An Archive of Handwritten Traditional Mexican Cookbooks Is Now Online

“The search for authentic Mexican food—or rather, the struggle to define what that meant—has been going on for two hundred years,” writes Jeffrey Pilcher at Guernica. Arguments over national cuisine first divided into factions along historical lines of conquest. Indigenous, corn-based cuisines were pitted against wheat-based European foods, while Tex-Mex cooking has been “industrialized and carried around the world,” its processed commodification posing an offense to both indigenous peoples and Spanish elites, who themselves later “sought to ground their national cuisine in the pre-Hispanic past” in order to fend off associations with globalized Mexican food of the chain restaurant variety.

Stephanie Noell, Special Collections Librarian at the University of Texas San Antonio (UTSA), explains how these lines were drawn centuries earlier during the “culinary cultural exchange” of the colonial period: “[C]onquistador Bernal Diaz del Castillo referred to corn dishes as the ‘misery of maize cakes.’ On the other side, the Nahuas were not impressed by the Spaniards’ wheat bread, describing it as ‘famine food.’” Whatever we point to—corn, wheat, etc.—and call “Mexican food,” we are sure to be corrected by someone in the know.

Cooking, as everyone knows, is not only regional and political, but also deeply personal-- tied to family gatherings and passed through generations in handwritten recipes, sometimes jealously guarded lest they be stolen and turned into fast food. But thanks to UTSA Libraries, we have access to hundreds of such recipes. An initial donation of 550 cookbooks has grown to include “over 2,000 titles in English and Spanish,” notes UTSA, “documenting the history of Mexican cuisine from 1789 to the present, with most books dating from 1940-2000.” Many of the books, like that below from 1960, consist of handwritten content next to cut-and-paste recipes and ideas from magazines.




The collection spans “regional cooking, healthy and vegetarian recipes, corporate advertising cookbooks, and manuscript recipe books.” The oldest cookbook, belonging to someone named “Doña Ignacita,” whom Noell believes to have been the kitchen manager of a wealthy family, “is a handwritten recipe collection in a notebook,” writes Nils Bernstein at Atlas Obscura, “complete with liquid stains, doodles, and pages that naturally fall open to the most-loved recipes.” Like the other manuscript cookbooks in the collection, “never intended for public scrutiny,” this one “provides essential insight on how real households cooked on a regular basis.”

“I’ve had students in tears going through these,” says Noell, “because it’s so powerful to see that connection with how their family makes certain dishes and where they originated.” On the other hand, we also have generic “Corporate Cookbooks” like Recetario Bimbo, a book of sandwich recipes from the well-known bread company Bimbo. Recent publications like the ultra-hip, 2017 Fiesta: Vegan Mexican Cookbook, which promises “over 75 authentic vegan-Mexican food recipes included,” strain the word “authentic” to its breaking point. (“Want to feel all the great benefits from the ketogenic diet?” the book’s blurb asks, a question that probably never occurred to either Aztecs or Conquistadors.)

The UTSA Mexican Cookbooks collection is open to the public and anyone can visit it in person, but Noell wants “anybody with an internet connection to be able to see these works.” UTSA has been busy digitizing the 100 manuscript cookbooks in the collection, and has scanned about half so far, with Doña Ignacita’s 1789 notebook coming soon. While these aren’t likely to resolve debates about what constitutes authentic Mexican cooking—as if such a thing existed in a monolithic, timeless form—they are sure to be of very keen interest to chefs, home cooks, historians, and enthusiasts of the history of Mexican food. Enter the digital collection of manuscript cookbooks here.

via Atlas Obscura

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Cooking with Wool: Watch Mouthwatering Tiny Woolen Food Animations

Our fascination with tiny food can be traced to the mouthwatering illustrations in Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Two Bad Mice.

Just like the dollhouse-sized comestibles that so confounded the titular rodents, Tom Thumb and Huncamunca, animator Andrea Love’s miniature pasta with red sauce is as inedible as it is appetizing.




The self-taught stop motion specialist’s medium of choice is wool.

In an interview with Dragon Frame stop motion software’s company blog, when they featured Cooking with Wool: Breakfast, above, Love explained:

I like to make short personal projects experimenting with the different ways to animate wool. The technique is called needle felting and it involves shaping wool with a barbed needle. I love the fuzzy aesthetic, and feel like the possibilities are endless. Everything in this video is made out of wool or felt, and is built over rigid insulation foam. This was a weekend/evening project, done over the course of three days… It is very challenging working with tiny bits of wool, but also amazing how much detail can be achieved on a small scale when you consider that it is just tiny clumps of fur.

