Lecture: Rick Bayless on Mexican Culture and Cuisine

If you’ve seen Top Chef — or any number of food-related programs — you’re likely familiar with celebrity chef Rick Bayless. In fact, when the Spanish Club sent out the email telling me that Bayless was giving a lecture at OU, I was ecstatic. This man has successfully combined so many aspects of my Spanish-studying career here at OU; plus he graduated from OU with a Bachelor’s in Spanish in 1974.

Handsome devil.

Bayless fused his love of cuisine — he was raised in a family that owned an OKC-based BBQ restaurant — with his love of Mexican culture — sparked by a family vacation to Mexico during Bayless’ eighth grade year — and garnered international acclaim for the move. He owns eight world-class restaurants; is the author of eight cookbooks (one of which won the 1996 Cookbook of the Year from the Julia Child Cookbook Awards); and he’s been given the Order of the Aztec Eagle, the highest honor that can be bestowed on a foreigner by the Mexican government. The dude is a big deal when it comes to food.

But he’s a big deal when it comes to culture, too. Or, rather, the cultural/anthropological side of food is a big deal to him — he refuses to allow the contextual elements of a dish to be swept under the rug by American audiences and adamantly maintains the integrity of the foods he prepares.

Bayless spent half a decade in Mexico, painstakingly scouring each state and taking notes over every detail of every food stall within the open air markets. He then published his first cookbook (and first TV series) with the information on the dishes he’d amassed. It was great to hear this culinary deity talk about having the same experiences that I’d gotten to be a part of during my time in Puebla through the GEF program. Bayless stated that his motives for taking the research trip to Mexico were to discover the cultural contexts behind the dishes — not just WHAT they eat, but WHEN they eat it and WHY. The lessons that he passed on to us synchronized beautifully with what I had observed during my time in Mexico. Food — and how it is shared — is deeply ingrained in Mexican culture. Some groups of natives reshaped their skulls to bear a greater resemblance to corn cobs — that’s a pretty deep connection to the local agriculture.

More than anything, Bayless emphasized that there’s far to “Mexican food” than we traditionally think of. He mentioned that when he premiered his “fine Mexican dining” eatery in Chicago, critics approached his food with innate bias:

“Fine Mexican dining? So you put parsley on top of the tacos?”

“Well, it’s awfully expensive for Mexican food.”

We’ve got this stigma associated with Mexican food/culture that makes us think it should be cheap and quick, but that’s not at all what Bayless experienced. Instead, he’s devoted to providing an authentic culinary experience that acts as a gateway to his real passion: discussing the related culture in greater detail with the guest.

In an ideal world, said Bayless, he’d serve a dish to a guest and they’d be “seduced by the flavor.” Once he’s got their tastebuds hooked, they ask to learn a little bit more about its origins. Then Bayless, with his fluent understanding of both the Spanish language and culture, gets to delve into the world of Mexican culture that he loves.

With any luck, he’ll bring you with him.

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