New Museum in California Celebrates Rich History of Mexican Cuisine

Located in downtown Los Angeles, LA Plaza Cocina is the first institution of its kind in the U.S

Statuette of figure rolling dough on board surrounded by miniature corn sculptures
A Oaxacan figure is depicted making masa with a metate, a stone tool used for grinding corn. LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes

LA Plaza Cocina, the first American museum dedicated to Mexican food, will celebrate its grand opening next month with an inaugural exhibition centered on a culinary staple: corn, reports Andrea Bautista for KCRW’s “Greater L.A.

Titled “Maize: Past, Present and Future,” the show features photos, tools, utensils, decorative items and cookbooks that demonstrate how the vegetable became an essential ingredient in Mexican cuisine. Highlights include a statute of a Zapotec god of corn; a molcajete, or traditional Mexican mortar made from volcanic stone; a metate, or stone tool used for processing corn; and a pichancha, or clay strainer, according to a statement.

“Corn is the life source of the Americas and essential to the origin story of Mexico,” says co-curator Maite Gómez-Rejón, a food historian and the creator of ArtBites, which hosts art- and history-focused cooking classes and tastings, to Diana Hubbell of Atlas Obscura.

Located in downtown Los Angeles, LA Plaza Cocina is an extension of LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes, a museum that celebrates Mexican, Mexican American and Latino culture and identity. While food is often part of the daily events held at the flagship museum, staff emphasize that the new space focuses specifically on the culinary history and traditions of Mexico.

Cooking artifacts in museum exhibiton
La Plaza Cocina's first exhibition Maize: Past, Present and Future showcases corn’s importance in Mexican cooking traditions. LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes

“It’s more than tacos,” exhibition co-curator Ximena Martin, director of programs and culinary arts at LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes, tells the Guardian’s Eva Recinos. “Each region [of Mexico] needs to be celebrated and acknowledged.”

Per the statement, the new museum also boasts a kitchen where visitors can take cooking classes and a small store that sells cookbooks, decorative items and utensils used to prepare Mexican dishes.

Among the artifacts on view in the exhibition is an 1863 cookbook titled Nuevo Cocinero Mexicano: en Forma de Diccionario. Intriguingly, the text—one of the oldest known Mexican cookbooks—makes little mention of corn. As Gomez-Rejón tells Atlas Obscura, 16th-century Spanish conquistadors tried to suppress the crop, which they viewed with suspicion as an uncivilized food enjoyed only by uncivilized people. The elevation of wheat, which was seen by colonizers as a superior Western crop, above maize persisted until the turn of the 20th century, when “Mexicans [began] rediscovering their Indigenous roots,” the curator says.

The Mexican Revolution, which began in 1910 and ended in 1920, helped revive Mexicans’ sense of pride in their culture and heritage, reinstating maize’s central role in the country’s cuisine. The shift is reflected in more recent, maize-filled cookbooks displayed in the exhibition.

“Maize” also has pressing ties to the present. The show explores how the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) sparked an increase in the United States’ corn exports to Mexico, significantly lowering domestic corn prices and leading an estimated two million Mexican farmers to abandon their fields, as Renée Alexander and Simran Sethi reported for the Counter last July. That mass exodus of workers has, in turn, affected the biodiversity and quality of Mexican corn—a problem that La Plaza Cocina addresses through “presentations and visual media,” according to Atlas Obscura.

Two counters with griddles and ovens in large open space
The new space will include a kitchen, where visitors can take cooking classes LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes

After “Maize: Past, Present and Future,” the museum plans to showcase the perspectives and stories of grandmothers in an exhibition tentatively titled “Voces de las Abuelas.” In September, notes KCRW, staff plan to turn their attention to the history of chocolate.

LA Plaza Cocina also hopes to collaborate with local chefs to highlight Indigenous and Afro-Mexican cuisine and reflect the “melting pot of Los Angeles,” as Martin tells the Guardian.

“The history of corn and maize in Mesoamerica has led to everybody eating tortilla chips and guacamole for Super Bowl Sunday,” Jessica Ureña, then-development manager for special projects at La Plaza de Cultura y Artes, told Eater’s Karla Vasquez in 2019. “Now we’re going to tell the stories of culture through the food. We want to educate the public about Hispanic history and the cuisine [and] talk about the Indigenous roots of the ingredients: the corn, squash and the beans cultivated in Latin America over a millenni[um].”

“Maize: Past, Present and Future” is now on view at LA Plaza Cocina in Los Angeles. The museum’s grand opening is scheduled for April 10.

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