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On Mexican food, farmers and NAFTA

Enchiladas en mole poblano, October 2007
Enchiladas en mole poblano, October 2007
Photo by April J. Gazmen/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Last week, when I was excitedly tweeting about UNESCO's designation of Mexican food as an “intangible cultural heritage of humanity” - right up there with French cooking - I didn't think too far beyond how this long-misunderstood underdog of the world's most sophisticated (and yes, delicious) cuisines was finally getting its due. But the chef of one popular L.A. Mexican eatery did, and what he wrote about it is worth noting.

In a recent guest post on the L.A. Forward site, Lotería! Grill's founder and executive chef Jimmy Shaw wrote:

Perhaps with the interest in discovering more of the beautiful flavors of Mexico there can be a healing of its agricultural community, which has been decimated post-NAFTA, with Mexican farmers being displaced by large agribusiness. With that growing industrialization, many of the indigenous ingredients and techniques that are the very roots of this special designation are being lost.

Sadly, Mexico now imports many of its basic ingredients such as corn and chiles, some from countries as far away as China. Chiles from China?  I hope with the growing interest we have seen in the past few years for the more complex flavors of Mexico, we also have an environment where we can protect the indigenous ingredients and customs of this great cuisine, and promote the cultivation of high-quality, native ingredients in Mexico, by Mexican farmers.

Leave it to a chef to see beyond the kitchen to Mexico's supply chain, turning a story about cuisine into a platform for discussing the North American Free Trade Agreement, whose repercussions have been felt perhaps most dearly by Mexican farmers. And which, in turn, has contributed more than a little to U.S.-bound migration as farmers and agricultural workers in Mexico have been displaced.

Then, of course, there's still the food. He concluded:

Great Mexican food is so delicious.  It makes you happy.

Can't agree more. What the cuisine's designation as one of the world's cultural treasures (a protected status that the Mexican government sought from UNESCO a while back), may do for Mexico's farmers, time will tell. But the recognition is already a source of tremendous pride.