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date: 22 April 2024

Taste, Smell, and Flavor in Mexicofree

Taste, Smell, and Flavor in Mexicofree

  • Jeffrey M. PilcherJeffrey M. PilcherDepartment of Historical and Cultural Studies, University of Toronto, Scarborough


Mexican cuisine is often considered to be a mestizo fusion of indigenous and Spanish foods, but this mixture did not simply happen by accident; it required the labor, imagination, and sensory appreciation of both native and immigrant cooks. In turn, diverse regional and ethnic expressions of domestic cooking, street food, festival dishes, and haute cuisine provided affective foundations for rival attempts to define a Mexican national identity. To understand these processes of historical change, food studies scholars have begun focusing on the embodied sense of taste as an important complement to discursive studies of social construction that formerly predominated in the scholarship. Research from around the world has suggested the rise of sweetness as the predominant sensory experience of the modern dietary transition from peasant cuisines dominated by complex carbohydrates and vegetable proteins to industrial diets based on sugars and fats. This was certainly true of Mexico, but historical sources reveal a far more complicated picture of changing tastes. Although the arrival of sugar cane with the Spanish conquest did begin to shift the sensory balance from pre-Hispanic bitterness (chile peppers, cacao) toward sweetness, the introduction of other new foods brought complementary increases in sourness (lime, tamarind) and savory tastes (from the meat of domesticated animals), as well as new fragrances from spices (cinnamon, clove, pepper). New imagined communities arose with 18th-century creole patriotism among Spaniards born in the Americas and explicitly nationalist ideologies in the 19th century, but these were largely overlaid onto sensory and social understandings that assigned elite status to European flavors. Only in the 20th century did the unique taste of the corn tortilla become identified with the national community, and by that time, industrial production had fundamentally changed the tactile, olfactory, and taste sensations evoked by tortillas.


  • History of Mexico
  • Cultural History

The renowned composer and musician Agustín Lara once declared himself to be “as Mexican as epazote and tequila” (un ingrediente nacional como el epazote y la tequila).1 These two particular “national ingredients” provided a fitting match for Lara’s risqué image as a womanizer and for his rough voice, which seemed to vocally embody the scar on his cheek left by a jilted lover. Although top-shelf tequilas now compete with French cognac or bourbon whiskey, in the 1930s, at the peak of Lara’s popularity, the drink was still considered a rustic moonshine appropriate for bricklayers (albañiles) or, at best, singing cowboy movies (rancheros). Likewise, epazote, an herb believed to reduce flatulence from beans, has an astringent taste reminiscent of weeds and soap. In addition to their harsh flavors, both ingredients conveyed distinctive regional and ethnic associations: epazote is widely thought of as a native Maya food of the Yucatán, while residents of the town of Tequila, near Guadalajara, claim a pure Hispanic heritage unsullied by the race mixture common elsewhere in Mexico. These examples demonstrate both the power of food and drink to evoke visceral affiliations and the historically changing and contested nature of regional and national identities in Mexico.

The Spanish conquest of Mexico was a battle of tastes as well as civilizations; wheat and maize, wine and pulque (fermented sap of the agave) were not just dietary staples and evocative sensory experiences; they also symbolized rival religions, the Catholic Eucharist and indigenous deities. Although tastes for food gradually merged through a process parallel to race mixture (mestizaje), the result was not a homogenous national cuisine but rather endless regional, class, ethnic, and gendered distinctions. Nationalist ideologues of the 19th century sought to create unity within the Mexican menu, even while cultivating social distinction through the pursuit of fashionable French cuisine. Only in the mid-20th century did indigenous ingredients gain social acceptance following a monumental social revolution and during a period of industrial modernization. As women’s kitchen labor was mechanized and commodified, peasant cooking acquired nostalgic cachet, especially when linked to the glories of ancient civilizations rather than still-marginalized living Indians. Yet despite the homogenizing effects of markets and state policy, Mexican cuisine continues to be divided by region, class, race, and gender.

Indigenous Cuisines

Food and drink, and the flavors they evoked, played a significant role in shaping pre-Hispanic societies, in both material life and cosmological belief. The physical geography of where crops could grow, particularly the staple grain, maize, influenced the contours of indigenous societies, although gendered technologies of cooking evolved in response to changing social needs as well as new food sources. Differing subsistence strategies and culturally specific flavors in turn created regional cuisines and civilizational identities that differed profoundly from the Mexican national identities that emerged long after the Spanish conquest.

The geographer Paul Kirchhoff divided pre-Hispanic Mexico into two broad cultural regions: Mesoamerica, a relatively fertile land in the central and southern parts of the country, where maize agriculture supported complex societies, and Aridamerica, encompassing the northern third of modern Mexico, where dry conditions limited populations to small foraging bands. The various peoples of Mesoamerica constructed highly productive terraced and irrigated fields to grow maize, beans, and squash. Cooks supplemented these basic staples with flavorful condiments including chiles, tomatoes, avocados, cactus fruit and paddles, and various tropical fruits. Although turkeys and small dogs were the only domesticated animals of Mesoamerica, a wide range of fish, game, and insects were also eaten. The foraging peoples of Aridamerica ate a higher proportion of animal protein from hunting, while still often planting maize as part of seasonal migrations. People throughout ancient Mexico, whether settled or nomadic, collected wild herbs and seeds as an important part of the diet. Cacao, which only grew in the southernmost parts of modern-day Mexico, was a valuable commodity traded all the way to what is now the southwestern United States.

