Carne Asada: Imaginaries at Play
Arriving for the first time to Hermosillo airport is a unique experience, in large part because of the ways in which local gastronomy dominates the retail spaces. Normally, airport shops throughout Mexico carry mass-produced keepsakes, some local handcrafts, tequila shot glasses, and mass-produced apparel. Hermosillo’s airport is different. While the shops carry some ironwood figurines, most of the products—including handmade chiltepin mortars, sweet-salty coyota pastries, and giant wheat-flour tortillas—are representative of a gastronomy that is distinctly from northern Mexico. Perhaps the most extravagant of the food-centered shops in the Hermosillo airport are the shops selling cardboard briefcases with legends that say “Producto Artesanal de Sonora” (“Artisan Product of Sonora”), “Patrimonio Cultural de Sonora” (“Sonoran Cultural Heritage”), and similar slogans. These outlets have freezers full of Sonoran-raised beef, and the 6-pound cardboard briefcases are designed to carry prime cuts of beef for up to 6 hours unrefrigerated. Airport authorities will even allow passengers to take these briefcases with them as carry-on items when flying within Mexico.
The importance that locally raised Sonoran beef plays in the Hermosillo airport illustrates the central role that the raising, preparing, and eating of beef now has in regional constructions of cultural identity throughout the Mexican northwest. It is, however, in the state of Sonora where beef is most deeply associated with daily cultural practices and consumption. The importance of beef is so entrenched in local sociocultural frameworks that cattle ranching is part of the state’s official coat of arms, despite the fact that the introduction of the first cattle herds did not take place until [End Page 305] the mid seventeenth century (Hernández-Moreno and Meléndez-Torres, 2012). Carne asada roots in Sonora are therefore not particularly ancient: The dish itself, as well as its consumption and the discourse surrounding it, typically centers on grilled beef and tortillas de harina (wheat-flour tortillas), food items that date back only to the period when Jesuit missionaries introduced wheat and cattle during the colonial expansion of the northern frontier. Carne asada is thus a very recent culinary practice derived directly from European contact, which has taken deep root in the local imaginary, as well as in the local ecology.
Today, the practice of carne asada mobilizes a whole industry centered around the production and distribution of meat and charcoal for its urban consumption, whether in the form of meat boutiques, high-end restaurants, street vendor taqueros, butchers, or family grills. The reliance on beef and charcoal, the twin demands that underpin the industry, has created strong social and environmental pressures. For instance, charcoal used in traditional carne asada grilling in Hermosillo is obtained from raw wood (mainly mesquite) that has been processed into lump charcoal or charwood. This translates into a continuous demand for wood that is consumed entirely after its first use. Most of that wood comes from trees within desert ecosystems, including highly vulnerable riparian desert communities (Yetman, 1999).
In this article we review Sonora’s beef culture from both an ecological and an anthropological perspective, while acknowledging the occasional tension between the theoretical approaches used in these two disciplines. We argue that beef and European crops such as wheat were introduced to the northern areas of Mexico as part of a strategy that aimed to colonize the region by transforming it into a landscape intelligible to European conceptualizations of nature and intended to pacify the nomadic indigenous groups living there. In other words, the introduction of European domestic animals and crops helped the conquistadores to transform a landscape that they viewed as barren into productive farms, missions, villages, and towns. At the same time, the introduction of winter crops facilitated the process of forcibly settling former mobile groups of indigenous peoples that had previously roamed the desert in the seasonally dependent pursuit of indigenous edible resources. Once converted to sedentary communities, local labor was used to develop towns (Braniff, 2001).
We divided this...