How Maru Toledo Is Preserving Jalisco’s Forgotten Culinary History
From birria and beyond, meet the writer, teacher, and researcher.
When Maru Toledo asked a 100-year-old woman about a “turco de garbanz[o],” an old wedding dessert made with shreds of chicken, the elder shook her cane at the chef, less than half her age, demanding answers. “Where did you get that recipe from; how do you know it?”
Toledo, a culinary historian, explained her work: She researches the disappearing recipes of Jalisco, her home state, and had combed through old documents to piece together this specific one.
“The last time I ate this, I was nine years old,” the woman told Toledo. She had been at a wedding when Mexican revolutionaries swept through. “They took over the town, and there was a shootout. Late that night, they told us we had to leave, because the shooting would continue.”
The woman’s mother had buried her molcajete, metate, comal, and cazuelas in a hole in the ground and fled. Years later, the mother came back and dug up the pots and cooking tools, but the woman never tasted the dessert again.
When Toledo cooked the dish with the centenarian, she shed light on the nuances that research couldn’t capture. The woman’s 75-year-old daughter joined them, asking her mother why she had never made her the dessert before, or even mentioned it. The older woman shrugged, saying, “You never asked.”
Growing up in Guadalajara, the biggest city in Jalisco (and third largest in Mexico), Toledo often questioned adults about where the dishes and products they used in the kitchen came from. When she looked at Chiapas, Veracruz, or Oaxaca, she heard about the Indigenous roots of each region’s cuisine. But in Jalisco, many dishes only dated back to the 1940s.
“I spent many years asking questions,” says Toledo. “Nobody could respond, because nobody knew.” She resolved to change that and to find the origins of Jalisco’s dishes, a job that began with cooking and culinary research and has since morphed to encompass writing and teaching about the food.
Toledo started at the beginning: the Guachimontones, the pyramid and surrounding buildings in Jalisco that date to 300 BCE. She asked the archeologist working there about any culinary evidence he had found: Did the people living there use salt for seasoning? Did they raise animals? They fought battles to maintain possession of the salt mines, she learned—but ate almost no meat.
For the last two decades, she traveled the state, working with local elders and cooks. She researched and recorded how people cook, both now and dating back thousands of years, looking at pre-Hispanic cactus stews and how moles made with charred tortillas can be used to settle stomachs.
In her field research, Toledo spoke with home cooks that carried on Jalisciense traditions, trying to find the meeting point of their techniques and older recipes. Her work brought her into kitchens, and as she gained trust, she collaborated with those cooks to write down recipes.
“I have the opportunity to enter the most intimate part of the house,” says Toledo. “The kitchen is where everything happens: There is laughter, crying, joy, shame.” People don’t like to invite outsiders into their kitchens, she says, because of that intimacy. But once she gets their permission, she makes sure to credit each one as the owner of the recipe. “My work is only the collection of information,” she says, and it comes with a duty. “I am obliged to take care of those recipes and try as much as possible to make sure that the dishes continue on and do not die.” When she finishes a book, she gives each person a copy. “If they taught me one or two recipes, I return with 200.” If the person has passed since she talked to them, she gives it to their family.
Sometimes her work becomes a blessing for those families. Toledo, for example, recorded how a man in Ameca made chocolate just months before he died. Over a year later, she encountered the granddaughter of the original chocolate maker from whom the gentleman had learned his technique. The granddaughter believed the technique had been lost with the death of this man—but Toledo, having documented it, was able to show her otherwise.
Over the past few years, one dish from Jalisco has gained mainstream popularity across the globe, and in the U.S. in particular: birria. However, the rest of Jalisco’s many complex, rich soups and sauces often get left out of the conversation about Mexican cuisine on both sides of the border.
“What distinguishes us from other traditional cuisines is that most of our dishes are sauced,” says Toledo. Birria bathes the meat in broth, tortas ahogadas dips or drenches the sandwich, and carne en su jugo, as the name implies, serves meat in its own juices. “The broths are where the flavor is, in our style,” she explains. “[We don’t] use celery or parsley to make the standard kitchen broth.” Instead, cooks use fresh herbs—oregano, mint, and estafiate, a mugwort known for its digestive properties—to add flavor.
“Another thing that distinguishes Jalisco’s cuisine from other Mexican cooking is that it would be difficult to find a home where people sat down to eat without a salsa or chile present,” Toledo says. “There has to be a spice.” In one of her 25 books on the region’s cuisine, Pica y Sabe ¡Lástima que se Acabe!, Toledo detailed 78 different recipes for Jalisciense salsas. (Her other books bring the same depth to other dishes, eras, and specific geographies of Jalisco.)
Twenty years ago, little was known publicly about the history, origins, and nuances of Jalisco’s cuisine, says Toledo, but now she has written the information down, “to make it known.”
In 2011, Toledo founded the Mujeres del Maíz, the Women of the Corn, an organization that employs local women who plant and harvest corn in rural Jalisco to demonstrate and teach Jalisciense recipes. The group’s goal is to teach and promote the cuisine, while also “vindicating the role of peasant women,” They offer cooking classes at the kitchen, located an hour and a half outside of Guadalajara.
“It's not so clean or so pretty,” Toledo says of the open-air ranch kitchen. “But ultimately it retains the rural flavor.” Mujeres del Maíz also do events in Guadalajara and around the state, and in November, Toledo launched a Vimeo channel to bring her lessons further afield.
“My dream would be to formally establish a research center,” says Toledo, describing a place that would continue the type of investigations she has done for the last two decades. But such a place would require more consistent funding. “Our government, in general, needs to pay a little more attention to all this,” she says pointedly. “It is our oral heritage.”
Toledo currently funds her work through classes at the ranch and events, like a recent meal at a Guadalajara restaurant where she featured eight different moles prepared in eight ways, including in drinks and dessert. She sees these meals as ways to repay her obligations to the Jalisco cooks—to make sure their recipes are not forgotten.
“If I am not there, if I don't ask the questions, another recipe goes away, and maybe no one even knew that it existed.”
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Written by: Naomi Tomky
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