AARP International

Guardians of Culinary Customs

Words and photographs by Elisabeth Malkin

Traditional cooks in Tlaxcala, Mexico share their knowledge with a new generation

When Nicolasa Hernández Muñoz was a girl, her mother took her out into the fields of central Mexico to catch a toad. Once she was holding the toad, she gently stroked it with one hand and then the other in an ancient ritual, before cupping it, gingerly lowering it back to the ground, and letting it go. The ceremony which is known as sapo rey, or toad king, marked her symbolic entry into the family kitchen. The careful mimicking of the movements used to prepare corn, shape it into a tortilla, and place it onto the griddle are confirmation that a girl has mastered the ability to handle the ingredients at the heart of Mexican cooking.

A generation later, with her mother and grandmother, Hernández, 56, took her own daughter, Dalia, to the fields for the same sapo rey ritual. “It sensitizes the hands not to move too brusquely,” said Dalia Rodríguez Hernández, 37, sitting at the long dining table at her home in the town of Contla de Juan Coamatzi.

A revival of the art of traditional cooking is under way in Mexico. Chefs are turning to ancient ingredients and trusted techniques to assemble their own versions of Mexican cuisine. Social media are filled with market tours and recipe videos while tourism boards promote their regions’ local specialties. That appreciation is giving visibility to the long-neglected caretakers of Mexico’s gastronomic history, the rural women who have passed down knowledge over generations. The complex dishes that had been a source of domestic pride are now winning public admiration and generating respect for one of the country’s most marginalized groups, the older women steeped in the heritage of Mexican food. In Tlaxcala, a small state on Mexico's central plateau about two hours’ drive from Mexico City, Hernández and her daughter belong to a group of traditional cooks who open their homes to visitors for workshops and demonstrations. The hope is that their growing visibility, which offers an income for what had always been unpaid work, will spur a younger generation to follow them.

Nicolasa Hernández Muñoz, 56, preparing masa, a dough made from ground corn, to be shaped into tortillas

Nicolasa Hernández Muñoz, 56, preparing masa, a dough made from ground corn, to be shaped into tortillas

Dalia Rodríguez Hernández, 37, with her daughter Fatima, 15, and mother Nicolasa in their kitchen in Tlaxcala, Mexico

Dalia Rodríguez Hernández, 37, with her daughter Fatima, 15, and mother Nicolasa

Irad Santacruz Arcienaga, a Tlaxcala chef, began the group, called the Guardians of the Land of Corn, in 2009, and it has grown to more than 120 members throughout the state. “Our idea is to preserve the cooking and for the new generations to learn from the old generations,” said Santacruz. “The transmission of knowledge is important.” That knowledge radiates out from the kitchen to encompass much of rural life and its rhythms. The guardians are also farmers and textile artisans — heirs to the self-sufficiency that was needed for survival half a century ago, when Hernández woke up at 4 a.m. to weave on a loom or go to the river to wash clothes.

But the effort to pass on traditions constantly bumps up against modern pressures. Family bonds are fraying as people migrate to jobs in cities or to the United States. Better access to education offers the possibility of a career, an option that was closed to older women who were lucky if they finished middle school. And the history of discrimination against the speakers of Indigenous languages in Mexico means that younger generations no longer speak the same language their great-grandparents did, even if they may understand it.

Tlaxcala draws its cooking from the ingredients that flourish in its semi-arid climate, where squash, beans and the prickly pear cactus leaf, or pad, called nopal are staples alongside maíz criollo, the corn that is native to Mexico. Corn is central to the Mexican kitchen. Believed to have been domesticated from its wild cousin teosinte about 9,000 years ago, maíz criollo is the result of many generations of seed selection. Each family chooses the seeds from its crop to plant the following year, a practice that has created a palette of 135 different colors of corn across Tlaxcala’s fields. Such small-scale cultivation doesn’t pay though. Poverty forces farmers off the land and agroindustry threatens the survival of dozens of ancient varieties of maíz criollo in Mexico.

The recipes were handed down by Hernández's grandmother, who spoke Nahautl, the language of the Aztecs, and who died last year at 98.

By relying on local corn, the Guardians help preserve Tlaxcala’s varieties. “Through food, we can conserve ingredients, ecosystems, and the farmers’ knowledge,” said Santacruz. Once harvested, the dried corn kernels are first cooked and soaked in water with lime to make what is called nixtamal. The pre-Hispanic process both softens the kernels and releases their nutrients. Preparing to grind the prepared corn, or nixtamal, on a base made of volcanic stone

In their kitchen, Hernández and her daughter Rodríguez grind three different types of nixtamal by hand — white, blue and pink — on a metate, a curved base made of volcanic stone, into a dough called masa. They mold the masa into a tricolor ball that is then placed in a hand press to form a disc that they drop onto a large griddle.

They serve the tortillas for family lunch with their own pepián de venas, a fragrant sauce based on squash and sesame seeds along with seeds from four different chiles. The pepián is spooned over chicken and rice after a first course of soup made from a local legume called alberjol. The recipes were handed down by Hernández’s grandmother, who spoke Nahautl, the language of the Aztecs, and who died last year at 98. She never drank water, just pulque, a pre-Hispanic drink of fermented agave sap, with Coca-Cola.

Not all traditions are worth preserving though. By bringing income into the household and traveling across Mexico and abroad to demonstrate their cooking, Hernández and Rodríguez believe they have chipped away at Mexico’s entrenched machismo. “We have broken a pattern,” Rodríguez said. “Now there is more priority given to food and to women.” 

