By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken
One of the remarkably innovative activities that sets humans apart from our closest primate relatives is cooking our food and flavoring it with spices. According to some anthropologists, this behavior may have emerged while we were still nomadic hunters and gathers. To carry a kill to the next temporary home site, our ancestors probably wrapped the meat in leaves – and a distant relative with a fine palate realized that the meat wrapped in some leaves lasted longer and was tastier than meat wrapped in others. The former leaves became desirable and assigned a higher trading value than others. Similarly, specific flavorful roots, bulbs, berries, flowers and even pollen became prized first as enhancements for cooking and preserving and, after observation of beneficial effects, medicating.
Once humans settled down in farms, towns, and cities and developed writing and reading, one of the first uses of these newly emerged forms of communication was accounting in long-extinct languages for amounts of spices traded. Recipes using spices for preservation, including mummification, were shared; thyme was used as an ingredient over 5500 years ago in Egyptian unguents that were used to prepare bodies for the afterlife. As writing became a method of expressing religious beliefs and poetic expressions, literature produced millennia ago equated thyme and other spices with love, riches and the best of human life. The incredibly beautiful Song of Songs in the Hebrew Scriptures (aka Old Testament) mentions many spices including cinnamon and saffron.
The Song of Songs is said to have been written in the 9th century BCE, so we have evidence from that time period of the availability in the land of Israel of cinnamon native to Sri Lanka and India, and saffron from Crete, which must have made their way via the ships of ancient mariners to the Middle East. In fact, literature from China and other accounts from around Eurasia provide evidence that spices growing wild millennia ago in various parts of the known world were harvested and sold or bartered in distant lands. When given root in favorable climates far from their origin, they were cultivated and harvested for local use or became a currency of exchange.
There is also archeological evidence that in the Western hemisphere, including Mesoamerica, different species of plants from those in Eurasia were also harvested in the wild and began to be cultivated. Like the use of spices across the oceans, they were used to flavor foods, for preservation, including mummification, and for medicinal purposes. It is not surprising, then, that many millennia later, during the Age of Exploration and the Spanish invasion of Mexico and South America, one of the earliest cultural exchanges consisted of adopting Western spices in Europe and Eurasian spices in the New World.
The Spanish conquistadores were accustomed to a diet flavored with garlic, onions and, for the most wealthy, saffron. Imagine their surprise when neither garlic, large onions, nor crocus producing saffron were to be found to be growing in “New Spain,” and the small scallion-like onions were a far cry from the plump sweet vegetable growing in the Mediterranean. Instead, they found a plethora of other spices being used by indigenous civilizations. A wide variety of peppers unheard of in the Old World – ranging from sweet to extremely hot and spicy – were dried and ground and added to many dishes. Cacao, a new and addictive chocolate-tasting fruit, was used to flavor both food and drink. Tomatoes, which originated in the Andes in South America, had been brought north and were cultivated and formed the basis for many different salsas. Anise seeds added a depth to dishes and achiote seeds were “discovered” to impart a distinct flavor and an attractive deep red color to food. Herbs and flowers added while cooking included chipilin, epazote, mint, and pre-Columbian coriander (different from modern day cilantro), each contributing a delicious taste to a diet which, mainly prepared with corn, squash, and beans, could have been quite bland.
To the great delight of those living in Eurasia, tomato seeds were brought from the New World and cultivated in many parts of those continents. Today many Europeans would deny that tomatoes are not native to their countries and would claim they had always been part of their heritage. Similarly, European peppers were primarily sweet peppers, but, learning from their Mesoamerican hosts, Spanish cooks began drying and smoking a large sweet variety of red pepper and then grinding the peppers, producing what is today called Spanish paprika. And of course, chocolate produced from cacao became associated with countries far from the trees that bear the flavorful fruit (think of Switzerland).
In turn, 16th-century colonists began cultivating spices in the lands of the New World that had never grown there. Mexican thyme, which originated in Africa long before the Spanish invasion, was introduced. Cumin, originally cultivated in the Middle East, was introduced and became so ubiquitous that it almost seems synonymous with Mexican cooking – especially in US chain quasi-Mexican restaurants where it tends to be overused. Garlic and large white onions are staples in Mexican grocery stores and kitchens, although relatives of the original scallion-like onions are more flavorful and also still used.