Forget the showstoppers—the melting butter, the fried eggs flipping in the pan, the steam rising from cup and kettle…

Let’s take a moment to admire the attention to detail that went into the background aspects—the rubber spatula, the bananas, the cheery flecked wallpaper…

The only thing missing is a potholder to handle that piping hot cast iron skillet.

Perhaps she ran out of wool?

The Port Townsend, Washington resident, who graduated from Hampshire College with a concentration in film studies and sustainable agriculture, whips up her teeny weeny wooly meals in the same basement studio where she crafts promotional videos for local businesses, including the yarn shop where she sources her wool rovings.

View more of Andrea Love’s fiber-art stop motion animations, including a “digital” banana painting created with a woolen tablet and stylus, on her website and Instagram page.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, February 3 for New York: The Nation's Metropolis the 21st installment of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

A Brief Animated History of Alcohol

Almost anything can be preserved in alcohol, except health, happiness and money…

Roderick Phillips’ Ted-Ed lesson, a Brief History of Alcohol, above, opens with a bon mot from early 20th-century quote maven Mary Wilson Little, after which, an unwitting chimpanzee quickly discovers the intoxicating effects of overripe plums.

His eyes pinwheel, he falls off a branch, and grins, drunk as a monkey’s uncle.

And though the subject is alcohol, this primate is the only character in Anton Bogaty’s 5-minute animation who could be hauled in on a drunk and disorderly charge.

The others take a more sober, industrious approach, illustrating alcohol’s prominent role in early medicine, religious rituals, and global trading.

Ancient Egyptians harvest the cereal grains that will produce beer, included as part of workers’ rations and available to all classes.

A native of South America stirs a kettle of chicha, a fistful of hallucinogenic herbs held at the ready.

A Greek physician tends to a patient with a goblet of wine, as a nearby poet prepares to deliver an ode on its creative properties.

Students with an interest in the science of alcohol can learn a bit about the fermentation process and how the invention of distillation allowed for much stronger spirits.

Alcohol was a welcome presence aboard seafaring vessels. Not only did this valuable trading commodity spark lively parties on deck, it sanitized the sailors’ drinking water, making longer voyages possible.

Cheers to that.

Educators can customize the lesson here.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC tongight, Monday, January 6 when her monthly book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain celebrates Cape-Coddities (1920) by Roger Livingston Scaife. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

82 Vintage Cookbooks, Free to Download, Offer a Fascinating Illustrated Look at Culinary and Cultural History

With the holidays fast approaching, two interns at the Sallie Bingham Center for Women's History and Culture at Duke University's Rubenstein Library turned to the center’s collection of vintage advertising cookbooks for inspiration.

Their labors, and the fruits thereof—a queasy-looking Crown Jewel Dessert and a savory fish-shaped “salad” as per the Joys of Jell-O Gelatin Dessert cookbook—are showcased above.




While the library has yet to digitize that particular early-60’s gem, there are plenty of other options from the Nicole Di Bona Peterson Advertising Cookbook Collection available for free download, including several that are gelatin based.

The authors of the pre-Women’s-Suffrage Jell-O: America's Most Famous Dessert, would have boggled at our 21st-century abundance of flavors (and our godlike telephones), just as our eyes widen at their lush full-color illustrations and hundred-year-old social norms.

As one might expect, given the Sallie Bingham Center’s mission of preserving printed materials that reflect the public and private lives of women, past and present, these vintage cookbooks speak to far more than just culinary trends.

Royal Baking Powder’s 55 Ways to Save Eggs puts a positive spin on wartime economies by framing cheap ingredient substitutions as something clever and modern, attributes the young housewife depicted on the cover would surely wish to embody.

(Shout out to any home bakers who were aware that cream of tartar is derived from grapes...)

Dainty Dishes for All the Year Round (1900) finds its publisher, North Brothers Manufacturing Co., sitting pretty, unable to imagine a future some twenty years hence, in which technological advances would result in the commercial mass production of ice cream, thus damning their star item, Shephard’s “Lightning” Ice Cream Freezer, to the category of inessential countertop clutter.

Sadly, not all of the delicious-sounding ice cream recipes by Mrs. S. T. Rorer, a leading culinary author and educator and America’s first dietician, are included, but you can browse many illustrated ads for North Brothers’ built-to-last goods, including a meat cutter, a number of screwdrivers, and a magnificently steampunk Christmas tree stand.

Would it surprise you to learn that our current preoccupation with ancient grains is far from a new thing?

1929’s Modern Ways with an Ancient Food was aimed squarely at mothers anxious, then as now, that their children were properly nourished.

The grain in question was not quinoa or freekeh, but rather farina, referred to by most Americans by its most popular brand name Cream of Wheat, a fact  not lost on this volume's publisher, Cream of Wheat competitor Hecker H-O Company.

