Tag Archives: Deborah Van Hoewyk

Appropriation, Appreciation, Inspiration: The Taking of Mexican Fashion

By Deborah Van Hoewyk

On Thursday, October 20, 2022, author and Mexican First Lady Beatriz Gutiérrez Müller Instagrammed American designer Ralph Lauren:

Hey, Ralph, we already knew that you’re a big fan of Mexican designs, above all those that work with our ancestral cultures to preserve textile traditions. However, by copying these designs you commit plagiarism, and as you know, plagiarism is illegal and immoral. At least acknowledge it. And I hope you compensate the damage to the native communities that do this work with love and not for million-dollar profits.

Gutiérrez was calling out Lauren for his use of Mexican serape fabric in a cardigan-style jacket in his current line of clothing; she mentioned specifically the weavers from Contla de Juan Cuamatzi in Jalisco and Saltillo in Coahuila as the “authors” of the textile design of the cardigan.

This was not the first time, either. Ralph Lauren has made a mint by refining the looks of the New England preppie, early-Hollywood glamour, and the rough-and-rustic American West. It was hardly a skip or a jump when his collection for Spring/Summer 2013 was described, by The New York Times, as showing there was “no doubt Ralph Lauren was down Mexico way.” Lauren again showed serapes in his Fall 2014 collection, when he added a Polo Ralph Lauren collection for women that included a Mexican-patterned maxi dress and a serape-fabric jacket.

Cultural Appropriation

Gutiérrez clearly sees Lauren’s use of the serape fabric as cultural appropriation. She identifies his work as plagiarism, i.e., an exact copy, and asserts that it has damaged the indigenous communities, whose work is a labor of love that preserves ancient traditions, because Lauren did not acknowledge or compensate them. Lauren no doubt considered it cultural appreciation – if he considered it at all.

A repeat offender like Lauren, Marant included a cape clearly taken from the Purépecha of Michoacán in her 2020-21 Etoile collection. Alejandra Frausto Guerrero, the Mexican Minister of Culture, sought an explanation:

Some symbols [on the cape] that you took have a profound meaning for this culture. These symbols are very old and have been conserved thanks to the memory of the artisans. I ask you, Ms. Isabel Marant, to publicly explain on what grounds you privatize a collective property … and how its use benefits the creator communities.

In 2021, Frausto Guerrero accused several other fashion brands of wrongly appropriating designs from three Oaxacan towns. US-based Anthropologie took embroidery patterns representing the sun, the mountains, and the maguey cactus preserved by the Mixe of Santa María Tlahuitoltepec, and slapped them on fringe-edged shorts no Mexican woman would ever wear. The Spanish retailer Zara made a light green dress with dark green embroidery patterns unique to the Mixtec weaving cooperatives of San Juan Colorado. Internet-based retailer Patowl was selling blouses with elaborate embroidery characteristic of the Zapotec community in San Antonio Castilla Velasco.

Protecting All Cultural Expression

These events foregrounded the need for legal protection of Mexico’s indigenous cultural heritage from the “plagiarism” of appropriation. According to Andrea Bonifaz of the social justice organization Impacto Social Metropolitan Group, which defends the rights of traditional artisanal communities against cultural appropriation, the underlying problem is that “ancestral expressions, like the serape, are collective.” Laws protecting patrimony cover individuals, not communities. “Who or what the community is,” and therefore who can bring suit, is never defined.

However, some progress has been made. In 2020, following the Herrera resort-wear confrontation, Mexico changed the federal copyright law to specify that native communities – if the community has taken the steps to organize as a collective – own the intellectual property rights to craftwork that expresses cultural and local popular tradition. As owners of their work, they can oppose unauthorized use, even when that use altered the original design. In 2021, the Mexican senate passed a federal law that established penalties for taking – by reproducing, copying, imitating, or otherwise appropriating without prior and proper authorization – the designs that represent indigenous cultural heritage, including that of Afro-Mexicans.

These legislative changes set up a legal framework and a registry to recognize cultural expressions, identify the owners of those expressions, and establish the protocols for owners to authorize any permitted use. Mexico’s Institute of Industrial Property (IMPI, manages patents and trademarks) and the Copyright Office (INDAUTOR) give classes for indigenous communities and individual artisans on intellectual property, explaining how to protect their rights to their work. They also give discounts to the artisans or collectives for registering ownership of their work.

From Appropriation to Appreciation

Is it ever okay to use the cultural assets of another people? Vogue India, prompted by Sarah Jessica Parker’s costume in the “Diwali” episode of And Just Like That, asks “How do you know if you are co-opting cultural connotations or innocuously borrowing an aesthetic?”

It’s a longstanding debate, but the answer, actually, is yes, you can appreciate rather than appropriate (see Brooke O’Connor’s article on page 26). Vogue India came up with a rather narrow answer – you have to avoid “demeaning” the culture from which you have taken something. This is a backward way of saying you have to respect, to recognize, to acknowledge the culture that produced it. Vogue India quotes Kelvin Gonclaves, owner of Elkel, an “avante-garde” boutique in the Soho neighborhood in New York City:

If your action disrespects the original idea because of cultural, religious or other customs, then you’ve gone too far. If you claim it as yours without giving credit, you’ve definitely gone too far. There are a few things that should never be done like blackface or dreadlocks on a white person. With taste and acknowledgement, though, most things can be done.

Gonclaves thinks that all art, fashion included, “borrows inspiration from other cultures [to create] new and wonderful things.”

The Gray Area of Inspiration

The designers Mexico has accused of cultural appropriation have said their work is “inspired” by Mexican “ideas.” That may well be so, but it doesn’t determine whether or not they have created something “new and wonderful.”

Take a look at a sweatshirt recently stocked at both Nordstrom and Gonclaves’ boutique:

Billed as a “Gender Inclusive Keith Haring Witches Print Cotton Blend Sweatshirt,” it’s sold out at Nordstrom. According to Nordstrom, the sweatshirt and matching sweatpants were “produced in collaboration with the Keith Haring Foundation” and “creatively showcases the late artist’s iconic designs.” There is no mention that Haring produced the designs forty years ago, or that they were inspired by ancient Mexican hieroglyphic writings and low-relief sculptures.

Keith Haring (1958-90) was a New York “street artist” whose early work, inspired by the graffiti subculture of the early 1980s, was considered pop art, and Haring was very much a part of the pop art scene. In 1982, he was approached by Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, who were very much a part of the same scene in England, to prepare designs on the theme of “Witches” for one of McLaren’s albums (Duck Rock) and McLaren/Westwood’s fashion line. By 1983, Haring had produced the Witches series of drawings, but never credited any specific Mexican sources.

Haring was diagnosed with AIDS in 1987; he set up the Keith Haring Foundation to preserve and promote his work, and to raise funds for those affected by AIDS. The Foundation licensed the sweatshirt and pants as a fundraising activity. It can easily be argued that the Witches sweatsuit is “inspired” by Mesoamerican designs, that Keith Haring did not “appropriate” any specific work, and that he created something “new and wonderful.” But a little mention of how he came to use his Mexican inspiration might have been nice.

Who Was That Woman in the Dinosaur Suit?

By Deborah Van Hoewyk

In December 2022, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) tried to get a constitutional amendment through the Mexican Congress. The amendment would have overhauled the country’s electoral process in such a way that, among many other things, AMLO could have stayed in office after his term ended. (Mexico’s presidents serve a single six-year term.) While AMLO’s constitutional amendment failed, his party, MORENA, continued the effort to reform elections through legislation. (See Randy Jackson’s article elsewhere in this issue on Mexican political parties and coalitions.)

Enter the Opposition

During discussions of the proposed legislation, a lime-green, eight-foot dinosaur took the speaker’s podium in the senate chamber: “Today we introduce the ‘Jurassic Plan,’ … a plan that would bring back ‘the dinosaurs’ of the PRI.” The Institutional Revolutionary Party held unilateral power in Mexico from 1929 to 2000 – at least occasionally through elections deemed fraudulent. The green monster implied that supporters of changing Mexico’s electoral process were out of date, out of touch, and just possibly corrupt.

Inside the dinosaur suit? Senator Bertha Xóchitl Gálvez Ruiz, now 60, who was elected to the Senate in 2018 through proportional representation for the PAN party (National Action Party), and re-elected for the PRD party (Party of the Democratic Revolution). (Three-quarters of Mexico’s senators represent a particular place, one-quarter of the senators proportionally represent the political parties).

There are TWO women running for president in Mexico, and Senator Gálvez is the “other woman” – an article on the better-known candidate, Claudia Sheinbaum, appears elsewhere in this issue. Gálvez is the candidate of the opposition coalition Frente Amplio por México (Broad Front for Mexico), which comprises the PAN, the PRD, AND THE PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party). Sheinbaum is AMLO’s protégé, and is the candidate of the ruling coalition, Juntos Hacemos Historia (Together We Make History), made up of the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA), the Labor Party (PT), and the Ecologist Green Party of Mexico (PVEM).

Who Is Xóchitl Gálvez?