While some of the exotic spices from distant lands could be grown in countries that took a liking to them, other plants have difficulty thriving outside their native land. Over a period of centuries, the spice trade became a highly lucrative enterprise and was dominated by large companies, such as the British East India Company, which was founded at the end of 1600 and continued to exercise a monopoly on some markets for 274 years. Around the time the Dutch East India Company, founded in 1602, folded, two brothers named Schilling, who had immigrated from Germany to San Francisco formed their own spice company. Shortly thereafter, Willoughby McCormick founded his spice company in Baltimore. McCormick bought out the Schilling brothers’ company in 1946. Today, McCormick is still a dominant force in the field, employing 10,000 people and selling $3.5 billion of spices annually.
As with other markets in the 21st century, spice production is global. However, the country that dominates spice production is India, providing almost 11 million tons between 2021 and 2022. We took a walk down a road in the Southern State of Kerala that was lined with shops displaying heaps of ginger and burlap bags of other spices; it was such a heady experience that we will never forget being there. India is such a prolific producer that Mexico actually imports red peppers from that part of the world. Other countries specialize in individual herbs and spices; cinnamon, so ubiquitous in Mexican cooking and baking, is often a product of Sri Lanka. But Mexico has to a small degree turned the tables; nutmeg, originally from the Banda Islands in Indonesia, is now grown in Mexico and exported primarily to the U.S. And although thyme can be grown in most places in the world, China is the world’s leading producer.
As humans emerged from hunter-gatherer groups and small agricultural units to span the globe and conquer time and space, so did thyme and other herbs and spices we so love. Perhaps when humans colonize other planets, thyme and spices will be among the first possessions brought across time and space.
By Jane Bauer
“Alice: How long is forever?
White Rabbit: Sometimes, just one second.”
― Lewis Carroll
It is 2023! Is it just me or does it feel like time is moving faster?
As has become our tradition the theme for the first issue of the year follows the Chinese New Year- hence The Rabbit Issue. Past issues have included the chicken, the pig, the rat… you get the idea.
When I was a girl I was very attached to a soft toy Peter Rabbit that I must have gotten very early in life because by the time I was four he was already falling apart. For Christmas my mother told me to write a letter to Santa to ask if he could fix him. I was dubious about this plan but sure enough on Christmas morning Peter Rabbit sat under the tree perfectly put back together wearing a brand new blue jacket.
When I was eight my older sister told me Santa was a fake and she found my old Peter Rabbit tucked away in my mother’s closet. I was sad but not surprised to learn about that Santa wasn’t real and I was thrilled to have now two Peter Rabbits- one more worn than the other.
When I was nine my father and I took the Via Rail from Montreal to Vancouver- staying in fancy sleeper berths. I spent my time putting on magic shows in the bar car for the adults. The original Peter Rabbit accompanied me on this journey and was good company for I didn’t meet many children during the trip. Somewhere between Winnipeg and Saskatoon, amid the flurry of getting off to look around and new people getting on and people getting off, Peter Rabbit and I got separated.
My father notified everyone on the train and made sure we checked every lost and found at every station we passed- on the way to Vancouver and on the way back to Montreal. As a parent myself I am touched by my parents’ actions. My mother for teaching me that if I want something it is always worth asking and to have a little faith that I will get it- this is a skill that has served me well. My father’s real concern for finding Peter Rabbit taught me that the things I love and cherish are of value- even if it is just a stuffed animal. Peter Rabbit never did make it home and I still use my Peter Rabbit plate when I need a little comfort.
As we sprint into a new year it is time to reflect on the imprint we are leaving on those around us. What are the ripple effects of our actions? Let us all be more conscious and mindful as we move forward because you are more powerful than you can imagine… make good use of it.
Happy New Year!
