romanticizing peasant food

Going back to the section of Jeffery Pilcher’s Que Vivan los Tamales I mentioned last week, about the Mexica’s butterfly- and leaf-shaped tortillas, and their seed-spangled tamales impressed with snail shell patterns: it seems that food writers (Pilcher, the chroniclers he cites, many others past and present) can’t resist romanticizing certain kinds of food. Broadly, it’s peasant food. Witness the cucina povera prixe fixe that was my introduction to fancy dining in San Francisco. But anywhere that has been colonized, it’s more than just peasant food; it’s also pre-colonization food.

Whichever variety, most writing about this type of food is highly romantic and ignores issues of class and history. Perhaps some Italian peasants from a simpler time regularly supped on oil-cured sardines, stuffed turkey breasts, and Negroni sorbet, but we know for a fact that many more were suffering from pellagra on a diet of unlimed corn and emigrating to the United States as fast as they could. And maybe the Mexican nobility’s feasts featured decorative breads, sauces with thirty ingredients, and stuffed fowls galore, but we know that their society was highly stratified, and I imagine that everyday fare for the Every Man was more like what I experienced in rural Guatemala at the turn of the 21st century. Black beans, corn tortillas, chilis, wild greens, fruit, and atol, with meat of any kind being a pretty big deal. Even if the average diet was a little more varied than that, the intervening centuries of oppression that brought it to its current pass never seem to matter when it’s time to romanticize what might once have been.

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