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  • Mexico City, 1891
  • Jeffrey M. Pilcher (bio)

Britannia may have ruled the waves during the Victorian age of empire, but upper-crust Britons were nonetheless enslaved to a legion of French chefs. With his headquarters at the Savoy, Auguste Escoffier served as proconsul to this army of occupation, some five thousand strong, in kitchens throughout the kingdom (Trubek 47). From strategic locations in castles, manors, hotels, and clubs, these troops laid down a merciless barrage of champagne bottles, canisters of foie gras, and waves of sauce financière. Resistance was futile. The English elite, like the aristocrats of Tsarist Russia and the robber barons of gilded-age New York, succumbed to this invasion with only a whimper of post-prandial contentment.

In 1891, the renowned Parisian chef Sylvain Daumont disembarked in Mexico, determined to extend the culinary imperium to a land where France had recently suffered humiliating defeat. Three decades earlier, the sandal-clad troops of President Benito Juárez had upset the better-armed forces of Napoleon III in the battle of Cinco de Mayo (5 May 1862). Although French [End Page 41] soldiers eventually occupied the country and imposed the Austrian archduke Maximilian as emperor, Mexicans fought a successful guerrilla war, buoyed by their early victory, and restored the republic in 1867. Even as Daumont drilled his kitchen brigade, a popular army of resistance mobilized in working-class taquerías (taco shops) to reclaim the honour of Mexico's national cuisine.

Regardless of their nationality, those who aspired to elite status in the late nineteenth century considered the mastery of French cuisine essential. Table manners derived from courtly rituals were purposely designed to intimidate middling folk, and the proliferation of manuals for proper behaviour testifies to the widespread fear of embarrassment from failing to distinguish between, say, a pastry fork and a grapefruit spoon. Censure was particularly intense within the exclusive clubs where elites socialized and forged class identity. The Reform Club, for example, with its kitchen presided over by chef Alexis Soyer, was a bastion of Liberal politics in Britain. The endless parade of banquet courses, like the enormous sideboards carved with images of hunt and harvest, symbolized European mastery over the landscape. But this was still an early consumer society, with hunger stalking openly in the streets. Many felt both guilt at their own indulgence and dismay over French cultural hegemony (Williams 17-48; Ames 67-73; Freeman 195-203).

Mexican aristocrats were scarcely parvenus at the Victorian dinner party. France's first intervention, a naval occupation of the Veracruz customs house in 1838, had been popularly dubbed the "pastry war" when word spread that the claims included sixty thousand pesos for a French baker in Mexico City as compensation for eclairs and tartlets supposedly eaten by revolutionaries. The second intervention, the ill-fated court of Maximilian and Carlota, provided a model of continental refinement that was quickly taken up by Mexico's provincial elite, many of whom refurbished their estates in the style of European country manors. The infatuation with French banquets reached a pinnacle under the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz (1876-1911). Wealthy Mexicans, convinced that imported technology assured their future progress, rushed to buy the latest consumer goods as well. In 1881, they organized a Jockey Club in the House of Tiles, a magnificent edifice near the fashionable Alameda Park. General Francisco Zacarías Mena, a personal friend of President Díaz, administered the club's vast wine cellar, while a French chef oversaw the kitchen (Pilcher Mexican Identity, 62-66; Beezley Judas, 13-66; Macías-González 90-91; Tablada 264-65).

The arrival of the celebrated Daumont seemed to vindicate these cosmopolitan aspirations. The Mexican representative in Paris, don Tomás de la Torre y Mier, had negotiated his appointment as personal chef for his brother, Ignacio, a bon vivant and son-in-law of the dictator. Daumont was a self-conscious artist who believed that a great chef should combine flavours by instinct, the way a musician uses sounds or a painter colours. Within a year of his arrival, he had to set out on his own, opening an eponymous restaurant just a block south of the Jockey...


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