From early infancy, your palate is shaped by the cultural heritage of your family, including tastes, preferences and even aversions. But also important is the availability of ingredients and methods of food preparation.
Food is a fundamental part of our identity. From the moment we are born we learn to recognize the flavors of the substances that keep us alive: breast milk, our first solid foods and even water. For many Mexicans, the smell of chamomile, aniseed or lemongrass might evoke the taste of milky infusions that their mothers or grandmothers fed them as children to soothe tummy aches. I’m sure these flavors trigger very different memories across cultures. And while some cultures feed their teething babies biscuits or chilled fruit to gnaw on, in Mexico babies are given roasted spring onions with lime and salt, or at least I certainly was.
In Mexico, food rituals, skills and recipes are traditionally but not exclusively passed down to women. The division of labor in rural communities often includes the collaborative work of men, women and children to grow, harvest and transform ingredients. They farm, butcher and cook domestic animals and even collectively help in the preparation of specific celebratory meals.
But again, quite often it is women who are in charge of everyday cooking, which might involve making handmade corn tortillas, preparing lunch for their husbands, cooking special meals for children and elderly relatives and even making special meals for sick family members.
Men also participate in the preparation of grand celebratory meals, such as hole barbecues, moles, roasted meats, the making of pork scratchings and also the drinks that will accompany those meals, such as fruit liqueurs, fermented drinks like pulque or tepache and distilled mezcales.
Still, we could say that women in Mexico are largely the de facto guardians of traditional recipes and cooking methods. Most of the learning process and the creation of these meals occur in the intimacy of family kitchens.
But across many rural communities, men proudly take part in the preparation of food and drinks that will be shared in festive events involving their families or communities during religious celebrations. Typically, the cooking of such equally special dishes doesn’t necessarily take place in the kitchens, but in patios or open spaces where hole barbecues or spit roasting can be prepared. For young girls and boys to take part in the preparations usually marks their coming of age. In many cases this even involves the butchering of animals and the passing on of family recipes.
The reason why Mexican food was listed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as intangible cultural heritage of humanity goes way beyond the mere recipes. Mexican food was recognized by this world organization because, and I quote: “Traditional Mexican cuisine is a comprehensive cultural model comprising farming, ritual practices, age-old skills, culinary techniques and ancestral community customs and manners. It is made possible by collective participation in the entire traditional food chain: from planting and harvesting to cooking and eating.”
Gastronomic heritage is not valued because it is unique, but rather because it is relevant for the community who practices it. Heritage cuisines create bonds, a sense of pride and belonging and solidarity, and these are the values that are transmitted from one generation to the next.
I suppose in a way, people in Mexico are hardwired to appreciate food as so much more than just fuel for our bodies. However humble or lavish, food should always restore our body and soul and, importantly, celebrate life.
You can listen to this and other delicious stories on episode #3 of my Pass the Chipotle Podcast.