See you in February,
By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken
Over forty years ago, we read about and decided to visit a family-run, highly-rated Quintana Roo restaurant in the jungle off the road from Cancun to Playa Carmen. We pulled off the road at the designated kilometer post into an area cleared for parking, and wandered down a narrow path to find a charming cottage in a clearing on the bank of a lagoon. Near the cottage was a rabbit hutch with sweet roly-poly bunnies – we thought them to be pets of the family’s children.
When we were presented with the menu and saw the offering of conejo, we were sure it must be a misspelling of cangrejo (crab), but suddenly realized that the dish was indeed conejo (rabbit), and the sweet little bunnies were not pets. Although this was the first time we saw rabbit on a menu in Mexico, it should not have come as a surprise. In France, lapin (rabbit) is a relatively common feature on menus, along with frogs’ legs and snails. And in China, we visited live animal meat markets where cages of rabbits were placed near chickens, ducks, puppies and monkeys – yes, monkeys.
So after our initial encounter, we were prepared to find rabbit on more menus in Mexico. This turned out to be a misconception. Not that we were disappointed. One of us sticks pretty closely to Jewish laws spelled out in the Hebrew Scriptures (aka Old Testament) that forbid certain animals to be eaten including pig, camel … and rabbit. There are many traditional delicious Mexican dishes made with meat from permitted animals, but the experience did raise our curiosity about the place of rabbit in Mexican cuisine.
Although a vegetarian diet has for millennia been the main form of food consumed in Mexico, rabbit, as archeologists have found, was considered a delicacy in preHispanic cuisine. In excavations around present-day Mexico City, artifacts and animal bones from a butcher shop indicated that the business specialized in selling rabbit meat. As historians have made clear, there was no need to supplement the daily diet with rabbit since the food consumed by the indigenous residents was nutritionally complete – so the supposition would be that rabbit was eaten as a special delicacy.
The same is true in Mexico today. As compared to other Latin American countries, Mexico ranks highest in percent of the population that sticks to a vegetarian diet. Nonetheless meat, especially beef, chicken or pork, is the preferred meal of the vast majority of Mexicans. Not rabbit. According to a 2022 paper in Meat Science, “The annual per capita consumption of meat in Mexico is 72.8 kg, of which 34.9 kg correspond to chicken, 20.3 kg to pork, 14.8 kg to beef, 1.3 kg to turkey, 0.8 g to sheep and goat, 0.6 g to horse, and [a minuscule] 0.1 g to rabbit.”
Part of the reason for rabbit being an uncommonly eaten source of protein may be the lack of availability. Unlike beef cattle, chickens, turkeys, pigs, goats, sheep or other sources of more commonly used meat, rabbits are not raised on large corporate farms or ranches that produce thousands of animals for food. Rabbit farms are most numerous in the central states in Mexico; but a study of the characteristics of cuniculture (rabbit-raising) in that area showed that the vast majority (87%) are either small-scale or medium-scale family farms. There are other rabbit farmers scattered around the country, especially in areas where there is a substantial foreign rabbit-eating populace, such as the Happy Rabbit Farm in Rancho Loco Chapala in the state of Jalisco. These small farms tend to produce a limited number of rabbits, sold directly for consumption; the availability of rabbit meat in butcher shops or food stores is limited.
Another barrier to a thriving market for rabbit meat may be the taste. Most people who have tried eating rabbit compare the taste to chicken – particularly chicken thighs – but comment on the gamey flavor. This may be why rabbit dishes are usually prepared with assertive spices. There are four primary ways of cooking rabbit meat in Mexico: adobo (marinated in spices including chilis), al ajillo (cooked with garlic), estofado (stewed), and fried in the same manner that chicken is fried. These dishes may be easily sampled in the small restaurants that line the highway that leads from Mexico City to Toluca. Within Mexico City in the Coyoacan area, the restaurant El Morral, specializing in “Mexican Heritage Food,” also served rabbit before the covid pandemic, but their reduced menu may no longer feature conejo.
