By Rocio Carvajal
Food history writer, cook and author
There is a very robust compendium of works studying the life and impact of male religious figures in Colonial Mexico, many of such friars and monks took part in the political life of the country by using the church’s power and structure to create a political career for themselves, some of them however opted out for scholarly pursues such and ended up documenting the rapidly fading indigenous world, even less of them opted out for a reflective work as philosophers.
The life choices for privileged women in the 16th and 17th century in Mexico were almost reduced to two options becoming accomplished ladies and finding suitable husbands, run their household and raise a family or joining a nunnery. Both scenarios could potentially bring great recognition and status to their families as having a successful marriage was considered as honourable as having an important connection to the church thanks to the indisputable virtuosity of the nun-to be and her very handsome dowry.
I’m certain that many women who feared the prospect of an arranged marriage or dared facing a lifetime of domestic confinement saw the other alternative to maintain their individuality even if that meant renouncing to have a secular life but escaping a shameful spinsterhood. There is however another motivation that may have lead some women to join a religious community and that was having access to formal education beyond basic literacy, embroidery, dancing and singing, surely the possibility to access a library, learning Latin, arithmetic, history, theology and philosophy but even with the unescapable religious duties becoming a nun seemed like a very agreeable alternative. That was precisely the case of Juana de Asbaje y Ramirez, the bastard child of a Spanish rural countryman, this girl grew to become the most prominent female poet, writer, satirist and reluctant cook of her time.
Juana was born in 1648 and grew up in the country house she was provided with private tutors that cultivated her ever inquisitive mind, she then moved to Mexico city where she studied Latin and Nahuatl, her family’s connections allowed her to join the viceroy’s court as a lady in waiting where she had the chance to brush shoulders with intellectuals and politicians, as time passed she realised that in order to pursue an intellectual life she had to join a nunnery, and changed her name to Juana Ines de la Cruz as it was customary, after a failed attempt to follow a strict religious life she went on to join the Hieronymite nunnery where she had her own private library with more than 4000 volumes, a maid, kitchenette and a spacious studio. The friendship she developed with the viceregal couple which were the representatives of the Spanish King in the colony granted her all sorts of privileges. She was a fierce critique of the misogynist and retrograde views of high profile religious men and confronted them directly through letters and published essays sometimes signed anonymously. But she was however a nun and sharp as she was she was also forced to perform duties to her community and cooking was one of them, which she found particularly tedious until she saw the possibility to use that time as an opportunity to experiment and even find a sensory pleasure in the analysis of the transmutation of food.
Sor Juana was eventually censored and forced to sell her library and forbidden from publishing her dangerous ideas, she however did publish a very poignant long letter to her detractors in which she uses all sorts of cooking metaphors to mock and defy the status quo, by saying that women are reduced to make “kitchen philosophy” and insists that Aristotle would have been a far better writer had he known how to cook. She did however come to enjoy cooking and even wrote a recipe book with 36 recipes from which I have cooked several dishes including one dessert called Huevos Reales or royal eggs, which is a very rich sponge made with 12 egg yolks, butter, ground almonds and sugar, the sponge is sliced into squares then drenched with sugar syrup.
After Juana retreated completely from her intellectual works the population of Mexico City suffered one of the most devastating outbreaks of plague 1694 affecting even Juana’s own cloistered community, while nursing her fellow nuns Juana contracted the plague and died the same year at the age of 46. Sor Juana’s genius, sharp humour and fighting spirit outlived her detractors and posthumously gained her many honours, she did however live to know she was affectionately called the Mexican Phoenix by her readers and supporters. The sometimes romanticized view of femininity and cooking as a nourishing virtue natural to all women turns to be more of a cultural assumption than a fact, Sor Juana did however use that typically feminine space to voice through poetry and philosophy the voluptuous magic that the transformation of ingredients creates and explores the sensory pleasures of food as it crosses the threshold from frugal fuel to sensuous desire.
This story is featured on Episode 6 of Pass the Chipotle Podcast , a show dedicated to exploring the edible treasures of Mexico, written and produced by Rocio Carvajal.