If I could describe Mexico city with one word I would have to say food. When engaging with this city it is almost impossible not to notice the abundance of food possibilities. On nearly every street corner you can find juice vendors, paleta stands (fruit ice lollies), or taco stands. Women sit in doorways selling tomales to passers by on their way to work. As you move along the pavements you must make your way between and around those having a meal or buying their breakfast. In more affluent neighbourhoods there are tables on the pavements outside decorated with a basket of bread and where patrons linger over their meals in the pleasant warmth of the weather. Fruit is sweetly ripe and visually vivid while the smells of cooked meat and tortillas tempered by the sharp smokiness of chilies assault your olfactory senses. In this city one cannot help but interact with food; food becomes part of every encounter, in one way or another, as conversations inevitably turn to recommendations and comments about where and what to eat. Eventually, patterns to these interactions emerge and it becomes apparent that food in this city, as is the case throughout the world is classed. But what seems unique here is the role that fear plays in making these class distinctions.
The purpose of my recent trip to the city was as a sort of ambassador for my university. In this capacity I had meetings with a range of individuals as well as had a bit of time to pursue my own interests. Many of the meetings were held in restaurants that were located within well off neighbourhoods or in upmarket hotels. In my own time, however I wandered streets and street markets (Tianguis) where I sampled the food. With some new friends, I visited public markets (Mercados) and ate Pozole (a soup made with pig head and lime soaked corn–see this recipe at Mexico Cooks!).
On my last full day in Mexico I was talking to some university recruiters at one of the events held in an upmarket hotel. Over a meal, I was telling them where I had been and what I had eaten and when I mentioned that I had had some wonderful tamales on the street I was greeted with sharp intakes of breath and the comment “You didn’t eat on the street did you, you don’t know where the food comes from!”. Truth is, I know as much about where the food on the street comes from as I do about the food from the restaurant. In many instances it is from the same place. You see, market vendors get their food largely from the wholesale market in Mexico city, which in turn sources the majority of food from the various farming regions in the country, which account for only about 10% of the territory as the climate and topography make farming difficult. Limes and avocado’s for example come from Michoacan, while fruit is grown along the Gulf of Mexico near Veracruz. These same market vendors then sell on to restaurants and also those selling on the street, though there is some distinction between some markets, distinctions which are at times surprising.
My friend Cristina, who has lived in Mexico for over 30 years, very kindly took me to two markets: Floreries Mercado de Jamaica (in the south of the city, which is a food market and wholesale flower market) and San Juan Mercado, located near china town in the northern side of the old city. Both markets are within covered buildings and in both you will find raw meat, fresh fruit and vegetables and a host of dried foods including amazing mountains of dried Chilies. In the market you can also find the corn, which has been soaked in builders lime used in Pozole. This process of soaking the corn in lime is done in order to break down the anti-nutrients that block absorption of niacin (for instructions on how to do this see this post on the nourishing cook).
Somewhat surprising to me, was the fact that in the San Juan Mercado, which is the more middle class market and where many restaurants source their food, the food options were somewhat more exotic. For instance butchers had signs proclaiming that here one could purchase buffalo and crocodile meat along with the usual chicken and duck. Various forms of dried bugs were also available for purchase here including ant eggs, maguey worms, crickets, and other swarm insects that are added to moles and salsas and served in upmarket restaurants. Thus for many well to do Mexicans, what becomes food, what be comes edible, is largely determined by the location in which it is served.
There is good reason to be fearful about the food supply in Mexico, but not however necessarily for the reasons expressed in the comments of my dinner companions. Recently, the price of limes in the wholesale market has doubled as a result of conflicts between farmers in Michoecan and a drug funded cartel known as Knights Templar who are seeking to established themselves as a local mafia and are demanding payments from farmers, burning fields, and blocking access to fields so that agricultural workers are unable to pick the fruit. The experience of fear and danger that such social relations produce has meant that people are relocating to Mexico City from those regions where the Drug War dominates the landscape (see this Los Angeles Times article on the subject). Indeed it is those who are poor who have migrated to this massive city who are also the small scale entrepreneurs making ends meet by selling food on the city’s streets. Moreover, the costs of extortion are being passed on to consumers in the food markets and to restaurants through increases in the price of basic commodities.
Alongside the threats of the drug cartels to the food supply is neoliberal economic policy that has enabled landownership by wealthy US food producers, such as Monsanto and Smithfield Foods, who are subsidised by the American Farm bill. Smithfield Foods, recently purchased by China, provides 25% of Mexico’s pork. Because Smithfield is subsidised it is able to undercut the prices of small scale domestic pork producers and put them out of business (see this interview with the aptly named David Bacon on the relationship between NAFTA and Mexico’s Pork industry). The participation by Monsanto in Mexico’s agricultural production carries with it equally terrifying consequences for the future of the Mexican food supply as Monsanto proposes to introduce GMO corn. Peppers are also most likely to be on the radar. Not only is it feared that the introduction of GMO crops will damage Mexico’s ecology, but there is evidence from past experience that when food grains are patented and scientifically modified, the diversity of the plant life is both legally limited and biologically constrained (see this report by Al Jazeera). There is a very real fear that Mexico’s huge diversity of types of corn and peppers will be undermined by the inclusion of these corporations in the national economy and it strikes me that the real concern should not be where food comes from, but what is happening in the places where food comes from.