In ancient Mesoamerica, the labor of producing maize was sharply divided by gender. Although migratory men and women often shared tasks such as gathering foods and trapping small animals, sedentary societies drew a line between the male field work and female domestic cooking. Women’s work was essential because maize must undergo a number of culinary treatments to achieve its full nutritional potential. As a vegetarian protein, it lacks essential amino acids and must be prepared with complementary foods such as beans to offset the relative lack of animal protein in the diet. Another nutritional deficiency of maize is that B vitamins become chemically bound as the plant matures. Ancient Maya cooks developed an alkaline treatment process of cooking the maize with slaked lime or wood ash to yield nixtamal (hominy). The next cooking step, grinding the nixtamal on a basalt metate (saddle quern), produced a nutrient-rich dough. Maya women steamed the dough in small husk-wrapped cakes called tamales, while cooks in central Mexico patted out round tortillas by hand and cooked them on earthenware griddles. Thus, ancient Mesoamerican civilization depended on the hard labor of female cooks, bent for hours each day over the metate.

The act of feeding was also foundational to pre-Hispanic cosmologies. According to the sacred Maya book, the Popol Vuh, a goddess created the first humans out of maize. Many indigenous myths recalled earlier versions of animal-like people who ate more primitive foods such as mesquite seeds, thus reinforcing the idea of civilizational differences between sedentary and migratory peoples. Another common religious belief advanced the notion that humans had to feed the gods through the sacrifice of blood in order to ensure abundant crops. Establishing a fundamental equivalence between human flesh and maize, they placed themselves in a cosmological food chain that recognized the inherent violence that humans perpetrated on the environment, even when eating a basically vegetarian diet.

Pre-Hispanic Mexico displayed a pronounced culinary regionalism. The Florentine codex recorded Aztec stereotypes about the food of their neighbors: for example, the Otomí living on the frontiers of Aridamerica supposedly picked their corn before it ripened, while the mountain-dwelling Toluca did not flavor their foods with chiles. These culinary stereotypes thus served to mark civilizational boundaries, although the Aztecs were themselves former nomads from Aridamerica, who rewrote their own history after establishing themselves as lords of the valley of Anáhuac. Maya cuisine was distinguished most notably by their preference for tamales instead of the tortillas that served in Central Mexico as the daily bread.2 Culinary differentiation also marked social classes within societies. The Aztecs maintained complex sumptuary laws to prevent commoners from drinking chocolate or participating in elite banquets. Nevertheless, the great market of Tlateloloco, situated on the northern edge of the Aztecs’ island capital, offered street foods from all parts of the empire, thereby helping to preserve a popular cuisine based on the skilled labor of female cooks molding nixtamal into delicate confections rather than on exotic, and therefore expensive, ingredients such as chocolate.

Although it is difficult to recover with precision the historical flavors of ancient civilizations, certain tastes and aromas were clearly fundamental to daily life while others marked off festive occasions. The most everyday tastes among the Aztecs were corn tortillas, made savory through the process of nixtamalization. The fragrance of wooden fires further enhanced the flavor, although shortages of wood may have led to burning other substances, including perhaps dung. Beans, cooked tender in earthenware pots, added further savory notes to the daily diet. Chile peppers and, for the elite, chocolate were predominantly bitter rather than sweet. The Florentine Codex contains descriptions suggesting that stews, called molli in the Nahuatl language, offered simple flavor combinations of chiles, vegetables, and meats, for example, yellow chiles and tomatoes with white fish and fowl, or red chiles and ground squash seeds with dark fish. Turkey was consumed with many different sauces made with yellow, green, or red chiles. Salt was used to preserve various foods, and trade from coastal saltpans to inland cities was a bulwark of pre-Hispanic commerce. A sprinkle of salt might be the only flavoring added to everyday tortillas, heightening the savor of the nixtamal. Fermented foods such as pulque added sourness to the palate. The Maya also fermented their nixtamal at times to make a sour dough that heightened the nutritional value, like yogurt, and also changed the flavor. Sweetness entered the diet through the consumption of fresh fruits and honey. Texture was also an important component of the flavor profile. Tamales were probably rather dense, although tequesquite (mineral with sodium bicarbonate) could have been added to lighten their texture. Frothiness was considered important for chocolate, and cooks poured the liquid chocolate back and forth between tall earthenware containers.3

Taste helped to imagine local communities in pre-Hispanic times, but they were quite different from the nation that Mexico would later become. Sharp social divisions existed between the nomads of Aridamerica and the farmers of Mesoamerica, as well as between diverse cultural groups such as the Maya and Nahuas of Mesoamerica. Yet those boundaries were frequently crossed, as the Aztecs themselves demonstrated. Social boundaries were rearranged more radically following European contact.

Culinary Blending in the Colonial Era

Spanish conquistadors introduced foods along with language and religion in their attempt to remake indigenous societies in the image of Europe, but although they renamed the colony New Spain, the culture continued to be fragmented along regional and ethnic lines. In many regions, particularly in the south, European ingredients added only a few new tastes to what remained a basically indigenous cuisine and society. Spaniards focused their colonizing efforts on the central highlands and the north, transplanting familiar foods, but the settlers also accepted new flavors such as the native chiles. Coastal areas, meanwhile, had further fusion cuisine with the introduction of new foods by African slaves and Asian migrants from Spain’s empire in the Philippines. Despite pervasive race mixture and culinary transculturation, enduring colonial hierarchies privileged European influences while disparaging indigenous tastes.

The Columbian exchange of plants and animals reshaped the landscape and food habits throughout New Spain. Wheat, wine, and olive oil were not only European dietary staples; they were also essential for the Catholic ritual of the Eucharist. Even while planting these new foods, missionaries sought to eradicate native foods such as maize and amaranth that were associated with local religions. The medieval Spanish economy was founded on pastoralism as well as agriculture, and meat was essential to the diet of European aristocrats. Fortunately for the conquistadors, although not for their indigenous subjects, cattle, sheep, and hogs bred prolifically in the new landscape, where they faced few natural predators and often grew fat on the natives’ crops. Numerous other Mediterranean domesticates took root, including citrus and stone fruit, walnuts and almonds, and aromatic root vegetables like onion, garlic, and carrots. Spanish officials also sought to transplant Asian spices to the New World, but while a few spices such as cinnamon, coriander, and ginger became naturalized, the spice trade proved largely unprofitable. By contrast, sugar, another Asian domesticate that had been introduced to the Mediterranean by Arab traders, became an important crop in the tropical lowlands of New Spain. Rice was likely introduced to Mexico by West African slaves, although African varieties of rice were later displaced by more productive Asian strains.

