Back in 2005 – when this blog was still a wee pup – I made a mistake common to young American liberals that have recently set out to explore the rest of the world: I claimed that America has no culture. I distinctly remember comments from Derek and Erick admonishing me for my ignorance and “essentialization.”

In my response I see now that I backpedaled, but in fact it took me a few years and endless hours of Ken Burns documentaries to come to really appreciate the richness and uniqueness of American culture. Despite having immersed myself in cultures from around the world, I find today that some of the most innovative music, artwork, film, literature, and television is produced by individuals living in the United States.

Still, as I continue to travel to and live in other countries outside of the United States I find an appreciation of local culture that seems somehow lacking in the U.S. Yesterday during a cooking class at the highly recommended School of Mexican Gastronomy I think I finally put my finger on it. It doesn’t have to do with culture itself so much as the way it is handed down from generation to generation.


Photo of woman in Tijuana cooking Tamales by Amor Ministries. CC licensed.

Cooking classes at the School of Mexican Gastronomy are split up between “practice and theory.” Yesterday’s class explained how to cook the tamal, which originated in Mexico as early as 10,000 years ago (not long after the domestication of corn). Though there are quite literally thousands of variations of tameles (the sandwich of Mesoamerica, it has been said), we stuck to just six: cazón, elote con pierna, frijol con chirraron, fig, strawberry, and pineapple. For three hours Yuri de Gotari explained how to prepare the banana leafs and corn husks, how to mix the masa, prepare the fillings, and delicately fold everything together into a type of edible origami. Then, as we let the dozens of tamales steam in a tamalera for about an hour, we entered the school’s cafe where Edmundo Escamilla served coffee and gave the “theoretical lecture” of the class. More than any other day, tamales are traditionally served in Mexico on February 2nd, the “Día de la Candelaria” in Spanish, and known as the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple in English. In the tradition of the church, the day commemorates a ritual purification (according to Jewish law) of Mary 40 days after the birth of Jesus. It also celebrates the prophecies of Simeon the Righteous and the prophetess Anna which claimes that Jesus would live an important life (they sure were right).

But as Escamilla emphasized, the essential roots of the “Día de la Candelaria” in Mexico are to be found in indigenous culture. He reminds us that indigenous Mexicans would have been sympathetic to the story of Jesus as told by Spanish missionaries during the 16th century. After all, Jesus was a man who, according to the bible, sacrificed himself for the greater good of those around him. This fits very much into the Aztec worldview where human sacrifice was seen as an honorable ritual to maintain peace and keep the gods content. Aztecs would also have been receptive to the dizzying calendar of Catholic feast days, when food is distributed throughout a village in commemoration of a particular saint. Such village feasts were a regular part of Aztec life before the arrival of Hernán Cortés.

The importance of the indigenous village feasts, according to Escamilla, is their function of redistributing wealth. And by wealth he means protein; that is, meat. The vast majority of Aztecs subsisted on a corn diet and only the wealthy elite enjoyed the protein of meat. Village festivals, therefore, were a communal mechanism to redistribute wealth from rich to poor. Octavio Paz once wrote an essay meditating on the importance of festivals in Mexican society. In the essay he recalls a visit to a neighboring village of Mitla in Oaxaca where he asked the mayor how much the municipal government received from local taxes each year. “About $300,” responded the mayor. Paz then asked him what was done with this money. “Well, we spend just about all of it on festivals,” he replied, “you see, as small as this town is we have two patron saints.” The next paragraph makes it clear that Paz takes pride in the fact that poverty in rural Mexico can be measured in the number and magnificence of festivals each year.

Here in Mexico families either purchase or bake a rosca de reyes each year on January 6 to celebrate the three Persian travelers who visited baby Jesus shortly after his birth. Hidden in the rosca de reyes – or “king cake” as it is known in New Orleans – is a plastic figuring of baby Jesus, which is said to represent the flight of Jesus following Herod the Great’s order to execute all young male children in the village of Bethlehem.

Massacre of the Innocents” by Peter Paul Rubens

According to Mexican tradition, whoever selects the piece of cake with the plastic figurine of baby Jesus must then dress him in fine clothes and take him to the nearest church on February 2nd, the Día de la Candelaria. The person must also throw a party for all present during the sharing of the rosca de reyes and serve tamales and atole, two traditional, Prehispanic dishes.

During Escamilla’s lecture he reminded us that what we call culture today was quite literally everything that was handed down from one generation to the next. The origin of the word, cultus, means to till or cultivate, and most likely referred to the knowledge and techniques of agriculture that were handed down across generations, grandmother to mother, mother to daughter and so on.

This, I realized, is the key difference between culture in the United States and Mexico. Here culture is still handed down from one generation to the next. During the cooking class the majority of other students chimed in with tips and legends about tamales that they heard from their grandmothers. Here in Mexico mothers teach their sons how to dance by the time they can barely walk. Recipes for salsas, mole, tamales, chocolate, tortillas and aguas frescas are handed down in the kitchen. Mexican fathers love to lecture their children about their country’s history, including its hundreds of ethnic groups and languages. Through some sort of strange cultural osmosis, every single Mexican knows by heart a national repertoire of at least 30 folk songs. In the countryside farming techniques are handed down from one generation to the next, even if they hold back industrialized productivity that could bring down food prices.

It is the handing down of culture from one generation to the next that I find missing in the United States. With the rise of dual-income households my generation’s cultural learning was institutionalized. I was taught how to play sports by my coaches, how to play piano by a private tutor, and just about everything else (from how to cook to how to tie a tie) by the internet.

There is no doubt that a freedom comes from expanding our cultural education beyond our immediate family to the world at large. After all, while I can’t claim a single “family recipe,” I do know how to make black rice pudding from Indonesia, palak paneer from Northern India, and now tamales from Mexico. But I also suffer from a sense of nostalgia and regret that my own culture has been mostly divorced from that of my parents’ and grandparents’ because of the rise of media and private institutions. When thinking of my own children I hope that I can both pass down the culture I have accumulated (albeit not my dance moves) while encouraging them to expand their own cultural education without regard to political or social borders.