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A Culinary Phoenix

In 1968, Josefina Velazquez de Leon was the preeminent culinary personality in Mexico. However, 42 years later, very few people know who she is. She has been likened to having been the Mexican Julia Child but her accomplishments were by far more groundbreaking than Child’s. I believe the most accurate comparison is with Martha Stewart. Both women started their careers as cooks and moved on to become amazingly innovative and successful entrepreneurs.

Born in 1899 on hacienda “El Pabellón” near Aguascalientes, Josefina was the oldest of four daughters born to Juan Luis Velázquez de León and Maria Peón Valdez. The family enjoyed a very privileged life on the hacienda, as well as a comfortable home in Mexico City where they moved to in 1905. She received an education emphasizing penmanship, respect for the Catholic Church, and French cooking, a common practice with the Mexican elite at the beginning of the twentieth century.

When Josefina was born, Mexico was ruled by Porfirio Díaz, the man who would rule the country for 34 years with an iron fist. His corrupt and dictatorial practices in part provoked the beginning of an insurrection which would become the Mexican Revolution. For 10 long years, Josefina witnessed the destruction of the revolutionary battles, endured the “year of the hunger,” in 1915 and loss of the family hacienda as a result of agrarian reform. Her father died in 1921 of a heart attack, likely brought on by the loss of his fortune.

Close to her thirtieth birthday, Josefina married Joaquín González, a businessman twenty years her senior. When her husband passed away after a mere 11 months of marriage, she needed to find a way to create an income.

Post-revolutionary Mexico was not an easy time for women. The new Constitution of 1917 gave women equality before the law with the same rights and duties as men in regard to managing their own businesses. Yet married women still needed their husband’s or father’s permission to work, and were still responsible for domestic chores and care of their children.

As a childless widow, however, Josefina was able to independently pursue her own business goals and deal with authorities without the permission of husband or father.

Of all of the exquisite schooling received, cooking now served her best. In 1933, she converted the lower floor of her home on calle Abraham Gonzales Street into the cooking school “Academia de Cocina Velázquez de León” (Velázquez de León Cooking School).

To do so, she turned to a new business concept for its time, sponsorship from General Electric. Running a cooking school, however, was an uncertain endeavor for Josefina, given that women had almost no presence in the Mexican workforce of the 1930s. The only cooking school of that time catering to the upper middle class was managed by a Spaniard in Mexico City. Furthermore, she didn’t have any formal training in cooking, nor had she received an academic education. Yet despite all of these challenges, Josefina had confidence in her skills and forged ahead.

By word of enthusiastic students, she quickly developed a large and loyal following among society ladies. Not only did they learn how to run a proper household in an efficient manner, it was one of the few activities they could enjoy away from their homes without being chaperoned.

Throughout her career, Josefina developed a keen business sense. She understood how to find financial support by advertising various food products and kitchen equipment. She wrote articles for ladies magazines and ventured into her own radio and TV shows. She initiated nutritional programs in cooperation with the government and supported many charities.

In 1946 she started her own press. The first cookbook, she published, Manual Práctico de Cocina y Repostería (A Practical Manual of Cooking and Baking), became a big success. During her lifetime Josefina wrote about 150 cookbooks, including a bilingual volume aimed at North American cooks entitled Mexican Cookbook devoted to American homes.

She had enormous energy, a life full of long days and few holidays. She taught in the mornings and evenings, tested new recipes in the afternoon and wrote cookbooks until late at night.

When a new sense of national pride swept the country after the revolution, Josefina began to teach less French and more Mexican recipes. It was not an easy hurdle to overcome since tortillas, tamales and many other treasured dishes were considered peasant food and definitely not to be served in upper class homes. Yet she was relentless in her determination, traveling widely in her own car to all regions of the country, documenting recipes.

I asked my friend and the foremost authority today on Mexican cuisine, Diana Kennedy, if she had a chance during her stay in Mexico in the 1960’s to meet Josefina. Although she had not, through Josefina’s cookbooks, then widely sold, she became aware of the distinct regional culinary differences, inspiring her on her own 50-year-long odyssey in Mexico resulting in the publication of eight cookbooks.

As a foreigner Diana did not look at Mexican food as peasant food and celebrated its flavors as “peasant food raised to an art”. For her efforts, she was decorated with the highest honor that Mexico bestows on foreigners, "The Order of the Aztec Eagle". Regretfully Josefina got none of such highly deserved recognition.

During a fundraising appearance in Veracruz, she became ill and died shortly after at the age of 68 on September 4, 1968, four weeks before the devastating student uprising in Tlatelolco, the former site of the spectacular Aztec market in the city of Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City).

Josefina’s sisters tried to continue in her spirited efforts but did not succeed. The cooking school was closed down and the equipment placed out in the street for whoever wanted to take it.

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