European colonialism also transformed the gendered labor of food production, while still preserving patriarchal distinctions. Wheat required a host of expensive new technologies, including plows, mills, and ovens. The production of alcohol likewise employed grape presses, fermentation vessels, and, beginning in the 17th century, copper stills for making brandy. Sugar mills were equally elaborate mechanisms, driven by animal and later water power and requiring elaborate boiling tanks to remove impurities within the cane. All of these industries were gendered male, although often performed by forced labor—slaves in lowland sugar plantations and Indian tribute workers and criminals in urban bakeries. Unlike native elites, who were fed by female cooks, European aristocrats employed male chefs using brick stoves (fogón) and frying pans. Domestic cooking, however, retained the indigenous technology of basalt grinding stones and earthenware griddles and cooking pots. Although universal in Spanish homes as well as the countryside, indigenous cooking technology was relegated to lower-class status.

Indeed, race as well as gender came to define culinary and social status in New Spain, even as mestizaje spread through society. Rebecca Earle has described the importance of food in differentiating Spaniards from Indians, not only in maintaining social hierarchies but in a corporeal sense as well. Colonists feared that their bodies would degenerate in the insalubrious New World environment, and they sought out wheat bread, wine, and meat to preserve their health. Urban artisans such as bakers and butchers therefore became important arbiters of colonial status, despite their low personal standing. In 18th-century Mexico City, the finest wheat bread was reserved for the colonial elite. Large commercial bakeries used lower quality wheat, maize, and other flours to produce coarse bread for the mixed-race castes. At the bottom of this hierarchy were Indians and the poorest plebeians living in slums around the city center, who consumed corn tortillas.

European foods were also fundamental to the urban commercial economy, as wealthy administrators, clergy, and merchants demanded foods appropriate to their rank. The devastation caused by European livestock to indigenous farmland prompted the viceregal authorities to limit grazing to peripheral coastal and northern regions of the colony. As a result, cattle and sheep were driven long distances to the urban markets in the central highlands. By the 18th century, grain markets had become similarly integrated throughout Mexico. Large quantities of both wheat and maize were required to feed the principal cities. These markets, in turn, led to heightened social inequalities, and famine became widespread among impoverished rural dwellers during a serious of poor harvests at the end of the 18th century.4

The Spanish conquest seems to have shifted the indigenous sensory spectrum gradually away from bitter and heightened the emphasis on sweet and sour, while also adding savory meats and aromatic spices. The simple flavors of pre-Hispanic molli were transformed into far more elaborate moles. The tastes of chiles remained foundational to these dishes, and European almonds and sesame seeds were similar to the pumpkin and amaranth used to thicken indigenous stews. The introduction of Old World ingredients such as meats and spices, particularly cinnamon, clove, and black pepper, transformed the dish more radically, giving it a complex, baroque character. European ingredients also made inroads into indigenous diets. Although natives largely rejected the priests’ wheat bread, they did come to add pork fat to tamales, providing both a richer taste and also a lighter texture by allowing air to be beaten into the nixtamal dough. Sugar also spread through society and was used as a preservative to supplement salt. All sorts of fruits, vegetables, and seeds were candied, and sweet potato, pineapple, coconut, and amaranth remain popular desserts for all classes of Mexican society. Sugar came to be added to chocolate as well, replacing some indigenous flavorings. The proliferation of citrus trees from Spain and tamarind from the Philippines made sour flavors more common, and a squeeze of lime became ubiquitous on all manner of foods.

Spanish colonialism sought to establish a rigid hierarchy, with European settlers and culture at the top and all things indigenous below, but the social and culinary landscape became far more confused. Creoles, who were born in the Americas of Spanish lineage but were widely excluded from political power by the crown, began to adopt indigenous tastes as a sensory grounding of patriotic attachment to the land. A taste for chiles in particular came to separate creoles from their peninsular Spanish rivals, even as differences between the staples maize and wheat preserved social distinctions of race and class in Mexico, thus setting the stage for a conflicted national cuisine following independence.

Imagining a National Cuisine

Nationalist ideologues quickly perceived the value of culinary patriotism in helping to naturalize the imagined communities they sought to create, yet the diversity of regional and ethnic cuisines frustrated early attempts to unify the nation at the table. Elites sought to use foods as a means of building the modern, European nation they aspired to rule, and proclaimed their sophistication through a taste for French haute cuisine. They also adopted the newly emerging science of nutrition to explain the backwardness of the countryside by blaming it on the supposed deficiencies of the corn tortilla. Thus, wheat, the hallmark of Spanish colonialism, remained the ideal within nationalist discourse of 19th-century Mexico.

Cookbooks and other culinary literature helped shape the way that Mexicans imagined their new nation. Beginning in the 1830s, authors composed dozens of works exploring Mexico’s culinary heritage and introducing novel dishes from Europe. Although the first thick, leather-bound tomes were affordable only for the rich, by the 1860s the spread of literacy and the rise of a penny press brought paperback recipe collections to middle-class housewives and even servants. Many of these works advanced a clear patriotic agenda, naming dishes for national heroes such as Donato Guerra or, collectively, the Insurgents. Yet care must be taken in associating these supposed culinary novelties with the 19th century. The historian José Luis Juárez has debunked a popular origin myth of chiles en nogada, whose green stuffed chiles, white walnut sauce, and red pomegranate seeds were supposedly combined in honor of the new national flag. A common colonial dish, these ornate stuffed chiles were not actually attributed to the emperor Agustín Iturbide until the 1940s, and then by conservative intellectuals.5 Moreover, the social and geographic scope of Mexican culinary literature was generally limited to creole urban dishes from Puebla, Oaxaca, Veracruz, Guadalajara, and Mexico City, thereby ignoring indigenous dishes and peripheral regions, particularly the Yucatán and the northern frontier. This usage reflected not only the perception of national elites but also international stereotypes. Many cookbooks were prepared by Parisian publishing houses and intended for a pan-American market that was more interested in the historic capitals of Mexican creole culture than in the actual diversity of village cooking.6 Travelers by coach or train of necessity sampled rural foods, but a self-conscious culinary tourism among indigenous communities would not become fashionable until the late 20th century.