History shows that Cream of Wheat trounced Hecker’s Cream-Farina.

Given the blandness of the grain in question, chalk it up to Cream of Wheat's muscular advertising approach, and robust licensing of products featuring the iconic image of Rastus, a smiling black spokeschef whose palpably offensive, dialect-heavy endorsements are one pitfall Hecker seems to have skirted.

Begin your explorations of the Sallie Bingham Center’s Nicole Di Bona Peterson Advertising Cookbook Collection here, and let us know in the comments if there's a recipe you're intending to try.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC tonight, Monday, December 9, as her monthly book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain celebrates another vintage advertising pamphlet, Dennison’s Christmas Book (1921). Follow her @AyunHalliday

A New Digitized Menu Collection Lets You Revisit the Cuisine from the “Golden Age of Railroad Dining”

The coming of the railroad in the U.S. of the 19th century meant unprecedented opportunity for millions—a triumph of transportation and commerce that changed the country forever. For many more—including millions of American bison—it meant catastrophe and near extinction. This complicated history has provided a rich field of study for scholars of the period—who can tie the railroad to nearly every major historical development, from the Civil War to presidential campaigns to the spread of the Sears merchandising empire from coast to coast.

But as time wore on, passenger trains became both more commonplace and more luxurious, as they competed with air and auto travel in the early 20th century. It is this period of railroad history that most attracted Ira Silverman as a graduate student at Northwestern University in the 1960s. While enrolled at Northwestern’s Transportation Center in Evanston, Illinois, Silverman and his classmates found endless “opportunities for research, adventure, and unparalleled feasting,” writes Claire Voon at Atlas Obscura.




Silverman especially took to the dining cars—and more to the point, to the menus, which he collected by the dozens, “eventually amassing an archive of 238 menus and related pamphlets. After a long career in transit, he donated the collection to his alma mater’s Transportation Library, which recently digitized it in its entirety.” Silverman’s collection represents “35 United States and Canadian railroads,” points out Northwestern, and its contents mostly date from the early 60s to the 1980s—from his most active years riding the rails in style, that is.

But Silverman was also able to acquire earlier examples, such as a 1939 menu “once perused by passengers aboard the famed 20th Century Limited train,” Voon writes, “which traveled between New York City and Chicago.” Twenty years after this menu’s appearance, Cary Grant, “playing an adman in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, orders a brook trout with his Gibson” while riding the same line. The Art Deco menu for the "new streamlined" line features such delicacies as “genuine Russian caviar on toast and grilled French sardines.”

Even kids' menus—now reliably dominated by chicken fingers, pizza, PB&Js, and mac & cheese—offered far more sophisticated dining than we might expect to find, with “items such as grilled lamb chops, roast beef, and seasonal fish" on the North Coast Limited menu below. “The mid-20th century seems to have been a golden age of railroad dining,” remarks Northwestern Transportation Librarian Rachel Cole. “It was never something that railroads profited on, but they used it to compete against each other and attract passengers,” taking pride in “selections that would be rivaled in restaurants.”

The fine dining-car experience might also include novelty items passengers would be unlikely to find anywhere else, such as Northwestern Pacific’s Great Baked Potato, “a monstrous spud,” Voon explains, “that could weigh anywhere between two to five pounds” and came served with “an appropriately sized butter pat.” One can see the appeal for a food and travel enthusiast like Silverman, who had the privilege of trying dishes on most of these menus for himself.

The rest of us will have to rely on our gustatory imaginations to conjure what it might have been like to eat prime rib on the Western Star in the Pacific Northwest in the early 60s, or braised smoked pork loin on an Amtrak train in 1972. If your memories of dining on a train mostly consist of pulling soggy, microwaved “food” from steaming hot plastic bags, or munching on packaged, processed salty snacks, expand your sense of what railroad dining could be at the Ira Silverman Railroad Menu Collection here.

via Atlas Obscura

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The First High-Resolution Map of America’s Food Supply Chain: How It All Really Gets from Farm to Table

The phrase "farm to table" has enjoyed vogue status in American dining long enough to be facing displacement by an even trendier successor, "farm to fork." These labels reflect a new awareness — or an aspiration to awareness — of where, exactly, the food Americans eat comes from. A vast and fertile land, the United States produces a great deal of its own food, but given the distance of most of its population centers from most of its agricultural centers, it also has to move nearly as great a deal of food over long domestic distances. Here we have the very first high-resolution map of that food supply chain, created by researchers at the University of Illinois studying "food flows between counties in the United States."