In the interior of state of Oaxaca, a dish prepared with corn and rabbit in a mole sauce, segueza, is the preferred preparation. It is true that rabbit meat, as chicken, is nutritionally sound; low in fat and cholesterol and high in protein. Thus, the question remains: If rabbit tastes like chicken, and is prepared like chicken, why not simply use easily attainable and less expensive chicken?
But perhaps the most important factor that prevents people from hankering for rabbit stew and other dishes is the adoration developed in childhood for those cute roly-poly soft-fur bunnies that one can cuddle and stroke, along with the rabbits that are featured in children’s books. Just as children north of the border love to hear the Beatrice Potter stories of Peter Rabbit, children in Mexico hear tales of Pedrito, El Conejo Travieso (Little Pedro, the Naughty Rabbit – actually a translation of Beatrix Potter’s 1902 classic Peter Rabbit). More recently, Duncan Tonatiuh, a Mexican-American author of children’s books, has bolstered admiration of our furry friends with a new Mexican character, Pancho Rabbit.
So … although rabbits were served as a delicacy by ancient Aztecs, and a small number of Mexicans still find rabbit meat to their liking, we remain in the camp of most Mexicans who would rather pet them than eat them.
By Carolina Garcia
Proverbs with Culinary Themes
A good way for Mexicans to remember their grandmothers is
with sayings and proverbs. Many of these refer to traditional
dishes. Here are some of the most popular and what they really
“Dar atole con el dedo”
Literal meaning: To feed someone atole (a hot drink made with
corn) with your finger , the way you would feed a baby.
What it really means: That you are talking to someone as
though they are stupid.
“Echarle crema a los tacos”
Literal meaning: To add cream to the tacos.
What it really means:
That someone is boasting ,bragging or exaggerating.
“A ojo de buen cubero”
Literal meaning: To watch the good barrel. Cubero is an old-
fashioned word for barrels that used to be used for water, oil
wine or rum.
What it really means:
To make an educated yet imprecise guess. To do something by
“A darle que es mole de olla”
Literal meaning: Go for it because it is mole from the pot.
What it really means: That something needs to be done right
“No se puede chiflar y comer pinole al mismo tiempo.”
Literal meaning: You can’t whistle and eat ground maize at the
What it really means: Stop multi-tasking.
All of us Mexicans have heard these proverbs from our
grandmothers at least once. Now with the passage of time they
are not as common to hear but they will always be present.
By Jane Bauer
“In our consumer culture, we always want the next best thing: the latest, the newest, the youngest. Failing that, we at least want more: more intensity, more variety, more stimulation. We seek instant gratification and are increasingly intolerant of any frustration. Nowhere are we encouraged to be satisfied with what we have, to think, “This is good. This is enough.”— Esther Perel
It feels as though every December I sit down to write my editorial and I say the same thing- shop less. Our planet and our lives are full of clutter. People have so much junk that the storage business is booming just so they can store their ever-growing piles of stuff.
So rather than issue a de-cluttering challenge where I encourage you to get rid of one thing a day for the next year- a pair of pants you haven’t fit into for the last five years, your CD collection, the junk that decorates your life. Rather than tell you how great it is to do your Christmas shopping from your own home- give your sister those earrings she covets, give your best friend your favorite book with a handwritten note.
This year I encourage you to sit with yourself and ask yourself what you need. What do you need? I guarantee it isn’t an insta-pot or a new dress. We all have a hunger inside of us that needs filling and I promise you it can’t be ordered through Amazon.
Sit with yourself and breathe- even better if you can do this in nature- the forest, the beach, rain, snow or shine- somewhere away from the traffic of consumerism. Search your body and soul for parts you want to fill- listen closely and you will hear them. Maybe your hunger is for more community, maybe you need deeper connection with your children, your spouse, your parents. Maybe you want more intimacy. Maybe you want to feel safe- financially and emotionally. Maybe you want to be less lonely. Maybe you want more time alone.
The information coming at you would have you believe that you can buy your way out of these feelings. Technology has given us a vertical expansion of comparison so that we aren’t only getting feelings of inadequacy from our neighbors buying a new car, we are comparing ourselves to celebrities and people with no visible talent but millions of followers. No amount of stuff, power or money will ever satiate what you really hunger for.
