Within the thick walls of the convent of San Jerónimo sonnets were written and stews and delicacies were prepared.
The kitchens of the cloisters of New Spain were veritable laboratories where cloistered nuns experimented with ingredients and culinary techniques to create delicacies that have defined Mexican cuisine.
It is in that convent, in the heart of Mexico City, where one of them, Juana de Asbaje y Ramírez, locked herself away from the demands that were imposed on women —faithful wife, dedicated mother, tireless housewife— to find the refuge that would allow him to cultivate writing, painting and poetry.
But also the kitchen.
"There is evidence in Sor Juana's writings that indicates that she did cook, despite having a service," explains Marcela Bolaños Dávila,
of the College of Gastronomy of the University of the Cloister of Sor Juana.
Response to Sor Filotea de la Cruz
Sor Juana speaks about cooking in the first person.
In letters, essays and poems that she wrote, the kitchen was present.
She sent letters to the viceroys accompanied by a sweet and culinary preparations.
In the cell, she produced her literature and her private cuisine, ”explains the academic.
Writing and cooking without worldly hassles.
This story begins in 1540. In that year the first female religious order landed in New Spain.
The city was growing, although it still needed many services to make life more or less bearable, and these first nuns needed certain conditions for confinement.
They were cloistered in the first convents and did not leave there even dead, so life passed between contemplation, compliance with vows and cooking.
The capital of the viceroyalty already had the monasteries of La Concepción, Santo Domingo and San Francisco, when in 1626 the Convent of San Jerónimo was built, a huge and labyrinthine building with a large number of cells, orchards, corrals and chapels.
It is in this building that Sor Juana is locked up, but with many privileges.
“That doesn't look like a cell.
Instead of cold white walls, shelves loaded with books;
instead of cilices, inkwells and feathers;
instead of kneelers and crosses, mathematical and musical instruments.
No, that is not a cell, but a study.
Not the bare dwelling of a mystic, but the cozy work room of a writer, a private academy”, Anita Arroyo has written in
Razón y pasión de Sor Juana
The two-story cell also had a kitchen.
Alejandro Soriano Vallès explains in
Maiden of the verb
(Jus) that each nun who entered this convent had to pay three to four thousand pesos of the time, which were used to support the monastery and the maintenance of the nun.
These were women who were part of the wealthy elite and who had the right to have up to five servants locked up with them, in addition to everything necessary to lead a comfortable life, despite the vow of poverty.
Fragment of the portrait of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Miguel Cabrera, ca.
Together with Julián Santoyo García Galiano, a professor at the Anahuac University, Marcela Bolaños Dávila has investigated what Sor Juana's cell was like, focusing her interest on the kitchen.
The results of her research were presented this week at a forum on Mexican cuisine held within the framework of the 30th anniversary of the College of Gastronomy of the University of the Cloister of Sor Juana.
Both academics explain that the so-called Tenth Muse had a large room stocked with everything necessary for cooking.
There was a masonry brazier, where the coal that was lit outside the premises was placed so that the cell did not smoke.
Also a doodle, which was a structure hung from the ceiling in which pots were placed, but also animals such as rabbits or chickens, chilies or garlic.
A tub measuring 90 centimeters long by 60 centimeters wide was always filled with water and was used to clean fruits and vegetables and wash utensils, and there was also a pantry where the nun kept condiments, dried products, and meat that the maids bought that day.
Alongside all this was a variety of pots, copper pots, and cauldrons;
knives, spoons and shovels;
tables, metates, molcajetes, anafres, pitchers... "It was mestizo cuisine, with a pre-Hispanic presence," explains Bolaños.
From that kitchen came Mexican delicacies such as boca pills (candy), bobo fish ("they were called that because it was easy to catch them," explains Boñalos), the coveted chocolate, nut desserts, fritters, egg-based desserts, caramels, alfajores and, of course, moles.
“Legend says that for the Marqués de Mancera a mole was made for the first time in Puebla, which is known as the mole poblano.
And the first moles were created in Sor Juana's kitchen”, affirms the academic.
Locked in their kitchens, these women used centuries-old techniques brought by the Spanish to prepare the ingredients that the new lands gave to the world.
In the kitchens of the cloisters, forms of cooking created by the Arabs were combined in alchemy, who inherited to these women the alembic that is used to bring brandy, but also techniques such as pickling, frying, the art of candiing, marzipan, etc. the use of citrus fruits or lamb and goat, explains Ingrid Millán Núñez, culinary researcher and professor at the Gastronomic Institute of Higher Studies of Querétaro.
Olive oil and various preparations for pork arrived from the Spanish, among other things, but even the African slaves contributed their share with the use of spices to marinate the entrails,
which was the meat they ate because of its low level on the social scale, and thus improve its flavor.
To all that magic is added the pre-Hispanic tradition.
“The one from then is a baroque kitchen because many ingredients are integrated and it becomes more and more complex.
The mole reappears at this time and many things are added to it.
When you count the number of ingredients that a mole has, you realize that it is baroque par excellence.
A black mole from Oaxaca has 31 ingredients and six types of dried chiles,” explains Millán.
In addition to stews, he adds, the nuns specialized in creating sweets, which drove the inhabitants of the colonial cities crazy.
As the success of these delicacies grew rapidly, the nuns saw an opportunity to sell their products, which led to a sublime specialization in pastry techniques.
This is how the eggnog was born in the convents of Puebla, a drink made with many yolks and that requires a lot of work so that they do not “cut”,
and sweetened with sugar and cinnamon.
The clarisas yolks, sweets also made from egg yolk, is another of those delicacies, as well as yolk bread.
The variety of culinary offerings that the nuns created or perfected in the kitchens of the convents is so wide that it exceeds the menu of any trendy restaurant in La Condesa, Rome or Polanco: Bocado real, cafiroleta, sweet potato and pineapple, alfeñiques, cinnamon, almond quesillos, alfajores, marquesote, nut cakes, fritters, meringues, mole, quesadillas, crowns of Christ with pulled caramel, chongos zamoranos, pressed peaches, orchard chicken, saffron chicken, drunken chickens, michi broth or fish, shrimp from Sor Perpetua, mourning doves in mole ranchero, pickled white fish from Pátzcuaro, chilaquiles monjiles from the rich student, mixed bean soup, chickpea broth for the community, poblano green pipián, chiles en nogada, sweet potatoes, chicken Grenadian, sweet potato soup...And the list goes on with names that make your mouth water.
"That's where the magic happened," says Millán.
“The confinement gave way to creativity, because the nuns somehow had to learn to live in peace, harmoniously and in the best possible way.
With the Arab, with Spain, with the African they worked a very rich cuisine ”, he adds.
One example is sweet potato, he explains: “That's where the miscegenation shows.
We know that the technique comes from Spain, the utensil to prepare it is Arabic and the use of essences, but using local products such as sweet potatoes or mamey, the tubs, make it a kitchen of mixed race”.
This is how one can imagine a Sor Juana, perhaps after creating some beautiful sonnets, locking herself in the kitchen with her maids, and preparing a rabbit for dinner.
"Maybe that's why I was born / where the sun's rays / stared at me," wrote the Tenth Muse.
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