Sunday, April 26, 2015

19th C. Mexican Etiquette and Dining

Home Life of the Mexican, of the 1880s

Depiction of Mexicans in daily life, in the late 1800s

Family Gathering of Our Southern Neighbors— Customs and Manners of the Table in Private and When There Are Guests

Correspondence of the Sacramento Record-Union
Zacatecas, Mexico, Dec. 1886—

I invite you to dine with me to-day, dear friends, à la Mexicana. As I am myself a guest, we must touch the subject tenderly, for, while the truth may be told at all times, we would abuse the generous hospitality shown us everywhere in Mexico by indulging in invidious comparisons.

In a spirit of mutual good feeling, then, remembering that customs of all lands differ and that a Mexican would probably find as much to object to in our methods as we in his, let us repair to the dining room. Generally the most welcome words that greet my ears are "Vamos a comer," ("let us go to dinner,") for in Mexico nobody breakfasts American fashion, but takes only a tiny cup of chocolate or coffee with a little loaf of Mexican bread, which resembles a badly "raised" breakfast biscuit, without butter or other accompaniment, immediately on arising. That is the desayuno or almuerzo.

Among the upper class the real breakfast is much like an American dinner, served in various courses, accompanied by wines, and generally occurs between 11 o'clock A. M. and 2 in the afternoon. As may be imagined, by that hour our wealthy Yankee appetites are "sharp set" enough to do justice to any menu, however unguessable a conundrum the ingredients of the dishes may be.

Unlike other rooms of the house the comedor (dining room) is often not even tiled with brick cemented, or floored at all; but its hard surface, though worn into hollows here and there, is carefully swept and kept as sweet, and clean as would not be possible with carpets in this insect breeding country. Of course there are houses, especially in the city of Mexico, where the dining room is a marvel of luxury, but we are speaking of that the average well-to-do Mexican, and of the casa, like thousands of its class, which has been my home for many months.

In Mexico carpets are a comparatively rare luxury in any part of the house— and very sensibly, for the tiled floors, or those of cement, tinted in soft colors and shining like marble, are much more beautiful and suited to the tropical climate.

The comedor of my temporary home opens into the sunny inner court, which at this time of the year is full of fruits and flowers. Being paved with rough stones, the court is raised a few inches above the level of the dining room, and therefore, when the brief torrents of rain come, which are common in this latitude, a small flood pours in and forms small lakes in the hollows made by much shoving about of chairs, which the servants make haste to bail out with plates. The one enormously wide window is, of course, barred on the outside, and its massive inner shutters—without slats, made exactly like those of a shop or barn—are never unclosed.
Grouping of "molinillos" or hot chocolate whisks.
This house, like many others in the interior of Mexico, has not a pane of glass anywhere; but its great windows, with their deep ledges and protecting bars, are charmingly quaint and picturesque—after you get used to the fashion so foreign to American ideas.

As there is no communicating passage between dining room and kitchen, the outer door of the former stands always hospitably open, both in Summer and Winter, for otherwise it would be as dark as a dungeon unless the shutters were unclosed, and in the latter case (the great window opening directly on the street) the leperos and other gamins would swarm around in such numbers that enjoyment of the meal would be impossible.

In rather incongruous contrast to the dirt floor is a handsome mahogany sideboard, with much glassware shining upon it, some distracting pieces of old blue china, and queer articles of Guadalajara pottery, in the line of the water jars, etc., which we long to possess. The corners of the room are adorned with washstands, with bowl and towel accompaniment, the convenience of which is by and by apparent, in lieu of finger-bowls.
The most distinguished guest is given the post of honor at the head of the table, other guests are seated at his right and left, and the host and hostess place themselves wherever it happens. When we enter there is nothing upon the table but a pile of plates, a heap of knives, forks, spoons, and a cluster of goblets— all at the foot of the table, where stands the head waiter. 

If this important fuctionary is a woman her head and shoulders are usually wrapped in her reboso (for she wears only a skirt and a chemise.) and the ends of the national long shawl have an uncomfortable habit of flopping into the soup and thence helping to flavor the whole bill of fare. If the waiter be a man, he of course wears no coat, but frequently the omnipresent zarape (native blanket) is thrown over his shoulders, and his precious sombrero is always upon his head, partially covering his flowing locks.
Young Mexican girl, circa 1890s
This midday meal, whether we call it breakfast or dinner, is such an exceedingly ceremonious affair as to necessitate a great number of plates to each person. There is little variation in the menu, one meal being nearly the exact counterpart of all others during the year.

As the servants emerge from among the roses of the courtyard bearing an ambrosia, we think of fairy tales and the "Arabian Nights"— only these errados do not much resemble orthodox fairies, nor is the food they bring like the ambrosia of our imagination.

First, broth is served in small china teacups, each cup covered with a hot tortilla (pancake) and is set upon a plate, which also holds a huge brass spoon.

