Why Poblano Cuisine Is So Divine: Nuns
Locals often joke that there’s a church in Puebla for every Poblano, and a quick scan of the city’s skyline reveals why: The missionaries who arrived here from Spain in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries claimed considerable real estate, upon which they built myriad temples — churches, chapels, monasteries, and convents — for practicing and proselytizing their Christian beliefs. Given the number of pious people populating Puebla at the time, and their commitment to convincing others to join them in faith, it’s hardly a surprise that the Catholic church heavily influenced the city’s development.
“The Cathedral’s bells marked the rhythm of the day and, as in the rest of the Christian world, the liturgical calendar governed the year and set a festive tone for the devout life,” the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) notes at the newly refurbished Museo de Arte Religioso (Religious Art Museum). “The church was also responsible for schools, hospitals, orphanages, and the theater, as well as registering marriage, births, and deaths.”
And then, of course, there was its food. Whether by accident, design, or divine intervention, the Catholic church contributed greatly to Puebla’s gastronomy. According to legend and official records, some of the region’s most iconic dishes were created by nuns at one of nearly a dozen conventos (of varied religious orders) in the city center. The sisters mixed European techniques and ingredients with pre-Hispanic ones to produce delicious results, from elaborate entrees like mole poblano and chiles en nogada to sweets like camotes and tortitas de Santa Clara. All of these delicacies remain popular in Puebla today.
Chiles en Nogada: The 2012 Season Begins
The arrival of the chile en nogada, a seasonal dish prepared from mid-July to early October, is hotly anticipated by Poblanos every year. The 2012 season starts this weekend. The elaborate dish calls for a Poblano chile pepper that’s roasted and stuffed with a picadillo (ground or chopped meat with seasonal fruits such as apples, peaches, and pears), dunked in egg batter and fried, and then topped with a creamy walnut sauce, pomegranate seeds, and parsley leaves. It was originally cooked up by Augustinian Recollect nuns at the Santa Monica Convent to honor Agustín de Iturbide; each plate bore the red, white, and green colors of the new national flag. Iturbide, you may recall, co-wrote the 1821 peace treaties with Spain and later served as Mexico’s emperor; curiously, the fact that the revolutionist and the order of the nuns share the same name is serendipity.
The Santa Monica Convent now houses the Religious Art Museum, and the kitchen that gave birth to the chile en nogada is located just off the main courtyard. Although its decor isn’t as exquisite as that of the Santa Rosa Convent (a.k.a., the birthplace of mole poblano, which is currently closed to the public), the Santa Monica kitchen features a traditional wood-fired stove decorated with Talavera tiles, a wide variety of ceramic jugs and pots typical of the region, and an adjoining pantry that hints at some of their uses. Whether you’re a foodie, a history buff, an art lover, or a fan of anthropology or religious studies, this site is well worth a visit.
The Convent’s History: From Refuge to Museum
According to the INAH’s museum signage, the Santa Monica site began in 1606 as a refuge for married women who’d been widowed or abandoned, but the concept quickly failed. Three years later, authorities decided to instead use the home for the forced confinement of prostitutes. In 1682, the building was converted into a high school for “virgin girls.” Shortly thereafter, the decision was made to turn it into a convent, which, by lottery, was named after St. Monica, the mother of St. Augustine of Hippo. Five years later, the convent had the approval of both the king of Spain and the pope and, subsequently, the local powers-that-be found another place, just up the street, to hold those non-virgins.
For nearly 200 years, the Augustinian Recollect nuns in Puebla practiced austerity and asceticism. They engaged in strict self-denial as a measure of personal and spiritual discipline, often wearing cilices to create discomfort and abstaining from food or drink until they hallucinated. “These visions were considered to be mystical or supernatural experiences, so only the nuns chosen by God were capable of having them,” the INAH notes.
During the War of Reform (1857-61), the nuns were exclaustrated, or sent back into the outside world. A plan was hatched to build a facade that made the building look more like a private residence. From the 1860s to the 1930s, the Augustinian Recollect and other nuns in Mexico were subject to changing laws that forced them out of their convents and eventually allowed them to return only to force them out again. They led much of their lives in hiding until 1934, when new reform laws ended the vicious cycle. In 1935, the former Convent of Santa Monica became the Religious Art Museum and, in 1940, was among the first to join the INAH network.
“The Religious Art Museum at the ex-Convent of Santa Monica is one of the greatest examples of the monastic life of women in Mexico and only one in the state of Puebla,” the INAH says on its website. “It’s archive of sacred art from the 16th to 19th centuries primarily consists of collections from four old convents in the city of Puebla: Santa Mónica (Augustinian Recollects), Santa Catalina (Dominicans), Señor San Joaquín y Santa Ana (Capuchins), and La Soledad (Discalced Carmelites).”
—Rebecca Smith Hurd
The Museo de Arte Religioso del Ex-Convento de Santa Mónica is located at 18 Poniente #103, between Calle 5 de Mayo and 3 Norte, in the city’s historic center. Hours: Tuesday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. General admission is 35 pesos.