From the 2012 opening of the exhibition FOOD: Transforming the American Table, 1950–2000 to the most recent inaugural Smithsonian Food History Weekend in October 2015, we're working on new ways to share the story of American history through food. External Affairs staff member Lauren Collette interviews Pati Jinich, chef and host of Pati's Mexican Table and official chef of the Mexican Cultural Institute, to discuss the importance of food in understanding our nation's and our own rich history and culture. Pati's passion for American history and food inspired her to join the museum's Kitchen Cabinet, an advisory board made up of leaders in food scholarship, culinary history, and food-related businesses in America to help the museum shape and expand its research, collections, programs and exhibitions related to food and beverage history.
Can you tell me about your family background and how this influenced your connection to food?
I am a part of a food-obsessed family. I am second-generation Mexican, and my grandparents were immigrants from Eastern Europe. Mexico was a welcoming country and my family brought their traditional European recipes and weaved in new flavors and ingredients. My great-aunt was an incredible baker and owned a bakery in Acapulco, and I still remember her fabulous pastries and cakes. One of my grandmothers was an extraordinary cook and produced exquisite, refined meals, and my other grandmother cooked more rustic and simple, but had an amazing sense of seasoning. To this day, with both of them gone, I wouldn't be able to choose one over the other! In addition to my relatives having a true talent in the kitchen, I am the youngest of four daughters, and all of us are food professionals.
My connection to food comes down to identity. Identity has always been a huge topic in my personal life and career. Today I am happily torn between Mexico and the United States. I am very grateful for opportunities I have had here to explore not only how Mexican food and people have evolved in America, but also to understand firsthand regional culinary differences in this country. At this stage in my life, I am confident about how the pieces of my past have come together. It is really no different than many other Americans. It is the same story of immigration, but each of us has different threads we weave together.
How did you get involved with the National Museum of American History, our food history program, and specifically the Kitchen Cabinet?
I am the chef at the Mexican Cultural Institute, where I have taught live cooking classes and demonstrations for almost 10 years. These classes have become more popular because I share beyond recipes and techniques. I create a night of storytelling where food is the point of departure and the ending too. I choose unique topics and focus on the histories, traditions, or folklore about the dishes, meals, recipes, and ingredients. Someone from the museum attended and later invited me to one of your Food in the Garden evenings. When I was there, I connected with Paula Johnson, who is the project director of the museum's American Food and Wine History Project. She told me about the museum's plans for new food programs, events, and the demonstration kitchen and stage. A couple years later, I am a proud member of the Kitchen Cabinet.
Has there been a moment in your relationship with the museum that has stood out for you?
My first meeting with the Kitchen Cabinet was fun and allowed me to go behind the scenes at the museum. It was a treat to meet the talented individuals who work here and create the exhibitions, collections, and programs that shape every visitor's experience. Susan Evans, the museum's food programs director, showed us how the museum connected its content with visitors through hands-on demonstrations and programs. I was instantly hooked because I am fascinated with learning from others and sharing my knowledge. You can tell this is the museum’s goal in every project. Additionally, we had a tour of the exhibition FOOD: Transforming the American Table, and being able to see the objects in the "Mexican Food Revolution" section of the exhibition, like the margarita machine and a tortilla press, tied into everything I love about placing food into a larger story.
What perspective do you bring to the Kitchen Cabinet?
To be able to give my point of view as a Mexican American speaks to the beauty of how the museum brings people with different backgrounds together. As with most immigrants, I worked very hard to establish myself in a new country and eventually transitioned from an outsider to an insider. Having that perspective is invaluable. I also brought my experience as a chef and teacher. The museum was building its demonstration kitchen on the Wallace H. Coulter Stage and I had done large cooking demonstrations for almost 10 years. I learned a lot over time, and was happy to give advice on what to do, what not to do, and how to set up everything from towels to bowls. I wanted to share my practical knowledge with them and give them the tools to create the best space for live cooking programs.
You did a cooking demonstration for the museum's inaugural Smithsonian Food History Weekend in late October. How was that experience?
I loved it and I had so much fun! The weekend's topic was "Innovation on Your Plate," so I chose to focus on the innovation of salsa and guacamole. Those are two iconic Mexican dishes that I think people have a lot of preconceived ideas about how they should taste. What I wanted to convey was that both are a universe of possibilities, and can be made and presented in a variety of ways from traditional to modern. I also have to mention that the Smithsonian audience is simply amazing. They are interested in exploring new topics and ideas, ask thoughtful questions, and are there because they want to learn something new.
What is the importance of understanding food in a historical context, and why is it important to tell these stories through objects?
At the end of the day, we all take comfort in what we put on our plates, and although it's cliché, we are what we eat. Objects helps us relate and connect in a way that gives meaning to our own history and personal lives. For example, you can study objects like menus to learn about the evolution of Mexican food over time, and I love understanding my history and culture through the lens of menus. The history of food is a window to every aspect of humanity, and it allows us to learn in a friendly, entertaining, and delicious way!
To learn more about the Smithsonian Food History program, visit us online and explore our collections, events, programs, and more!
To support the museum or learn more about the exhibition, visit us online or contact Lauren Collette, manager of annual giving, at (202) 633-3737 or ColletteL@si.edu.