Mole Poblano: Taste and Civilization in Mexico
by Jeffrey M. Pilcher
Mole poblano, the deeply colored sauce of chiles and spices, is widely acknowledged as Mexico’s national dish. Although it has established firm roots in Mexican cuisine, mole is a product of many migrations. In addition to in digenous turkey, chiles, and chocolate, its ingredients include sesame seeds and almonds from Spain, clove, cinnamon, and pepper from Asia, and as a frequent accompaniment, rice, which is cooked in a pilaf style deriving from the Middle East and Africa. Thus, mole represents a gastronomic expression of José Vasconcelos’s ideal of the “cosmic race”.
Viewed from the outside world, however, Mexico’s national dish has often appeared uncivilized. The Spanish conquistadors wrote with amazement about the diverse mollis —chile-flavored stews—served daily to the Aztec ruler Moctezuma, although they were apprehensive that they might contain human meat. Mole evolved during the colonial period with the addition of spices, sesame seeds, nuts, and European meats including gallina, puerco, and chorizo—often in the same pot! to make a meal worthy of Spanish nobility.
Even as the baroque Mexican cooks were tossing the entire kitchen cabinet into the cazuela, Parisian chefs had launched a “culinary revolution” against the elaborately spiced dishes of the Middle Ages. Following the tenants of the French Enlightenment, this rationalistic nouvelle cuisine divided tastes into separate courses: savory main dishes, sour salad dressings, sweet desserts, and bitter coffee. A modern-day journalist captured the absurdity of mole, at least in Parisian eyes, by comparing it to a one-pot version of the traditional French Christmas dinner of turkey and chocolate—the bird served roasted at the main course and the chocolate saved for dessert as bûche de Noël. Only in the final decade of the twentieth century, as modernist chefs from Barcelona deconstructed the rules of Parisian gastronomy, did mole found a place in the avant-garde of global gastronomic fashion.
French hegemony, over the image of civilized dining, left Mexico as an outsider for centuries. Unlike the standardization imposed by the chefs Antonin Carême and Auguste Escoffier, who assigned to each dish its own distinctive garnish, Mexican cuisine has endless regional diversity. Each town and region has its own distinctive version of mole. As one early cookbook explained, the moles of Puebla and Oaxaca “owe their singular taste to the type of chilli used in the recipe; for the first one, a sweet chilli called mulato; for the second one, the chilohatle chilli, from Oaxaca”. Ethnic differences likewise split the Mexican nation; recipes for mole, both poblano and oaxaqueño, were thick Hispanic sauces. Curiously, chocolate appeared only rarely in these early recipes. Nineteenth-century cookbooks ignored the more indigenous versions such as verde from Oaxaca, a green chile broth perfumed with the incomparable fragrance of hoja santa.
Even Hispanic versions of mole fit poorly with subtle flavors preferred by French chefs. Mexican cookbook authors complained: “some French works have declared war on stimulants, mainly to chilli”. Mexican cuisine came to be branded as uncivilized as far away as Russia, where a banquet guest described a mere dash of cayenne pepper as the “fiery nectar of the Mexicans”.
Mexican elites embraced French cuisine as a marker of civilization, both under the ruling of Maximilian and Carlota, and Porfirio Díaz alike. Sophisticated continental cuisine was served at state banquets and in exclusive restaurants and social clubs, such as the Jockey Club located in the famed Casa de Azulejos.
Meanwhile, mole was often seen as a marker of lower class status. For example, in José Tomás de Cuéllar’s modernist satiric novella, Baile y cochino, haughty don Saldaña is exposed as a pretender when it was discovered that for lunch he eats mole de guajalote along with the indigenous beverage pulque.
Yet, despite public displays of European sophistication, mole remained a regular presence on even the most Francophile tables. Concepción Lombardo de Miramón, the wife of a prominent conservative general, recalled in her memoirs that Maximilian and Carlota’s first encounter with mole brought tears to their eyes. The imperial couple came to appreciate its subtle flavors, and a surviving banquet menu proclaims mole the centerpiece of the imperial table on December 12, 1865.
Decades later, don Porfirio and doña Carmelita served Oaxacan black mole to guests at their private residence, Casa de Cadenas. The menu reflected not only the president’s Oaxacan birth but also a sense of national pride and republican simplicity. The fabled kitchen of the Jockey Club likewise retained a cordon bleu, meaning in French a woman skilled in domestic cookery, as opposed to male chefs. In Mexico, this translated into employing a woman from Puebla, the symbolic center of Creole gastronomy, to prepare mole and pipián for club members.
Even Mexicans living in Paris needed to have access to this fabled national dish. José María Calderón y Tapia, the Mexican minister to France, received a brief note on March 30, 1845, from his cousin Fernando Mangino, announcing a planned visit to the home of a prominent Mexican commission agent: “Today we are going to eat mole de guajolote and tamales at the O’Brien home”. Despite the Irish name, the O’Briens were Mexican in their tastes.
Mole emerged from the shadows of domesticity into the public sphere following the Revolution of 1910. The rise of indigenismo gave new value to indigenous influences. Meanwhile, the growth of culinary tourism led to the commercialization of formerly rustic dishes. Restaurant chefs consecrated Oaxaca as the “land of seven moles,” thereby reducing the endless variety of local festival dishes into a weekly round of special meals. At least in doing so they recovered more indigenous varieties such as mole verde, which had been ignored during the nineteenth century.
In more recent years, the restaurant world has passed through further upheaval, allowing a global reassessment of the value of mole. The French nouvelle cuisine of the Enlightenment, once seen as natural and modern in its quest for simple dishes, has been replaced by a self consciously modernist cuisine pioneered in Barcelona. These new deconstructed dishes, awash in savory foams, juxtapose unexpected flavors and textures in new ways, even as spices and chile peppers have gained new popularity among sophisticated gourmets.
Over the past five hundred years, Mexican cuisine and its most iconic dish, mole poblano, have been shaped by successive waves of immigration, forging a truly cosmic cuisine. Indigenous molli sauces and medieval Spanish banquets provided the foundations for this mestizo dish, but they were just the beginning. African, Asian, and Middle Eastern migrants have also imparted their own special flavors to Mexican cuisine. And after centuries of receiving migrants and culinary influences from around the globe, Mexican cuisine is now setting out to conquer the tastes of North America, Europe, and the wider world. Paris provides a fitting location to reflect on these changes. In the nineteenth century, French cuisine dominated Mexico City’s best restaurants. Today, even Parisians can sample mole and other Mexican dishes in their own neighborhood restaurants, providing a striking vindication for Mexico’s national cuisine.