Nineteenth-century culinary tourists also pursued the national cuisine through a variegated urban geography of street foods, taverns, and restaurants. Then as now, the food trades provided entrepreneurial opportunities for newcomers, particularly French, Italian, German, and Chinese migrants, who introduced new culinary fashions. Although small in numbers, these migrants had a significant influence because of their perceived cultural capital. Until mid-century, foreign restaurants shared their preferred middle- and upper-class clientele with traditional fondas (Hispanic bistros), pulque shops, and street vendors. During religious festivals, rural dwellers made pilgrimages to urban centers for the spectacle of mass and to earn some cash by selling dishes both traditional and modern, including tamales, ice cream, and aguas frescas (fruit soft drinks) at Holy Week and chito (fried goat) for the festival of the Virgin of Guadalupe (December 12). During the second half of the 19th century, and particularly under the rule of Porfirio Díaz (1876–1911), exclusive social clubs and French restaurants became centers of elite sociability.

This reorganization of public space also reshaped the gendered labor of the home. The increasing adoption of imported gendered ideology, the Victorian “cult of true womanhood,” isolated middle-class women in the home. Wealthy Porfirians employed male chefs to produce French haute cuisine using imported stoves and other kitchen appliances. Elite women, or those who aspired to such status, acquired domestic manuals to learn the decorum of Victorian entertaining. While this labor imposed emotional demands on aspiring elite women, the burden was even heavier on maids pressed into reproducing foreign delicacies on the metate and fogón of the colonial kitchen. Preserved and canned foods such as pâté, ham, and sausage, along with wines, could be purchased from migrant grocers to provide a European touch for middle-class housewives who could not afford to employ a foreign chef. At least the maids were on more familiar ground in preparing traditional moles, stews, and tamales for secluded, domestic meals. Social conventions also allowed the elite to sample enchiladas and other street foods on evening paseos through Mexico City’s Alameda Park and its provincial counterparts. Thus, the basis for a common national cuisine based largely on indigenous dishes was established in the affective economy of the elite, but it was not acknowledged publicly until social changes of the 20th century.

Class-based divisions between the fine dining and street foods were paralleled by declining nutritional access for the rural poor. Although the chaos of the wars of independence actually benefited many campesinos around the time of independence by allowing them to retain more of their harvest for subsistence, mid-century reform laws increased the commercialization of food supplies and heightened inequalities. Haciendas catering to profitable urban and export markets appropriated land from villages that had formerly fed themselves with maize and beans.7 Mexican elites were aware of the growing nutritional problems, but rather than allow more equal access to land, they attributed rural backwardness to cultural causes. Using the newly developed science of nutrition, they argued that the inferiority of a maize-based diet prevented the poor from improving their situation. The answer, according to this “tortilla discourse,” was not land reform but rather a European diet based on wheat.

Cookbooks and other evidence suggest that flavors were slow to follow the social and cultural changes that swept Mexico in the 19th century. New foods spread unevenly, further contributing to the regional differentiation of Mexican cuisine. European fine dining restaurants and imported luxuries were limited to wealthy urban consumers, or, in the case of bottled beer, perhaps to factory workers. Migrants did introduce new regional specialties; for example, Welsh miners brought pasties with them in the 1820s when they came to work in the silver mines of Real del Monte, in the present-day state of Hidalgo, northeast of Mexico City. Agricultural colonists scattered new varieties of European cheese across the countryside, while Chinese migrants brought stir-fry to northern Mexico, particularly the state of Sonora, as a consequence of U.S. racial exclusion laws. Yet even these new dishes were often Mexicanized through the incorporation of chile peppers and other local ingredients.

If the actual tastes of Mexican foods changed relatively little over the 19th century, on the role of cookbooks in the construction of a national cuisine grounded in regional differences but united in spirit. Thus, the creation of a Mexican national cuisine, and indeed the modernization of the Mexican kitchen, was more apparent than real in the 19th century. Cookbooks did contribute to an ideological unification of the nation through the acknowledgement and at times exploration of regional differences—culinary patrias chicas. Thus, the dissemination of recipes, like the development of a regionally inflected Mexican songbook, provided concrete sensory expression to the imagined community of the nation. But new culinary fashions and food technologies were relatively limited in scope. The indigenous cuisine of maize tortillas, beans, and chiles, augmented during the colonial period by occasional meats and condiments, remained the dietary staple of the vast majority of the population. Nevertheless, the changes suggested during the first hundred years of independence would become widespread during the 20th century.

Industrial Cuisine

The agrarian uprising that swept Mexico beginning in 1910 confirms the anthropologist David Howes’s observation that social revolutions entail sensory revolutions as well.8 Intended to guarantee access to land so that campesino communities could feed themselves corn tortillas, the Mexican revolution brought profound transformations to the nation’s dietary staple. The introduction of mechanical nixtamal mills and tortilla machines revolutionized the lives of countless rural women, who no longer spent hours each day grinding corn on the metate and cooking tortillas. The mid-century origins of a dehydrated tortilla flour industry, and of industrial agriculture more generally, further changed the taste and social life of maize, while making it more difficult for communities to support themselves through subsistence agriculture. As ordinary Mexicans came to depend on commodity maize for their daily meals, the elite claimed social distinction by consuming handmade tortillas, after having spurned the indigenous grain for hundreds of years. The sensory transformations and social ironies of maize were repeated throughout the Mexican food system as 20th-century industrialization and urbanization served to standardize a national cuisine while preserving and reformulating hierarchies of region, gender, race, and class.

