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  • Cooking Modernity:Nutrition Policies, Class, and Gender in 1940s and 1950s Mexico City*
  • Sandra Aguilar-Rodríguez (bio)


As dawn broke in Mexico City's streets, steamy pots opened to offer the delicious smell of hot tamales and atole.1 Lupita woke up early that morning to sell tamales in the usual corner of Niño Perdido street in Mexico City's downtown. In that year, 1947, the construction of the Latin American Tower had just started. Lupita observed the builders digging deeply in the foundations while she sipped her atole and served red and green sauce tamales to her customers. In 1940s and 1950s Mexico City, workers and low-ranking bureaucrats started their day with this popular meal, as they had done since colonial times.2 Reformers, however, questioned the nutritional value of the working-class diet and considered it as a threat to the construction of modern Mexico.

This article analyzes two public dining halls in 1940s and 1950s Mexico City to examine how people negotiated modernity and how identity, class, and gender were transformed by food practices.3 It contributes to the fields of welfare, class, and women's history by discussing how the state implemented [End Page 177] modernization discourses among the working classes and how women became central to their interpretation. Although scholars have addressed these issues, my work explores modernity from the perspective of food consumption and preparation, which offers a new approach to the complexities and nuances that modernization entailed.4

Since the late nineteenth century Mexico City experienced major transformations as part of a modernization process led by the government of Porfirio Díaz (1876-1910).5 After the revolution, modernity took a faster pace and manifested itself through an intense industrialization that increased the opportunities of employment in the manufacturing sector and new means of transportation that facilitated massive migration and urbanization. Economic conditions favored the emergence of new social classes and movements. Meanwhile, the growth of the mass media reinforced a culture of consumerism and encouraged the creation of an imagined community.6 All these changes "transformed the idea of modernity into a lived experience transmitted through new narratives, sounds and images."7 The analysis of daily experiences shows how ordinary people interpreted and constructed modernity.8 Therefore, cooking and eating provide a viewpoint to explore how men and women from different social classes defined and lived modernity.

Food practices were first discussed as part of state policies during the Porfiriato. In the late nineteenth century, there was a growing concern over the negative influence of certain foodstuffs on social behavior and health.9 The [End Page 178] Porfirian elite perceived the diet of the poor, which was based on maize, beans, and chili, as inferior. Moreover, gente decente (respectable people) considered that buying food from street vendors and eating it with the hands standing or sitting in the streets was unhygienic and uncivilized.10 In 1901 Julio Guerrero, a sociologist and criminologist, published La génesis del crimen en México. According to Guerrero, poor nutrition was a cause of social 'backwardness.' "The lower classes ate tortillas instead of bread, beans, cactus leaves, quelites (greens), zucchinis, unripe or rotten fruit, plenty of chili, little meat, and no eggs."11 Guerrero criticized the consumption of pre-Hispanic foodstuffs, such as tamales, and defined them as "an abominable outcome of the Mexican popular cooking tradition."12 So Guerrero encouraged the adoption of French and Spanish cuisine to improve Mexican's diet.

Although the poor continued eating maize, beans, and chilies, elite ideology influenced middle-class women through education. Both private and public schools taught European cookery, being the Escuela de Artes y Oficios para Mujeres (School of Arts and Trades for Women) the best example.13 Postrevolutionary nationalism, however, transformed food discourse and policies. Mexican food gained recognition among intellectuals such as José Vasconcelos, who supported the teaching of "simple Mexican foods appropriate for the everyday consumption," but inspectors and teachers preferred elaborated European dishes that remained more popular than national cuisine.14

Doctors recognized the nutritional value of basic staples such as tortillas, beans, and chilies; but they advised an increase in the consumption of proteins [End Page 179...


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pp. 177-205
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