The Italian edition of Slow (number 58) has just been published: the foreign-language editions will come out later in the month. Here’s a sample article inspired by the Slow Food International Congress, to be held in Puebla, Mexico, in November.
Winner of the Slow Food Award for Biodiversity in 2003, José N. Iturriaga de la Fuente has written dozens of books and countless articles on Mexican food. From 1994 to 2001 he headed the art and popular culture programs funded by the Mexican government, sending hundreds of ministerial employees to carry out research in all the country’s 31 states.
Various factors identify and link Mexico with the Slow Food movement, an international organization which defends agrifood biodiversity, gastronomic traditions and the cultural identity of peoples, proclaiming that every traditional food is a carrier of local ritual values and ancient artisan techniques of cultivation and production.
So let’s examine these ideas. The original food habits of a people are conditioned by the biodiversity of the surrounding environment. You primarily eat what is around you, for around you is where you find your ingredients, whether vegetable or animal. Gastronomic habits are then determined by how these ingredients are cooked. Nature and culture are the basic components of gastronomy.
Mexico is particularly favored by its great natural and cultural diversity, which is obviously reflected in its cuisine. In terms of diversity, thanks to the large number of plant and animal species found here, we are the fourth richest country in the world after Brazil, Colombia and Indonesia. At the same time, Mexico is ranked second in the world (after India) for its cultural diversity. This is thanks to the number of surviving native languages, given that the linguistic indicator — one of the most sensitive — is taken to represent culture in general: when people keep their original language, it is very likely that they maintain most of their characteristic cultural expressions, including their culinary habits.
One of the main consequences of this huge diversity in Mexico can be seen in its cuisine or, rather, the range of its various cuisines. We have 62 different ethnic groups — differentiated by specific languages, styles of dress, popular art and other cultural expressions — to which must be added our Spanish ancestors (both genetic and symbolic), and our third set of roots, which is African. Finally, in more recent times, we need to consider migrations that have brought Asian influences (from the Far and Near East), as well as Europeans of various nationalities. The result is a rainbow of peoples who, through the particular biodiversity of each, give rise to a wide range of local and regional flavors.
This is one of the major assets of Mexico, and when we see how Slow Food champions the defense and conservation of biodiversity, cultural identity and culinary traditions, we understand that it is not an exaggeration to speak of a natural brotherhood between our country and this important international movement, which goes well beyond a strictly gastronomic or hedonistic perspective.
In Mexico it is a constant battle to defend an environment ravaged by poverty, lack of awareness and criminal economic exploitation. At the same time, it is essential for us to combat the cultural globalization which is erasing the characteristics of ancient native peoples and breaking down their specific cultural identities, which have existed for centuries and in some cases for millennia.
For these reasons, it is no coincidence that the Mexican delegations present at Terra Madre in 2004 and 2006 in Turin were among the most numerous. At the first meeting, 80 Mexicans attended and 90 were at the second, representing foods such as xoconoxotle and various other cactus fruits, amaranth, one of the most valuable and nutritious, protein-rich plants that exist, the chile manzano, cacao and chocolate, avocado (a contribution from Mexico to world gastronomy), sheep and goat cheeses, typical breads, honeys, many varieties of corn, marine salt, shrimps and lobsters, Pátzcuaro white fish, dried and candied fruit, compotes and jams … just to mention some of the native or traditional foods, which are also organically grown.
Producers of mezcal (an agave distillate) from various Mexican States were present at the Salone del Gusto 2006, held in Turin. And it is also no coincidence that on four occasions Mexicans have received the Slow Food Award, granted to people who have carried out distinguished work in various parts of the world. It was awarded to researchers working to save the white fish of Michoacán, the producers of Chinantla vanilla from Oaxaca, producers of amaranth from Puebla, and the authors of a research study on traditional native food, collected in a series of 54 cookbooks with recipes. Puebla Amaranth and Chinantla Vanilla have justifiably been made into Slow Food Presidia, selected for their quality and significance as traditional food products.
Finally, with uncertainties now resolved, various Mexican higher education institutions are now about to be part of the network of universities promoted by Slow Food. Among them, we can mention the Institute of Anthropological Research of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.
Picture: Diego Rivera, “Paisaje con cactus”