Recreating Taste, Family and Tradition
Learning to cook can be compared to learning a language. In the process of learning a language, that is to say how to speak a language, we must also learn the culture in which the language is embedded. Language professors, like myself, have always maintained that learning a language goes much further than the mere mastering of a grammatical system and its formulas and the ability to summon the appropriate vocabulary for a given context. Learning a language necessitates the understanding of the structures that come with it, but most importantly it necessitates the understanding of the cultural meaning attached to words, phrases and situations. That is why translations are never a word-by-word exercise. In Spanish, no veo las horas de comer esa torta de chocolate que estás preparando, does NOT mean “I can’t see the hours to eat that chocolate cake you are making,” but rather, “I can’t wait to eat that chocolate cake you are making.” Because one language is not the translation of another, the best way to approach the process of learning language and culture is through its multiple literary manifestations, through the historical processes that have influenced the way people live today, and through the social and economic variables that shape current conditions.
Learning to cook is a very similar process. In terms of the systems and the formulas, cooks need to learn about the procurement, use, and quality of ingredients; about cooking techniques and times; about utensils and practices; about serving and pairings. Cooks also need to learn about the appropriateness of a dish for a situation or occasion. But, as in the case of learning a language, learning to cook also requires a cultural context that is determined by place and time. Languages are living systems that change with the societies that speak them. Cooking is a dynamic practice that changes with the availability of resources, with new technologies, and with the movement of people and ingredients in an increasingly transnational world.
Human beings learn the language and culture in which they grow up, and they also learn to eat in that same culture. Eating is part of the practices that constitute the culture of a given society. Everybody eats and learns to eat within family and society. Not everybody learns to cook, but one way or another, there is always somebody who is in charge of producing meals. In most cases, cooks make food for others, so the social context in which the cooking and the meal take place needs to be taken into account.
Home cooking on a daily basis has been, and still is, an obligation mostly associated with women’s role in society. Women cook because they are in charge of feeding and nourishing the family. Learning, practicing, using, modifying and teaching the skills needed for cooking have also been women’s work. Therefore, as in the case of language, cooking cannot be separated from the contexts in which it occurs and needs to be conceptualized as an activity that communicates meanings and transmits messages. Domestic cooking on a daily basis recreates and transmits a particular idea about taste, a concept of family, and the recognition of tradition. How is this done?
Anthropologists have demonstrated and documented that the acceptance and appreciation of a particular kind of food is determined by the place and time of the encounter with the food.  Women cook for their families on a daily basis, and through this daily cooking they not only recreate the taste for particular kinds of food, but they also acknowledge differences in preferences in their family members. Women are constantly negotiating what is available, what is affordable, what is appetizing, what is nutritious, what is efficient, what is economical, what will create joy, satisfy hunger, and bring pleasure.
Recreating taste comes from the availability of ingredients, the knowledge of how to work with them, and/or the pleasure of consuming them. Green plantains, for example, might not seem to be an appetizing ingredient to a person without the knowledge of what to do with them. For a person growing up in Puerto Rico, though, tostones made out of green plantains, are taken for granted as part of the culinary repertoire.
“Social scientists acknowledge that food, eating, and cooking are more than material or physiological processes; rather, they are ways in which people socially create and construct boundaries.” (Julier in Avakian 164) The boundaries created by food can be conceived of as a set of concentric circles with the family being the smallest unit, going through the local, the national, and finally that which is perceived to be traditional for a particular area, by the international community. A boundary is a way of delimiting a place, a space and a concept, but a boundary it is not as stable and rigid as one might think. The flexibility in the creation of specific boundaries comes from individual agency, that is to say from personal and private action and organization.
When thinking about food, it is very common to hear people discuss how they prepare a traditional dish “en mi casa,” that is to say there are variations even in the preparation of dishes that are considered markers of national or local identity. As an example, let’s look at the preparation of mole poblano, the rich, thick, dark, spicy sauce that is emblematic of the cuisine of central Mexico. Even if the ingredients used by two different households are the same, one cook might declare that the sesame seeds need to be toasted to a golden tone, and another might insist on them being barely toasted to a pale yellow tint. Someone might want to add animal crackers to the preparation, for sweetness and texture; others might think of this addition as a corrupting ingredient. Even what some cooks might consider the star and essential ingredient of this sauce—chocolate— might be frowned upon by women who cook what they call the real mole poblano without chocolate. This example is to show that even a dish established as a typical and autochthonous culinary creation is not fixed with a recipe that does not allow modifications. The idea of authenticity predicated on the unchanging value of a recipe as a formula that has to be strictly followed is an invention that does not coincide with the practice of cooking.
