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The University of Texas at San Antonio Online Magazine

UTSA's library holds more than 1,000 Mexican cookbooks, dating back to 1789.

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.

Juli McLoone, rare books librarian, tries her hand at egg and bean enchiladas, a recipe from a 1939 cookbook.

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 and China."

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 the recipe.

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 aluminum colander.

"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 some milk.’"

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 the country."

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," she laughed.

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, Maloney said.

"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 the enchiladas.

Serve hot. If you wish, you can add ground pumpkin seeds.

La Cocina Historica is published by The University of Texas at San Antonio Special Collections Department. Featuring weekly recipes from our Mexican Cookbook Collection, this blog celebrates Mexican cuisine and culinary history. Join us every Friday to discover new recipes from the past!

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 not McLoone.

"I just have to rinse this stuff off and throw it in the dishwasher. That’s the beauty of modern technology," she said.

–Lety Laurel

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