Editorial: Food and Identity

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In the States, “Mexican food” was always at the top of my list of favorites. Refried beans, guacamole, nachos, tacos, and – dare I say it – the occasional late night Queso Crunchwrap Supreme from Taco Bell. I knew when I traveled to southern Mexico, these “Tex-Mex” dishes probably wouldn’t appear on every menu. What I didn’t know was that lumping Yucatecan cuisine in with my perception of “Mexican food” would be doing it quite an injustice.

From the succulent Pollo Pibil – chicken marinated in red chili paste and orange juice, to the tostada-like Panuchos and Salbutes – a sure bet on every appetizer menu in Mérida, to the delicious Sopa Lima – lime soup with tomato and cilantro, food from the Yucatan state in Mexico is as foreign and delectable as those countries who do not share a border with the U.S.

In Mexico, dishes such as burritos and fajitas are imported from the United States; American foods that can be rather hard to find when walking along the streets of Mérida.

Food is more than a means of sustenance here; it is part of the national identity. Yucatecan dishes are a cultural display as significant and beautiful as Mérida’s historic colonial architecture or the ancient ruins of the Riviera Maya.

No matter the fare, meals are social events here. Coming from a culture in which I’m doing well to make it out of my apartment in the mornings with a piece of toast and a to-go mug of coffee, it is odd to sit at the table and enjoy every meal of the day for at least a half hour. Domesticity is still the lifestyle of most women here, and food preparation is an integral part of their trade.

Men, on the other hand, dominate the restaurant industry – a precedent I was quick to note in my field notes for my anthropology class. Due to the cultural value placed upon food, waiting tables is held in high regard. Thus, men prevail in the profession.

However, the most mouth-watering meal I’ve had thus far in Yucatán was prepared by a sweet Mayan woman at a small cocina just outside of Mérida. She did not speak any English, so my friends and I ordered the first thing she suggested. While it looked rather daunting when she placed it in front of us with a plateful of tortillas – a bubbling black stew with meaty bones surfacing at odd angles – it tasted better than anything I’ve ordered at the lovely bistros downtown.

If I only knew the name and recipe of the mystery dish, I would prepare it every night when I return to Chicago… just to frighten my roommates out of asking for a bite of my dinner.