Mexicans have a peculiar fondness for fat of all kinds, a passion for that species of red-chili peppers called "chili," and a settled belief that onions are as necessary to life and happiness as salt and sunshine; hence this broth—and every other dish for that matter—is always very greasy, very oniony, and burning with chili pepper. If there happens to be any ripe fruit in the house—notably grapes, figs or pomegranates—it is put into broth and eaten with it.

The other day I saw with delighted eyes some big yellow peaches being carried into the comedor, and went to dinner in happy anticipation of at last having something to eat like home food. But what do you suppose they did with those peaches? Actually sliced them, every one, with the greasy, garlicky broth!

The second course is always sopa— either vermicelli, rice, or macaroni— first boiled in water and then fried in oil, with much garlic and garnished with slices of green peppers. Sometimes stewed tomatoes are mixed with it, or goat's cheese is crumbled upon it, and the greasy mixture is eaten with a spoon.

Then comes the main dish of the meal, which never varies throughout the whole course of a Mexican natural life—the same at least once a day throughout the 365 days of every year— anolla podrida of boiled beef, mutton, sausage, chicken, pork, veal, cabbage, onions, small green apples or pears, with various tropical roots, seed bulbs, and vegetables not known at the North— all cooked together in one pot. It is served in a promiscuous heap on a big platter, and is eaten with chili sauce, to which red-hot coals would be a mild comparison. The amount of pepper which the smallest children here devour as easily as ours do candy, inclines to the belief that the Mexican "inner man" certainly must be copper-lined and double-plated.                       
Buying meat from the butcher.
The nearest approach to roast meat comes in the next course— a piece of pork or young goat, stuffed with spices, herbs, chili, and chopped onions, and "boiled down" in the pit 'til its surface is slightly browned. What we consider a roast is no more easily obtained in Mexican markets than beefsteaks. The cattle are the lankest of creature, and when killed their flesh is cut up into lumps and strips regardless of "grain," in a way that would strike an English butcher dumb. As there are a few stoves with ovens for roasting or gridirons for boiling, the meat is cut with especial reference to the pot or frying pan.

The boiled dish is followed by a variety of entrées, each in a separate course— such, for instance, as chili-con-carne— meat cut into bits, boiled in grease and seasoned with tomatoes and chili; large green peppers stuffed with chopped pork and onions, cheese and scrambled eggs; cheese or sour milk boiled with chili; the brains of a kid, to be scooped out of the boiled head and spread on one's tortilla, etc.

Invariably at every meal, in all Mexican households— high and low, rich and poor— the last dish before dessert is frejoles, small red beans. They are stewed soft, generally in oil, and to neglect to eat them after each meal is not only a breach of etiquette, but would be considered indubitable evidence of bad breeding. Some people pour molasses over their beans, while other prefer to mix crumbled cheese or curdled milk with them—but I think, reader mine, that you and I will take them "straight."

At intervals during the repast, tortillas are served smoking hot from the griddle. These little cakes, as before described, are merely boiled corn crushed into thick paste with a little water (without salt or soda,) and baked on a flat stone griddle. They are never brought in on plates, as we have pancakes, but the servant piles them into heaps on the table cloth near the host or hostess who, distribute them around the festive board with a dexterous toss, precisely as cards are dealt out in the innocent game of "casino."
Empress Charlotte, or "Carlota of Mexico," born Charlotte of Belgium (Marie Charlotte Amélie Augustine Victoire Clémentine Léopoldine; June 7, 1840 – January 19, 1927), was empress consort of the Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico

If bread is used it is laid on the table in the loaf, and if one desires a piece he carves it to suit himself. The wines are always of good quality, either imported or made from Mexican grapes, Spanish claret being the favorite home beverage. Beer is used, though not so commonly, generally Milwaukee or St. Louis lager.

After frejoles some sort of dulce (native sweatmeat) or fruits is served—but never anything like pie, cake or pudding, those indigestible Yankee devices being entirely unknown here—and the repast is concluded with small cups of strong, bitter, black, Mexican coffee— which there is none better in the world.

Afterward, and sometimes at intervals during the meal, the gentlemen of the family— and not infrequently the ladies also—settle back gracefully in their chairs and smoke a cigarette or two.

These tiny Mexican cigarettes that the ladies generally use are not at all like the strong smelling things one sees in the United States and Cuba. These are rolled up in corn husks, are not much larger than straws, and have a delicious fragrance. Nearly every Mexican lady's pocket is supplied with cigarette holder and match box of more or loss elegance, and the dainty fingers of many a fair señorita, who would scorn to touch the lightest task pertaining to household labor, are discolored at the tips like polished bronze from much cigarette rolling.

Every day at about 5 o'clock P.M. coffee or chocolate is again served, as at breakfast, with little cakes resembling sweetened biscuits, crackers, and sometimes dulce. Dinner is usually at early candle-lighting, and the late supper is partaken whenever it suits the family convenience.
Everybody goes straight to bed from the supper table, and what with hearty food at such unseasonable hours and the eternal grease, garlic, and chili, the wonder is that the nation has not died out from dyspepsia long ago.

Etiquette Enthusiast, Maura J. Graber, is the Site Moderator for Etiquipedia Etiquette Encyclopedia