Rabbit in mustard sauce, a salad of nopales, goat ribs with red mole sauce, and braised wild boar with chickpeas and Mexican pipián sauce. Those dishes were among the offerings at Ven a Comer, where diners feasted on modern interpretations of food and drinks from a special collection of Mexican cookbooks in a collaboration of chefs from San Antonio and Mexico.

mezcal expert Pedro Jiménez Gurría
Mezcal expert Pedro Jiménez Gurría pours drinks at the Ven a Comer dinner. Credit: Iris Gonzalez for the San Antonio Report

The multi-course dinner Sunday at Hotel Emma, recently named one of the world’s 40 best “food-centric” hotels, featured a collaboration of six chefs. Jaime Gonzalez and Jennifer Riesman from Hotel Emma joined Rico Torres and Diego Galicia of Mixli, who were recently named two of Food and Wine’s Best New Chefs of 2017. Two visiting specialists from Mexico completed the group effort: chef Fabian Delgado of Guadalajara’s Pal Real restaurant, and mezcal expert Pedro Jiménez Gurría.

The culinary inspiration came from recipes out of the UTSA Libraries Special Collection of Mexican cookbooks, which feature the cuisine of Mexico, Texas, and the Southwest. One of the largest and most extensive of its kind in the country, the collection contains items dating from 1789 and the present, including handwritten recipe books providing an intimate view of domestic life and Mexican culinary culture.

The core of the collection was donated by San Antonio librarian Laurie Gruenbeck, who collected cookbooks during her travels in Texas and Mexico over more than 30 years, said Amy Rushing, head of Special Collections at UTSA Libraries.

The 2001 donation of Gruenbeck’s 550 cookbooks sparked the beginning of a collection that now boasts almost 1,800 books, with more being acquired. In addition to broad general coverage, the collection includes concentrations in the areas of regional cooking, healthy and vegetarian recipes, corporate advertising cookbooks, and manuscript recipe books.

“Food resonates with people,” Rushing said. “Anytime we’ve shown the collection publicly, people are interested in it, not just chefs or researchers. Through food, we are able to connect with people and learn about other cultures, all through cookbooks.”

UTSA has identified culinary history as an area of interest, Rushing said. The Mexican cookbook collection has grown to include books from the donated archive of longtime caterer Rosemary Kowalski, the Gebhardt Mexican Foods company collection (they brought chile powder to San Antonio), and the records from Richter’s Bakery, which opened in San Antonio in 1882.

The older books – about 70 handwritten recipe books composed mainly by women – were often created in repurposed notebooks. The oldest one is from 1789, while another from 1949 was written in a notebook originally used for children’s grammar lessons.

“It’s interesting to see which recipes these women were writing down or clipping from a newspaper,” Rushing said. “You can see that these were really special for these women – it connects us to this part of history in a way that is different from what you gain in studying history books.”

During the dinner, there were about 30 selected books available for viewing, chosen by Rushing to highlight the variety of books.

“We’re bringing the classics from the 1800s to early 1900s,” she said.

One of the rarest titles from the collection, Simón Blanquel’s 1831 Novisimo Arte de Cocina, was one of the first cookbooks published in Mexico. Although international in its coverage, it is one of the earliest cookbooks to recognize the cuisine rooted in Mexico. There was also a selection of cookbooks from Josefina Velazquez de Leon, who Rushing said is considered “the Julia Child of Mexico.”

Rushing showed diners books from the collection that were made by artists, either with special paper or crafted into three-dimensional book sculptures.

“The book itself challenges what the traditional idea of a book is,” Rushing said. “For example, one is in the shape of a taco, with each page shaped like a filling for the taco.”

The manuscript cookbook examples featured the homemade, handwritten collection of personal recipes, the flowery scripted words flowing across yellowed pages. Other books have intricate drawings decorating the personal recipe collection.

Jennifer Riesman from Hotel Emma puts the finishing touches on the dessert offerings for Ven a Comer.
Jennifer Riesman from Hotel Emma puts the finishing touches on the dessert offerings for Ven a Comer. Credit: Iris Gonzalez for the San Antonio Report

The cookbook trove in San Antonio serves as a source of inspiration for chefs like Galicia and Torres, inspiring the “progressive Mexican culinaria” their restaurant Mixli serves.

“This is kind of my secret weapon for menu development,” said Torres, who has spent hours in the John Peace Library’s Special Collections Reading Room in his quest to rescue and preserve historic recipes. “There’s value in having this collection here. I think it just adds to the fact that San Antonio is a gateway to Mexican culture.”

The Consul General of Mexico in San Antonio, Ambassador Reyna Torres Mendívil couldn’t agree more with Torres, emphasizing to the assembled diners that this dinner would be the first of many collaborative events to be planned.

Amy Rushing (left) shows books to Consul General of Mexico in San Antonio, Ambassador Reyna Torres Mendívil
Amy Rushing (left) shows books to Consul General of Mexico in San Antonio, Ambassador Reyna Torres Mendívil and Monica del Arenal (right). Credit: Iris Gonzalez for the San Antonio Report

Proceeds from Ven a Comer support the development and preservation of the cookbook collection. The event was sponsored by Hotel Emma, the Pearl, UTSA Libraries, and the Mexican Cultural Institute, with additional support from the Consulate of Mexico in San Antonio and the Mexican Agency for International Development Cooperation (AMEXCID) of the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

A complete listing of titles in the Mexican cookbook collection is available online in the UTSA Libraries online catalog, UCAT, with the digital collection providing online access to a selection of manuscript cookbooks. Although the cookbooks can only be used onsite and not checked out, both researchers and aspiring cooks are welcome to make use of the collection in the newly opened Special Collections reading room in the John Peace Library during regular hours or by appointment.

With San Antonio’s forthcoming Tricentennial in 2018, UTSA’s Mexican special collection could come in handy as a resource for future special events celebrating the rich culinary heritage represented in its many cookbooks.

Iris Gonzalez writes about technology, life science and veteran affairs.