"Our map is a comprehensive snapshot of all food flows between counties in the U.S. – grains, fruits and vegetables, animal feed, and processed food items," writes Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Megan Konar in an explanatory post at The Conversation. (The top version shows the total tons of food moved, and the bottom one is broken down to the county scale.)




"All Americans, from urban to rural are connected through the food system. Consumers all rely on distant producers; agricultural processing plants; food storage like grain silos and grocery stores; and food transportation systems." The map visualizes such journeys as that of a shipment of corn, which "starts at a farm in Illinois, travels to a grain elevator in Iowa before heading to a feedlot in Kansas, and then travels in animal products being sent to grocery stores in Chicago."

Konar and her collaborators' research arrives at a few surprising conclusions, such as that Los Angeles county is both the largest shipper and receiver of food in the U.S. Not only that, but almost all of the nine counties "most central to the overall structure of the food supply network" are in California. This may surprise anyone who has laid eyes on the sublimely huge agricultural landscapes of the Midwest "Cornbelt." But as Konar notes, "Our estimates are for 2012, an extreme drought year in the Cornbelt. So, in another year, the network may look different." And of the grain produced in the Midwest, much "is transported to the Port of New Orleans for export. This primarily occurs via the waterways of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers."

Konar also warns of troubling frailties: "The infrastructure along these waterways—such as locks 52 and 53—are critical, but have not been overhauled since their construction in 1929," and if they were to fail, "commodity transport and supply chains would be completely disrupted." The analytical minds at Hacker News have been discussing the implications of the research shown on this map, including whether the U.S. food supply chain is really, as one commenter put it, "very brittle and contains many weak points." The American Society of Civil Engineers, as Konar tells Food & Wine, has given the country's civil engineering infrastructure a grade of D+, which at least implies considerable room for improvement. But against what from some angles look like long odds, food keeps getting from American farms to American tables — and American forks, American mouths, American stomachs, and so on.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

A Map of How the Word “Tea” Spread Across the World

When I order a cup of tea in Korea, where I live, I ask for cha (차); when traveling in Japan, I ask for the honorific-affixed ocha (お茶). In Spanish-speaking places I order , which I try to pronounce as distinctly as possible from the thé I order in French-speaking ones. And on my trips back to United States, where I'm from, I just ask for tea. Not that tea, despite its awe-inspiring venerability, has ever quite matched the popularity of coffee in America, but you can still find it most everywhere you go. And for decades now, no less an American corporate coffee juggernaut than Starbucks has labeled certain of its teas chai, which has popularized that alternative term but also created a degree of public confusion: what's the difference, if any, between chai and tea?

Both words refer, ultimately, to the same beverage invented in China more than three millennia ago. Tea may now be drunk all over the world, but people in different places prefer different kinds: flavors vary from region to region within China, and Chinese teas taste different from, say, Indian teas. Starbucks presumably brands its Indian-style tea with the word chai because it sounds like the words used to refer to tea in India.




It also sounds like the words used to refer to tea in Farsi, Turkish, and even Russian, all of them similar to chay. But other countries' words for tea sound different: the Maylay teh, the Finnish tee, the Dutch thee. "The words that sound like 'cha' spread across land, along the Silk Road," writes Quartz's Nikhil Sonnad. "The 'tea'-like phrasings spread over water, by Dutch traders bringing the novel leaves back to Europe."

"The term cha (茶) is 'Sinitic,' meaning it is common to many varieties of Chinese," writes Sonnad. "It began in China and made its way through central Asia, eventually becoming 'chay' (چای) in Persian. That is no doubt due to the trade routes of the Silk Road, along which, according to a recent discovery, tea was traded over 2,000 years ago." The te form "used in coastal-Chinese languages spread to Europe via the Dutch, who became the primary traders of tea between Europe and Asia in the 17th century, as explained in the World Atlas of Language Structures. The main Dutch ports in east Asia were in Fujian and Taiwan, both places where people used the te pronunciation. The Dutch East India Company’s expansive tea importation into Europe gave us the French thé, the German Tee, and the English tea."

And we mustn't leave out the Portuguese, who in the 1500s "travelled to the Far East hoping to gain a monopoly on the spice trade," as Culture Trip's Rachel Deason writes, but "decided to focus on exporting tea instead. The Portuguese called the drink cha, just like the people of southern China did," and under that name shipped its leaves "down through Indonesia, under the southern tip of Africa, and back up to western Europe." You can see the global spread of tea, tee, thé, chai, chay, cha, or whatever you call it in the map above, recently tweeted out by East Asia historian Nick Kapur. (You may remember the fantastical Japanese history of America he sent into circulation last year.) Study it carefully, and you'll be able to order tea in the lands of both te and cha. But should you find yourself in Burma, it won't help you: just remember that the word there is lakphak.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

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