“The Most Extensive Book on Mexican Culinary Arts”: Doña Cuca and her husband, Ernesto, in 1980.
In 2010 UNESCO honored traditional Mexican cuisine as the first and ONLY world cuisine to be named an Intangible World Heritage.* Cooking is part of the cultural identity of a community, and I’m more than happy to sacrifice myself to having to eat traditional Mexican food nearly every day!
Sinaloa, the state in which we live, is the food basket of Mexico—home to thousands of hectares of corn, chile, tomatoes, pork, beef, fish and all the fresh seafood your tastebuds might desire. Leave it to a Sinaloa native, then—Doña Cuca, or María del Refugio Fonseca de Cárdenas—to do us the favor of recording recipes that were traditionally handed down orally into the “most extensive book on Mexican culinary arts,” according to a national Mexican newspaper. Just think… that makes this woman, born in Guasave, who now lives in Mazatlán, author of an authoritative work on the only Intangible World Heritage cuisine!
Doña Cuca has taught thousands of Mexican women the art of cooking; her cookbook is a Bible for newly married women. Just ask your friends—they know her. Dozens if not hundreds of women have opened cocinas económicas using her recipes as their guide, so La Maestra has contributed to Mexico’s growing middle class, as well, enabling women to send their children to school with the money they earn.
Doña Cuca and yours truly
Patty and the maestra
Only one of many drawers full of mementos
I have long wanted to interview Doña Cuca, but she turns down cold most interview requests. She’s been known to say that at 85 “she’s had her day in the sun.” So what were the odds this strange gringa woman could score an interview with the icon of Mexican cooking?
Well, last week, my girlfriend brought the honest-to-goodness-best-pie-in-the-history-of-humanity to my house. I asked her about it, and she explained that she had gotten married at 18 and learned to cook from her mother-in-law; the pie was just one of many recipes she’d learned. Small world, but I found out that my friend Patty is related to Doña Cuca, so arranging to interview the Maestra was easy peasy! (Thank you, hermosa!)
I was intimidated going into our meeting; I had heard Doña Cuca could be a tough interview, and that she is quite the perfectionist. We were invited to her home, so I wanted to take a hostess gift. But I sure as heck wasn’t going to take any homemade snack or baked goods! Flowers, maybe? I settled on a scented candle.
What a joy our afternoon turned out to be! Doña Cuca has such a spark, and my oh my does she have the charm! She welcomed Patty and me into her home where she regaled us with stories that ranged from the ribald to the heartwarming. She brought out photos, clippings, letters, and, of course, some fresh juice and snacks. As if that weren’t enough, she gifted us signed copies of her book, first published in 1980 and now in its 21st printing!
Doña Cuca signing the book for me
Patty with her copy of the book
Doña Cuca told me she’s loved cooking since she was seven years old. She was fortunate to learn from her grandmother, her mother, and the wonderful cook at her grandparents’ hacienda in Guasave, which led us to her first earthy story. As a pre-teen, Doña Cuca was jealous of the large bosoms she saw on the cook and her daughters. She asked them how they got such big breasts. “From milling the corn!” they exclaimed. Obviously they were clever women, as their response got Doña Cuca to take over grinding the corn for quite some time before she figured out it didn’t help her breasts grow bigger!
At her grandparents’ hacienda Refugio learned the importance of fresh produce, meat and cheeses, and that simple cooking with quality ingredients is often the best. She got married and had five children. The family lived in Mexico City and Ciudad Obregón, but after serious financial setbacks, they ended up back in Guasave. There Doña Cuca started El Instituto de Seguridad Social: para el bienestar de la familia with two girlfriends. As part of that effort she often taught cooking classes in the ejidos. She remembers that she’d take notes about the many cooking techniques shared by the housewives of the area during her classes. Years later she conducted research in 18 municipalities of Sinaloa, focusing on the traditional recipes. That book, with sets of 100 recipes for seafood, beef, chicken, gourmet food, etc., will be published in January, 2016 under the title, Colache: Para Mis Pequeñas Cocineras.
La Maestra told me her favorite fish is corvina, and she likes it on las brasas: cooked over an open fire. She told me the traditional way to make pescado zarandeado, that emblematic Mazatlecan dish, is to barbecue it over an open fire with only salt. The salsas and the vegetables (tomatoes, onions, green peppers) should be served separately.
Some of the typical Sinaloan dishes that we talked about included chilorio, machaca, and chorizo. I asked if some of these weren’t more typically Sonoran, but she replied that Sinaloa has always had great beef, too, and that many of these recipes date to before statehood, even to prehispanic times. The one that really stood out for me were the enchiladas del suelo—enchiladas of the floor! I read one newspaper account about how these very enchiladas, made by Doña Cuca, had been the hit of a huge society party in Guadalajara, given by the famous enchilada maker La Güera del Mercadito Vizcaíno, thus taking the limelight away from the hostess. Doña Cuca told me that enchiladas del suelo, along with el asado Sinaloense, are very typical, traditional dishes of this region. They were often served at parties (parrandas) and serenades, and were an alternative to menudo at the closing of a dance. She promised to teach me how to make them, and I am sure hoping to hold her to that invitation!
What about one of her heartwarming stories? Like any grandmother, it involves a grandchild; in this case, Ana Carola Cárdenas. Ana took after her grandmother, but in Ana’s case her love of cooking took her to study it in Europe. Grandma proudly showed me Ana Carola’s article, some photos of her culinary arts teacher, and the chair in which her children and grandchildren grew up enjoying her terrific cooking.
I feel honored and very lucky to have met and had the chance to interview this fine woman, and I am also extremely grateful to her for working so hard to keep our traditions alive. I look forward to using her book and doing my part in turn!
*Yes, French gastronomy was honored as well, but it was for the French custom of eating together, the serving of courses, etc.—not for the food itself.