Ethnobiological Media Archive

chile piquin
powdered moles
chiles and nuts

The Ethnobiology of Mole
a film

This film will explore the complex assemblage of ingredients and traditions manifest in a quintessential Mexican dish, mole (molli, in Nahuatl).  From the National Mole Festival in San Pedro Atócpan (kmz), we will examine the geographic and cultural variability of mole dishes and analyze the botanical and biogeographical aspects of its many ingredients.  Other locations will include the Ex-Convento de Santa Rosa in Puebla, considered the birthplace of mole, and markets in Xochimilco, in Oaxaca, and in other parts of Mexico.

The Ethnobiology of Mole will be written and presented by Edelmira Linares, of the Botanical Garden at the National University of Mexico (UNAM), who has published extensively on Mexican ethnobotany.  We plan to talk with cooks, botanists, and food scholars.  The film will be primarily in Spanish, with English subtitles.

The film will be produced by David Strauch, who will also conduct filmmaking workshops for students of ethnobiology while in Mexico.

    By looking at a classic Mexican dish combining old world and new world ingredients, the Ethnobiology of Mole will use an engaging subject to open up a number of ethnobiological topics, while at the same time demonstrating the strengths and flexibility of new digital media in presenting the material.  Interviews with preparers and eaters of mole and analysis of ingredients will be used to investigate the way in which this dish is used to invoke and negotiate the cultural intersection of pre-Hispanic and European cultures.

    Our analytic attention will focus on the food plants used to make this dish, with attention to the origin and cultural history of each plant, and those botanical characteristics which are exploited by preparers of mole.  We begin with chiles, a new world plant domesticated into a plethora of varieties, a number of which are used together to prepare the mole.  Squash and different kinds of tomatoes are also important indigenous ingredients, as well as several plants (cacao, avocado, Piper spp., etc.) used to flavor the mole.  Other flavorings come from Asia and Africa via Europe, and the nuts and fruits of other introduced plants are used to build the dish.  Although our focus is on plants, our title uses “ethnobiology” because some attention will also given to the turkey, a Mexican domesticate, whose meat mole classically accompanies.
    Building on this botanic analysis we will examine how local understandings of mole draw on these characteristics to construct a discourse of cultural identity.  We will interview cooks, market vendors, food scholars, and celebrants at the National Mole Festival in the outskirts of Mexico City, asking: What is necessary to a mole?  What ingredients might be substituted for others?  What is the history of each ingredient?  Where were ingredients obtained?  On what occasions is mole eaten?  How was knowledge of mole learned?  Our goal is to understand the underlying culinary models which are invoked in the construction of this dish.  For instance, possible substitutions of ingredients should reveal which plant characteristics have salience for participants, and what structural components of mole are considered essential.  Perceptions of plant origins are critical to a dish which is emblematic of a cultural as well as a floristic synthesis of old and new worlds.
    This project is ideally suited to digital video, which can be used to record interviews with participants as they point out the characteristics of the plants they use, and demonstrate their culinary practices.  Recording this on film links their information to the visual botanical record, and allows their full verbal and gestural expressions to be recorded and conserved throughout the analysis, and included in the final presentation.  The preservation of this “flavor” is especially appropriate in treating a subject in which nuances of taste and expression are highly valued, and makes the final product of the study, an analysis presented on DVD, accessible to its participants.