The University of Texas at San Antonio Preserves Mexican Culture with Largest Collection of Mexican Cookbooks
Echoing the importance of history, culture, and tradition in Mexico households... food. Mexicans love food; always have and always will -- and that love of food has been documented and captured in Mexican music, artwork and businesses for eons. Black beans, cilantro, tomatoes, chilies, peppers, onions, garlic, cumin, chipotle, lime, plantain, rice, and corn are often folded together, in various forms, to create a distinct collection of flavors and tastes, instigated by heritage, and a dependency on fresh and fragrant ingredients. The development of sustenance that's uniquely Mexican is agricultural, but it's also historical: imperialism, independence, immigration, migration, settlement, religion, economics, drought, flooding, war, technology, politics and policies have all had a significant bearing on the plates and palates of Mexicans for centuries.
Naturally, other groups' mealtimes have been greatly affected by similar conditions, and other groups have a similar relationship with food; but the romance between Mexicans and food is one of whirlwind, and the recipes that are conceived, brought to boil, and set to sizzle on Mexican stovetops are truly timeless. Functional, traditional and delicious, these recipes are unlikely to ever go out of style, and this is true even as Mexicans grow their appetites for other styles of food. Home-style comida will always have its place; the old world and the new world will share a table, both becoming mainstay in the cocina.
The University of Texas at San Antonio holds proof of the longstanding presence of Mexican/Latin flavors, possessing a special collection of Mexican cookbooks; the oldest dating back 56 years before Texas became a state, and nearly 100 years before construction was completed on the state capital. The most aged manuscript was written in 1789, and included in the dated book were recipes for "potaje escondido," "gaspacho," "sopa de naranja" (orange soup) and dozens of other culinary gems that are found in traditional Mexican households. The book is just one of many, many more --1,200, to be exact. It's the largest collection of cookbooks, of its kind, in the entire country.
"Cookbooks aren't a direct window into what people eat," said Juli McLoone, rare-books librarian at UTSA who manages the collection. "They're a window into what they would like to eat, what they would like other people to think that they eat or what they think other people should eat."
Laurie Gruenbeck, a librarian and lover of Mexican cooking, grew the collection of cook books; launching the collection in 2001, staring off with just 100 cookbooks, which she gathered with the desire to make them available to scholars and the general public.
Staff members and students have continued to donate to the lot over the years, depositing Tex-Mex and Southwestern volumes, and books from Mexico -though they are not exclusively Mexican cuisine. The impressive assortment of text has volumes from a number of truly outstanding contributors. Josefina Velázquez de León, who was once an important figure in Mexican cuisine, authored 37 books in the collection. The collection also holds the first edition of the first cookbook to ever be published in Mexico, El Cocinero Mexicano, o Colección de la Mejores Recetas, and yet another influential book, Novisimo arte de cocina.
The Mexican cookbooks, when analyzed, show the evolution of not only Mexican cuisine, but Mexican culture -- advertising French influences when authoring the cookbooks, and global contributions to the cuisine. The unique Mexican identity is transcribed in the form of ingredients: fruits, vegetables, and spices; and the collection in San Antonio has helped preserve that identity. Yes, the internet makes this identity more accessible than it's ever been before, but for decades, nay, centuries, histories have been lost to time. And, what may appear to simply be a recipe for "chili con queso" to some is a transformation of flavor, taste, and history to others.
"Food is how we accomplish biological reproduction and cultural reproduction," McLoone said, "so there's a lot of ideology attached to food and who eats what."
Next in line for the growing collection is to increase historical manuscript cookbooks, more documentation from home cookbooks, and to collect recipe-card boxes from the 1950s.
"In traditional book collecting, you're looking for the most pristine copy. That doesn't really happen in cookbooks," McLoone said. "In book studies, people are always looking for annotations. When you're cooking, your splash of cake batter is your annotation. That's how you know this is one people were actually eating."
For those who are unable to make it to San Antonio to check out the vast collection of cookbooks, check out some awesome, authentic Mexican recipes at The Latin Kitchen, Mexico in My Kitchen, and Saveur.com.
Keep up with UTSA on Twitter. Follow The Latin Kitchen on Twitter here and Like on Facebook here; Like Mexico in My Kitchen on Facebook here; and Follow Saveur on Twitter here and Like on Facebook here.
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