Born in Tepatepec, Hidalgo, Gálvez is mostly Otomi – her father was Otomi, and her mother was part Otomi (the Otomi were the earliest indigenous people to appear in the Mexican highlands, around 8000 BCE). Reportedly, she grew up poor, selling tamales in the street or Gelatina de Tres Leches, a “Mexican Jello” dessert, in the market – depending on who’s telling the story. More to the point, her education and work history focus on digital technology.

Gálvez studied computer engineering at UNAM (National Autonomous University of Mexico) and worked as a computer help tech at a call center before returning to UNAM as a research assistant. She finally earned her degree in Computer Engineering in 2010, at the age of 47. In the meantime, she was a programmer and then a systems analyst at INEGI (Mexico’s census bureau); she also served as director of telecommunications at Mexico’s World Trade Center.

In 1992, she set up High Tech Services, a company that developed projects that deployed digital technology to design intelligent buildings, increase energy savings, automate processes, and support security and telecommunications installations. In 1998, she founded Operation and Maintenance for Intelligent Buildings (OMEI). She was named one of the 100 Global Leaders of the World’s Future at Davos in 1999; in 2000, one of the 25 Latin America’s Business Elite by Business Week.

Interviewed by Bloomberg.com news service in 1998, Gálvez said that, amid rapid growth of young entrepreneurial companies, including her own, inequality became an issue for her. “I realized we were creating two Mexicos – one for people with dollars, and one in which people had nothing. The have-nots weren’t going to progress at all if they didn’t have proper nutrition.”

She set up the Foundation for the Future (Fundación Porvenir), which distributes food supplements to indigenous children suffering from malnutrition and works on supporting women in indigenous communities. Gálvez believes that the private sector should work to lessen the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

In her late thirties, Gálvez became interested in politics as another way to strengthen Mexican society. Under President Vicente Fox – the 2000 candidate who overturned the PRI’s unbroken hold on the presidency – she headed up the National Institute of Indigenous Peoples (INPI). In 2010, she was the runner-up for governor of Hidalgo; in 2015, she was the PAN candidate for mayor of Hidalgo, and won. She had served for nearly three years when she ran for the Senate.

Can She Win the Presidency?

Probably not. Apparently, though, the dinosaur stunt stuck in AMLO’s craw. He has definitely increased her name recognition. Mexican presidents are not allowed to comment on candidates for office, particularly when they are running to succeed that president.

In late Spring of 2023, when it became apparent that Gálvez was the likely presidential candidate of the Broad Front coalition, AMLO began castigating her in his daily mañaneras (two-hour press conferences – what national president has time to gab with the press for two hours a day?). According to CNN online (July 23, 2023), he’s called her a “wimp,” a “puppet,” and “employee of the oligarchy.” He has said she didn’t grow up poor; he has released private financial information on her businesses and said their contracts are corrupt. (Gálvez has pointed out that some of those contracts are with the Mexican government.)

The National Election Institute (INE) has ordered AMLO to stop attacking Gálvez; the order has not taken effect, and you should note that the INE is also under attack by AMLO. El Financiero, Mexico’s Wall Street Journal, has said “AMLO is obsessed with Senator Gálvez,” and other commentators have joked that AMLO is the Senator’s campaign manager.

There is no doubt that AMLO’s ill-founded attacks have raised her profile to within striking distance of Sheinbaum. It’s not clear whether that’s enough, but it has definitely put her on the national stage for some time to come. Remember, it took AMLO himself three tries to get elected.

This is Santa Muerte. Or Is It?

By Deborah Van Hoewyk

Who Is She?

Santa Muerte – Saint, or Holy, Death – is all about death. She IS death, or maybe escaping death. The explanations of how Santa Muerte came to be, what she does, and who is devoted to her worship vary widely. Wielding a scythe, carrying a globe or an hour glass or the scales of justice, and accompanied by an owl, Santa Muerte makes a lot of people nervous.

She isn’t supposed be a particular person, with a beatified life, but those interested in the syncretism of indigenous and Catholic religion think she might be, or that she goes back to the Aztecs. She has nothing to do with Día de los Muertos, although lately, she’s been showing up at the celebrations. She started out male and became female. Her cult is condemned by the Catholic Church, but it’s the fastest-growing religion in Mexico, the US, and Canada; in 2017, the number of worshippers was estimated at 10 to 12 million, and the number “exploded” during the pandemic. (“Cult,” when used in the religious sense, is not a negative, it simply means an unrecognized religious group.)

Is she the “complex, multifaceted folk spirit” described by Rebecca M. Bender, Associate Professor of Spanish literature and culture at Kansas State University? Or is she the narco-saint, a “strange hybrid of the Virgin Mary and the grim reaper” profiled by independent journalist Jake Flanigan in The Atlantic? Did she protect people from COVID-19, or, as the angel of death, send them straight to their graves?

Where Did She Come From?

Anyone who has toured an ancient ruin in Mexico knows that death was an overarching theme – human sacrifice, dead warriors, tombs, maybe even the winning team in a ball game – the stories are painted and carved throughout.

While the cult of Santa Muerte emerged in the mid-20th-century, and had mostly stayed out of sight until the 1990s, some anthropologists and archaeologists see its ancestry among the Aztecs. As noted in articles elsewhere in this issue, the Aztecs (in Oaxaca, the Zapotecs and Mixtecs) had an elaborate construction of life after death, including a 13-level heaven and a 9-level underworld. The god of death, Mictlāntēcutli, together with his consort Mictēcacihuātl, ruled Mictlān, the lowest level of the underworld.

The goddess Mictēcacihuātl is immortal and a shapeshifter – she can change her appearance at will, from benevolent to monstrous. Her charge is to guard the skeletons of the dead and govern the festivals honoring the dead; there is a direct line from Mictēcacihuātl to Día de los Muertos. Over time, Mictēcacihuātl gradually became the personification of death itself, as well as the agent through whom the preserved bones of the dead provided the source of life for the next world – unlike their Christian conquerors, the Aztecs believed death was part of an endless cycle of life. Mictēcacihuātl thus develops a dual identity, associated with both death and life, which becomes healing – much like Santa Muerte. Aztecs appealed to her to promote their health and delay their deaths; the pair of them is shown overseeing scenes of sex, fertility, pregnancy and birth.

There are also those who argue that Santa Muerte derives from a 17th-century figure, Doña Sebastiana de Caso y Paredes, who was the niece of a sainted “virgin penitent” in Ecuador, St. Mariana de Jesus of Quito (a virgin penitent consecrates her life to God, lives usually with her family, and refrains from relations with men).

Robert Nixon, a Benedictine friar from London, based his recent book, The Venerable Doña Sebastiana de Caso: the Original Santa Muerte (2022) on the work of Jacinto Morán de Butrón, a 17th-century Ecuadorian historian. According to Morán and Nixon, Sebastiana’s father tried to force her into marriage, but she prayed to Death to rescue her; apparently Death responded, as Sebastiana contracted a fever and died. People began to venerate Sebastiana, who was born on August 15, the feast day of Santa Muerte; a society known as La congregación de la buena muerte sprang up in her honor.

What Happened Next?

The Spanish Catholic conquerors were having none of the worship of death, the multitudinous native gods and goddesses – if they couldn’t co-opt a ritual or belief, they suppressed it. Santa Muerte went underground. While this has led some to believe that Santa Muerte is a modern phenomenon, academic anthropologists use the theory of “bricolage” to explain the evolution of Santa Muerte (nowadays, they’re more likely to use the more dignified term “syncretism”). Either way, it describes the blending of disparate cultural practices into something new.

Defined in 1960 by the French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, bricolage comes from the French word bricoler, or “tinker around.” Generally, you tinker around with unrelated bits and pieces of this and that (bric-a-brac) until you’ve combined them into something new and meaningful to you. “Meaning” is not fixed forever, but depends on your understanding of the bric-a-brac you’ve assembled. For example, when the Spanish arrived, they brought images of the Grim Reaper to “explain” death to the “natives.” ¡¡Listo!! Santa Muerte now carries a scythe.

Before the Spanish arrived, Mictēcacihuātl was the patron of a month (August) of celebrations of the dead. The Spanish arranged to have the Catholic Church exorcize Mictēcacihuātl, since she was obviously inflicting the power of Satan on her believers; they cut the commemorations to two days and moved them to coincide with All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day (November 1-2), which we now know as the Days of the Dead (the first day for children who have died, the second for adults).

There is, however, no doubt that Santa Muerte went underground in the colonial period – failure to adopt Christianity precisely as the Spaniards ordered was a major cause of death at the time. Veneration of Santa Muerte continued under cover, though; records of the Spanish Inquisition (a joint state-church effort to “purify” Spanish Catholicism, 1478-1834 in Spain, 1571-1820 in Mexico) report Santa Muerte worship in Guanajuato in 1797. The Chichimeca

at night gather in their chapel to drink peyote until they lose their minds; they light upside-down candles, some of which are black; they dance with paper dolls; they whip Holy Crosses and also a figure of death that they call Santa Muerte, and they bind it with a wet rope threatening to whip and burn it if it does not perform a miracle.