The concept of a national cuisine, that is to say a set of dishes that constitute the essence of the culinary culture of a particular place, is also a creation. The idea of a national cuisine is an imagined, unifying, and defining notion that serves the purpose of validating claims to a national identity. But the fact that a national cuisine is “imagined,” does not mean that it does not have a real and material impact as a concept and practice. The best example of the reach of this national cuisine creation is the fact that Mexican cuisine has been included in the UNESCO 2010 List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. On the other hand, and to counter the unifying and seemingly stable dishes that constitute the Mexican cuisine, anthropologist Ayora-Diaz demonstrates how Yucatecan food does not follow what he describes as an “attempt to create a homogeneous national gastronomic discourse” (54). He asserts that food from Yucatán serves to reinforce a strong sense of regional identity predicated on the difference and distance with what can be called Mexican identity. The idea of a national cuisine as a unifying identity marker attempts to create a familial bond that pulls together people from different regions of the same country.
The dishes that exist in the hands and minds of the women in a family keep being recreated on a daily basis and/or during particular occasions, as in the case of the Day of the Dead in Mexico or Three Kings Day in Puerto Rico. It is through meals and commensality, that the sense of family cohesion, the reenactment of family rituals, and the development of familial traditions are developed and established.
These culinary and cultural practices migrate from the private space of the house and family to the public discourse about nation and “patria,” and in fact, one might think of the process as a circular creation and reinforcement of that which is national and identity defining. The meaning-making process is circular in the sense that the movement between public and private is not linear and unidirectional, but rather, fluid and multidirectional. The private practice of women cooking a particular dish in a particular way becomes the symbol of the national cuisine. There is always the reference to an originary and established cook who has the “secret” of the dish or who “invented” it, as in the story about a Mexican nun as the creator of mole poblano.
The dishes that women cook at home not only get passed from generation to generation of women, they also become solidified, codified, and written in the national culinary repertoire through cookbooks. Nowadays, the movement from the private cooking to the public demonstration of national and culinary pride is publicly displayed and played out by the efforts undertaken by government agencies, as well as by the food and tourism industries.
But the dishes women cook to feed their families, the culinary staples that women prepare for their market stand clients, the comida al paso that women offer in public spaces, the elaborate preparations produced for fiestas—those dishes are not so easily transferrable into a formulaic recipe. Gender, family, nation, and tradition become part of these dishes because their preparation and consumption cannot be separated from the cultural context in which they occur. They are as simple as an oreja de elefante or a bacalaito, and as elaborate and ingenious as mole de panza or mofongo. Although it is possible to find recipes for these dishes in a cookbook, and to reproduce them, for the women who routinely prepare them there is no need to follow a written recipe. Women have the embodied knowledge, the conceptual knowledge, the historical knowledge, and the practical knowledge to create these dishes. I am reiterating the word “knowledge” because very often we equate women’s dishes with home cooking and therefore naturalize the act of cooking as an activity that does not entail knowledge, but is rather just a skill, and as such does not requiring intellectual processing. The act of cooking is the final portion of process that involves and invokes a vast number of knowledges.
The importance of the role of women in this process resides in their ability/availability and desire/obligation to work with the ingredients, the modes of cooking and the traditional way of presenting the dishes, but with the knowledge and wisdom, to improvise, substitute, and modify according to the circumstances. Recreating taste, family, and tradition is not a blind reproduction, a thoughtless copy of a formula, but rather a constant process of creation and enactment, a performance of an always evolving identity that is flexible and adaptable.
 See David Sutton’s “The Mindful Kitchen, The Embodied Cook: Tools, Technology and Knowledge Transmission on a Greek Island.” Canadian Material Culture Review 70: 63-68.
 John Monaghan and Peter Just. 2000. Social and Cultural Anthropology: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.
 The concept of imagined communities, coined in 1983 by Benedict Anderson, addresses the idea of nation and nationalism. In terms of culinary nationalism, perhaps the best know essay on the topic is Arjun Appadurai’s on cookbooks and national cuisine in India. See also Belasco and Scranton Food Nations.(DAR LA REFERENCIA COMPLETA EN BIBILOGRAFIA)
 Meredith Abarca in her charlas culinarias, provides specific accounts of women’s knowledges in the kitchen. (DAR LA REFERENCIA COMPLETA EN BIBILOGRAFIA)