Every year in November, the Conservatorio de la Cultura Gastronómica Mexicana holds an International Mexican Gastronomy Forum. This year the 4th Forum will be hosted in Mexico City in Centro Nacional de las Artes in November 24-27. The CCGM does this to create a space to preserve and propagate Mexican recipes that have been cooked for thousands of years.
Food researcher, professor and consultant Ricardo Bonilla explained to us what the Conservatorio’s role is. “It was created to rescue, safeguard and disseminate Mexican cuisine,” he told us. “Our society is evolving fast, and the recipes that have been passed from generation to generation for thousands of years can be easily lost.”
The Conservatorio is a non-profit that was formed in 2006 by researchers, chefs, cooks, professors, journalists and others concerned about protecting Mexican food, its recipes and ingredients. In terms of its mission, the Conservatorio achieved a historical milestone on November 16, 2010, when UNESCO added traditional Mexican cuisine to the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, the first cuisine in the world to receive this recognition.
“It wasn’t an easy achievement,” Bonilla tells us. “It took a lot of effort. But under the leadership of Gloria López Morales” – president of the Conservatorio and a writer, journalist and diplomat who has worked a great deal to preserve Mexico’s cultural heritage – “we were able to get the documents approved by UNESCO on our second attempt.” However, the Conservatorio’s job didn’t end there. To stay on the UNESCO list, Mexico needs to show that it’s working to protect the country’s cuisine and all the processes and rituals involved in its preparation.
This is one of the reasons the forum was created. It offers a space in which large and small producers, restaurateurs, chefs, traditional cooks, culinary students, researchers and the public can get together to share their products, ideas and concerns and to learn what people from other parts of the country are cooking and doing.
This confluence of ideas and products was well represented the first day of the conference two years ago in the city of Puebla. Renowned chefs from all over the country got together on stage to talk about the local products from their region. Each was paired with a chef from another region to create a dish using some of these ingredients. Monterrey chef Abdiel Cervantes made flour tortillas, traditional to the north, and offered tips on making them taste better, while Alejandro Ruiz, from Oaxaca, combined chorizo and quesillo (Oaxacan string cheese) to serve over the tortillas, which he topped with grasshoppers.
The most moving part of the conference, however, was when a group of traditional female master cooks from around the country introduced themselves in their native languages. Benedicta Alejo from Michoacán introduced herself in Purepecha, the language spoken by the indigenous community of the same name in the northwestern part of the state. (Considered the official language of the region by the government, Purepecha is spoken by 200,000 people, though the number is declining.) “I barely speak Spanish,” she told the audience after her introduction. “I don’t know how to read, I don’t know how to write. But I’ve traveled all over the world. My metate [flat grinding stone] and my comales [griddles] have brought me to where I am today.”
Martha Soledad Gómez from the community of Tajin, Veracruz, talked about las mujeres de humo, “women of the smoke.” “Unfortunately, I didn’t learn to speak my ancestors’ language at home like my colleagues here, but I learned how to cook from my mother and grandmother,” Gómez told the audience. “I’m living my childhood dream. Ever since I can remember I loved the kitchen and cooking. When I was a little girl I didn’t know there were other people who cook, like chefs, all over the world. I believed the women in our community were the only ones. In our culture we are known as the ‘women of the smoke.’ When someone gets close to us we don’t smell like perfume like some rich women. We smell like firewood and corn. And when we get old, our hair doesn’t turn white. It turns the same color as the smoke from our stoves.”
Abigail Mendoza from Oaxaca, Cristina Velázquez from Estado de México and Victoria Contreras from Puebla were also on stage that morning. Every single cocinera brought produce from her community. They also brought their metates with them. For these traditional cooks the metate is an extension of their bodies. That large grinding stone accompanies them everywhere on their backs. They use it to grind maize for tortillas, pumpkin seeds for desserts, cocoa beans for chocolate, peppers for moles and every other ingredient they use for their recipes. For Abigail Mendoza, kneeling in front of the metate to grind is a sign of respect. A part of the cocineras dies when a metate breaks. It can take up to a year of grinding sand two hours a day to tame a new metate.
In the conference, these remarkable women taught some renowned chefs how to cook some of their traditional recipes. Step by step they showed the audience why they are considered the keepers of Mexican food and traditions.
“There were 64 traditional cooks from all over the country,” Bonilla told us after the conference in Puebla. “The logistics involved in bringing all these people together is monumental, considering that we are a non-profit organization and don’t receive any money from the government or the international community.”
“Every single member of the Conservatorio is a volunteer,” he added. “We do this because we believe in the cause and we’re passionate about our food and preserving our traditions. We are no more than an instrument to achieve the conservation of something as important as food, because at the end we all have to eat.”
Get your tickets for this year’s conference here.