Most Mexican traditions are holiday specific and food is an extremely important element. The passing down of traditional recipes can sometimes occur during the most hectic of moments inside a busy kitchen full of smells, ingredients, and action. Clueless family members of all ages are delegated a chore by an elder family member, each in charge of some small segment of a main recipe. Cooking this way goes beyond mixing and melting and becomes a moment of bonding.
Trying to recreate some of these dishes can trigger memories of childhood flavors, stories, and anecdotes. No matter how many improvements or new versions of an old recipe are found online or tried at home, the only truly delicious version is always the original — “the one grandma made”.
Some people treasure handwritten recipes from departed relatives and maybe even keep them in a perfectly organized box, but in México it’s a complete different story. In general, Mexican traditions are still passed down verbally and informally, which makes them ever-changing rituals with new additions and omissions by each generation.
Most mexicans are not too keen on conventional organization in general, nevermind sitting down and writing out exact portions and measurements for a recipe. And even when there is one to follow, the finishing touches and adjustments are made to taste, completely changing the end result and giving each dish a distinctive flavor.
This way of passing down recipes has been around since before the Spaniards came to the new continent. Ceremonial and ritual dishes were frequently passed down through generations, there are even codexes and wall paintings that illustrate the feasts offered to Aztec emperors like Montezuma, but there are no formal instructions to follow about how to cook those recipes. It wasn’t until the baroque era around the 18th century when nuns in convents gathered cooking notes and oral stories and slowly put together the first Mexican recipe books.
In the countryside, in places such as Oaxaca, traditions are still very well kept, and the best cooks not only know how to make delicious dishes, but they are also very well versed in ingredients, their peak season, and how to grow, harvest and prepare them. Some might not know how to read or write but they put their hearts and souls into every dish they cook.
There’s even been efforts to incorporate this type of cooking into some modern culinary schools where traditional cooks are brought in from remote areas into the kitchens to give a type of Masterclass. They carry along with them their own cooking utensils such as big clay pots, wood ovens and old fashioned fireplaces and along with their culinary knowledge, they talk about their communities and festivities, the harvesting of ingredients and they teach the next generation of cooks just as they would in their own villages with their own families.
Since terminology, measurements, quantities or techniques may be out of the unconventional, attendees have to be very observant and aware of each and every step if they want to achieve similar results. Steps like “add 2 splashes of water”, “mix 1 can of tuna of flour” make it hard to replicate, but tasting the final dish and encountering the nuances and various flavors helps a lot.
No matter the region of the country (or even the world), cooking is a very important part of the identity, roots, traditions and heritage. It unites families, creates a spaces to bond and share stories, and can also be a beautiful, warm way of remembering the dearly departed.