Efforts to industrialize Mexican food were split between conflicting political agendas that sought both to integrate local agriculture into global commodity chains and to maintain the country’s food self-sufficiency. In the 1920s and 1930s, after a decade of civil war, governments encouraged the reconstruction and expansion of Porfirian commercial farms to help feed the cities, even while granting communal lands to strategic peasant constituencies such as Emiliano Zapatista’s followers in Morelos. Land distribution reached a peak under the presidency of Lázaro Cárdenas (1934–1940), but small farmers ultimately lost out to the more pressing political demands for cheap urban food. Mexican agriculture was further diverted from subsistence production during World War II to grow strategic crops needed for the Allied war effort, including seed oils, grains, sugar, and even poppies to make morphine to treat wounded soldiers. The so-called Green Revolution, developed with the assistance of scientists from the Rockefeller Foundation, further consolidated Mexican commercial agriculture based on monoculture seeds and chemical inputs. Unable to compete with these commercial and infrastructural advantages, millions of small farmers migrated to the cities in the postwar era, providing a labor reserve that further subsidized national industry. The tortilla industry benefited from both the government subsidies and maize monoculture, favoring particular varieties suited to large-scale milling.9 Commercial agriculture also specialized in basic staples such as wheat, corn, and beans; high value fruits and vegetables including avocados, tomatoes, and citrus; and livestock, all intended for urban or North American markets.

The modern Mexican diet was likewise shaped by new commercial channels for delivering food. Urban reformers of the late Porfirian era built covered municipal markets and slaughterhouses to replace the seeming disorder and unhygienic conditions of open-air markets (tianguís) and livestock corrals. From the beginning, these new institutions struggled both to provision a rapidly growing population and to contain vendors who were accustomed to ambulant work routines. Around mid-century, supermarkets modeled on the United States began to open in affluent neighborhoods, resulting in a growing privatization of food provisioning. North American food processing companies also encouraged the rise of the Mexican junk food industry. At times, firms catered to local tastes by hiring food engineers from New Jersey to devise industrial formulas for adding chicharrón (pork crackling) flavor to grain pellets. Other new tastes came through international migration, such as peanuts with crunchy soy coating called cacahuates japonés, which were invented in Mexico by a Japanese immigrant.

The industrial kitchen also had profound consequences for gendered labor in Mexico, helping draw women into the workplace. The introduction of mechanical nixtamal mills in the first half of the 20th century was described by one villager as a “revolution of the women against the authority of the men.”10 No longer bound to subsistence food production, rural women could supplement household income through artisanal crafts or petty trade. By mid-century, economical tortilla factories were spreading throughout the country, further mechanizing the dietary staple. As blenders became standard equipment for grinding sauces and other dishes, the age-old metate was finally retired from the Mexican kitchen for all but the most festive of occasions. Pressure cookers, gas stoves, and refrigerators further transformed cooking, although the acceptance of new technologies and foods did not eliminate women’s domestic skills. Instead, they learned to adapt new items to traditional favorites, for example, boiling cans of condensed milk to make the popular caramel dessert cajeta. The historian Sandra Aguilar-Rodríguez has observed that these new kitchen technologies were one of the principle ways in which both rural and urban women experienced modernity at mid-century.

Food also became one of the political foundations of Mexico’s one-party state for most of the 20th century. The historian Enrique Ochoa has examined the growth of an elaborate food welfare bureaucracy that began under the Cárdenas administration and intended to prevent social unrest. Rather than seeking to ensure basic dietary adequacy, the bureaucracy responded haphazardly to successive social crises while pursuing the basic objectives of forestalling political unrest and repressing union wage demands. The establishment of a National Institute of Nutrition led to studies repudiating the Porfirian tortilla discourse, but the recognition of corn’s basic value did nothing to resolve the widespread poverty that stunted the growth of so many children. Nutritional reformers continued to emulate North American dietary advice, campaigning for the increased consumption of powdered milk, despite the lack of pure water and widespread lactose intolerance.11 Perhaps the most significant change to popular diets came through indirect policies, particularly government subsidies to the junk food industry. Already in the early 1990s, Dr. Adolfo Chávez identified a dietary trap in which poor Mexicans were acquiring the health problems of the rich world, including obesity and heart disease, while still suffering the dietary problems of the poor world such as anemia due to the lack of basic nutrients.12

As the diet became increasingly commercialized and industrialized, a nostalgic concern for preserving traditions came to define the public expressions of Mexican cuisine. The taco and the torta (sandwich), although seemingly age-old folk foods, were commercial products of urbanization, first appearing in the archival record in late-19th-century Mexico City, as migrants from the countryside served up their regional culinary traditions to neighbors on an inexpensive tortilla or bolillo (flat roll). Continued migration through the 20th century served to nationalize these invented culinary traditions, even while helping spread local variations such as specialty tacos.13 Regional cuisines themselves became standardized through culinary tourism, from Sonora’s carne asada, served up in 1950s Hermosillo as part of nostalgia for the rancho, to the codification of Oaxaca’s diverse local cooking traditions into an iconic “seven moles” as a convenient weekly round of restaurant specials.14 Alcohol provided further opportunities for the commercial production of folklore through media at mid-century. The Sauza family of Jalisco supported radio programs and ranchero movies that wove together romantic comedy, popular music, and rural settings to promote the region’s tequila, thereby cementing the acceptance of a regional beverage as a national icon.15

