¡Nos vemos en Puebla!

The Italian edition of Slow (number 58) has just been published: the foreign-language editions will come out later in the month. Here s a sample article inspired by the Slow Food International Congress, to be held in Puebla, Mexico, in November.

Mole poblano is one of the favorite festival dishes in Mexico. A baroque concoction of chiles, chocolate, spices and turkey, it has become a symbol of the mestizo national identity, combining Spanish and Native American influences. Jars of mass-produced mole are available in stores, but for special occasions like weddings and the Day of the Dead, Mexican home cooks still go through the lengthy process of toasting and grinding the individual ingredients, although these days they are more likely to use a mechanical blender than an indigenous grinding stone. This essay briefly explores the historical legacy of this quintessential Mexican dish and the city from which it came.

The city of Puebla de los Angeles was founded in 1532 as a model of European settlement in the viceroyalty of New Spain. On the southeastern flank of La Malinche volcano, Puebla was surrounded by fertile valleys, where the conquistadors established haciendas to grow wheat. Iberian hogs also flourished in the region, and the excellent hams and lard of poblano butchers were exported to connoisseurs throughout the colony. By the early seventeenth century, Puebla had the most diverse industrial economy of any city in the Americas. Profits from the sale of talavera pottery, woolen broadcloth, silk, glass, metal and leather financed the construction of elaborate churches and convents, most notably, the gold-encrusted cathedral completed in the mid-seventeenth century.

But however Spanish it may seem, the baroque grandeur of Puebla also depended on the labor of countless Indians. The pre-Hispanic city of Cholula, a short distance away, had suffered a terrible massacre at the hands of the conquistadors, and afterwards the survivors labored to build a cathedral on top of their own sacred pyramid, the largest in the world. To the north of Puebla lay the republic of Tlaxcala, a sworn enemy of the Aztec Empire whose alliance with Cortés had been essential for his military success. Native women meanwhile provided domestic labor for the conquistadors. As a result, even the Hispanic elite acquired a taste for local produce — chile peppers, frijoles, and pulque, an alcoholic beverage brewed from the sap of the agave plant — although they scorned the indigenous staple maize and the cuisine of tortillas and tamales.

With independence in 1821, Mexico’s leaders abolished the colonial distinction between separate republics of Spaniards and Indians and sought to fuse these ethnic groups into a single nation. Mole poblano offered a natural metaphor for this mestizo identity. The name combined the Nahuatl word, molli, a chile pepper sauce ground by hand on a basalt grinding stone (metate), with the Spanish word, pueblo, or nation. Native women contributed two of their noblest ingredients, bitter chocolate and the turkey, along with the culinary knowledge of toasting individual ingredients before adding them to the mixture. Spanish contributions to the mole of Puebla appeared in the numerous old world ingredients, from the fragrant spices of the orient to the sesame seeds sprinkled over the top of the deep brown sauce. The mixture of these distinct cuisines supposedly represented the uniquely baroque genius of the Mexican people.

Nevertheless, the incipient national cuisine was fraught by contradictions. Each town and region had its own distinctive dishes based on the natural yield of diverse microclimates. As one early cookbook explained, the moles of Puebla and Oaxaca ‘deben su particular gusto a las clases de chile que les agregan; pues para el primero, hacen uso de un chile dulce que llaman mulato, y para el segundo, de otro que en Oaxaca llaman chilohatle’ (they owe their special taste to the type of spices added: to the first they add a sweet chile called mulato, to the second a chile which, in Oaxaca, they call chilohatle).

Ethnic differences likewise split the nation; recipes for mole, both poblano and oaxaqueño, were thick, Hispanic sauces. Nineteenth-century cookbooks ignored the more indigenous versions such as verde from Oaxaca, a green chile broth perfumed with the incomparable anise-like fragrance of hoja santa.

A desire to appear cosmopolitan also undermined the appeal of mole. At the end of the nineteenth century, Puebla’s city center was rebuilt in the image of Haussmann’s Paris, even as wealthy Mexicans imported French chefs such as the renowned Sylvain Daumont. The culinary relationship was particularly fraught because early modern French nouvelle cuisine self-consciously rejected the gilded and heavily spiced foods of the Middle Ages in favor of more subtle flavors appropriate to the Enlightenment. Mexican cookbook authors condemned this European trend — ‘algunas obras francesas, han declarado la guerra a los estimulantes y principalmente al chile’ (some French works have declared war on stimulants, principally chiles) — but mole remained an unfashionable relic of bygone civilizations, both Spanish and American.

