Cocina de Cultura: The kitchens included in 'Mexicocina' represent Mexican culinary pride, in both function and aesthetic.
A Santa Cruz author brings home the flavors of Mexico
By Laura Mattingly
Some of the most lavish, visually striking and culturally rich kitchens of Mexico opened their doors to be captured in the recently released book Mexicocina: The Spirit and Style of the Mexican Kitchen, a testament to Mexico's culinary pride.
"I hope the book is yet another statement and yet another opportunity for people to see there's so much more to Mexico than what they hear on the news," says Santa Cruz chef, caterer, writer and tour guide Betsy McNair, whose Mexicocina draws upon a multifaceted, lifetime involvement with food.
"There's this grand culture to learn about, and these amazing historical monuments to see, and just the richness that's available," says McNair. "I hope that in some way the book can be an ambassador for Mexico, to show people there's a lot to Mexico that people usually don't see."
McNair's newfound passion for the country comes through in every aspect of the book, from the recipes, both indigenous and U.S. adaptations, and the descriptions of traditional techniques of art and architecture.
The photographs, taken by Melba Levick, capture the depth of color, and the meticulous detail of the work of local artisans, retaining a mystical quality of the interior spaces. Levick has published over 45 photography books.
McNair's unique relationship with Mexico began with a radical life change. This life-long caterer did not take midlife lightly.
"I was about to turn 40, and I just felt like, 'I need something new in my life, I don't want to work 40 hours a week for the rest of my life, standing on my feet.' And the pressure was intense, serving thousands of people every weekend and it was their wedding, they wanted everything perfect, you know? ... I just thought, 'I need a change, I need to do something different--what should it be?'"
McNair's soul-searching led her to a career-counseling class at Cabrillo, recommending "in-keeper" as her most compatible career venture. From there, McNair's art class professor put her in touch with a bed and breakfast owner in Guanajuato needing help in the kitchen, McNair's first step into Mexico. "And it was perfect," she says.
"It was 1994 when I agreed to go to Mexico for the first time," says McNair. "I spoke virtually no Spanish, aside from kitchen Spanish, and I'm from Connecticut, so, I mean, a bed and breakfast in Connecticut is a lot of antique furniture and chintz and lace, and big puffy beds and things like that. I thought I knew what I was getting into, [but] I had no idea. I got there; the house was filled with Mexican folk art--there were like orange walls and yellow walls with turquoise polka dots, and masks everywhere, and it's just an amazing, amazing place."
After visiting the bed and breakfast, La Casa de Espiritus Alegres, its owners Joan and Carol Summers invited McNair in as a partner, to be in charge of the facility for six months out of the year. Within two weeks of their decision, Joan was diagnosed with cancer and passed away in 1998.
McNair carried on at La Casa de Espiritus Alegres for five years, and then began traveling around the country working on a project for Bon Appétit, the food and entertainment magazine, focusing her attention on Mexican food and kitchens.
Upon returning to Santa Cruz in 2003, McNair was asked by photographer Levick to be her writer for the Mexicocina project, one in a series of books she had photographed for Chronicle publishing company including Mexicasa and Mexicolor.
McNair performed her research for Mexicocina in conjunction with the founding of her own tour company called "My Mexico Tours."
"When I think back on where I was in 1993, and what I thought I'd be doing, if you ever told me that I would have published a book, [learned to] speak Spanish fluently and live in a foreign country for upwards of 10 years ... it just is remarkable. That's not where I was headed."
Though McNair believes Mexicocina will play a part in bringing some of Mexico's lesser-known culture to the north, she also acknowledges the book's limitations.
"These are for the most part wealthy homes, and for a large part, not all, I would say about 75 percent North American [U.S.]-owned private homes. Quite honestly it got a little difficult for me. ... My favorite kitchen never made it into the book, of course, because it was a lady on the side of the street with a little can that she had, burning fire in, and then she had her little comal [flat griddle], and she had a little plastic bag that she had her masa in, and that's where she was cooking. That to me is like, oh my God, that's the kitchen of Mexico. Well, that's not what this book is about."
McNair explains that the book is by no means representative of Mexico as a whole, nor of mainstream culture, intended mostly for a readership looking for architectural inspiration for their own kitchens. Indigenous artisans and their contact information are listed in the book, in case readers want to order from them directly.
"Most of my Mexican friends don't have kitchens that look like this, they're pretty humble, and most of Mexico is very humble. ... It's not a political book, it's a pretty book."
McNair resolved her personal conflict over the project with the understanding that the private owners had commissioned local artisans to create their kitchens.
"They're owned by a wealthy American who hired the best stone mason in town who's doing his great-great-great-great-grandfather's work."
And in this light McNair sees the kitchens as unintentional homage to indigenous culture and tradition.
Mexicocina: The Spirit and Style of the Mexican Kitchen by Betsy McNair; Chronicle Books; 176 pages; $24.95 paper
Betsy McNair events: On Saturday, Dec. 2, at the Stars Benefit at the Museum of Art and History, 705 Front St., Santa Cruz, a dinner prepared by McNair will be auctioned. She will appear on Sunday, Dec. 3, 2-3:30pm, at Chefworks, 1527 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz, for a food tasting and booksigning. On Dec. 12 at 7:30pm at Capitola Book CafÈ, 1475 41st Ave., Capitola, McNair will give a presentation and food tasting. Information about her tours can be found at www.mymexicotours.com.
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