So this year buy whatever you think you want. Throw away the packaging and enjoy your shiny new toys. Then see how you feel after the luster has worn off the high. Sit long enough with yourself and you will find the path to fill the hunger and maybe by the next holiday season you’ll buy less- not because it’s good for the environment but because it’s good for yourself.
Spread love and light everywhere you go.
See you in January,
By Jane Bauer
“Never trust anyone who has not brought a book with them.”
― Lemony Snicket, Horseradish
I love books. I can easily conjure up the memory of the feel of the carpet at the Children’s Library where I sat for hours as a girl. A few years ago I started keeping track of my reading and I average about forty-five books a year.
“How do you read so many books?” I have been asked. The secret is that I am rarely without a book at hand. Sitting in the car while gas is being pumped, lines at the bank, waiting for a friend in a restaurant – these are all slivers of opportunity to slip into another world.
If you have been to my restaurant on Christmas Eve you know how much I love books. For many years we have gifted each guest a random book. Inspired by the Icelandic tradition Jolabokaflod (Christman book flood), I like to tell people that they will get the book that is meant for them.
While I have lived in Mexico for more than half my life, I am a little disappointed to tell you that I haven’t read that many Mexican writers, but this issue is so full of fascinating writers that I can’t wait to read. I have read some Mexican writers and here are a few of my favorite books that aren’t mentioned in this issue.
Lost Children Archive, by Valeria Luiselli (2019)
The story of a woman, her husband and two children traveling from New York to Arizona. Touching upon the horrors of children being separated from their parents while searching for a different life. This novel examines identity and questions our humanity. Also check out her first novel The Story of My Teeth (2015)- it is a humourous and surreal tale that is primarily set at the Jumex Museum in CDMX.
Like Water for Chocolate, by Laura Esquivel (1990)
I was first introduced to Mexico by watching this film in a Montreal movie theater on a cold winter evening. It was easy to fall in love with this revolutionary love story that centers around food. The novel is a fun read and includes recipes.
Into the Beautiful North, by Luis Alberto Urrea (2009)
Nineteen-year-old Nayeli notices that her small town is devoid of men because they have all gone north. She heads north to find her father and to find men to return to save the town.
What all these novels have in common is the ability to weave the surreal into the every day giving the reader a different perspective on life- much as Mexico itself does.
By Julie Etra
Spanish is a gender-inflected language, which means that the forms of nouns, adjectives, and articles change according to whether someone or something is considered masculine or feminine. In general, but not always, an ending of ‘o’ indicates the masculine, and an ending of ‘a’ indicates the feminine. Sometimes the word for an obviously gendered noun is completely different in the masculine vs. the feminine.
The very language is macho in that Spanish favors things and people being male – if there is one boy present in a group of girls, just ONE, they are all niños or hijos, etc. Now, linguistically speaking, that’s not really offensive, because the masculine gender includes words that in another language – e.g., Latin, from which Spanish is descended – would have been neuter. The feminist perspective, however, finds it really offensive. Efforts at language neutrality in Spanish are underway in Argentina, but that’s a long and complicated story for some other time!
Baby: el nene, el bebe (masculine), la nena (feminin- also means girlfriend, like babe), la bebe
Boy/girl: muchacho/muchacha. Muchachos can also equate with fellas, boys, as in ‘let’s go boys’: ‘vamos muchachos’
Kid(s): chavos/chavas,chamacos/chamacas, esquincles/esquinclas
Child: el niño, la niña
Man/woman: el hombre/la mujer
Son/daughter: el hijo/la hija
Male/female dog: macho, hembra.
Here’s a funny story on the sex of dogs. Many years ago, before I spoke Spanish, we drove down the Baja Peninsula with our male dog. When the cops asked us if the dog was macho, which was obvious as he was intact, I thought they meant aggressive. So I answered, “No es macho, es muy amigable” (“He’s not male, he is very friendly.”) No wonder the cop looked confused!
Next month I’ll continue with other family members and friends. Maybe more animals.