Author Manuel Payno summarized this dilemma in his novel of manners, Los bandidos de Río Frio (1891). In a scene set during the patriotic festivities of the Virgin of Guadalupe, he juxtaposed the French dishes served at elite restaurants with the Creole cuisine of an earlier era. ‘No espere el lector encontrar allí costillas à la Saint Menehould, ni filet de boeuf à la Jean Bart’ (The reader shouldn’t expect cutlets à la Saint Menehould or filet de boeuf à la Jean Bart). Instead, as a tribute to ‘domestic history’ he imagined a menu of bread soup, garbanzos (chickpeas) with parsley sauce, chiles stuffed with cheese, tongue with olives and capers, roasted goat with salad, and crowned with mole. In place of French champagne, crystal jars of pulque cured with pineapple accompanied the meal, and as a fitting conclusion came the desserts of the colonial convents, candied coconut, ate of mamey, sweet potato with pine nuts and traditional custards such as arequipe and yemitas. Payno predicted ‘que más de un lector se chupará los labios, por más parisiense que sea’ (more than one reader, even the most Parisian, would have licked their fingers).

Even while rejecting his Francophile contemporaries, Payno reinforced the ethnic divisions of Mexican society by portraying the Indian and mestizo masses celebrating the Virgin with pagan dances and a rustic feast of chito (goat stew), tortillas, and pulque. But the common folk did not allow Payno to monopolize mole for the Creole elite. A popular image of the festival dish appeared in the work of José Guadalupe Posada, a woodcut artist renowned for his satiric calavera skeletons. A 1902 broadsheet entitled, ‘Gran . . . mole de calaveras’, depicted a skeleton family serving mole in a graveyard while decorating the tombstones with marigolds for the Day of the Dead. The text spoofed all levels of Mexican society, observing that everyone from the priest Don Pedrito, who attempted to seduce a cook, to the street vendor Severina, who sold tamales stuffed with vulture meat, will end up as skeletons in the mole.

Ironically, mole even conquered the sophisticated palates of the ill-fated Austrian Archduke Maximilian and his consort Charlotte, who were imposed on the Mexican throne in the 1860s by an invading French army. Concepción Lombardo de Miramón, the wife of a prominent general, recalled in her memoirs that the regal couple’s first encounter with mole brought tears to their eyes. But like many visitors, they came to appreciate its subtle flavors, and a banquet menu, preserved in the archive of the National Institute of Anthropology and History at Chapultepec, shows that mole was the centerpiece on the imperial banquet table on December 12 1865, the Virgin’s Day.

Still, elite Mexicans remained ambivalent about Indian contributions to the nation and its cuisine. An editorial entitled ‘La influencia del mole’ in the leading daily newspaper, El Imparcial, on August 29 1897, evoked the humors of Galen in describing the dish. ‘Un bautizo, una confirmación, una fiesta onomastica, en matrimonio, una extremaunción, un velorio han de ir acompanados para merecer tal nombre, por el platillo nacional, sea verde como la esperanza, sea amarilla como el rencor, sea negro como los celos o rojo como el homicidio, pero en abundancia, en ancha cazuela, espeso, oleoso, con reflejos metalicos, salpicado de ajonjoli, magica superficie’ (A christening, a confirmation, a saint’s day, a wedding, an extreme unction, a funeral, must be accompanied, to deserve the name they bear, by the national dish, which must be green like hope, yellow like rancor, black like jealousy or red like murder, but in abundance, in large pans, thick, oily, with metallic reflections, dusted with sesame seed, magic surface).

Wavering between nostalgic love and bourgeois scorn, the author attributed both the genius and the defects of the Mexican character to chile peppers, then concluded with a warning: ‘Doctos higienistas aconsejan un uso parsimonioso, aunque sea en nogada, de ese otro enemigo del alma, que unido al licor nacional y a la tortilla, sirve de combustible a la incansable maquina de los proletarios y hasta de algunos que no lo son’ (Hygiene experts advise parsimonious use, even in a salsa nogada, an enemy of the soul which, combined with the national spirit and tortilla, fuels the inexhaustible engine of proletarians and others still).

A century later, the Mexican elite has embraced these foods of American origin. The poblano specialty of chiles en nogada, with its green chile pepper, white walnut sauce and red pomegranate seeds, has become a symbol of the tricolor flag. Elegies have been written to mole poblano, most recently Paco Ignacio Taibo I’s volume, El libro de todos los moles (2003). The elaborately tiled kitchen of the convent of Santa Rosa, where according to legend, mole poblano was divinely inspired, has even been opened as a tourist attraction. Nevertheless, the nationalist image of mole poblano as a cultural melting pot, in which Native Americans are assimilated into a mestizo Mexican identity, fits poorly with the demands for indigenous autonomy of the Zapatista rebels of Chiapas.

Jeffrey M. Pilcher, USA, is Professor of History at the University of Minnesota. He is author of ¡Que vivan los tamales! Food and the Making of Mexican Identity (1998) and other books on Mexican cuisine.

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