Monday, January 19, 2015


Here is a repost of my interview of Adriana Legaspi, a fascinating personage involved in ethnographic rescue of the native gastronomy of Mexico. Her Gastrotour of Malinalco is a must if you travel to Mexico City. We recently talked about collaborating on tours to other, lesser known parts of Mexico, like Merida and Puebla to bring the knowledge of those pre-Hispanic cuisines to our respective followers both in Mexico and the U.S.

There is a movement afoot in Mexico to preserve the traditions of its indigenous cuisine and the ancient knowledge of the use of curative herbs. It involves the rescue and preservation of the ingredients, methods, and utensils common in the pre-Columbian past of Mesoamerica in the hopes that they do not flicker out of existence in our lifetime. With globalization and the proliferation of fast food franchises, it is no surprise that these ancient traditions are becoming a distant memory. In twenty-five years, who will know how to prepare tecorral tea, muicle, tlacoyos, or tamales de atepocate or know what they are, for that matter?

Enter Adriana Legaspi, founder of Gastrotour Prehispánico Malinalco, an anthropologist of the palate and a woman on a mission to preserve these traditions. She is neither the first nor the only person in Mexico bent on what Adriana calls 'the ethnogastronomic rescue'  but she certainly stands out in her passion and conviction.

A multi-faceted business woman who is not only proficient in the kitchen, Adriana also has degrees in communications, political science, and public affairs. Many years ago, she and her husband purchased a weekend home in the cobble-stoned mountain village of Malinalco outside of Mexico City. Adriana found herself in her element, naturally drawn to the wizened old 'doñas' in the ancient market of Malinalco, chatting, learning recipes, and listening to their stories of old times and ways.

With encouragement from friends and with a penchant for social causes, Adriana founded a project which would direct her seemingly boundless energy towards two goals: to preserve the culture and identity of the region and to help the women with a much needed income. This was the genesis of the Gastrotour Prehispánico of Malinalco. The tour consists of a hands-on cooking class on weekends, starting with a visit to the market in Malinalco to buy organic fruits, vegetables, and herbs grown by the seller herself at zero kilometers. She invites her guests to observe the fauna and the flora depicted on a convent wall, thus ensuring a
thorough understanding of the historical backdrop of the food they are preparing.

What follows is the first of a two-part interview with Adriana about her work to preserve the Mexican identity through its prehispanic cuisine:

When did you first become interested in cooking?

The truth is that I'm a product of a generation that did not hold cooking in high regard because it was associated with a lack of culture or professional status. I am the first generation of female college graduates in a family where the women had always considered marriage and the running of a household as the first priority.  My sisters and cousins began to take on minor professions in banks. The more professional we felt, the more we shunned the kitchen. Nevertheless, I'm a descendent of Italian immigrants to Mexico on my father's side for whom food and its preparation were of utmost importance in daily life. The quantity, the quality, freshness, uniqueness, and delectability for a traditional community in Northern Mexico where we lived, set us apart. As soon as I began my career in the hospitality industry, my own personal history became relevant as I found myself charged with the responsibility of organizing unique dining experiences at the empresarial level.

How did you come to get involved in the gastronomic tours of prehispanic cuisine in Malinalco?

This is a very long story whose chapters played out slowly starting from the first moment I arrived in Malinalco with my husband over 20 years ago. In spite of the enormous cultural offerings we enjoyed living in Mexico City, on weekends we spilled out of the city in search of open spaces and fresh air. That's how we ended up in Malinalco on many a weekend enjoying lunch in the subtropical climate of this town 88 kms from Mexico City. 

We often ate at a restaurant called El Tecorral situated in a grand old house dating from the 17th century where we took in the gardens, the climate, and the people. Soon we found ourselves buying a property in a place where every neighborhood had its Caocalli or Teocalli typical of Indian villages with a prehispanic past. The Augustin monks who arrived in Malinalco to evangelize in the 16th century built the Convento de la Transfiguracieon del Señor and directed every barrio to have its own saint and chapel. Ours came with a chapel; we purchased it from a seller who still has a a Nahua surname: Donaciano de la Fuente Tecayahuatl. 

Little by little I became involved in the life of the town, admiring its geography, its ecology, and naturally, its cuisine. I became aware of the strength of its indigenous origins and the pride in its traditions evident in daily life. Imagine a prehispanic market where you can find tlacoyos, a type of oval tortilla filled with fava bean paste or ricotta spiced with chilies, cooked on a clay comal by vendors like Doña Carmen. I started, then, to make a mental inventory of all that grabbed my attention to begin my ethnographic research. I began interviewing the elders, finding and documenting ingredients, looking for their existence in a precolombian past. The rest came naturally. 

I felt the need to help the economic possibilities of the women of the market who rely on their own meager income. The weekend visitors were not necessarily buying their products; hence, the beginning of my classes: to teach my students the importance of this food, its contextualization, the value in its freshness, helping these students to understand who we are and why we eat as we do. Then, going home to turn the ingredients into a meal.

Why do you think it's important to get back to authentic roots in mexican cuisine?

First of all, because the Mesoamerican diet is healthy... and because to eat guided by prehispanic and Mesoamerican principles of when to eat something is healthy.  Eating guayabas before and during winter, for example, provides the body with the vitamin C necessary for the immunological system to withstand the freezing weather of the central high plains of Mexico.

What is the attitude and/or interest now of the professional (upper and middle) classes in Mexico regarding authentic prehispanic cuisine?

Well, in reality, I think there is growing interest throughout the world, among those who can afford it, to eat authentic and traditional food. The designation of Mexican food as a world heritage cuisine has made it stylish, and chefs throughout Mexico are recuperating the tastes and recipes, creating them with modern techniques and charging exhorbitant prices.

To be continued...

*Photos courtesy of Adriana Legaspi.

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