Review: Cooking Technology

Review of:

Steffan Igor Ayora-Diaz (ed.) Cooking  Technology: Transformations in Culinary Practice in Mexico and Latin America (London: Bloomsbury Academic Press, 2016).

Michael McDonald
Florida Gulf Coast University

The contributors to, Cooking Technology: Transformations in Culinary Practice in Mexico and Latin America, view the kitchen, as a vital and dynamic locus of cultural production where, “the meanings of food, techniques, and technologies, as well as associated aesthetic values are endlessly negotiated” (p2).  The volume responds to a common misperception of the kitchen as a “place where tradition sits   uncontested” (p1) and general scholarly neglect of cooking activities and spaces.  Casting a wide geographic and cultural net, the authors present twelve cases of cooking activities and things that provide a window onto such dimensions of social life as power, identity, status, and change in social and cultural practices.  In the introduction, Professor Ayora-Diaz very cogently overviews the kitchen as a locus and technology as topic for anthropological inquiry. The physical cook space may change with the arrival of new appliances, ingredients and information. Methods and techniques of food preparation may likewise be transformed or globalized through diffusion and appropriation. Paradoxically the same forces may lead to a retrenchment or revitalization of traditional tastes, preferences and techniques. Three sections connect the book with related foci on refiguring the past, rethinking the present, transnational and trans-local meanings, and recreating tradition and newness.

Lilia Fernandez-Sousa opens the work by linking the past to present cultures through an examination of maize grinding and cooking technology in Yucatan, Mexico. Once central to Maya foodways, the metates y manos (grinding stones) and molcajates (mortar and  ), k’oben (three stone hearths) and pib (earth oven) are retained as part of the contemporary kitchen inventory alongside metal mills, plastic mortars, gas stoves and other mod-cons. The ancient Maya technology remains especially important for use in ritual foods, and for related household ceremonies but also for reasons including cost and efficiency of operation, nostalgia or sensory preferences. Julian López Garcia & Lorenzo Mariono Juárez present a similar essay   but focused on the Ch’orti’ Maya use of stone metates and clay comals (griddles) in Eastern Guatemala. Development plans to replace this technology with metal mills, solar stoves and iron comales has been met with resistance for a host of reasons including taste preference and the ritually expressed  and aesthetic relationships people share with  their food and foodways.

In the third essay, “From Bitter Root to Flat Bread” we are given a brief overview of cassava (Manihot esculenta) by Hortensia Caballero-Arias. She follows with an explanation of the differences between sweet and bitter varieties. We are provided with a deft ethnographic view of the manual processing technology and techniques employed by the Indigenous peoples of the Venezuelan Amazon to detoxify the bitter cassava and prepare it for consumption in various forms. In the final chapter in this section Claudia Rocío Magana Gonzalez, describes the complementary role of the household kitchen and the ephemeral communal kitchens in Oaxaca Mexico and how the two settings serve to conserve culinary traditions and simultaneously adapt novel technologies into the preparation of food and foster its diffusion onto a wider regional foodscape through fiestas and rituals.

The Second Section contains five chapters which draw emphasis to the global-local and trans-local connections that are expressed in foodways and follow the movements of people and foods to and from their hearths. Chapter 5, offered by Margarita Calleja Pinedo, describes how carne con chili traverses a path from Mexican street food through assimilation into a generic Tex-Mex regional cuisine, and later codified into English language cookbooks and industrialized for wider orbits of consumption as chili con carne throughout North America. In Chapter 6 Steffan Igor Ayora-Diaz presents technology which includes the tools, appliances, cookbooks, techniques and ingredients that along with in-migration and return migration effect a fluid and varied attachment to a global-local foodscape for contemporary Yucatecanos.

Mole Negro, a signature dish from the Oaxaca region of Mexico, is given a distinctive flavor by the inclusion of ingredients, namely the chilihuacle and passilla peppers grown in the region. In Chapter 7, Ramona Pérez discusses the powerful  terroir of Oaxacan foods as it affects expatriates and their mechanisms for maintaining or approximating the authenticity of their food culture when away from home. In the following essay, Jane Fajans reviews changes in the way Brazilians prepare and consume food in their homes noting that new and sophisticated culinary knowledge and practice and material inventory is emerging as a marker of social status. Fueled in part by media- especially celebrity chefs- and mobility, the once marked regional variation in the manner of cooking, choice of ingredients and the cookware employed to prepare the iconic dish of rice and beans is shown to diminish in a more cosmopolitan Brazil marked by internal migration, and a growing interest in gastronomic tourism. Chapter 9 connects the kitchen space of Cuban households to global geopolitical change over recent historic time. Anna Cristina Pertierra describes the different strategies employed for equipping kitchens, from preserving the very ancient pre-revolution appliances, to the Soviet- era distribution schemes and the more recent program of distribution connected to the 2006 Energy Revolution, and the ongoing remittance gift economy and black market.   Recorded in these material artifacts are legacies of former and current political eras and the social position of their owners.

In the final section of the collection, three authors consider the transformative power of tourism, nostalgia and haute cuisine as catalysts for valorizing and rehabilitating ethnic and traditional cuisine. Raúl Matta focuses on the catalyzing power of celebrity chefs in Peru who employ avant-garde techniques like sous-vide and purées to transform ‘indigenous foods’ like cuy (guinea pig) and arrachacha (tuber) into fine dining experiences, and the normalization of these foods into non-indigenous Peruvian diets. In the penultimate chapter, Juliana Duque-Mahecha reports on the recent dynamism in the foodscape of Colombia including a recent national policy that elevates cuisine to the category of intangible cultural heritage. In her examination of a growing culinary network she evaluates traditional Columbian cuisine as presented in three strata of public dining: fine restaurants, comfort restaurants and marketplace food stalls and in them she finds different expressions of authenticity and different strategies for interpreting   valorizing traditional Colombian foods. The final and most interesting chapter for me brings the tourist gaze to an Afro-Caribbean community on the Atlantic coast of Costa Rica. Here, like many other places in Latin America, traditional foodways have been supplanted with more convenient  commercially processed foods and regional identities are being subsumed into generalized otherness. Monica Nikolić argues that traditional cooking techniques and recipes are a form of embodied cultural capital that has become a performance art for tourist consumption. Preparing traditional foods in traditional ways provides a source of income for local interpreters and a means to project an authentic Afro-Caribbean identity in a globalizing and homogenizing era.

Carole Counihan concludes the book with a tidy summation and a few careful suggestions for further research in areas that emerge from the themes presented notably the continuous negotiations between the “modern” and the “traditional” in the world’s kitchens. Cooking Technology: Transformations in Culinary Practice in Mexico and Latin America, is a wonderful trans-anthropological peek into the dynamic kitchen and strongly reminds us of the importance of food preparation and material culture in our greater understanding of food and foodways.  With a sample drawn from a generously inclusive region, this book will, in whole or in part, enrich reading lists for courses in the anthropology of food, ethno-archaeology, material culture, and people and cultures of Latin America at the undergraduate levels.  Buen Provecho!

 

 

 

 

 

 

1 Comment

Filed under anthropology, cooking, technology

One response to “Review: Cooking Technology

  1. thanks for the book review, it surely seems to be of a fascinating range!
    Best,
    Julian

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