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With more than 2,000 volumes, the University of Texas at San Antonio’s (UTSA) collection of Mexican and Mexican-American cookbooks is the largest in North America, spanning important titles as well as rare handwritten notebooks in both English and Spanish. UTSA’s Special Collections Library is now digitizing selections from the trove and making them available through its online portal, helping tell the rich story of Mexican cuisine from the 18th century through the present day.
According to Stephanie Noell, Special Collections Librarian at UTSA, 50 digitized books have been uploaded so far, and her team is working to continue uploading at least one book a week. Simply skimming through the titles — like Recetas que escribió mi madre con amor para sus hijas (“Recipes my mom wrote with love for her daughters”), a Mexican family cookbook — gives one a sense of the intimate and special nature of these objects.
Noell and her team are focused on digitizing a group of 100 “manuscript cookbooks” in the collection, priceless folios filled with handwritten recipes intended for personal, not public, use. Some pages bear cooking stains, marginal notes, and doodles that transport us to the kitchen. The earliest manuscript dates from 1789 and was written by Doña Ignacita, likely the kitchen manager in a well-off household; recipes include empanaditas (“little empanadas”), Castilian rose preserve, and totolmole, a type of mole made with turkey.
It also lists a recipe for guisado Gachupín, a stew named after a term used to describe Spanish settlers in America (and now a sometimes disparaging Mexican slang word for Spaniards). Indeed, many of the cookbooks housed by UTSA do much more than explain to prepare certain dishes. They also serve as invaluable primary documents of the colonial period, testifying to the cultural exchanges (and discords) between Indigenous people and Europeans.
For example, “the conquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo referred to corn dishes as the ‘misery of maize cakes,’” Stephanie Noell, Special Collections Librarian at UTSA, told Atlas Obscura. “On the other side, the Nahuas were not impressed by the Spaniards’ wheat bread, describing it as ‘famine food.’”
Other gems in UTSA’s collection include the first cookbook published by a Mexican woman, Cocina michoacana by ; early vegetarian and vegan recipes; publications by Mexican celebrity chefs; and what may be the last surviving copy of the 1828 cookbook Arte Nuevo De Cocina y Reposteria Acomodado al Uso Mexicano.
UTSA began collecting these publications in 2001, when San Antonio resident Laurie Gruenbeck donated 500 volumes she had acquired during trips to Texas and Mexico over a period of three decades. It continues to grow the collection through new purchases and donations to this day.