What was French about Mexican Cuisine?

When you bite into a chicken taco or scoop up guacamole, you probably won’t be thinking about France.

Yet, France left indelible fingerprints on the cuisine of Mexico. Jeffrey Pilcher, in Que vivan los tamales!: Food and the Making of Mexican Identity (Dialogos) (1998), attempted to examine the question, but much remains to be done.

In 1831, Mariano Galván Rivera published El Cocinero Mexicano (The Mexican Cook/Chef). Written by an anonymous author, Mexico’s first printed cookbook appeared to be heavily influenced by French techniques like stock making and the use of the Bain Marie, as well as breads and pastries. The book went through several printings and included few of the dishes so beloved by modern aficionados of Mexican food. Nineteenth-century housewives also turned to the cookbook by Jules Gouffé, chef of Paris’s Jockey Club, El Libro de Cocina (1893). 

Most writers on the subject of French cuisine in Mexico point out that Emperor Maximilian and his wife Carlota only spent a few years in Mexico and could not possibly have influenced the average cook very much. These royals brought in a Hungarian chef, Tudos, heavily influenced by classical French cuisine. Ah, but they don’t take the story up to the Porfiriato, or the period during 1876-1911, when Don Porfirio Díaz ruled Mexico with a mano de hierro. His iron-fisted manner certainly led to the Mexican Revolution of 1910.

Don Porfirio

And so did his opulent, Francophile dining style, masterminded by his chef Slyvain Dumont, who hailed from Verneuil-sur-Seine, just outside of Paris.

For a grand supper on September 15, 1910, celebrating the centennial of Mexico’s independence from Spain (1810) and his 80th birthday, Díaz ordered dishes inspired by French cuisine. Ten thousand people seated themselves at the National Palace in Mexico City. Twelve courses appeared on tables lit by filaments demonstrating the novel technology of electricity. He served French wines, particularly champagne. The china bore his emblem of an eagle around the rims of the plates and his monogram in the center.

The following list attests to the extravagance of the event:

13,000 serving plates
1,000 salt shakers
1,500 serving platters
11,000 cups and glasses of different sizes
20,400 plates
350 waiters
16 chefs
24 sous chefs
60 helpers

To make stock for the soup and sauces, three cows and three calves faced the executor’s knife. One hundred turtles metamorphosed into turtle soup, and 1,050 salmon provided fillets.  The rest of the groceries reads like a feast served by a French king, implying deprivation for the masses of poor people not invited to the gala:

2,000 beef fillets
800 chickens
400 turkeys
10,000 eggs
180 kilos of butter
600 cans of French asparagus
90 cans of foie gras
400 cans of mushrooms
300 cans of truffles
60 kilos of almonds
160 liters of cream
380 liters of milk
2,700 heads of lettuce
10 tons of ice
200 cases of sherry
200 cases of Pouilly
200 cases of Mouton-Rothschild
50 cases of Cordon Rouge
250 cases of Cognac Martell
700 cases of anis-flavored liqueur

The menu?*

Melon glacé au Clicquot rosé (Melon with Champagne)
Potage Christophe Colomb
Saumon du Rhin grillé à la St. Malo (Grilled Salmon à la Rhin with Shellfish Sauce)

Filets de sole Lerat
Poularde à l’écarlate (Chicken in Red Sauce)
Lobsters

Salade Demidoff
Eggplant with Rhine Wine

Brioche à la Parisienne
Peaches Melba
Chocolates, Pastries, Tarts

Salade Demidoff – Demidoff Salad

One part each of sliced potatoes, truffles and cooked carrots, each of them seasoned and macerated in white wine. Dress this salad with mayonnaise sauce.

*(The menu comes from archived material held at the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City.)

For more about Porfirian excesses, see Judas at the Jockey Club and Other Episodes of Porfirian Mexico (Second Edition) (1987), by William H. Beezley, with its discussion of the imitation of foreign cultures, much as people imitate Tuscan culture today.

© 2011 C. Bertelsen

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7 Comments Add yours

  1. And they were fully dressed in French clothes. Paris and Charvet. Everyone had more discipline in those days!

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  2. Jeremiah,

    An amazing and fantastic description. Thank you so much for sharing. What an astonishing menu for the tropics – I’ve been to Merida during Easter week and the heat was something.

