Corazon III: a cuisine in transition

I really meant to all but liveblog the process of transcribing and translating the Motiño manuscript, but once I got into it, the work itself became an all-encompassing obsesison and there as no time for writing about it. Six weeks later, I have a complete transcription, a complete but VERY rough crib, and a nearly-fleshed-out translation of the twenty-page index. (Yes, dear reader, the INDEX is twenty pages. This is a big manuscript.)

I’m beginning to get a mental picture of the early Hidalgo cuisine landscape. My original conception of this feast had been much earlier, a Cortez-era deal like the feasts described in Bernal Diaz del Castillo, but I wasn’t able to find any good sources. Motiño is 1611, two generations later, at a time when the intercontinental fusion that became Mexican cuisine was already fairly well on its way to being realized.

But not entirely. Much of what we know of modern Mexican cuisine came later; there was a major transformation in the way people of Spanish descent integrated indigenous ingredients and dishes in the mid-eighteenth century. It’s really interesting what’s present – and missing  – in Motiño, and from other descriptions of pre-1700 colonial cuisine:

The well-to-do there ate wheat bread, drank wine, and could afford the most desirable domesticated meats, lamb and kid. They used rice and citrus fruits and almonds and saffron and seasoned their dishes with rare and expensive spices transported all the way from the East.  Tenochtitlan may have impressed the conquistadors, but the elite circles of the viceregal court and the richest convents in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries looked to the culinary traditions of southern Spain. During the Renaissance, this area had shared with the rest of western Europe a cosmopolitan courtly cookery. Printed cookbooks authored by the master chefs at the great courts were widely  distributed and often translated into a variety of different languages. The chefs themselves were equally cosmopolitan, going from court to court as their masters married or conquered or as they themselves sought out new employment. within this ambience, the cookery of the southern part of Spain reigned supreme as the finest and most sophisticated of all. (Chiles, Chocolate, and Race in New Spain: Glancing backward to Spain or looking forward to Mexico? )

– Motiño uses the word pavo, which is translated in Minsheu’s Dictionary in Spanish and English (1623) as peacock and in every other source I’ve found as turkey; I’m running with the theory, supported in both artwork and texts of the period, that turkey supplanted peacock (and then itself fell out of favor on the Continent; neither bird is significant in the cuisine today.)

– Motiño definitely uses tortilla in the Continental context of an omelette or fritatta, not in the New World sense of an unleavened flatbread. There are several different terms that are translating out to “fritter” in the rough crib, and I suspect at least one of these, as I get deeper into the full translation, will turn out to be analagous to tortillita (a small flatbread of wheat or chickpea flour with additives, like a Chinese scallion cake)

– Motiño describes a number of dishes that are heavily attested in modern Central and South American cuisine: capirotada; chicharrones; lampreados; various escabeches:

– There are many squash recipes. I have not been able to find a single recipe including tomatoes, corn, New World beans**, fresh chiles, or peanuts, and only one containing chocolate – an intriguing veal in sauce that is a clear descendent of Medieval sauces and may be the first documented true mole*. There is one recipe that may contain cassava, but I haven’t fully translated it yet. There’s no easy way to distinguish piper from capsicum in reference to “pepper” (pimienta); I’m assuming that Motiño is referring to piper but that New World cooks, working from his recipes and a Continental aesthetic but with limited quantities of imported spices, would have relied on capsicum as well, and that’s what I’m going to do in the feast.

– SO MUCH MEAT. John Super’s excellent little book Food, Conquest, and Colonization in Sixteenth-Century Spanish America describes, in great detail, the economic inversion that made meat much cheaper than bread, in dizzying variety and quantity. (Think two to five pounds of meat per day per person.) The modern American obsession with giant slabs of red meat derives from the 18th-19th century West, and is in turn derived from colonial Mexico.

The general sense of the early 17th century Hidalgo cuisine that’s emerging to me is: Heavily derived from the cuisines of Andalucia, Extremadura, and la Mancha; use of local ingredients for heavy, bulky, and very fresh ingredients, especially meat, seafood, dairy, and some vegetables; as much wheat bread as possible as a high-status food; some Old World vegetable crops (I have a copy of Dunmire’s Gardens of New Spain on order, so I hope to have more data on this area soon); imported Continental ingredients in small, flavor-dense quantities, especially spices; direct substitutions where possible (native greens for spinach and chard***; local game for Continental game or domestic meat, New World squashes for white-flowered gourd and cucumber); integration of indigenous ingredients where they represented status exotica and interesting flavor profiles (fresh fruit, chocolate); NO integration of indigenous ingredients where they were strongly identified with Native foodways.

*Most anecdotal histories of mole place its origin between 1600 and 1650, although the earliest currently known written recipes are from the early 19th century.

**no favas either, although there are a bunch of chickpea recipes.

***I’m amused that many modern Mexican dishes written for Anglo-American audiences (I’m looking at you, Rick Bayless) call for spinach in the place of such indigenous greens as quelites (lambsquarters), which are themselves local substitutions from Continental dishes calling for spinach and chard.

Next up: an outline sketch of the menu, and recipe testing.

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