A Discussion with Igor Ayora-Diaz
By: Lillian Brown and Ana de Lima
In a globalized world, cuisines are being created and recreated all the time. Chefs experiment in the kitchen, using exotic ingredients, claiming to use the newest combination of flavors, and marketing their creations in various ways. One of the symbols of this cosmopolitan cooking and eating is fusion cuisine, combining traditions from different countries and regions. So are cuisines everywhere changing rapidly, in tune with the constant movement of goods and people in an increasingly connected world?
Perhaps the answer is not as simple as it seems. In fact, in the case of what may be called “authentic” Yucatecan gastronomy, the story is a very different one. The menu one gets at a Yucatecan restaurant has the appearance of being static, and dishes are not perceived of as changing much over time. Culturally acceptable modifications are practically unnoticeable and minimal, occurring at a slow pace, so that ‘traditional’ dishes remain identifiably traditional. Research conducted by Igor Ayora-Diaz, professor in the Department of Anthropology of Universidad Autonoma de Yucatan, reveals the very particular ways in which some Yucatecans have been using foodways as a political statement.
In the words of Ayora-Diaz the Yucatecan gastronomy is “restrictive and closed.” For example, ‘authentic’ Yucatecan restaurants will certainly serve pork and turkey in their dishes (both favored over beef, which is the least available on a menu), their tamales are never stuffed with cheese and ham, and they do not serve soups (preferring panuchos). There is rarely any cheese, cream, or butter involved in the cooking of the main dishes, and no chili peppers are added to your dish (they are available only as a side). If after this description you started to doubt your knowledge of geography, we would like to assure you that, yes, the Yucatan is in Mexico! The fact that the exceptions cited above – beef, dairy, and chilies – are all accepted as signatures of the Mexican gastronomy is not a mere coincidence.
Why do Yucatecans define their food traditions in opposition to those of Mexico? There has been an extensive history of fighting for recognition of diversity in the Yucatan, as a response to political domination by the Mexican state. Evidence for this struggle goes back to the nineteenth century when Yucatecan elites did not support independence from Spain, as they were privileged by their strategic location for trade. Following that, Yucatan declared independence from Mexico three times but was never successful. Moreover, the Yucatan was subject to a number of Mexican commercial blockages, engaging independently in market transactions with many Caribbean countries. The Yucatan was eventually Balkanized into three different states to inhibit dissent. In the 1980’s when the government of Mexico recognized the multiplicity of indigenous cultures, most Yucatecans felt certain migrant traditions in their region were ignored, such as the Lebanese and Jewish.
Although separatist movements have lost influence more recently, one of the ways in which an opposition to a “monolithic imagination” of the Mexican nation appears in the Yucatan region is through their foodways. The vigilant maintenance of authentic Yucatecan gastronomy can be seen as a response to the recognition of the Mexican national gastronomy as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage. By establishing their food traditions as separate, Yucatecans are proclaiming and protecting their identity as apart from a homogeneous Mexican national identity.
The other side of this story is that everyday foods, eaten mostly at home by the average Yucatecan, are described by Ayora-Diaz as “inclusive, ludic, and open to experimentation and improvisation.” They are the result of a mixture of Spanish recipes and many different foreign cuisines and ingredients from the Caribbean, United States, England, France, China, Korea and so on – a fusion cuisine. Indeed, even ‘authentic’ Yucatecan gastronomy incorporates ingredients from afar. Some examples of dishes that resulted from this process of “hybridization” are pork cooked in a béchamel sauce made of corn, or the use of olive oil to fry fish and seafood. So, the paradox is that in the process of creating a food tradition and reinforcing identity through food – as in the creation of the unique Yucatecan gastronomy, separate from a Mexican one – the expression of popular culture and creativity in elaborating dishes, bringing together influences from past and present, are left mostly unrecognized.