The 20th century brought the most profound changes in Mexican taste since the conquest, if not since the domestication of agriculture. The peasant diet of complex carbohydrates and vegetable proteins was largely replaced by an industrial one based on sugar and fats. Sweetness, already growing in importance since the colonial era, became the predominant flavor of industrial soft drinks and snack foods. Yet other changes could be quite subtle, as peasants described the difference between corn ground on the basalt metate, which acquired a particular flavor because of the bits of stone impregnated in the nixtamal dough, and corn ground by the steel blades of a mechanical mill. The particular flavors of cooking over a wood fire were also lost during industrialization; as one village connoisseur explained, the newfangled tortillas “tasted like electricity.”16 These changes in food were not experienced as taste alone; the transformation of the tortilla also brought new textures due to dehydrated nixtamal, creating what journalist Alma Guillermoprieto called “the rounds of grilled cardboard that at present constitute the nation’s basic foodstuff.”17

The tortilla gained acceptance within the Mexican national cuisine during the social revolutions of the 20th century, even as the taste of this staple dish was degraded by industrialization. Tortilla mechanization, and related changes in the Mexican food system, facilitated radical social changes of urbanization and female movement into the labor market. As working-class women turned to factory-made tortillas of dehydrated corn flour, the wealthy sought out artisanal tortillas made of fresh nixtamal as a form of social distinction.18 Thus, the Mexican national cuisine preserved social hierarchies, even while embracing a pre-Hispanic staple.

Reflections on Taste and Nation

Commensality has always been one of the basic foundations of human communities at all scales, and nationalist ideologues were quick to employ food in their efforts to imagine a national community. As a preverbal form of culture, tastes for food reach deep into both individual and collective consciousness. Although scholars have contended that tastes for food are the most resilient of cultural expressions, historical evidence demonstrates dramatic changes in Mexican tastes over time. Using the Spanish conquest as a convenient historical benchmark, although without assuming uniform or fixed pre-Hispanic tastes, it is possible to distinguish two significant periods of change, the early colonial formation of mestizo cuisines and the 20th-century introduction of industrial food processing. By contrast, the revolutions of the 19th century appear to have brought little significant change in the nation’s diets and tastes. The arc of Mexican culinary development seems to run from pre-Hispanic emphasis on bitterness to a colonial cuisine marked by increasing sweet and savory flavors to a 20th-century triumph of sweetness.

The role of outsiders in constructing the imagined community through food likewise becomes clear from this brief survey of food and the senses. Mexican cuisine was constructed through successive waves of migration, starting with the arrival of “indigenous” peoples more than ten thousand years ago. Moreover, claims that particular foods exemplify Mexico—whether European wheat bread beginning with the colonial era or artisanal corn tortillas with the contemporary fashion for indigenous culinary tourism—served as a form of culinary diplomacy intended to gain status for Mexican elites in the eyes of outsiders. Many global representations of Mexican food were actually disseminated by outsiders, including North American food processing firms such as Taco Bell and Old El Paso. Although nationalists have decried chili con carne and taco shells as inauthentic bastardizations of Mexican regional cuisine, these dishes were actually created by Mexican Americans living in border regions that were once part of Mexico. Thus, attempts to define authenticity, whether based on geographical or ethnic origins, are often politicized attempts to erase the cultural contributions of marginalized peoples, whether the indigenous people of Mexico or Mexican Americans.19

Contemporary changes in diet and cuisine, although at times seemingly radical, have in many cases culminated long-term trends. The recent globalization and privatization of the Mexican food system, marked by the remarkable predominance of Walmart in food and other retailing, is at another level simply the continuation of commercializing trends reaching back to the 19th century and even the colonial era.20 Meanwhile, the rise of a restaurant haute cuisine, referred to as the nueva cocina mexicana, with its imaginative attempts to recreate Aztec and Maya dishes, confirms the importance of nostalgia as a form of social distinction. European and increasingly Asian influences within this nueva cocina recall the culinary fashions introduced by 19th-century migrants. And yet, although industrialization has certainly brought an unheralded standardization of Mexican regional cuisines, differences persist in the practices of home cooks. The culinary imagined community in Mexico thus remains largely a product of the imagination.

Discussion of Historical Literature on Food and Taste

Although historians have long taken seriously the production of distribution of food through the analysis of agriculture, food riots, and nutrition, it is only since the late 20th century that the field of food studies has begun to take seriously the labor of home cooking as well as cultures of consumption. The French Annales school, led at mid-century by Fernand Braudel, is rightly seen as a pioneer in the study of food and nutrition as one of the basic structures that determined standards of living through a Malthusian balance between production and population levels.21 In Mexican history, the interdisciplinary Berkeley school was another early advocate of these quantitative methods, particularly with demographic studies by Sherburne F. Cook, Lesley Byrd Simpson, and Woodrow Borah, who suggested that the terrible mortality of the Conquest actually improved the diets of survivors, thereby adding a new twist to the debates about the Black Legend of Spanish colonialism.22 But as the French-trained historian Enrique Florescano showed through the documentation of maize price histories, by the 18th century the Malthusian balance had shifted once again, and the severe food shortages of the late colonial era contributed to the crisis of independence.23

The rise of the new cultural history in the 1980s added emphasis on consumption and identity to previous studies of food production and distribution. The pioneering cultural history of Mexican food, Sonia Corcuera de Mancera’s Entre gula y templanza (1979), revealed the deep civilizational values attached to indigenous maize and Spanish wheat as well as the widespread culinary mestizaje that took shape over the centuries since the Conquest. More recent works by Arnold Bauer, Robert Weis, and Sandra Aguilar-Rodríguez have examined more fully the importance of the gendered labor of food processing. Enrique Ochoa’s history of 20th-century food politics demonstrated the success of the one-party state in creating an elaborate welfare bureaucracy to manipulate food markets and forestall urban unrest, without ever addressing the poor nutrition of the general population. Kristen Appendini’s research has carried this story forward through the contemporary neoliberal restructuring of the food system.

