The Power of the Kitchen and the Community

I was struck when listening to a report on NPR about Soviet kitchens and their role in the fomentation of political and cultural exchange. Once  private kitchens were created, everyday people were less afraid to bring out their inner artist, writer, thinker, debater, and creator in the privacy of their homes. I loved the description of Russia as a taste: sourness. (Does Chicago have a “taste?”)

For us at Meso, it was great to hear about the exchange of ideas – however  clandestine – in a way that provided real community. We are really interested in how food and kitchens build community and provide for cultural exchange: whether it is at a small family meal, a large school potluck, or neighbors at a block party. Sometimes we take for granted how much food can bring people together and discuss differences and find commonalities.

Which reminded me of my own family and the connections to food-built communities. In the 1930s, my abuelo and other members of my family were involved in a movement in Texas to support workers, many of which were kitchen workers. Although there were labor unions, Latinos were largely kept out. The pictures below are from one of the conventions. Latino workers from places like Texas, Kansas, and Minnesota came together to find strength in their community, and work towards common goals. My abuelo, who worked in a cookie factory, was actually kicked out of the United States for a time because of his organizational efforts. I was really interested in the parallels of  my abuelo’s story, and the disadvantaged people of Soviet Russia, coming together into communities, taking actions big and small.

The role of labor in food industry is also something Meso wants to discuss more in the future. Stay tuned.

If you would like to learn more about the Mexican labor movement in the United States, we recommend Juan Gómez-Quiñones book Mexican American Labor, 1790-1990.

How has food played a role in your family or community? Please share.

Confederación de Camaras, January 1936 - Dallas, Texas

Confederación de Camaras, January 1936 – Dallas, Texas

Confederación de Camaras, January 1936 - Dallas, Texas

Confederación de Camaras, January 1936 – Dallas, Texas

Confederación de Camaras, January 1936 - Dallas, Texas

Confederación de Camaras, January 1936 – Dallas, Texas



Meso Reads

Some things we are thinking about at Meso:

  • WBEZ has a report on the street food vendor proposal in Chicago.
  • A delicious sounding taco recipe from a New York food truck vendor.
  • We were sad to hear Chicago’s famous Hot Doug’s is closing this fall. Here is an infographic with the best times to get your last fix of those amazing duck fat fries.
  • Someone on Twitter is also working on a biscuit with chorizo gravy. Drool…

Stay tune for some major summer announcements from Meso!


Meso’s Reads

We recently came across an Eater interview with Rick Bayless discussing his Mexican culinary research library. It’s a collection of rare cookbooks, 30 years in the making. Some of these books provided the historical inspirations for his new menu at Topolobambo, which explores different culinary traditions from different periods in Mexican history. His first foray is Mexico City, 1491. We can’t wait to try some of the recipes. Maybe we can sneak into the library while we are there…

Speaking of Rick Bayless: we noticed that his restaurant XOCO has added a new dessert to their menu. Last month they added bacon-caramel corn balls to the mix. These desserts are made with Nichols Farm caramel, bacon, and ancho chiles. Now where have we heard of that idea before? 


Meso’s Reads

Here are a few things Meso has read/listened to recently:

We enjoyed making (and eating) our Chicago Mixed popcorn recipe. NPR tells us a little more about the history of popcorn. Apparently the Aztecs had a word for the popping sounds of popcorn – totopoca.

In preparation for our Mole Brownie recipe (stay tuned), we stumbled across this wonderful souvenir book created by the Board of Lady Manager’s of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago. The board was headed by Bertha Palmer, the wife of Chicago business man and hotelier Potter Palmer. Bertha was also the spark for the invention of the brownie. Check out this digital version of the book, which is a compilation of autographed recipes by the female representatives from all over the United States. There are some interesting (and odd) recipes. We were especially  interested in the recipes coming from New Mexico, like the recipe for Tamales de Dulce, which was written in Spanish!

We have been listening to a lot of NPR recently, and Scott Simon recently interviewed conjunto musical legend Flaco Jimenez about his recent musical collaboration with Max Baca. Conjunto is a wonderful mixture of Mexican and German music. As Scott Simon says, conjunto “can be as American as cherry pie.”

Guillermo Gómez-Peña is a performance artist, most known for La Pocha Nostra and The Couple in the Cage with Coco Fusco. Recently we read his essay, Multicultural Paradigm: Open Letter to the National Arts Communitywritten in the early 90s. It’s an interesting commentary on the emergence of Latino culture into the public sphere and the development of what he calls “border culture.”  The essay analyzes the collision, opposition, and fusion of cultures in the United States, a topic we are also wrestling with here at Meso. While written over twenty years ago, much of Gómez-Peña’s essay still resonates with current events.

13 Dishes That Aren’t Mexican? Well…

I was inspired to post Buzzfeed’s 13 Dishes That Aren’t Actually Mexican to highlight a major part of what Meso is about. If you read the list, you’ll notice that a majority of these non-Mexican foods come from Texas, California, or another southwestern state. Now, these states of course are part of the United States, but before 1848 and the Mexican-American War, they were part of Mexico. Since then, the southwest has maintained a rich cultural tradition, combining elements of Mexican, Native American, and European cultures (don’t forget the Asian influences in California) and creating unique, regional recipes. At our Meso events we talk about the differences between Tex-Mex, New Mexican, and Californian-Mexican foods. They each have their particular flavors, but their existence is heavily tied to the strong traditions of Mexican cuisine.

The links between Mexican-American and Mexican food point out Buzzfeed’s ham-fisted definition of “Mexican” food. One of the things Meso is trying to explore is Mexican cuisine’s global influences. Gustavo Arellano (author of Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America), Rick Bayless, and Patricia Jinich (host of Pati’s Mexican Table) constantly talk about the French, Spanish, Jewish, and Native American influences that have inspired Mexican food, truly making it a global cuisine. If we want to nitpick, we could go back and claim many traditional Mexican dishes’ origins lie outside Mexico. And, the same could be said about some “classic” American foods like apple pie, hamburgers, or macaroni and cheese.

The point is, Meso is trying to explore the blurred lines between food and culture. Buzzfeed’s article scratches the surface (albeit lazily). It’s exciting (and delicious) to try and trace foods and recipes back to their progenitor. But, what we are uncovering more and more is that it’s not so easy to find just one, and it’s pretty messy. Just like cooking.


Meso’s Reads

Below are a few articles we’ve read this week:

Here is an 2009 NPR article discussing Gustavo Arellano’s book, Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America. Arellano’s book has definitely inspired us!

A NYTimes  article from 2009 about Patricia Jinich – from the television show Pati’s Mexican Table – discusses her Jewish-Mexican background and her evolution as a cook. Check out Pati’s website for some delicious recipes and cooking tips. We especially like her blog posts breaking down the basics of Mexican food.

And finally, have a look at NPR’s Code Switch Blog where guest blogger Alex Schmidt also talks about her experiences with Jewish-Latin cuisine. Her chicken soup recipe sounds like just the thing for the cold winter days we are having.