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.
Consider Enchiladas Suizas, similar to chicken wrapped in crêpes, supposedly invented at Sanborn’s in Mexico City in the 1950s, and one of my favorite Mexican dishes. But – and there’s always a “but” – some suggest that the dish first emanated from the kitchen of Emperor Maximiliano. Think of the classic Sauce aux Poivrons Vert or Sauce à la Moutarde, for example. As with all such theories, that’s all this is, indicating however that fusion goes on wherever cooks and their ingredients meet up.
Anyway … .
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 a cookbook by Jules Gouffé, chef of Paris’s Jockey Club, El Libro de Cocina (1893). Then there’s Vicenta Torres de Rubio’s Cocina Michoacana (1896), too.
Most writers on the subject of French cuisine in Mexico point out that Emperor Maximiliano and his wife Carlota only spent just three 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 the detractors 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.
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
24 sous chefs
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
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
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)
Eggplant with Rhine Wine
Brioche à la Parisienne
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.
© 2020 C. Bertelsen