In 1793, the Inquisition reported that indigenous people of what is now Querétaro worshipped – on the altar during mass, no less – “the figure of a complete human skeleton standing on top of a red surface, wearing a crown and holding a bow and arrow.”

What with the War of Independence (1810-21), the Mexican-American War (1846-48), and the Mexican Revolution (1910-21), not to mention minor conflicts and political contretemps, Mexico was very busy for quite a while. Santa Muerte continued to stay underground.

The 20th Century: Santa Muerte Returns

From the 1940s to the 1960s, anthropologists described Santa Muerte as a saint who could guide matters of the heart, a saint of love. By the 1980s, however, Santa Muerte had a wide repertoire of influence. She was soon appealed to for help with (or hindrance of) issues involved in education, business, legal affairs – pretty much the spectrum of modern life. She is the preferred saint of marginalized people, the destitute and desperate, those who feel are in danger because of who they are (based on their professions, private lives, or sexuality).

You can get an idea of Santa Muerte’s versatility from Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint, by R. Andrew Chesnut, Ph.D., professor of religion at Virginia Commonwealth University (2017 [2 ed]). The first book focused completely on Santa Muerte, Devoted to Death covers her history, her adoption of elements of Catholicism – the whole gamut. Chesnut explains her powers with seven chapters, each covering one of the colors of Santa Muerte’s votive candles.

Red is the most popular single color, and accompanies petitions concerning passion and love. White represents purity and protection, while black is for black magic, and offers support for the “black” activities involved in narcotrafficking. Gold is for financial gain and overall prosperity, and purple represents miraculous healing. Brown is for learning and wisdom, and green offers advocacy to all followers for all reasons, no questions asked. There is also the best-selling seven-color candle, calling on all of Santa Muerte’s powers.

Santa Muerte has kept up with the times, always open to providing new protections on the one hand, and new persecutions on the other hand. Perhaps the most interesting area to adopt Santa Muerte as its saint is narcotrafficking. This is the “black” part of Santa Muerte, and has given rise to her identity as the patron saint of the drug cartels. Santa Muerte can protect you from the narcos and kidnappers, or help the narcos wreak vengeance on their enemies and the kidnappers succeed in capturing their targets.

Even though the black candle apparently sells poorly, statues of Santa Muerte and black candles have been found at sites where narco violence has occurred. When DEA and Mexican police raid drug safe houses, they find altars to Santa Muerte.

Chesnut deplores the concentration on the “black,” violent, and amoral aspects of Santa Muerte the media seem to promote, and says “Most American and Mexican nonbelievers … have little idea that the Skinny Lady [one of her many names] heals sickness, finds employment, and helps alcoholics and drug addicts in their struggles for sobriety.”

The Future for Santa Muerte?

The Catholic Church is generally opposed to “folk saints” – those who, like Santa Muerte, arise from grass-roots veneration. The cult of Santa Muerte particularly offends the Catholic Church – in 2016, Pope Francis called it “satanic,” and explicitly linked it to narcotrafficking. In both the US and Mexico, the church issues warnings against the growing popularity of including Santa Muerte in the second (adult) Day of the Dead celebrations.

Notwithstanding Church opposition, adherents to Santa Muerte are often Christian, if not Catholic. They have no trouble believing in Jesus Christ, or the Trinity, or the Virgin Mary, but Santa Muerte seems to offer a more efficient way to get your prayers answered, regardless of who you are. Moreover, COVID-19 greatly increased the numbers of people, Mexicans especially, who appealed to Santa Muerte to protect them from “the plague.”

Given that life in Mexico can be, depending on where you are, increasingly insecure and violent, that Mexican politics continue to be unstable, corruption remains rampant, and narcotics have thoroughly infiltrated business and government, the need for a saint who can guarantee your safety, encourage your love life, and promote your health and wellbeing, can only grow.

“Cheap and Crappy” Becomes“Sophisticated and Inventive”:The Modernization of Mexican Fine Dining

By Deborah Van Hoewyk

A while back, I was in La Crucecita, sitting at the Oasis Restaurant (now closed), watching a table of Americans send their nachos back for more cheese. Three times, they sent them back – the chips were drowning in Cheez Whiz. A far cry from Pujol, the famous Mexico City fine-dining restaurant established by Chef Enrique Olvera in 2000. Olvera does not serve nachos – maybe he’s never even seen them.

Nachos were created in 1940 by Ignacio “Nacho” Anaya at the Victory Club Restaurant in Piedras Negras, on the Tex-Mex border in the state of Coahuila, when some women shopping in Eagle Pass crossed over and came in asking for “something different” – Nacho produced nachos. Cheez Whiz was invented in 1952 by Kraft Foods scientist Edwin Traisman and his team at Kraft Foods. While no one seems to know when Cheez Whiz met nachos, it was created for the British market to make Welsh Rarebit (Rabbit) – in the US, that’s Saltines drowning in Cheez Whiz.

According to a 2023 report from Datassential, a restaurant consulting firm, the Tex-Mex and Latin category has surpassed Italian as America’s favorite food. “Cheesy, spicy foods with Latin-inspired ingredients and preparation” are driving demand for nachos, fully loaded nachos, fajitas, burritos, enchiladas and so on (see “From Tex-Mex to Haute Cuisine,” in The Eye, July 2016). Tex-Mex, maybe Cali-Mex, is pretty much the northern picture of Mexican food – something northerners like, with limited and familiar ingredients, tailored to their tastes – ipso facto, not actually authentic.

Regional Authenticity

The first step toward Mexican fine dining came with the recognition of the variety of Mexico’s regional cuisines (see Brooke O’Connor’s article elsewhere in this issue). Diana Kennedy’s groundbreaking The Regional Cuisines of Mexico came out in 1972 (see “In Search of Diana Kennedy’s Huachinango Veracruzano” in The Eye, Feb 2023). Fifteen years later, in 1987, Rick and Deann Bayless of Chicago published Authentic Mexican: Regional Cooking from the Heart of Mexico. That same year, they opened Frontera Grill, arguably the first US restaurant featuring authentic Mexican food. According to the late Molly O’Neill, food writer with The New York Times, “There’s nothing even remotely similar to Frontera Grill … anywhere else in America.”

WTTW, Chicago’s PBS station, did a story on Frontera’s 30th anniversary in 2017. Bayless told quite a tale of being “different.” The very first guests to walk into Frontera took one look at the menu, said “I don’t know what you’re doing, because this isn’t Mexican food. You’ll be out of business in six months,” and got up and left. Frontera Grill is going strong, and Rick Bayless’ Frontera salsas are sold in most American supermarkets.

Two years after the Frontera Grill opened, Bayless founded Topolobampo, also in Chicago (Bayless now has seven Chicago-area restaurants). Zagat, a restaurant rating service based on customer reviews, said the restaurant was an “educational experience” and its “dynamite tasting menus feature food that’s wildly inventive yet still approachable.” Zagat mentioned “an excellent wine list and cocktails that are works of art; knowledgeable, passionate service and a lovely, upscale setting (remodeled with a sculptural ceiling and dramatic lighting).”

Diana Kennedy and Rick Bayless based their relationships with Mexican food on variations in regional cuisine, combined with authentic ingredients and traditional culinary techniques, but Bayless also laid the foundation of fine dining for Mexican cuisine, with that wine, those cocktails, high-end service, and a setting that required architectural, interior, and acoustic design services.

What Is Fine Dining?

It’s definitely not just being famous – one of the most famous restaurants in the US is the raucous, chaotic Katz’s Delicatessen on East Houston Street in Manhattan. It’s famous for the 80-odd-year-old sign “Send a Salami to Your Boy in the Army” and the “I’ll have what she’s having” scene in the film When Harry Met Sally. Wonderful as Katz’s may be, fine dining it’s not.

Fine dining isn’t just the food, either. It’s the experience of eating the food. Of course, the ingredients must be of the highest, freshest quality; the flavors unique; and the dishes exotic, abetted with touches of “modernist cuisine”; and the presentation geared to showcase the food with elegance. In a fine-dining restaurant, you might even be told about your experience – one Topolobampo menu divides the dishes into “Vibrant,” “Fresh,” “Ancient,” “Soulful” “Complex,” “Enchanting,” and “Luxurious.” Beyond the food, fine dining requires impeccable, luxurious service. The setting and atmosphere must enrich the experience. And the prices match it all.

Fine Dining Mexican Style

Mexican fine dining has many characteristics, but that touch of modernism seems to be the key. “Modernist cuisine” takes its identity from a six-volume tome of the same name, subtitled The Art and Science of Cooking (2011). Remember nouvelle cuisine of the 1970s? Lighten up elaborate French cooking? “Tender crisp” green beans? Modernist is that, but with science, especially in terms of chemical interactions in cooking and the techniques and elaborate equipment that control those reactions. Baked potato foam? Sous-vide, anyone?

“Modern Mexican,” first officially noted in 2017 by New York Times food writer Julia Moskin (named for Julia Child), is a “movement, inside and outside Mexico, to finally vanquish the rice-and-beans stereotype and to celebrate its vast and sophisticated cuisine.” The 25-year-old movement is led almost exclusively by chefs, both male and female, whose reputations have established multifaceted careers that have disseminated the dishes of modern Mexican cuisine around the world.

