Librarians in the Cocina
Blog explores traditional Mexican recipes that give
insight into history, culture and politics
The recipe from 1939 called
for freshly cooked black
beans, so Juli McLoone, rare
books librarian, improvised
the best way she knew how: with a can
of Goya beans bought at her local H-E-B.
"[The author] of course doesn’t call
for canned beans, but I think she would
appreciate the time and convenience of
them," McLoone said, opening the can.
McLoone isn’t exactly a culinary
artist, though she enjoys cooking. And
she’s no expert on Mexican cuisine,
though she enjoys eating it.
But the librarian is challenging
herself to cook as many recipes from
UTSA’s Mexican cookbook collection
as she can–as authentically as makes
sense–and write about her experiences
on the library’s blog called La
Cocina Historica. It’s a way to highlight
the library’s unique collection
of more than 1,000 Mexican cookbooks
that date as far back as 1789. The books,
some splattered with food, others
compiled from pasted newspaper
clippings, make up one of the largest
and most extensive Mexican cookery
collections in the U.S., she said.
"It’s been a fun little experiment,"
McLoone said, thumbing through one
of the collection’s older cookbooks. "But
it does make having peanut butter and
jelly for lunch a little lame when you’ve
spent the morning looking at these."
Most of the books were donated by
San Antonio resident Laurie Gruenbeck.
Over the past 30 years, she slowly built
her collection while traveling throughout
Texas and Mexico.
The collection contains recipes for
the more adventurous eaters: cat tongue
cookies (which don’t actually contain
anything from a cat’s anatomy); pig’s
feet; green rice; and corn smut, a fungus
that grows on corn. And there are more
conservative recipes, such as dried
shrimp soup, plantain taquitos, chocolate
cake, pralines and rice pudding.
"People think of Mexican food as
tortillas and tacos and enchiladas,"
Gruenbeck said. "But it’s a lot of varieties
of food. There’s an infusion of French
and they also had influences from Asia
Today’s recipe for McLoone: enchiladas
de huevo con frijol, or egg
enchiladas with beans, from the 1939
cookbook Exquisite Cocina de Campeche:
400 Recetas Experimentadas.
As the smell of hard-boiled eggs
fills McLoone’s kitchen, she tries to figure
out an especially confusing part of
For 12 medium tortillas, you will
need 6 hard-boiled eggs, crumbled with
sufficient salt. Prepare the black beans
as in that recipe; when well cooked
and thickened, pass them through an
"The funny thing about Mexican
cookbooks, the manuscript ones will
sometimes give a specific list of ingredients
but will be very light on directions,"
she said. "It’s as if they think 'I already
know how to make what I’m making, I
just need to know the proportions.’ Or it
may be a matter of no proportions, such
as 'Take some eggs and cook them in
You have to research before you
begin cooking, agreed library dean Kris
Maloney. "When I go through a recipe,
there will be ingredients like a goat.
Or 12 pigeons," Maloney said. "A 1960s
book has pigeons as an ingredient. I was
intrigued by how recent that was and
how cooking was done in that part of
To prepare for the egg enchiladas,
McLoone had to first translate the directions
from Spanish, then try to find the
ingredients at her grocery store.
For epazote, she substituted cilantro.
For lard, vegetable oil.
Add one red tomato that has been
blanched, skinned, and dissolved in
½ cup of its cooking water.
"There is a bit of guessing involved,"
McLoone started the blog in spring
2010. Library staffers and anyone else
who is interested pick recipes from the
collection, try them out at home, and
write about the experience. The site gets
about 100 to 200 hits a week.
"Some of the recipes are exotic,"
McLoone said. "We had a tortilla soup
recipe that we wanted to try that featured
15 different ingredients. But here we ran
into language limitations because we
don’t have anyone in the department
who is fluent in Spanish. We weren’t sure
if it was telling us to crumple up sausage
to look like sheep’s brains or if we had to
use sheep’s brains."
Blogging about the recipes is a
way to let people know that the collection
exists. But it’s also been a learning
experience. Food, McLoone said, gives
a unique insight into history. It reveals
the politics of the region and the social
history of the area.
"The thing about food and cooking
is it’s sometimes criticized as being multiculturally
light ‘Let’s eat some tacos
and celebrate Cinco de Mayo,’ " she said.
"But the thing about it is it at least gets
someone’s foot in the door. You can’t stop
there. You have to go deeper."
The collection gives important information
that will be useful to researchers,
"In San Antonio, we’re known for the
food and the area and the culture," she
said. "The cooking is interesting and the
cookbooks themselves are interesting,
but the additional historical aspects of
culture, society and health that they give
insight to is important."
To make the enchiladas, wet the tortillas
with the salsa, and then put a little of
the eggs in each and place snugly in
a serving bowl. Then, pour the thick
beans on top, and lastly the salsa.
Back in McLoone’s kitchen, she
struggles to pass the heated black beans
through a colander to "pour" on top of
the enchiladas. Shrugging, she scoops
the smashed mess that didn’t make it out
of the colander and spreads it on top of
Serve hot. If you wish, you can add
ground pumpkin seeds.
The plate looks, well, interesting.
After setting the table, she sits down to
her meal and hesitantly takes a bite.
"It’s actually pretty good," she said.
It took over an hour to prepare the
meal, a matter of minutes to eat it.
"That’s part of the cultural aspect
too," Maloney said. "The amount of
work that it takes. You work with inexpensive
ingredients, but it takes hours
and hours of time."
After finishing her plate of enchiladas,
McLoone grins at the collection of
used spoons, whisks, pans and cutting
boards that have accumulated on her
countertops during her experiment. The
kitchen is splattered with tomato, and
pieces of diced onion that didn’t quite
make it into the pan lie on her stovetop.
Cooks in the 1800s and early 1900s
would have had to spend hours gathering
the ingredients and preparing
the small meal, and additional hours
cleaning everything used to cook it. But
"I just have to rinse this stuff off and
throw it in the dishwasher. That’s the
beauty of modern technology," she said.