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  3. Your massively intelligent and beautiful blog! Thank you.

    This from my grandfather’s memoirs.

    1904: HACIENDA IN CHUNCHUCMIL, YUCATAN
    My mother said that now I was fifteen and (in Mexico) a man, it was time to visit her family in the Yucatan to celebrate my Quince Annos. Since some family lived in New Orleans I stopped there to visit my white-haired, white-suited, Stetsoned, and ebony-caned uncle Billy. He told me about New Orleans and the Yucatan in the last part of the century just finished. “I had boarding-school classmates from Merida who struck me as being always highly genteel. They had their horses shipped over each year, and their duenas come at the beginning and end of the year to pack and unpack. So Merida must have been a quiet outpost of erudition and gracious living. I know my family lived on estates outside of town. By the way, your great-grandmother’s cook, Ate, used to bring those turtles about three-hand’s span in width to cook for lunch, making turtle soup and serving the meat in the shells. It was surprising and delightful to a child and delicious. And as for the young men of Yucatan haciendas, they were rich, young, landed, and Paris and Madrid-educated. In the last part of the last century they vied with only the Francophile Russians as the most elegant men in the world at the time.”
    When I reached the hacienda in Chunchucmil, once the home of the Empress Carlota, the sight of everyone taking tea took my breath away. All the great hacienda owners had gathered there to greet Mexican Presidente Porfirio Diaz and hold una vaqueria and banquet in his honor. My uncle, Rafael Peon Loza, was a collector of Limoges, Sevres, Baccarat, and English gilt silver plate as legendary as the house, and all that treasure had been brought out. A brave move since Diaz was perfectly capable of packing it into his train at the end of lunch.
    For the meal Rafael’s Parisian chef had written the menu in French:

    Hors d’Oeuvre
    Wine: Jerez

    Huitres fraiches de Chunchucmil
    Consomme Printanier Royale
    Bouchees d’Oeufs brouilles
    Homard a l’Americaine
    Wine: Rhin

    Fricandeaux Bourgeoise
    Tortue en ragout dans leurs carapaces
    Wine: Bordeaux

    Pavos a la Yucateca
    Punch President
    Chaud froid de Becassines en belle vue (sic)
    Salad Russe
    Wine: Bourgogne

    Abricotines au Madere
    Glaces Jane Fading
    Wine: Champagne

    Desserts
    Liqueurs

    The menu astonished me: they got the spelling right on the snacks with no ‘s’ on oeuvre; the miracle of very fresh oysters from the beach at Celestun brought in special baskets on horseback without the benefit of refrigeration; puff pastry not easy to make in the tropics; I would eat an homard a l’americaine any day when it is langouste or spiny lobster instead of americanus; the grand bourgeois dish of fricandeaux from veal of the ranch; how impossibly grand and simply elegant to serve the turtle in its shell, with a garnish of sea urchins souffléd in theirs; the Yucatecan turkey was relleno negro, cooked with the black paste from charred chilies; the chaud froid of woodcock was the breast turned into a forcemeat and put back in the cavity before being covered with a brown sauce made from the bones and fixed with gelatin (calves’ feet from the herd) and chilled in the icehouse; I love fresh Salade Russe of peas and carrots and other chopped cooked vegetables in mayonnaise mounted with sturgeon caviar from the Mississippi delta; the apricots were fire-roasted like chilies and then soaked in 1876 Madeira; I forgot to take notes on who Jane Fading was.

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  4. Díaz was grand in his mania for riches and the finer things of life, but he didn’t care about the people of Mexico, except for his friends.

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  5. I’ve read that a lot of Mexican cheeses are pretty good. Thanks for the note.

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  6. I’ve always been fascinated by the French period in Mexico. How wonderful to read a bit more about the influence left behind. That is some kind of meal and menu! I can only imagine what it must have been like to pull it off. Díaz was quite grand, wasn’t he?

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  7. Superb, absoluitely fascinating article..there used to ba family somwwhere in Central Mexico that made luscious French style cheese..
    used to buy them in Cozumel.

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