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Dozens of Historic Mexican Cookbooks Are Now Available Online

The University of Texas San Antonio’s vast collection makes traditional Mexican and Mexican-American cooking accessible

Around half of the university's 100 "manuscript cookbooks" are now available online. (Courtesy of UTSA Libraries Special Collections)
smithsonianmag.com

The oldest Mexican cookbook in the University of Texas at San Antonio’s (UTSA) collection was never meant for public consumption. Handwritten in 1789 by Doña Ignacita, a woman who probably served as the kitchen manager for a well-to-do family, the manuscript includes recipes for such specialties as “hidden vegetable stew,” or potaje escondido, and an orange-hued soup called zopa de naranja.

Volumes like this 200-year-old specimen—many boasting scribbled notes and stains on their owners’ favorite recipes—form the heart of the university’s collection. Now, thanks to a renewed digitization campaign, around half of the school’s approximately 100 manuscript cookbooks are available for anyone to browse online, reports Nils Bernstein for Atlas Obscura.

“I’ve had students in tears going through these, because it’s so powerful to see that connection with how their family makes certain dishes and where they originated,” UTSA Special Collections Librarian Stephanie Noell tells Atlas Obscura. “I want anybody with an internet connection to be able to see these works.”

UTSA’s collection features a timeline showing how traditional Mexican and Spanish cuisine mixed during the colonial period. According to Noell, Bernal Díaz del Castillo, a 16th-century Spanish conquistador, called locals’ corn dishes “misery of maize cakes,” while the indigenous Nahua culture considered the Spaniards’ wheat bread “famine food.” Eventually, however, cultural exchange and mixing of European and local ingredients blended to produce North America’s current culinary delights.

Per Atlas Obscura, the university’s cookbook collection—totaling more than 2,000 volumes, including the 100 manuscripts never intended for public use—traces its origins to San Antonio resident Laurie Gruenbeck’s 2001 donation of nearly 550 cookbooks. Gruenbeck amassed her collection, including Doña Ignacita’s handwritten recipes, during the decades she spent traveling through Mexico.

Since 2001, the collection has grown to more than 2,000 books, among them some of the oldest cookbooks published in Mexico, as well as vegetarian cookbooks dating to the early 1900s. One of the highlights, an 1828 cookbook titled Arte Nuevo De Cocina y Reposteria Acomodado al Uso Mexicano, may be the only surviving copy of the publication, according to a statement.

British-born ethno-gastronomer Diana Kennedy donated the 19th-century volume, along with hundreds of other documents, to the university in April 2019. Kennedy made a 900-mile, two-day road trip from her home in Michoacán to deliver her archive of books, reporting notes, and correspondence exchanged by famous chefs and their fans.

Kennedy has spent more than 50 years studying Mexico’s culinary culture. Speaking with Texas Monthly’s Cat Cardenas in May of last year, she pointed out that “Mexican cuisine” is a misleading term; each of the country’s 31 states brings its own unique flavors and techniques to cooking. Dishes take time—and care—to get right.

“I wish people would realize that the preparation of Mexican food is detailed, and it takes more time,” Kennedy told Norma Martinez and Lauren Terrazas of Texas Public Radio in May 2019. “Most people don’t bother. I do. I’m always saying, ‘oh my god, they didn’t do something,’ or ‘they put garlic in their guacamole,’ which they should never do. So I’m a bit of a scourge, all right?”

Kennedy’s books represent the culmination of decades of research. Per the New York Times’ Tejal Rao, she details dishes alongside regional histories, as well as socioeconomic and ecological information. Recipes are prominently attributed to the home chefs who originally shared them.

Taken together, the resources housed in the UTSA’s collection provide valuable information for those studying Mexican cuisine as historians. Late 18th- and early 19th-century recipes frequently refer to vino de Parras, a wine from the city of Parras that was made despite a ban on winemaking by everyone but the clergy. And Doña Ignacia’s 1789 notebook includes recipes for a sweet spiced sauce that seems to be an early version of mole enjoyed in northwest and central Spain.

“Aside from the treasure of the recipes, many of these [manuscript cookbooks] read like stories themselves,” says Rico Torres, chef and co-owner of the restaurant Mixtli, to Atlas Obscura. “Often there’s a hint of longing for a dish from a faraway place.”

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