Gabriela Cámara
Starting a restaurant to celebrate a cuisine is a massive undertaking, but it began with a simple concept in Mexico City. In 1998, Mexican-Italian Gabriela Cámara, just 22 and finishing up her art history degree, opened Contramar in the Condesa/Roma area of Mexico City. The area was on the cusp of gentrification, still filled with artists.

Cámara and her friends would go on holiday to Zihuatenejo and eat fresh fish, simply prepared, on the beach. She was not so much interested in a fine-dining establishment as she was in those beach dishes made with Mexican fish straight from the sea, rather than the customary frozen European fish. The neighborhood is now upscale and Contramar has become a top fine-dining restaurant. Open only for lunch (in CDMX, that’s noon to 6 pm during the week, 11 am – 8 pm on weekends), Contramar is the modern version of the family lunch table, lunch being the most important, interesting meal of the day.

Cámara opened Cala, a fine-dining Mexican restaurant in San Francisco, in 2015; she closed it in 2019 to join President López Obrador’s administration as a food-policy expert. Her 2019 cookbook, My Mexican Kitchen: Recipes and Convictions, marks her concern with food policy, production, and consumption. And culture: In a 2019 Robb Report article on Mexican fine dining, Cámara said, “People think Mexican is cheap, crappy food. But now Mexican can be super sophisticated. That gives people a cultural pride we didn’t see even just a few years ago.”

Enrique Olvera
Olvera was born in Mexico City in 1976. In high school, he started cooking for friends; word got around that his dinners were superb, and he decided to become a chef – not a glamorous or high-status career at the time. Olvera went to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, north of New York City. He received an associate’s degree in 1997 and a bachelor’s in 1999.

When he went back to Mexico City, he cooked for his parents’ friends, who turned out to be his first investors. He opened Pujol in Polanco in 2000, but it was rocky going at first. Since there had never been a fine-dining restaurant that served Mexican food anywhere, not in Mexico, not in the rest of the world, what it was supposed to be like was unclear. At one point, according to a 2017 article on the travel site Culture Trip, Olvera felt disconnected from the whole enterprise, feeling that he was “using Mexican ingredients, but not to make Mexican food.”

Olvera went to Oaxaca and took a look at their cuisine, quite different from the cooking around Mexico City. It gave him ideas about how to use new-to-him ingredients in unique ways that would still be true to Mexican culture and to the idea that food is a way to be happy, to celebrate. Gradually, Pujol succeeded, to great acclaim.

With Pujol on a solid footing, Olvera went back to New York, assessed the restaurant scene and in 2014, opened a new restaurant, Cosme, on East 21st Street off Fifth Avenue, and then in 2017, the more casual Atla on Lafayette Street in Noho. Interviewed by CNN when Cosme opened, Olvera said, “I want Mexican food to keep moving. I understand that we have beautiful traditions. I feel very proud of those traditions, but I want to keep on building new traditions for the next generations.” Olvera has other fine-dining restaurants in Oaxaca City, San Miguel de Allende, and Los Cabos. Modern Mexican Takes Off In the space of two years, well-known chefs opened four more fine-dining Mexican restaurants in CDMX, all in the posh areas of Polanco and Roma Norte. In 2010, Elena Reygadas, trained at the French Culinary Institute in New York City, opened Rosetta in Roma Norte. She now has four more CDMX restaurants – Panadería Rosetta, Lardo, Café Nin, and Bella Aurora.

Martha Ortiz was a political science/sociology major when she did a study of social mobility in Milpa Alta outside Mexico City and realized the critical role of food in social structure; she went on to cook in kitchens around the world before returning home. In 2003, she opened Áquila and Sol in Polanco as a showcase for regional styles from across Mexico. It was unusual for women to be owner/operators of restaurants, so when, in 2008, the city counted her parking spaces and found only 90 rather than the required 91, they shut her down. Ortiz opened Dulce Patria in 2011 in Polanco, which fell victim to the pandemic. She has moved on to Ella Canta in the Intercontinental Hotel in London (opened 2017), and is now in charge of Tuch de Luna, a restaurant at the Mayan Riviera resort La Casa de la Playa.

In 2012, two chefs who had been with Olvera at Pujol opened restaurants; Jorge Vallejo and his wife Alejandra Flores opened Quintonil in Polanco and Eduardo García opened Máximo Bistrot in Roma (recently moved to the Álvaro Obregón neighborhood). Vallejo graduated from the Centro Culinario Ambrosía in Mexico City; in 2019, he opened Ixi’im in the luxury hotel Casa Chablé, near Mérida in the Yucatán. García trained at the culinary school at the Art Institute of Seattle. With his wife, Gabriela López Cruz, Garcia also operates Havre 77 and Lalo! in Mexico City.

Beyond Mexico City, Baja California has Laja, opened in a renovated hacienda in Ensenada by chef Jair Téllez in 2000. It’s what in the US we would call an organic farm-to-table restaurant. Laja is now run by a Téllez protégé, Rafa Magañez. Malva is also in Ensenada, also a farm-to-table establishment, and was opened by chef Roberto Alcocer in 2014, after working in fine-dining restaurants abroad. Rodolfo Castellanos opened Origen in Oaxaca in 2011, after studying at the Culinary Institute of Mexico and receiving the Turquois scholarship to study in France. Castellanos is able to marry French and Mexican elements in his cuisine – he was Top Chef México in 2016.

Are We All Good with This?

W-e-l-l-l … not everyone thinks that moving from “traditional” or “authentic” dishes toward menu items that “modernize” the cuisine is properly respectful of the culture. New York Times restaurant reviewer Pete Wells, speaking of the newly opened Cosme in 2015, discussed New York’s new obsession with Mexican restaurants. Some empire-building chef decides to open a new restaurant specializing in “some other nation’s food. By the time the news releases are ready, a week’s vacation has become a research trip, and a snack bought with pocket change has become a $13 appetizer.” The resulting restaurants “present, some more convincingly than others, a chef’s south-of-the-border fantasies.”

Wells sees Olvera as using reverse cultural appropriation in creating Cosme. He did his research in Manhattan to see what the menus, the cocktails, the customers, and the settings were like. Cosme shows an “uncannily state-of-the-art instinct for what New Yorkers want when they go out for dinner.” The cooking “sails right over ideas like tradition, authenticity, and modernity,” using underpinnings from Mexico and fresh local ingredients to give diners “a thrill.” Wells would no doubt find echoes of Cosme “deported” back home to Pujol – by the way, he LOVED eating at Cosme!

What in the World Do Demonyms Name?

By Deborah Van Hoewyk

Back – way back – when Greek was the language of the day, there lots of “nyms,” a suffix that basically means “name.” We all learned about synonyms and antonyms in grade school, and the homonyms were always fun. You remember, different words but pronounced the same? Road/rode, beat/beet, cereal/serial, gate/gait.

It turns out, growing up in Maine, I was also interested in demonyms – the names (nyms) of peoples (demos) – also called “gentilics.” People from Maine were known as “Maineiacs,” and not always in a positive sense. While the World Book Encyclopedia of 1956 did not actually refer to the people of Maine as “Maineiacs,” it did identify us as “hardy fisher folk” who suffered a geographic inferiority complex. Which probably says more about the non-PC world of the nineteen-fifties than anything else.

Understandably, we now go by the more sensible “Mainers,” although the Maine Air National Guard’s 101st Air Refueling Wing is still called the Maineiacs – only right in that one of their talents is air-to-air, high-speed refueling in the Arctic. And Maineiac might well apply to me and my husband personally, in the decade or so we’ve spent driving from the northeast corner of the U.S. to the southeast corner of Mexico – and back again – a path that takes us through 13 of Mexico’s 31 states.

What Are the Demonyms of Mexico?

Of course, over and above the 31 states of Mexico is the Distrito Federal, the Federal District referred to as “Mexico City,” which people used to call “DF” (day-EFF-ay). Since 2016, however, it’s officially been designated “CDMX” (Ciudad de México – City of Mexico); this move was supposed to help devolve power from the federal to the local level, on the path to eventual statehood. Not much progress there to date.

What’s the demonym for residents of CDMX? While residents of the big city can be called mexiqueños/as, defeños/as, or capitalinos/as, they are mostly called chilangos/as, from the Náhuatl chīlān (capital, or “in the center of the moon”). While some travel websites say the demonym is an “affectionate” or “humorous” term, that’s probably a minority view. Originally used to refer to people from the countryside who had migrated to Mexico City, chilango now means those born and bred in CDMX, and specifically contrasts with provinciano – i.e., sophisticated vs. being a hick. However, when chilangos go on vacation, they’re often considered demanding, rude, and generally obnoxious. In vacation areas near CDMX, the saying goes “Haz patria, mata un Chilango” – “Do something for the motherland, murder a Chilango.” Given that Chilangos represent about a sixth of Mexico’s total population, they are largely responsible for Mexico’s domestic tourism. Their lives and limbs are probably pretty safe when they travel!

