Foodways of Mexico explains the history of savory Mexican cuisine

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Julianne Gilland, curator of the LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections library, tours the exhibition “Inside the Baroque: The Legacy of Mexican Viceregal Arts and Culture.”

Photo Credit: Michael Baez | Daily Texan Staff

Chiles rellenos, a traditional Mexican dish with poblano chiles fried in hot oil until golden, is a staple of the Mexican restaurant menu — but the dish has a place in Mexican culture just as important as its place on the table. UT’s Foodways of Mexico event will emphasize the cultural importance of chiles rellenos, along with other dishes from the Mexican Baroque era.

UT’s LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections library sponsors an event on campus called the Foodways of Mexico series. By sponsoring this public event, the LLILAS Benson hopes students and the Austin community will understand Latin American culture from a different perspective.

Julianne Gilland is a curator at the library and panelist on Foodways of Mexico. She said the library is the largest Latin American library collection besides the Library of Congress. 

“Working with these collections is like being a kid in a candy store,” Gilland said. 

Gilland and the other curators chose to talk about the Mexican Baroque era because it connects with a current exhibition, “Inside the Baroque: The Legacy of Mexican Viceregal Arts and Culture.” Although the exhibition is more about the art of the Mexican Baroque era, Gilland said she hopes the Foodways panel will help reinforce the importance of the Mexican Baroque era’s cuisine.

“We all have food traditions that we value and can connect to,” Gilland said. “[The Baroque era] is one of those.”

Gilland said the Baroque movement emerged in the 17th century and it features an ornate, intricate, over-the-top style. When Spanish explorers traveled to Latin America, a blend of European and American indigenous traditions formed. In Mexico, people started to mix European and indigenous ingredients into their recipes. A popular dish was mole, a sauce with several spices.

“The richness of the colonial cuisine of this time also reflects the way Mexico was a nexus of Spanish imperial wealth and global trade of this time,”
Gilland said.

Iliana de la Vega, a chef at Austin’s El Naranjo restaurant and panelist on Foodways of Mexico, specializes in traditional Mexican cuisine. 

“Through the series of the Foodways of Mexico, we look to approach the community in an informal way to talk about the cuisine of our South of the Border,” Vega said. “The series has been very successful.”    

Vega believes the Mexican Baroque style represents an exotic and elaborate cuisine that experimented with many ingredients.    

“Food is an important cultural aspect for all countries,” Vega said. “In Mexico, we talk about food and dishes all the time — even if we are not cooks.”

Gilland also said food traditions tell a history because they teach people the patterns of everyday life.    

“Cookbooks are history books in many ways,” Gilland said.    

This year, Foodways of Mexico will include Gilland, Vega and food historian Rachel Laudan. Mexican coffee and sweets will be served after the event.    

“Everything about the Foodways series is fun,” Gilland said. “Everyone loves food and it’s fun to hear so many different perspectives. It’s a kind of armchair travel.”