend to overlook the small and apparently insignificant details that facilitate the conditions for gender abuse and Feminicidios to happen. Modesty, submission, self-denial, compliance, and permissiveness towards men have not worked in favor of women because they unintentionally enable male superiority, opportunism, entitlement, and therefore, abuse (and it keeps escalating from there).

Reality is not much brighter for women who succeed to fit themselves into the patriarchal culinary system of recognition, for the simple fact that it was not created with them in mind, period. In high-end restaurant kitchens in México (except probably in places that are owned or lead by women in any way) female workers are usually expected at least one of these two things: to show a submissive and admiring attitude towards masculine authority (same as in a number of homes) or to develop an extra-thick skin. Restaurant kitchens can be harsh. And, If any part of being a woman (like being a mother or getting your period) gets in the way of your performance, there is not much tolerance, you can easily get marginalized. Very few succeed to scale the pyramid, because for that to happen, one has to at least start-off from a privileged position, in some way or another. And oftentimes, even when a woman succeeds to become recognized for her talent and hard work, it is as a sidekick of a male chef, a group of male chefs, on in a “special” category, which in many cases, responds more to the projection of a certain image than it is true for whole “backstage” structure.      

So, about Cata, do I think that what she is doing is wrong? No, because I have seen the love and respect she puts into what she does; her salsas are her own perfected recipes and are congruent to the cultural context in which they exist. Also, because of how her business is thoughtfully and unpretentiously shaped. But most of all, because she is a woman, a cocinera, and a minority, nonetheless, and I believe that women should protect and push each other forward, now more than ever, since it has become increasingly obvious that, from the lowest step of society —and under the worst unimaginable conditions—, all the way to the highest seat of a nation, feminine ways have proven to be more constructive and healing for society. Period.

Cata is conscious that as a white-American woman in a Mexican culture-focused business, she will continue to be vulnerable to criticism, but she is not sweeping matters under the rug or putting herself in a defensive position (which is a lot to say for some Mexican male chefs): I am here to listen. I am here to learn. I am committed to continuing this path and understanding how I can do better, what my role is as a business owner, white woman, community member, and partner in both Mexico and the US.

Especially when it comes to food, I am convinced that it is women of all colors, and not men, who should be leading the conversation, writing the rules, and setting the standards. And I am not just talking about women from the restaurant industry or the media, but also growers, and gatherers, and home cooks, and town cooks, and street cooks, and vendors. It is our turn.

[i] Elena Garro, La culpa es de los traxcaletecas, 1969. *Required reading (along with every other thing by her). [ii] Silvia Federici, Patriarchy of the Wage: Notes on Marx, Gender, and Feminism, Spectre, 2020.

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ATOLE DE CANELA Y FLOR DE CACAO


Ingredients:
  • 200 g of nixtamalized corn masa

  • A pinch of cacao flowers (whatever you can hold with two fingers)

  • 1 medium cinnamon stick

  • 3 pieces of piloncillo (you can substitute for brown sugar)

  • 750 ml of water (yo can subsisute half of it for milk)

  • *You can add sugar at the end if needed.

Dissolve the masa in the water and then strain it.

put it on a pot at medium-low heat, add the spices and the piloncillo, let simmer for a while until it thickens, the aromas are absorbed into the liquid and the piloncillo is fully dissolved. Add sugar if needed.

Serve with tamales.


ATOLE DE GUAYABA


Ingredients:
  • 200 g of nixtamalized corn masa

  • 600 g of guava

  • 1 medium cinnamon stick

  • 3 pieces of piloncillo (you can substitute for brown sugar)

  • 750 ml of water (yo can subsisute half of it for milk)

  • *You can add sugar at the end if needed.

On a pan, bring water to a boil and cook the guavas for five minutes.

Strain, let cool, take out the seeds, and blend them with 1/4 cup of the boiling liquid.

Dissolve the masa in the water and then strain it.

Put the masa water and the blended guavas in a pot and cool at medium-low heat, add the piloncillo and the cinnamon stick and let simmer for a while until it thickens. Add sugar if needed.

Serve hot.


CHAMPURRADO


Ingredients:
  • 200 g of nixtamalized corn masa

  • 1/2 a tablet of mexican chocolate (regular chocolate Abuelita size of equivalent).

  • 3 pieces of piloncillo (you can substitute for brown sugar)

  • 750 ml of water (yo can subsisute half of it for milk)

  • *You can add sugar at the end if needed.

Dissolve the masa in the water and then strain it.

Put the liquid in on a pot at medium-low heat, add the chocolate and the piloncillo, let simmer for a while until it thickens, and the chocolate is fully dissolved. Add sugar if needed.

Serve with tamales or pan dulce.

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