National cuisines have been an important focus of recent historical research around the world, thereby demonstrating how food has served to naturalize the imagined communities of nationalist ideologues.24 My first book, ¡Que vivan los tamales! Food and the Making of Mexican Identity (1998), examined the attempts of Mexican elites to eradicate maize, the foundation of indigenous societies, and replace it with the commercial crop wheat. The effort failed in large part because women, as organizers of family consumption, used their own resources as the basis for an alternative vision of the national identity. José Luis Juárez has written a trilogy documenting in meticulous detail the rise of a Mexican national cuisine from reluctant creole patriots of the late colonial era to bombastic culinary professionals of the contemporary era. An innovative study by Steffan Igor Ayora Díaz documented culinary nationalism in a separatist region among Yucatecans who sought to forge an autonomous gastronomic culture, only to see their project subsumed within a hegemonic national culture. My book Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food (2012) explored the limits of a national perspective in food history by showing the importance of outsiders, particularly Mexican Americans, in shaping global images of Mexican cuisine.

Sensory histories of Mexican food have only begun to be written, although the field holds great potential for future research.25 Two recent works in Mexican history illustrate the methods and possibilities, as well as the archival challenges for pinning down the ephemeral experiences of physical taste. Marcy Norton’s history of chocolate upended traditional accounts of Spanish imperialism by showing how indigenous practices and technologies of production and consumption were incorporated into European medical beliefs and taste preferences. José Orozco, meanwhile, described how tequila manufacturers sought to use modern distilling technology to remove the sour taste and rank odors of the indigenous pulque. These two sources point in opposite directions, suggesting both the potential hegemonic and counterhegemonic power of food. Continued research on Mexicans’ evolving tastes could help to clarify the role of food in the nation’s history.

Primary Sources

Food is everywhere and nowhere in the archive. The codices, largely written in the 16th century by indigenous scribes under Spanish direction, provide information in great detail on culinary practices of pre-Hispanic peoples. Supplemented with archaeological sources and records of material culture, they provide an important historical baseline for the development of Mexico’s national cuisine. Colonial archives also contain rich sources on culinary mestizaje, although the scattered references made it difficult to assemble a coherent picture. Fortunately, digital finding aids for Mexican archives are now readily available, thanks largely to the work of Linda Arnold, and future scholars will have a much easier time in their research.

Sources for the national period are likewise voluminous and scattered. The best collections of historic cookbooks and culinary literature can be found at the Centro de Estudios de la Historia de México CARSO (formerly Condumex) in Mexico City; the Mandeville Special Collections library at the University of California, San Diego; and the Rare Book Collections at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Traditional documentary repositories such as the Archivo General de la Nación, municipal and notarial archives, and more specialized sources such as the ministries of education, health, and the economy contain rich materials for those diligent enough to plow through them. Newspapers, increasingly digitized, complement these sources, yet all of the above tend to privilege the foods of the elite. Numerous travel accounts such as Fanny Calderón de la Barca’s Letters from Mexico provide another rich source on foods, particularly of the lower classes, which are largely invisible in culinary literature. Folk songs and sayings are perhaps the best source for the voices of the popular classes. Particularly valuable collections are Aline Desentis Otálora, El que come y canta, and Herón Pérez Martínez, Refrán viejo nunca miente.26

Links to Digital Materials

La Cocina Histórica. Recipes from the Mexican Cookbook Collection at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

La Cocina Mexicana. Recipes and biographies of exemplary cooks compiled at the University of Guadalajara.

Comida Mexicana: La Mejor Cocina del Mundo. Includes links to recipes, restaurants, stores, and cooking schools.

Mexico Cooks! Blog by Cristina Potters.

The Mija Chronicles. Blog by Lesley Téllez.

Pati’s Mexican Table. Blog by Pati Jinich. Website of leading restaurateur.

Traditional Mexican Cuisine: Ancestral, Ongoing Community Culture, the Michoacán Paradigm. Official inscription of Mexican regional cooking into the UNESCO List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Further Reading

  • Aguilar-Rodríguez, Sandra. “Cooking Modernity: Food, Gender, and Class in 1940s and 1950s Mexico City and Guanajuato.” PhD Diss., University of Manchester, 2008.
  • Appendini, Kirsten. De la milpa a los tortibonos: La restructuración de la política alimentaria en México. 2d ed. Mexico City: El Colegio de México, 2001.
  • Ayora Diaz, Steffan Igor. Foodscapes, Foodfields, and Identities in Yucatan. New York: Berghahn, 2012.
  • Bauer, Arnold J. Goods, Power, History: Latin America’s Material Culture. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
  • Coe, Sophie D. America’s First Cuisines. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994.
  • Corcuera, Sonia. Entre gula y templanza: Un aspecto de la historia mexicana. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1981.
  • Crosby, Alfred W., Jr. The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1972.
  • Earle, Rebecca. The Body of the Conquistador: Food, Race, and the Colonial Experience in Spanish America, 1492–1700. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
  • Fitting, Elizabeth. The Struggle for Maize: Campesinos, Workers, and Transgenic Corn in the Mexican Countryside. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011.
  • García Acosta, Virginia. Las panaderías, sus dueños y trabajadores: Ciudad de México, siglo XVIII. Mexico City: Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores de Antropología Social, 1989.
  • Juárez López, José Luis. La lenta emergencia de la comida mexicana, ambigüedades criollas 1750–1800. Mexico City: Editorial Porrúa, 2000.
  • Juárez López, José Luis. Nacionalismo culinario: La cocina mexicana en el siglo XX. Mexico City: Conaculta, 2008.
  • Juárez López, José Luis. Engranaje culinario: La cocina mexicana en el siglo XIX. Mexico City: Conaculta, 2012.
  • Long, Janet, ed. Conquista y comida: Consecuencias del encuentro de dos mundos. Mexico City: UNAM, 1996.
  • Norton, Marcy. Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures: A History of Tobacco and Chocolate in the Atlantic World. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008.
  • Ochoa, Enrique C. Feeding Mexico: The Political Uses of Food since 1910. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 2000.
  • Pierce, Gretchen, and Aurea Toxqui, eds. Alcohol in Latin America: A Social and Cultural History. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2014.
  • Pilcher, Jeffrey M. ¡Que vivan los tamales! Food and the Making of Mexican Identity. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1998.
  • Pilcher, Jeffrey M. The Sausage Rebellion: Public Health, Private Enterprise, and Meat in Mexico City, 1890–1917. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2006
  • Pilcher, Jeffrey M. Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.
  • Warman, Arturo. Corn and Capitalism: How a Botanical Bastard Grew to Global Dominance. Translated by Nancy L. Westrate. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.
  • Weis, Robert. Bakers and Basques: A Social History of Bread in Mexico. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2012.