Here, in alphabetical order, is how to refer to the people you meet in Mexico.

Aguascalientes, capital Aguascalientes: Residents of both the state and the capital city are called aguascalentenses. Notice that the ‘i’ in the “caliente” part of the name drops out.

Baja California, capital Mexicali: State residents are called bajacalifornianos/as. If you live in the capital, you’re a mexicalense.

Baja California Sur, capital La Paz: State residents are also called bajacalifornianos/as, while residents of La Paz are called paceños/as.

Campeche, capital San Francisco Campeche: If you live anywhere in Campeche, you’re a campechano/a.

Chiapas, capital Tuxtla Gutiérrez: A resident of the state is a chiapaneco/a, while a resident of the capital can be called a tuxtleco/a or a tuxtleño/a.

Chihuahua, capital Chihauhua: Both state and capital residents are called chihuahuenses; colloquially, they are norteños/as.

Coahuila, capital Saltillo: Someone from the state of Coahuila is called a coahuilense, while someone from Saltillo is called a saltillense.

Colima, capital Colima: Residents here are called either colimenses or colemeños/as.

Durango, capital Durango: The folks from Durango are referred to as duranguenses or durangueños/as.

Guanajuato, capital Guanajuato: If you’re from Guanajuato, the state or the capital, you are a guanajuatense or a guanajuateño/a. If you come from Moroleón, a large city located in a textile manufacturing area and known for clothes shopping, you’re a moroleonés/esa.

Guerrero, capital Chilpancingo de los Bravo: State residents are called guerrerenses, while residents of the capital are chilpancingueños/as. If you’re from Acapulco, you’re an acapulqueño/a.

Hidalgo, capital Pachuca: Refer to state residents as hidalguenses, and capital city residents as pachuqueños/as.

Jalisco, capital Guadalajara: People from the state of Jalisco are called jaliciences; if you live in Guadalajara, you’re a guadalajarense or a guadalajareño/a. However, if you were born in the city, you’re a tapatío/a.

(Estado de) México, capital Toluca de Lerdo: Live in the state? You’re a mexiquense. In the city of Toluca? Toluqueño/a.

Michoacán, capital Morelia: These people would be michoacanos/as and morelianos/as.

Morelos, capital Cuernavaca: Folks from Morelos are called morelenses, and those living in the capital are called cuernavaquenses. You will also hear them called guayabos or guayabas. One explanation is that there are many guayaba trees in Cuernavaca, often pink, and they scent the streets or even dye them pink.

Nayarit, capital Tepic: State residents – nayaritas (remember, a word ending in ‘a’ can be masculine as well as feminine) or nayaritenses; capital city residents – tepiqueños/as.

Nuevo León, capital Monterrey: If you’re from here, you’re a neoleonés/esa or a nuevoleonés/esa; if you’re from Monterrey, you’re a monterreyense or a regiomontano/a – the latter is related to the name “Monterrey,” which translates as “mountain of the king.”

Oaxaca, capital Oaxaca de Juárez: Both state and city residents are called oaxaqueños/as; however, if you’re from the capital city, you might also becalled a vallisto/a, after the Central Valleys of Oaxaca. If you’re from Huatulco, of course, you’re a huatulqueño/a.

Puebla, capital Puebla de Zaragoza: People from both the state and the city are called poblanos/as, although city residents are also called angelopolitanos/as. At one point the capital city was called “Puebla de los Ángeles,” and is now nicknamed “Ángelópolis” (“City of Angels”), hence the gentilic for people live in the city of Puebla.

Querétaro, capital Santiago de Querétaro: If you live anywhere in Querétaro, you’re a queretano/a.

Quintana Roo, capital Chetumal: People who live in Quintana Roo are called quintanarroenses, while those in the capital are called chetumalenses or chetumaleños/as. If you live in Tulum, you’re a tulumense, and if you’re out on Isla Mujeres, you’re an isleño/a.

San Luis Potosí, capital San Luis Potosí: The demonym for both state and city residents is potosino/a, although if you live in the capital, you might also be called a sanluisino/a.

Sinaloa, capital Culiacán Rosales: State residents – sinaloenses; capital city residents – culiacanenses. If you hail from Mazatlán, you’re a mazatleco/a.

Sonora, capital Hermosilla: State residents – sonorenses; capital city residents – hermosillenses.

Tabasco, capital Villahermosa: State residents – tabasqueños/as; capital city residents are called villahermosinos/as or villermosinos/as.

Tamaulipas, capital Ciudad Victoria: Residents of Tamaulipas are called tamaulipecos/as, while folks from Ciudad Victoria are called victorenses.

Tlaxcala, capital Tlaxcala de Xicohténcatl: Both state and capital city residents are called tlaxcaltecas.

Veracruz, capital Xalapa-Enríquez: If you come from the state of Veracruz, you’re a veracruzano/a, from the city of Veracruz, a porteño/a. If you’re from Xalapa, you’re a xalapeño, which can be spelled with a ‘J’ – just like the pepper. There’s a more colloquial name for the veracruzanos: jarocho/a, which can be translated in many ways – hot-tempered, brusque, chaotic; it is also the word for the long spear used by fishermen along the Papaloapan river.

Yucatán, capital Mérida: If you come from Yucatán state, you’re a yucateco/a, and from Mérida, a meridano/a.

Zacatecas, capital Zacatecas: No matter where you’re from, you’re a zacatecano/a.

Musical Genres in Mexico

By Deborah Van Hoewyk


As you might guess from the name, banda uses a lot of brass instruments, and just like brass bands anywhere, banda groups play almost any kind of music. Dating back to the 19th century, when piston brass horns arrived Mexico, banda first took off in Sinaloa; however, almost every little town soon had its own banda, usually with brass, woodwinds, and percussion – es.

Want to listen? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s-nO5meXGHs


Conjunto can just mean a musical ensemble, but it’s also the distinct Tex-Mex music of the northern border, specifically tejano or norteño. Border music usually features the accordion, brought to the border by 19th-century German, Czech, and Polish settlers in Texas, combined with Mexico’s 12-string bajo sexto guitar. Eminently dance-able, especially if you can do the polka!

Want to listen? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pCjLTXVCd1s


Cumbia (pronounced kum-bee-yah) made its way up to Mexico from Colombia. Very popular by the 1980s, it combines Colombian influences with Mexican norteño and ranchero styles, as well as African, Amerindian, and European sounds. Instruments usually include accordions, drums, flutes, and maracas.

Want to listen? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oXRyZtJ9c2E


Ranchera music, a traditional Mexican form, got a boost with the Mexican Revolution (1920-21), and played a part in developing a new national identity. Land reforms and job opportunities brought rural people into cities, and they brought with them the rural folk songs and the nostalgic memories they recalled – themes emphasize nature, love, patriotism. By the 1940s, ranchera music was made even more popular by the rise of ranchera movies – Mexico’s version of the westerns on America’s silver screen. Ranchera, like country music in the U.S., is still with us and probably always will be.

Want to listen? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v6fvKOC8LDM

The Mexican Houses of Luis Barragán

By Deborah Van Hoewyk

At any given point in its 5,000-year history, Mexican architecture represents a chronicle of cultural change. From ancient Mesoamerican ruins and Spanish colonial buildings, followed by Spanish and French styles (mostly reflections of European Baroque and Neoclassical), through a series of modernist/brutalist approaches that work to incorporate Mexican themes and traditions, Mexican architecture has reflected external influences and tried to integrate them with native themes. These styles are all represented by well-known public buildings, many in Mexico City – think the Metropolitan Cathedral (1813), the Palacio de Bellas Artes (1934), the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadeloupe (1976), and the Museo Soumaya in Plaza Carso (2011).

Mexican Modernity, Mexican Houses

It is the Mexican house, however, that created a true Mexican modernism that synthesizes international modernist influences with Mexican architectural traditions. And the architect (and engineer) who accomplished this synthesis was Luis Ramiro Barragán Morfín (1902-88), largely through the houses he designed in the 1950s and 1960s. Barragán is the only Mexican to have won the prestigious Pritzker Prize, often referred to as the “Nobel prize of architecture.”

Born in Guadalajara, Barragán graduated from the Escuela Libre de Ingenieros de Guadalajara in 1923. He would complete coursework elsewhere that qualified him as an architect as well. Two years later, and again in 1931, he toured western Europe, where his observations led him to see landscape as integral to architecture. He also met modernist European architects, saliently Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, the Swiss-French architect known as Le Corbusier, from whom Barragán learned to appreciate clean, simple lines; open, sculptural spaces; deftly handled color and light; and gradually, a softening of the mechanical relationship between the architecture and its purpose.

According to Andrés Casillas, who worked with Barragán, the “rules” of the Modernist movement had a functionalist tendency to make the house “a machine for living,” and Barragán had moved on to a more “emotional architecture.” Barragán claimed that “any work of architecture which does not express serenity is a mistake.” Furthermore, Barragán felt that “In alarming proportions, the following words have disappeared from architectural publications: beauty, inspiration, magic, sorcery, enchantment, and also serenity, mystery, silence, privacy, astonishment. All of these have found a loving home in my soul.”

