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¡Buen Provecho! - Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity
¡Buen Provecho!
Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity

by Eva Luz Villalón Turrubiates

In the year 2010, traditional Mexican cuisine was inscribed on the “List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity” for being an ancestral, ongoing community culture. UNESCO said that “traditional Mexican cuisine is a comprehensive model comprising farming, ritual practices, age-old skills, culinary techniques and ancestral community customs and manners. It is made possible by collective participation in the entire traditional food chain”.

Mexican cuisine is a kaleidoscope that goes beyond the simple act of feed. Its ingredients, rituals and traditions preserve the memory and identity of our people. Traditional recipes are not only seasoned with chile, garlic and onion, but also with a rosary of Mexican sayings, small pills of popular wisdom that go from mother to daughter and from grandmother to granddaughter.

San Miguel de Allende with its 475 years of history has a strong, age-old cooking tradition. Much of it can be traced to convent kitchens. The nuns prepared such delicacies that when someone is a very good cook, it is said they have the “hands of a nun.” In their kitchens, the nuns had the help of the women of San Miguel with whom they exchanged techniques and recipes.

Mexican kitchens were always protected by Saint Pascual Bailon, patron saint of cooks. He was a Spaniard who lived in the sixteenth century. When he was a monk he was in charge of the kitchen of his monastery. It is told that, because often he lost track of time while praying, angels would come down to cook, guaranteeing that meals were always delicious and on time. So, cooks pray to him to ask for their recipes to come out well by chanting: “Saint Pascual Bailon, dance in the stove, you give me a good seasoning and I’ll dance for you.” (This is because Bailon sounds like baile, dance.) Some women also ask him for a good husband, because of the saying “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach”. And people say San Pascual always delivers.

Someone had to undertake the noble task of making a recompilation and register of traditional recipes and the sayings and customs that go with them; time never forgives, and memory, as good as it can be, is not as long-lasting as paper and ink.

Patricia Merrill Marquez is that someone. She is the daughter of a Yankee father and a Sanmiguelense mother with a solid bicultural education. She is an architect and cook, who learnt that craft from the best, her mother Yaya, who knew all the culinary secrets of the kitchen of the Convent of the Conceptionist Nuns in San Miguel. Patricia is the one who, as a writer, took the challenge of rescuing the memory of the traditional cooking in San Miguel.

Sayings, recipes, food, anecdotes and folklore came together in her book ‘The Buen Provecho Book’ (published in 2010.) It is a colorful and delightful work in which, through Mexican sayings, she takes us on a culinary, historical and cultural journey. In this book we find not only recipes. It also discusses: how much cream one should put on their tacos if one don’t want to seem extravagant?; what do Mexicans mean when they say someone "ate their torta [sandwich] before recess", or that "babies are born with a torta under their arm"?

Mexico is a melting pot of different cultures, where many culinary traditions are combined. We have the influence of native cultures, Spaniards, French, German, Italian, African and North American. The sayings and proverbs, which are a Spanish legacy, are spiced with the Mexican wit.

Patty Merrill defines her book as an overview of culinary, cultural and linguistic heritage. Through her work, we can understand the psyche of Mexicans through their food. It’s a book that captures the spice of Mexico through popular food and sayings.

The author explains: “In Mexico we say ‘Buen provecho’ as a way to wish our dinner guests that their food may be good for their health. It means: ‘I hope you enjoy your meal and that it sits well with you.’ We Mexicans are superstitious and when we eat ‘Buen provecho’ emphasizes our well-wishing.”

For Mexicans, she explains, cooking is an act of love, because our dishes are often so elaborated and time-consuming that they require commitment and patience. It’s a true act of love to prepare the food that will nurture our family.

On March 23rd Patty Merrill presented a conference called “Humor and Surprises in Mexican Cooking and Culture” in the Sala Quetzal of the Biblioteca. There she showed some of her Mexican kitchen collectibles, such as toys, aprons and altar pieces. She delighted the audience with sayings, recipes, anecdotes and humor. At the end of the event she offered a snack of “tacos de huitlacoche” (tacos of corn-smut), a prehispanic food that was considered “the excrement of the gods” Nowadays this “excrement” has been transformed into a gourmet ingredient essential in traditional cooking.

Local writer Eva Hunter commented: “I might never buy another Mexican cookbook, because Patricia Merrill Marquez’s ‘El Buen Provecho Book’ does it all and it offers a wonderful insight into the Mexican mind, heart and stomach. I learned more about Mexico from Patricia Merrill’s book than I have in over twelve years of living here.”

The Buen Provecho Book is filled with color, humor, beautiful photographs and an impressive collection of traditional dishes. It’s an extraordinary opportunity to learn about the traditional sanmiguelense cuisine, a surrealistic and magical culture. Food is central; as the old Mexican saying goes, “You can get used to anything, except not eating.”

The book is sold at Tesoro, the gift shop of la Biblioteca and at www.amazon.com. For more information, you can visit Patricia's official website: www.thebuenprovechobook.com

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Eva Luz Villalón Turrubiates:
Born in Celaya but Sanmiguelense by heart, she is the author of two books of oral history, traditions, folk tales and legends of the city of Salamanca. She's a professor in the university, a historical researcher and a volunteer in the Biblioteca Publica of San Miguel. She has written for several newspapers and magazines and also has been awarded with the literary prize "El Timón de Oro" by the Naval Academy. Currently she's working on a historical fiction novel set in San Miguel in the post-World War II era.

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