Pan, Panes, Pan Dulce & the Corn-Wheat Divide

Another day of Taco Literacy in the books, but with a special surprise. Before class, I stopped off at one of my favorite bakeries, Vallecito in Jackson Heights.

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I picked up some of my favorites panes dulces to share with the students. There’s a cool story that happened there. As I went in, I loaded up on the empanadas I planned to bring to class, I picked up enough so students would have to share with a classmate, nearly an entire baking tray.

As I approached the counter to pay, I asked the woman working about these panes.

“Este pan dulce, ¿cómo se llaman?” (What do you calls these pastries?)

“Ay dios mío, no lo sé,” she said. (Ay god, I don’t know.)

She spoke to a woman standing in line behind me, asking her what these breads were named.

“Se llaman empanada de arroz.”

I explained to both women that these types of empanadas are not common to other parts of Mexico, as far as my understanding goes.

“Son cien por ciento Poblano, she said. (They are 100% Pueblan.)

I nodded, “Claro porque aquí hay muchos Poblanos.” (Right, because there are many Poblanos here.)

She nodded, “Si, por eso dicen que estamos en Puebla York.” (Yes, this is why they call this place Puebla York.)

Nice way to start the day, with some new buddies, who also are new fans to Taco Literacy. Both women smiled when I told them these treats were for the taco crew.

So we started class with snacks.

Looks like these empanadas filled with arroz con leche are a hit. The reason I brought these, though, was to turn to Pilcher’s Planet Taco and his discussion about corn and wheat. After the students finished with their photos and writing, we turned to the libro. I asked students to focus on page 22, this quote.

Catholic missionaries had actually sought to eradicate the indigenous staple maize, with its pagan religious associations, and to propagate instead a gospel of wheat as the symbol and sustenance of Christianity. Although the campaign failed, corn tortillas were relegated to the indigenous and mestizo lower classes, while wheat bread became a status symbol for the urban, Hispanic elite.

The idea of bread as status symbol became the focus of the class, as we interrogated this further, and also explored more of the cultural contact that politicized the foodways of indigenous people of Mexico symbolized as corn, but always “below” that of European foodways, symbolized by bread. Put together, bread and corn, we see a kind of dialectic that emerges, a way of understanding each together, but through a lens of power dynamics.

This led to lively discussion. I’m always amazed at how much the students are taking away, how they are asking questions that move to history, with this book, but also building on what they are learning from one another, and also about the content of the class. So many smart people in the class, they make me proud each time.

“Y’all are some fire students.”

To end class, we began to think about how the ranking of food was also part of the Spanish ranking of humans, and the mixture of people, into a kind of emerging “race science” though it would take centuries to develop. This casta painting is in Pilcher’s book, and we examined the image in class. The image gives a better idea of colorism in Mexican colonial society, status according to racial “purity” that is, European whiteness, and how this further associated with wheat, and corn being at the bottom of the human period. Different wheats received mixtures of corn, with the most pure wheat from Europe going to the Creole and peninsular elite in Mexico. The further one went do the hierarchy, the more wheat flour was mixed with corn.

Coming back to our tasty pan dulce, we had some rich discussion about preferences for corn, and how grains historically have been part of the stories of civilizations.

Well, it was another solid class, and left us with our panzas growling, but with some direction to think about how corn and wheat form a kind of dynamic that will play out in Mexican food as it emerged from the contact and subsequent mixture of Europe, the Americas, Africa, and Asia.

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