  • 1. Andrew Wood, Agustín Lara: A Cultural History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).

  • 2. Karl A. Taube, “The Maize Tamale in Classic Maya Diet, Epigraphy, and Art,” American Antiquity 54.1 (1989): 31–51.

  • 3. Brian Stross, “Food, Foam and Fermentation in Mesoamerica,” Food, Culture, and Society 14.4 (December 2011): 477–501.

  • 4. Amílcar Eduardo Challú, “Grain Markets, Food Supply Policies, and Living Standards in Colonial Mexico,” Journal of Economic History 69.2 (2009): 533–568.

  • 5. José Luis Juárez, Engranaje culinario: La cocina mexicana en el siglo XIX (Mexico City: Conaculta, 2012).

  • 6. Sarah Bak-Geller Corona, “Los recetarios ‘afrancesados’ del siglo XIX en México: La construcción de la nación Mexicana y de un modelo culinario nacional,” Anthropology of Food S6 (December 2009): 3, 9.

  • 7. John Coatsworth, “Anotaciones sobre la producción de alimentos durante el Porfiriato,” Historia Mexicana 26.2 (1976): 167–187.

  • 8. David Howes, “Introduction: Empire of the Senses,” in Empire of the Senses: The Sensual Culture Reader (Oxford: Berg, 2005), 11.

  • 9. Felipe Torres et al., eds., La industria de la masa y la tortilla: Desarrollo y tecnología (Mexico City: UNAM, 1996).

  • 10. Oscar Lewis, Life in a Mexican Village: Tepoztlán Revisited (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1951), 108.

  • 11. Sandra Aguilar-Rodríguez, “Nutrition and Modernity: Milk Consumption in 1940s and 1950s Mexico,” Radical History Review 110 (Spring 2011): 36–58.

  • 12. Rolando Cordera and Ciro Murayama, eds., La nutrición en México y la transición epidemiológica (Mexico City: Instituto Nacional de Nutrición, 1993).

  • 13. Domingo García Garza, “Una etnografía de los ‘tacos’ en México. El caso de Monterrey,” Estudios Sociales 19.37 (January–June 2011): 32–63.

  • 14. Ernesto Camou Healy, “La nostalgia del rancho: Notas sobre la cultura urbana y la carne asada,” in Sociedad, economía y cultura alimentaria, ed. Shoko Doode and Emma Paulina Pérez (Hermosillo, Mexico: Centro de Investigación en Alimentación y Desarrollo/Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social, 1994), 421–429.

  • 15. José Orozco, “Tequila Sauza and the Redemption of Mexico’s Vital Fluids, 1873–1970,” in Alcohol in Latin America: A Social and Cultural History, ed. Gretchen Pierce and Aurea Toxqui (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2014), 185–209.

  • 16. Jeffrey M. Pilcher, “Industrial Tortillas and Folkloric Pepsi: The Nutritional Consequences of Hybrid Cuisines in Mexico,” in Food Nations: Selling Taste in Consumer Societies, ed. Warren Belasco and Philip Scranton (New York: Routledge, 2002), 222–239.

  • 17. Alma Guillermoprieto, “In Search of the Tortilla,” New Yorker (26 November 1999): 46.

  • 18. Ivonne Vizcarra Bordi, “The ‘Authentic’ Taco and Peasant Women: Nostalgic Consumption in the Era of Globalization,” Culture and Agriculture 28.2 (Fall 2006): 97–107.

  • 19. Jeffrey M. Pilcher, Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

  • 20. James J. Biles et al., “Globalization of Food Retailing and Transformation of Supply Networks: Consequences for Small-scale Agricultural Producers in Southeastern Mexico,” Journal of Latin American Geography 6.2 (2007): 55–75.

  • 21. Fernand Braudel, The Structures of Everyday Life: The Limits of the Possible, vol. 1 of Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th Century trans. Siân Reynolds (New York: Harper & Row, 1979).

  • 22. Sherburne F. Cook and Woodrow Borah, “Indian Food Production and Consumption in Central Mexico Before and After the Conquest (1500–1650),” in Essays in Population History: Mexico and California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979).

  • 23. Enrique Florescano, Precios de maíz y crisis agrícolas en México, 1708–1810 (Mexico City: El Colegio de México, 1969).

  • 24. See Alison Smith, “National Cuisines,” in The Oxford Handbook of Food History, ed. Jeffrey M. Pilcher (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 444–460.

  • 25. See Gerard J. Fitzgerald and Gabrielle M. Petrick, “In Good Taste: Rethinking American History with Our Palates,” Journal of American History 95.2 (September 2008): 392–404.

  • 26. Aline Desentis Otálora, El que come y canta . . . : Cancionero gastronómico de México, 2 vols. (Mexico City: Conaculta, 1999); and Herón Pérez Martínez, Refrán viejo nunca miente: Refranero mexicano (Zamora, Mexico: El Colegio de Michoacán, 1993).