In the town of Huamantla, Flavia de Albino Ortega, 58, leads a household of three women who cultivate their own corn, nopal, squash and greens. They are also part of the Guardians, and they mix what they grow with other ingredients into what seems like an infinite array of dishes. “This is how my grandmothers did it,” said de Albino, kneeling on a blanket before a ceramic griddle fueled by kindling and dried corn cobs. She spread alberjol on a tortilla made from a corn and nopal mixture and folded it into a triangle. Her tamal was filled with her family’s mole, a sauce that includes almonds, chiles, and in the past, the wattle of a turkey, now replaced by lard.

Her daughter, Gloria Rodríguez de Albino, 32, brought out a bowl filled with small, dried river fish, mixed with garlic and dried chile chipotle, which has a smoky flavor. It was her grandmother’s recipe: “We don’t want this to be lost. I transmit it to my daughter and my granddaughter,” de Albino said.

The deep and varying hues of Tlaxcala's maíz criollo, or native corn

The deep and varying hues of Tlaxcala's maíz criollo, or native corn

Flavia de Albino Ortega preparing food at her home in the town of Huamantla

Flavia de Albino Ortega preparing food at her home in the town of Huamantla

Jacobed Martínez Rodríguez, 14, has already joined the family business, accompanying her mother and grandmother three times a week to tend to the fields. She also brings a teenage sensibility to the venture, posting photos of dishes and ingredients on Instagram.

One of 11 children, de Albino never went to school, although she learned to read when she began working as a maid and then became a nursing assistant. But access to education has expanded and now her daughter is studying for a degree in food science.

The women usually take the bus to their fields, spread over six acres off a country road. De Albino has received advice from a state agronomist on how to cultivate her crops organically, a task that requires constant work. Tiny insects called cochineals, which produce a natural crimson dye, have settled on the nopal. De Albino plucked a cochineal, crushed it between her fingers and brushed the color across her cheeks. She picked a wild berry. “Here in the countryside is the real food,” she said.

As Tlaxcala’s fragrant cooking and intricate embroidery are being celebrated, the women who preserve those traditions often describe lives of unimaginable hardship.

Juanita Márquez Solís, 94, raised her seven children alone after she was left a widow. A native speaker of the Yuhmu dialect of the Indigenous Otomí language, Ms. Márquez would walk about 6 miles from Ixtenco, where she and her family still live, to Huamantla to sell seeds. “There was no electricity, no water; we ate only vegetables,” recalled Márquez. Instead of water, people drank pulque.

When outsiders came to Ixtenco, she said, she would hide because she didn’t speak Spanish. But her children grew up speaking Spanish. Now, it is her great-granddaughter, Alejandra Yoell, 5, who is learning to speak Otomí again in a bilingual elementary school. Despite such poverty, Márquez passed down the knowledge she had learned from her own widowed mother. It is the turn of her daughters, Silvia and Angela Baltazar Márquez, to become the conduits for those domestic traditions.

Three generations from left to right: Jacobed Martínez Rodríguez, 14, Flavia de Albino Ortega, 58, and Gloria Rodríguez de Albino, 32

Three generations from left to right: Jacobed Martínez Rodríguez, 14, Flavia de Albino Ortega, 58, and Gloria Rodríguez de Albino, 32

“This is our way of life,” said Angela Baltazar, 53. “Here we eat what we harvest. We have always cooked the same way. We haven’t lost the essence of what we are.”

Their mole de matuma is a closely held recipe, prepared for the festival celebrating the town’s patron saint. Their dishes also use different native beans and an array of greens that have been grown since pre-Hispanic times. The Otomí food and traditions of Ixtenco are so distinct that anthropologists have come to the town to study them, and the Baltazar Márquez sisters, as members of the Guardians, have gone to universities to give talks about their ancient recipes. “We’re opening up spaces for people who want to learn,” said Silvia Baltazar, 66. “It isn’t a science, it’s something we have been doing since we were young.”

“This is our way of life,” said Angela Baltazar, 53. “Here we eat what we harvest. We have always cooked the same way. We haven’t lost the essence of what we are.”

The interest in these local traditions has brought a change for her husband, Filomen Huerta Juárez, who has seen more demand for the multi-colored corn he harvests once a year, rotating that crop with beans and squash.

The Otomí also have a rich heritage of embroidery. After a long day in the fields, said Márquez, women would return home to embroider blouses with a technique called pepenado. The family brought out a treasured heirloom that an aunt had made and pointed to the date she had embroidered to mark a special occasion: 1928.

That tradition continues, although it adapts to modern tastes. Alejandra Baltazar, 35, Angela’s daughter, likes to use beads for her embroidery. Like others of her generation, she has been able to study and has a social psychology degree — but she is pulled back to preserve her heritage. “The flavors call out to you,” she said of the laborious recipes she prepares with her family.

“We all have an identity — and this is mine.” ●

De Albino and her granddaughter in the family's corn fields, which they cultivate using organic practices

De Albino and her granddaughter in the family's corn fields, which they cultivate using organic practices

Four generations of the Baltazar Marquez family in their Ixtenco home

Four generations of the Baltazar Marquez family in their Ixtenco home

Juanita Márquez Solís, 94, who has passed on many traditions to her daughters, including the Indigenous Otomí language and ancient recipes

Juanita Márquez Solís, 94, who has passed on many traditions to her daughters, including the Indigenous Otomí language and ancient recipes

The Baltazar Márquez women preparing Otomí dishes passed down through the generations

The Baltazar Márquez women preparing Otomí dishes passed down through the generations

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