Every November, Mexico celebrates the Revolution, when great (though sometimes controversial) figures such as Emiliano Zapata, Francisco I. Madero, and Pancho Villa led a bloody struggle to end the 30-year dictatorship and establish a constitutional republic. Not quite the cozy holiday as others, like Day of the Dead, or with such distinct ties to a particular food (see Indepence Day and pozole) but one in which a significant sector of food lovers contemplate this celebration as an opportunity to prepare dishes that would have been enjoyed in their time.
With such strong culinary roots, we may wonder if Mexican food at the beginning of the 20th century was much different from that of the beginning of the 21st century. What did the heroes and antagonists of the Revolution eat? What did the women called upon to cook for those hungry soldiers prepare?
During this era, the classes were starkly divided by socioeconomic factors (and let’s not kid ourselves, not much has changed even 100 years later). Indigenous groups lived off a diet based on corn, chilies, and beans, while those who belonged to the middle class incorporated meat a couple of times a week into their stews. As you would imagine, the diet of upper class folk was obscene in its variety and quantity.
But something interesting happened in how the revolutionary soldiers preserved and prepared their food. Since they were forced to be mainly nomadic, camping for only short periods in one place before setting out again, they had to take advantage of whatever resources they had.
For example, meat, which was often in short supply, was rarely prepared on the same day it was eaten, but rather was rubbed with salt and dried in the sun, making a kind of jerky (which, according to documents from the time, was Pancho Villa’s favorite) that could be preserved more easily and for a longer period of time. Other methods of preserving meat such as cecina and tasajo then became popular throughout the country. The soldiers also carried with them less-perishable goods such as corn and wheat, with which tortillas were prepared to accompany the meal.
Emiliano Zapata was known to have had very particular tastes. He was a fanatic for plum atole and always requested that his mole de olla be prepared with corn dumplings; he also loved tomato puree with jumiles (a type of stink bug native to Guerrero), as well as discada, a mixed meat and vegetable dish from the north traditionally prepared on a worn plow disk.
Before the Revolution, these foods were met with derision, as they were associated with people who were poor and from the countryside. Yet another staple that became popular during this period, which had been as invisible as discada, was the taco. The taco might not be even a fraction as popular as it is today if it were not for these revolutionary heroes.
The Revolution’s contributions to the current society and politics of Mexico is not without contestation. However, it can be credited with having returned Mexico to its original culinary roots, which had been buried by colonialism. Call it a gastronomic revolution as well…can we get that in that constitution?