The Houses of Barragán’s Soul

Barragán is usually referred to as a modernist, and his buildings do use clean lines and raw, natural, and simple materials. What sets his houses apart, however, is the use of color and light, along with a surprising use of space – both interior and exterior – to create a flowing, connected, or self-contained spatial composition.

Casa-Jardin Ortega, Tacubaya, CDMX, 1942: Tacubaya is an old working-class neighborhood in CDMX; Barragán bought several lots there and built this house as his own. He lived there from 1942 to 1947, when he sold the house to a silversmith named Alfredo Ortega to raise money for another landscape project. Barragán started with the jardin (garden) part with a wandering multi-level garden, but the casa (house) gradually emerged in the form of a large, T-shaped house. While little-visited today, the Casa-Jardin Ortega is considered the first of Barragán’s mature works, and a primary example of his ideas about uniting the setting with the house. About Casa-Jardin Ortega, Barragán said, “In 1941, I created my first garden in Mexico City. I acquired a piece of land with various slopes, complemented and leveled various platforms to create a garden in compartments, recalling the beauty of the patios and gardens of the Alhambra and the Generalife [palaces Barragán had visited in Granada, Spain].”

Casa-Estudio Luis Barragán, Tacubaya, CDMX, 1948: Recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004, Barragán’s studio is considered a remarkable regional adaptation of the international modern movement in architecture, achieved through Barragán’s integration of modernist design with traditional Mexican vernacular architecture. The casa-estudio has three stories and a private garden.

According to UNESCO, the house and studio “represent a masterpiece of the new developments in the Modern Movement, integrating traditional, philosophical and artistic currents into a new synthesis.” Of specific importance are “the profound dialogue between light and constructed space and the way in which colour is substantial to form and materials.”

Cuadra San Cristóbal, Egerstrom House in the Los Clubes subdivision northeast of CDMX, 1968: Accomplished in collaboration with his colleague Andrés Casillas, Cuadra San Cristóbal is perhaps Barragán’s best-known work. Formerly rural agricultural land, Los Clubes offered the architects the opportunity to echo the ranches the subdivision replaced. Cuadra San Cristóbal features a huge swimming pool (sometimes used to cool the horses), an architecturally integrated fountain (Fuente de las Amantes, or Lover’s Fountain), stables, gardens, plus a large house defined by a typical Barragán palette of pinks, purples, other bright accent colors grounded with earth-toned elements.

Casa Gilardi, San Miguel Chapultepec, CDMX, 1977: Casa Gilardi is Barragán’s last house, designed as a “bachelor pad” for two friends who ran an advertising agency; it is now occupied by the family of one of the friends. The commission had two requirements. First, the house had to surround an old jacaranda tree in the center of the lot, and second, there had to be a large indoor pool. In somewhat of a departure from his other houses, Casa Gilardi works to preserve the privacy of its residents, rather than allowing spaces to flow together; on the other hand, Casa Gilardi may be the epitome of Barragán’s use of color to define the architecture.

In Search of Diana Kennedy’s Huachinango Veracruzana

By Deborah Van Hoewyk

In 1979, seven years after British-born Diana Kennedy published The Cuisines of Mexico, I went to Veracruz, both the city and the state. I thought the food was extraordinary.

The culinary website Serious Eats describes “Jarocho” (the colloquial term for being native to Veracruz) cuisine as “one of Mexico’s simplest,” but “one of its richest.” It was on the shore of Veracruz where Hernán Cortés first set foot, and Spanish cooking – already Mediterranean and Moroccan in its heritage – was quickly adopted and adapted to Jarocho ingredients and techniques, followed by West African influences. (Cortés brought the first six African slaves to Mexico; eventually, over 200,000 Africans came through the port of Veracruz, to be sold in the town of Antigua, about 28 km [±17 miles] west of the port).

The food of coastal Veracruz thus offers all kinds of fish and seafood, cooked in all kinds of ways, served with all kinds of sauces – and Huachinango Veracruzana – Red Snapper a la Veracruz – was the queen of all the dishes I tasted there.

On returning to the States, I went out and bought the Sunset Mexican Cookbook. My copy was from 1977, and was subtitled Simplifed Techniques, 155 Classic Recipes. The American palate of the 1970s was not yet familiar with Mexican cooking, but the Sunset Mexican cookbook sold over a million copies, through 20 printings, with at least five updates between 1969 and 1983.

And one of its recipes, from Diana Kennedy but adapted to American ingredients, was “Snapper Veracruz (Huachinango a la Veracruzana).”

Loved that recipe. Loved especially the green olives, orange juice, golden raisins, cinnamon, and capers. After six moves to three states, I lost my Sunset Mexican cookbook – not that I don’t have others, but none has that exact recipe. That, according to Diana Kennedy, is because the recipe is anything but exact!

The Woman Who Wrote My Remembered Recipe

Culinary anthropologist, cookbook author, chef by default, Diana Southwood was born a hundred years ago (March 3, 1923), in the town of Loughton, England, about 20 miles north of London. The daughter of a kindergarten teacher and a salesman, she lived to be 99, dying at her home in Heroica Zitácuaro, Michoacán, on July 24, 2022. In her twenties, she was a “Lumber Jill” with the Women’s Timber Corps, replacing the men who had gone to fight in WW II, and a housing manager in Scotland, working with mining families. When she was 30, she emigrated to Canada and worked in a film library and sold Wedgewood fine china. She loved to travel, and loved to explore new cuisines; from Canada she started visiting the Caribbean.

On a 1956 trip to the Caribbean, she stopped over in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on her way home. Staying in the same hotel was American journalist Paul P. Kennedy, the New York Times chief correspondent for Latin America. Kennedy was covering civil unrest in Haiti, where the people were using strikes and demonstrations to force their dictatorial president, Paul Magloire, out of office. She was 33, he was 51 – apparently the attraction was instantaneous; Diana described it as un flechazo, an arrow “shot straight to the heart.” She followed Paul and his “half-promise of matrimony” to his home base, Mexico City; they were married within the year.

The ever-versatile Diana Kennedy took up Spanish and worked as a typist at the British consulate in Mexico City. The Kennedys were popular in the English-speaking community in Mexico City, entertaining and being entertained on a frequent basis; when they ate dinner at the homes of friends, Kennedy as usual was taken with foods they were served. When she asked her hostess (this was the 1950s, people) about a dish, they usually replied that the maid or the cook knew about it.

When she asked the maid or the cook, they replied they made it the way they did it back home in their village. Off Kennedy would go to find out just how they did it back home in the village. This was the process that became Diana Kennedy’s hallmark in researching Mexican cuisine in all its regional variations: ask about the recipe, go to where it came from, ask questions, and learn how to make it with authenticity. All her recipes identified who made them and where they made them.

Her trekking about the rural villages also led her to the cookbooks of Josefina Velásquez de Léon (1899-1968), who had visited church groups in the countryside to document regional cooking. (One might call Velásquez de Léon the first celebrity chef – she cooked on radio in the 1940s and television in the 1950s, published cookbooks, opened a cooking school, and set up her own cookbook publishing house; her papers are in several archive collections, but one of them is the Special Collections of the University of Texas at San Antonio, alongside those of Diana Kennedy.)

One of the Kennedys’ guests in Mexico City was Craig Claiborne, who had joined the New York Times in 1957 as its food editor and off-and-on restaurant critic. When Diana offered to buy him a Mexican cookbook, he is supposed to have said “Not until you have written one!”

Diana Kennedy in New York

But the cookbooks came later, and Craig Claiborne would have a hand in that. Paul Kennedy fell victim to cancer, aggressive prostate cancer. In 1966, the couple drove North to New York City for his treatment. In Nothing Fancy, one of Kennedy’s most personal cookbooks (1984) and a 2019 documentary of the same title by filmmaker Elizabeth Carroll, Kennedy tells a story of that last trip. Eating takeout in some motel somewhere in Texas, “Paul laid his knife and fork down soon after he had started his meal. ‘I don’t know whether to thank you or not,’ he bellowed. ‘Most of my life I could eat anything anywhere, but now look what you have done to me. This damned rubbish!’ and pushed his plate back in disgust.”

Paul Kennedy died on February 2, 1967. Diana was left alone in their apartment on the upper west side of Manhattan. Although all the apartment offered was a galley kitchen, Claiborne had featured Diana’s work on regional Mexican cuisine in the New York Times, and suggested that she could teach authentic Mexican cooking classes. Word got out that Diana’s classes were great, and when Frances McCullough, a poetry editor at Harper & Row, took a class, she told Kennedy that a cookbook was in order. Not that Diana Kennedy knew how to write, but McCullough shepherded her through the process and Kennedy’s first cookbook, The Cuisines of Mexico, came to life in 1972.

It was a struggle to get it published as a quality cookbook, however – Harper & Row thought it would never sell, said they had no money to print it with pictures, and sent a cover design that featured a sombrero sitting on a cactus. Kennedy was furious but McCullough said, “OK, Diana, let’s invite them to lunch. We’ll give them a great meal and lots of margaritas.” It worked. After the publishing executive finished, they started looking at Diana’s slides of the dishes they’d been served, and started saying, “Well, we have to have THAT one … and THAT one,” and so on. “I ended up with a great designer,” Diana recalled.

