A Conversation with
Illustration by Colleen O’Hara, Fall 2023
Sandra Aguilar is an associate professor of history. After earning her bachelor’s degree in Mexico, she attended the University of Oxford for her master’s degree and the University of Manchester for her doctorate. She teaches courses in colonial and modern Latin America and Mexican history as well as seminars on race, food, class, and gender in Latin America. She is writing a book titled Cooking Modernity: Food, Gender, and Class in Mid-20th-Century Mexico. To learn more, magazine editor Claire Kowalchik talked with Aguilar over coffee at Baked in Emmaus.
Your research explores food, diet, and culinary practices in Mexico between 1920 and 1960 from the perspective of women. What drew you to this academic pursuit?
When I was an undergraduate, we didn’t have courses on women’s history. At Oxford, I discovered historical writings on women. Most of that research was done in the ’70s and beyond and focused on the public sphere—women as teachers, nurses, or workers. I wanted to explore something new, so I thought why not turn to the mid-20th century and research women in the home. At the time, women spent most of their time in the kitchen, so I decided to explore women’s daily lives from the perspective of the kitchen and food.
I found very little information for the time period, which pushed me into different avenues in my search for primary sources. I went to the Archives of Public Health, which took my research into nutrition, nutrition policies, welfare, and what the government was trying to do to improve the diet of the population. But to learn what happened in the kitchen required use of other sources, such as cookbooks, advertisements, and oral histories. Fortunately, I was able to talk with women in their 70s and 80s, which provided information I wouldn’t have been able to find anywhere else.
What are some of the things your research has uncovered?
My work emphasizes how cooking and eating became an arena to define and transform the working class and the implications of this on race. The working class represents the majority of Mexico’s population, and in the interest of improving the health of the country’s workers, the government encouraged families to increase their protein intake. Drinking milk was seen as the most effective way to do so—emulating dietary practices in the United States. Milk was not part of the diet of most Mexicans, and indigenous peoples or those with indigenous ancestry could not digest cow’s milk. In the mid-20th century, lactose intolerance was not known, and the government saw any refusal to drink milk as stubbornness, characteristic of indigenous peoples and the working class.
Those people who migrated from the countryside to the city had access to processed foods and sugar, which significantly altered their diet. Interestingly, when researchers mapped the nutrition patterns of Mexico, they found that the diet of one of the poorest communities of indigenous people who foraged for plants, grew their own food, and ate insects (high in protein) was more nutritious than that of their economic counterparts in the city.
So, when doctors and the government promoted a higher consumption of protein, why didn’t they recommend eating more insects?
Because it is not viewed as civilized or something that a modern nation should embrace.
In Mexico’s drive to advance, it emulated the cultural patterns of white Europeans and white Americans, making people feel it’s not good to be indigenous. The message to them was that they must change, and that diet was one of those things they had to change to be part of the civilized modern Mexico.
I bring my research into my classroom to show students that studying the past helps us understand better our present and find the connection between the experiences of certain groups in the United States and Latin America.
Grandma Meche’s Cookies
My paternal grandmother worked as a nurse in a psychiatric hospital in Mexico City in the early 1920s. She learned to bake these cookies using a charcoal oven and very basic utensils. Half of this recipe will be used to make cutout cookies and half for guava-filled empanadas. —Sandra Aguilar, associate professor of history
2 cups unsalted butter at room temperature
2½ cups sugar 5 cups all-purpose flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
5 eggs (reserve 1 egg for glazing)
Colored sugar, sprinkles, or chocolate chips for decorating (optional)
- Preheat the oven to 350°F.
- In a medium-size bowl, cream the butter and sugar.
- In a large bowl, mix the flour and baking powder. Set aside.
- Add 4 eggs one at a time to the butter-sugar mixture and combine.
- Mix the flour mixture into the butter-sugar mixture to form a dough.
- Divide the dough in half and shape it into two disks. Wrap one disk in plastic wrap and refrigerate until step 11.
- Place a disk of dough on a floured countertop or cutting board and use a rolling pin to roll it to about ¼ inch.
- Use cookie cutters to cut out shapes and place them on baking sheets covered with parchment paper.
- Beat the reserved egg and brush it on top of the cutout cookies; then decorate with colored sugar, sprinkles, or chocolate chips (my grandmother only used sugar).
- Bake about 15 minutes, until lightly browned, and cool slightly before removing from the baking sheet.
- Remove the remaining dough from the refrigerator and roll it out to a ¼-inch thickness. Use a circular cookie cutter to cut rounds of dough and place them on baking sheets.
- Put a little bit of guava paste in the center of each circle of dough, fold the dough in half, and use a fork to seal the edges. Brush beaten egg on top.
- Bake for 15 minutes, or until golden brown. Cool slightly before removing from the baking sheet and store in an air-tight container.
Makes 2 pounds of cookies; the recipe can be cut in half.
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