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Culinary Crossings: The Cuisine of Yucatan

This page gives information about a project funded by the Lord Rootes Memorial Fund at the University of Warwick, UK, conducted by Claudia Lozada-Can, Michael Niblett, Kerstin Oloff and Ulrich Sauder.

Ulrich, Claudia, Mike and Kerstin (in order of appearance from left to right in the photo below; the friendly head-chef of Gastronomia being in the center of the photo) travelled on a round trip of the Yucatan peninsula in the South of Mexico. “Culinary crossings” may sound like research only for our palates and indeed we did eat some excellent meals during our round trip. However, the high temperatures of the region (around 40 degrees Celsius with a humidity of 90%) ensured that the more serious side to our project was never obscured by our appetite. It is important to stress that our project did not aspire to become a collection of recipes, but rather sought to provide a cultural analysis of the area with a focus on the multi- or cross- cultural composition of its cuisine.

 

The team in front of a local cooking school and to the right: our route

The intention of what was an 'amateur' project was to use food as an optic through which to study the cultural interactions and socio-political forces present in contemporary Yucatán. In the past, the humanities have tended to focus on so-called “high culture”, such as literature. However, we intended rather to approach “low culture”, i.e. food, through an academic lens in order to show that culture, (colonial) history, and current socio-political issues are just as much – if not more so – in evidence in the every-day life of the people.  

One of the aims of our project was to investigate the relationship between food and social class in the Yucatan peninsula. Inextricable from this to some degree is the range of influences and admixture of cultures that are reflected in Yucatecan cuisine. History has shaped and continues to shape the cuisine of Mexico, and, more particularly of Yucatán. When Spanish colonizers first explored the region in 1517, they found an agriculture predicated on corn, a staple food stuff that retains its importance to the present day (as the Popol Vuh makes clear, corn was sacred to the Maya; religious ceremonies dedicated to it are still held in Yucatecan villages today). Paradoxically, at the same time as it brought terrifying devastation, the Spanish invasion also resulted in a process of culinary creolization that has today rendered Yucatecan cuisine so distinctive, reflecting both the Mayan past and the influence of the Spanish conquerors. Typically indigenous specialties such as chocolate, peanuts, vanilla, beans, squash, avocados, and tomatoes met with European foodstuffs such as pork, beef, lamb, citrus fruits, garlic, cheese, vinegar, and wine, paving the way for the emergence of contemporary Yucatecan cuisine. In addition, because the peninsula was an important trading post, Dutch, French and in general Caribbean influences contributed to the area’s cultural and culinary heritage.

In other words, we wanted to explore what is eaten by whom, and what this signifies in terms of local and class identity: do people define themselves by what they eat? Moreover, what is the socio-economic impact of tourism and fast food chains? On this website, you will find interviews conducted with three chefs working in the area. Each had different views on culinary culture in the Yucatan; obviously, these interviews do not reflect our own interpretations, but they do provide an interesting insight into their perceptions of local cuisine.(to interviews)

We hope you enjoy your visit !

 

See “The meaning of maize for the Maya” , by J.Eric Thompson, in The Mexico Reader

 

 

 

 

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