McCullough would edit the next five cookbooks Kennedy wrote, and remained a friend for life.

Diana Kennedy Moves to Michoacán

Diana went back to Mexico repeatedly to gather the recipes in Cuisines of Mexico, but continued working professionally in the various cooking schools popping up in the U.S., returning to Mexico to hunt up more authentic recipes and culinary techniques in the summer. It took until 1976 to leave New York permanently. According to Kennedy, she told herself, “My God, I’ve got to get out. What am I doing with all these smells, the doggie odors, the exhaust from the restaurants in my face? It’s all so artificial.”

The contrast of authentic and artificial would epitomize the rest of Diana Kennedy’s life. When she went back to Mexico in 1976, she stayed; in 1980, she bought three hectares (just under 7½ acres) about 130 km (about 80 miles) west of Mexico City in Michoacán. There she designed and built Quinta (country house) Diana, her Mexican home and culinary research center. Quinta Diana was supposed to be just a little food museum for Diana’s collection of cooking tools, but the idea that museums were of “dead things” was anathema to Kennedy. She hired an architect and ecological engineer and started a house that incorporated large boulders on the site, rambling up and down a steep hillside, amply graced with perforated walls to encourage fresh breezes through the house. Down the slope is her eco-garden full of local Mexican herbs and vegetables and home to a motley collection of livestock and bees. Quinta Diana is mostly off the grid; Kennedy eventually used it to establish the Diana Kennedy Center, a place for research, teaching, and sustainable living – with sustainable native foods at its heart.

For fifty years or so, Kennedy led a busy professional life from Quinta Diana. She wrote more cookbooks; before leaving New York, she produced her second, The Tortilla Book, in 1975. The rest included Recipes from the Regional Cooks of Mexico (1978), Nothing Fancy: Recipes and Recollections of Soul-Satisfying Food (1984), The Art of Mexican Cooking (1989), My Mexico (1998), From My Mexican Kitchen: Techniques and Ingredients (2003), and Oaxaca al Gusto: An Infinite Gastronomy (2010).

She taught cooking classes and participated in events devoted to international cuisine. She won awards – from the James Beard Foundation, from Mexico (Order of the Aztec Eagle), from Britain (Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire).

The Perils of Authenticity

Always a stickler for doing things in just the right way, all the time, Diana Kennedy has had her detractors. There are those who think that cuisine changes and adapts over time, that it was not a “fly preserved in amber.” Kennedy has even castigated the Mexican cooks who took her recipes and evolved them.

There were those who feel her insistence on using lard and lots of crema is unhealthy, and her notion that you should read all the explanations and notes before attempting a recipe – a recipe that might take five days to make all the salsas and bases – is antiquated. Kennedy, on the other hand, says “It’s difficult to educate a whole public … Americans were raised to expect that horrible combination plate – the quick cheap fix.”

Tejal Rao, a New York Times restaurant critic and food writer, believes that Diana Kennedy “changed the way millions of people perceived Mexican Food.” On the other hand, when Kennedy taught Martha Stewart to make Oaxacan tamales de frijol on television, “Wasn’t something lost?” Kennedy would say no, but Tejal Rao pointed out that perhaps a Zapotec cook should have been serving as the expert on her own tamales. Rao also faulted Kennedy for never backing down “from her ludicrous position of dismissing Tex-Mex, California Mexican food and all of the rich, regional cuisines that grew from the Mexican diaspora.”

Nonetheless, after spending more than half her lifetime in grass-roots scholarship across the kitchens of rural Mexico, bouncing around in a beat-up pickup truck with a revolver in the glove compartment, Diana Kennedy made an immeasurable contribution to our understanding of and appreciation for Mexican gastronomy. With her attention to regional differences in Mexican dishes, she laid much of the foundation for the United Nations’ designation of Mexican cuisine as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Will I still look for the “right” recipe for Huachinango Veracruzana? Even though Diana Kennedy told me that it’s more likely made with orange juice and raisins in the mountains of Veracruz, maybe in Jalapa? Of course I will.

It Came from Outer Space –and the Dinosaurs Were No More

By Deborah Van Hoewyk

A long time ago, in an asteroid belt – or maybe a comet cloud – but definitely far far away … a “space rock” escaped its orbit and slammed into Earth. It was the end of an era.

An Astronomical Event
A long time would be 66 million years ago (mya), apparently on a day in the northern-hemisphere spring. The impact marked the end of a geological period called the Cretaceous, which ran from 145 to 66 mya). The Cretaceous followed the Triassic (237- 201 mya) and Jurassic (201-145 mya); these three periods comprise the Mesozoic Era, or the age of dinosaurs. The dinosaurs, except for those that could fly, were pretty much instantaneously over as well.

There is not yet agreement on whether the “space rock,” 9.6 km (±6 miles) in diameter, was an asteroid, basically a giant rock, or a comet, made of ice, rock, and dust. Whether it came from the asteroid belt, a donut-shaped collection of debris left over from when the planets of our solar system were formed, or from one or another of the more distant debris clouds that generate comets, doesn’t really seem to matter. Either way, Jupiter got into the act and set the space rock on course for a place named Chicxulub (chicks-oo-loob) on the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico.

What did Jupiter do? Exerted gravity. Jupiter is about 318 times the mass of Earth, and its gravitational pull is about 2.4 times that of Earth. As astrophysicist Amir Siraj, a student at Harvard when he did his research on the “Chicxulub Impactor,” explains, “the solar system acts as a kind of pinball machine,” and “Jupiter, the most massive planet, kicks incoming long-period comets into orbits that bring them very close to the Sun.” The complicated interaction of these “sun grazer” comets with solar tidal forces makes them smaller and faster, and increases the chance they’re headed straight for earth.

What Happened the Day the Dinosaurs Died?
About a thousand species of dinosaurs inhabited the earth. From ancestors to extinction, they lasted about 230 million years, with the age of recognizable dinosaurs running for about 165 million years. They originated when the earth had a single land mass, called Pangaea; as Pangaea split into areas we now know as the seven continents, the dinosaurs went along for the ride on most of them.

Mexico hosted a range of dinosaurs, with most fossilized remains coming from northern Baja California and Coahuila. There were horned dinosaurs like the Cohuilaceratops, 4 meters (±13 feet) long and weighing just over a ton – but its horns were 1.2 meters (±4 feet) long. There were some of the largest duckbilled hadrosaurs – remains of Tlatolophus galorum were just unearthed in Coahuila, as well as smaller duck-bills like Velafrons and Latirhinus. Tlatolophus was 8-12 meters (26-39 feet) long, weighing in at about 3.6 tons. There were the “apex predators,” the tyrranosaurs, who preyed on the hadrosaurs; Mexico’s best-known tyrranosaur was the medium-sized Labocania, only 7 meters (23 feet) long and weighing in at a ton and half.

Mexico’s dinosaurs were the first to go when the Chicxulub Impactor hit the tip of the Yucatán peninsula with the equivalent of a 100-million megaton blast – 60,000 times the energy of all the nuclear weapons now in existence – hollowing out a crater ±150 km (90 miles) wide.

The impact generated a core of super-heated – over 10,000 degrees – plasma, i.e., matter that has reached a fourth state, beyond solid, liquid, and gas, basically a gas “soup” of charged ions (positive) and electrons (negative).

This thermal pulse lasted for only a few minutes, but it sent out an air blast, a shockwave of air pressure that created winds well over 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) per hour. The air blast radiated across the seas, sending raging wildfires through ancient forests and bringing tsunamis with waves 100-300 meters (±330-990 feet) over the coastline of the Gulf of Mexico.

The impact also produced a seismic pulse equal to a magnitude 10 earthquake, causing landslides on the sea floor, which was already deeply eroded by the backwash from the tsunamis. The seismic pulse radiated far from Chicxulub, with tremors gathering surface water and pushing it up the Western Interior Seaway, an inland sea that split what is now the United States in two.

All terrestrial flora and fauna, along with marine life, within a 1,500-1,800 km (900-1008 miles) radius was roasted or buried alive. And all of this occurred before any debris ejected from the crater could fall back to earth. Within minutes, however, the debris – mostly rocky rubble and “ejecta spherules” (tiny glass beads called tektites, composed of melted rock and dust) – began falling over the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, covering the end of the Yucatán Peninsula and the adjacent sea floor several hundred meters (±800 feet) deep; 350-600 kilometers (210-360 miles) away in Campeche, at the base of the Yucatán, the ejected debris was 50-300 meters (165 to 980 feet) thick.

Chicxulub and Mass Extinction
The gas, dust, and “geologic shrapnel” flung up by the Chicxulub impact did far more than fall to earth in Mexico. It followed global air currents to create an “impact winter,” in which the entire earth was plunged into darkness and freezing cold as the ejected material circled the globe and blocked out the sun. It was a winter that lasted three years. Hot fragments set off wildfires around the world. Acid rain poured down. Plants died. Animals that ate plants died. Animals that ate the animals that ate the plants died. In what is now called the “Cretaceous-Paleogene Extinction Event (K-Pg),” three-quarters of all species then on earth – including and especially the dinosaurs – went extinct.

