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

Relat­ed Con­tent:

An Archive of 3,000 Vin­tage Cook­books Lets You Trav­el Back Through Culi­nary Time

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

The Futur­ist Cook­book (1930) Tried to Turn Ital­ian Cui­sine into Mod­ern Art

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

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Comments (4)
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  • Ernest M Aldama says:

    It is good to know that some­one has tak­en the time to com­pile a Mex­i­can Cook­book with some of the best old world recipes.
    I would like to com­pare what we call authen­tic with real­i­ty.

  • Brown says:

    Hope they trans­late to Eng­lish!!

  • John Rodriguez says:

    Got one on y’all!
    I have Mex­i­can cook book that my moth­er wrote on a man­u­al type­writer about 50 years ago.
    All my sib­lings (9) of us still use it to this day.

  • Sandra Salas says:

    Would love to have any of your recipes! I am divorced from a Tex-Mex and Span­ish fam­i­ly and would cher­ish recipes to pass on to my daugh­ter. Thank you

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