Not everyone agrees that Chicxulub is the whole story. After studying over a thousand dinosaur-egg fragments, Chinese scientists have argued that in the two million years before K-Pg, dinosaur diversity was dropping. They conclude that the “end-Cretaceous catastrophic events [saliently massive volcanic eruptions in India that would also have caused climate change] probably acted on an already vulnerable ecosystem and led to nonavian dinosaur extinction.”

There were survivors. Some of the avian dinosaurs, ancestors of today’s birds (not the pterosaurs, though, pterodactyls were actually flying reptiles); early small mammals that lived in burrows; small amphibians like frogs and salamanders; and reptiles – snakes, lizards, alligators, crocodiles, turtles – made it through.

Researchers in evolutionary biology at Cornell University have been studying the ancestors of primates (that’s us!) and marsupials (kangaroos and possums). Before the K-Pg extinction, these mammals had been arboreal, living their entire lives in the trees, not a good place to be as incredibly high temperatures sent wildfires tearing through forests. Right around the time of the impact, however, these mammals were making an evolutionary transition out of the trees and a few survived.

It should be noted that we are now in the “Holocene Extinction,” in which human activity – increasing population, overconsumption, and pollution – threatens the extinction of over a million species in the next ten years; the World Wildlife Fund calls it the “largest mass extinction event since the end of the dinosaur age.”

How Do We Know All This?
You could spend time struggling through academic analyses to gather all this information, but there’s an easier way. David Attenborough, the British dean of natural history documentaries, has just released his latest work, a 90-minute film titled Dinosaurs: The Final Day with David Attenborough (premiered April 15, 2022, on the BBC; in the U.S., May 11, 2022, as a two-part special, Dinosaur Apocalypse, on the PBS show Nova).

The documentary shows Attenborough walking with dinosaurs as the Chicxulub impactor is gathering speed in space (the dinosaurs were created by the animators of The Lion King and The Jungle Book). Surprisingly, the documentary starts out not in Mexico but in Hell Creek, North Dakota, about 3000 km (1800 miles) from Chicxulub. Attenborough spent three years with the researchers at the Tanis dig, and devotes most of the documentary to exploring their findings.

The key? The “K-Pg boundary,” a sharp demarcation between life before, during, and after the impact. At the actual boundary there is a concentration of iridium, a hard, iridescent mineral rare on earth but known to occur in meteorites (meteors are “space rocks” once they have entered Earth’s atmosphere, and meteorites are the post-impact remains of the meteors). In 2016, a group of international marine scientists drilled a thousand feet into the edge of the Chicxulub crater about 30 km (18 miles) northwest of Progreso, Yucatán, extracting a core sample that showed iridium at the point of impact.

The Tanis dig shows this even more clearly. British paleontologist Robert DePalma, working with an international team, found large, astonishingly well-preserved fossils below and in a crumbly layer of rock full of the ejecta spherules. Fossils from the Tanis dig are so well preserved because the post-impact inundation of watery mud engulfed living creatures, preserving them much as volcanic lava preserved the victims at Pompeii in the year 79 CE.

Among these fossils are saltwater fish, obviously not native to North Dakota, with gills full of spherules chemically identical to ones found at Chicxulub, indicating that the fish came with the water that rushed from the Gulf of Mexico up the Western Interior Seaway. It is thought that the spherules may have taken as little as 13 minutes after impact in Mexico to fall in Hell Creek.

Chicxulub and the Future
Will Chicxulub happen again? Probably. But definitely not in our lifetime. Amir Siraj, who identified the sun-grazer comets, has determined that, even though the chances of a similar impact are 10 times greater than previously thought, it’s only projected to occur every 250-730 million years.

In the meantime, Chicxulub has lessons for the future. The crater was open on its northeast side to the Gulf of Mexico, allowing nutrient-rich water to circulate in the crater. Life started up very quickly in the form of microscopic marine life, perhaps within 200 years. A consortium of scientists who study the return of life to Chicxulub say it offers lessons for restoring the oceans, threatened today by oxygen deletion, ocean acidification, and rising temperatures. According to Christopher M. Lowery, of the Institute for Geophysics at the University of Texas (Austin), Chicxulub “might be an important analog for the recovery of biodiversity after we finally curtail carbon dioxide emissions and pollution.”

What in the World is a Water Rabbit? Plus – Your Pet Rabbit Does NOT Want to Go Swimming!

By Deborah Van Hoewyk

When I was told it was the year of the water rabbit in the Chinese zodiac, I was a tad miffed. What was wrong with the regular rabbit I’ve examined on countless red-and-white paper placemats in the Chinatown restaurants of New York? Would having a water rabbit instead of a regular rabbit change the way the year of the rabbit went?

Not to worry. The rabbit is the same as always, but the Chinese zodiac is more complicated than we think. It is governed by ideas and forces, some of them deeply embedded in Chinese philosophy, that beg for further study. The forces that characterize the twelve zodiac animals, however, are pretty straightforward.

The Yin and the Yang

First, each animal has either a “yin” or a “yang” identity. Yin and yang, if you’re not familiar with them, are the polarities of energy that together shape existence. Yin energies are considered to be feminine, intuitive, and receptive, while yang energies are masculine, logical, and giving. Everything has both yin and yang, and yin and yang work together, but one type of energy will be dominant.

The rabbit, along with the rooster, the ox, the pig, the snake, and the goat (or sheep), are the yin signs of the zodiac. The yang signs, then, are the monkey, the horse, the dog, the tiger, the rat, and the dog. Both the yin and the yang animals have related personality traits. The rabbit (yin), for example, can be described as “quiet, elegant, kind, responsible”; the other two animals in the rabbit’s “compatibility triangle” (determined by the positions on the zodiac circle) are the goat (yin) and the pig (yin) – described as “calm, gentle, sympathetic” and “compassionate, generous, diligent,” respectively.

The Five Elements

The zodiac is also built on wu shing – the five elements: wood, fire, earth, metal (gold), and water. The idea is presented in that popular classic for 1960s college students, the I Ching (the Book of Changes). Originally written as a how-to book for divination sometime between 1000 and 750 BCE, and morphing into a cosmological text sometime before 200 BCE, the I Ching contains the roots of both yin/yang and wu shing.

The elements govern the interdependent and interactive relationships among all things; relationships are a balance of creation and destruction, just as ying and yang balance energy. When elements interact, progress – positive or negative – occurs. The five elements move in a cycle; when it’s positive/creative, the cycle goes like this: wood starts a fire, fire creates earth, earth holds metal, metal carries water, water feeds wood. When it’s negative/destructive, the cycle goes like this: fire melts metal, metal chops wood, wood separates the earth, earth absorbs water, water puts out fire.

Combining the Cycles

The zodiac animals rotate in a 12-year cycle, and the zodiac elements in a 5-year cycle. This of course, does not match up. The “regular” rabbit years are 1939, 1951, 1963, 1975, 1987, 1999, 2011, and this year, 2023.

Since the elements go in the same order every cycle, the element-rabbit cycle has been:

1939: earth rabbit
1951: metal rabbit
1963: water rabbit
1975: wood rabbit
1987: fire rabbit
1999: earth rabbit
2011: metal rabbit
2023: water rabbit!

And what does the water rabbit portend for 2023? The year starts on January 22, 2023, and goes through February 9, 2024. If you were born in any of the years of the rabbit, this will be a year of hope, and your life will take a turn for the better. You will be lucky in love and career, although you should stick with the job you have now. Your lucky colors are red, pink, purple, and blue; your lucky flowers are hostas and jasmine; and your lucky numbers are 3, 7, and 9. Of course, other Chinese horoscopes list completely different colors, flowers, and numbers. Fortune cookie, anyone?

Are Water Rabbits Real?

No, and somewhat yes. Can rabbits swim? All rabbits can manage to swim, usually under extreme duress. The same fluffy coat that makes rabbits cute and cuddly also absorbs water, adding weight and dragging the rabbit down. Rather like trying to swim in your winter coat and boots. Should you have a pet rabbit that likes the water, make sure it swims in a very shallow pool. A foot of water would be the max, and there should be an easy exit.

There are two types of rabbits that do swim regularly, swamp rabbits and marsh rabbits – they have fur described as “sparse.” The swamp rabbit (Sylvilagus aquaticus) is largest of the cottontail rabbits. It lives in the south-central United States (Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama) in cypress swamps, marshes, and river estuaries. The swamp rabbit is the most hunted rabbit in the United States, and is also prey for domestic dogs and alligators. When threatened, they sink down in the water with only their noses showing so they can breathe.

The marsh rabbit (Sylvilagus palustris) is a small cottontail found in the coastal southeast United States. It favors freshwater marshes and brackish estuaries. The largest current population of marsh rabbits is in the Great Dismal Swamp, located on the border between Virginia and North Carolina. They are more prone to swimming than the swamp rabbits. Their worst predators are the great horned owl and the marsh hawk.