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The secret passion of Sor Juana

A woman of multiple passions who in addition to poetry, music, and painting, is also believed to have loved cooking
12/11/2017
15:02
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Text: Nayeli Reyes
Modern photos: Nadya Murillo
Web design: Miguel Ángel Garnica

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When it's Friday and payday, people wander the streets of Historic Down Town in Mexico City, looking for something to eat or drink, without realizing they are probably walking on the footsteps of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz – the woman whose face is on the $200 bill they will probably spend that day – who lived in the former convent of Saint Jerome, where nowadays the Izazaga avenue is located.

Sor Juana was born 366 years ago, on November 12, 1651, in Nepantla, a town located in the State of Mexico, but like most inhabitants of that state, she spent most of her life in Mexico City; she was a woman so diverse from herself, says Octavio Paz, that she was a nun, poet, musician, painter, a walking theologist, a metaphor in the flesh...and even a cook, according to Mónica Lavín in her book “Sor Juana en la cocina” (“Sor Juana in the Kitchen”) where, together with Ana Benítez, she gathers recipes and anecdotes of the writer.

It was the 17th century, and in those days women only had two choices: a husband or the convent. As she wished to study and she wasn't the marrying kind, Juana Inés de Asbaje y Ramírez de Santillana enrolled at 21 in the convent of Saint Paula of Saint Jerome and ever since was she known as Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.

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Sor Juana was never portrayed in life, all her portraits are posthumous.

The walls of the cloister saw the following 25 years of her life go by, surrounded by admiration and jealousy due to her talent. Those walls are now the witnesses to her legacy: the yards are no longer filled with nuns dressed in their white habits, alternating between prayers and books (because all the nuns there knew how to read and write), they are now busy with students who walk along the restored hallways, decorated with Sor Juana's poetry, walking amidst the ruins of the convent and the temple.

It stopped being a convent a long while ago, in 1867, when the land was expropriated and used as barracks, then as a slum, warehouse, auto repair shop, a dance school called “El Pirata” (“The Pirate”), renamed afterward the “Smyrna Dancing Club”, and was even the setting of a film by Adalberto Martínez, “Resortes.”

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View of the former convent of Saint Jerome, in the decade of the 10's. Collection Carlos Villasana.

Before being rescued and turned into the University of the Cloister of Sor Juana, it was an abandoned building. Now it houses the coffin with the remains of the famous poet, including her original wooden rosary, as timeless as her poetry, even after over three centuries. A verse accompanies her grave: "triunfante quiero ver al que me mata y mato a quien me quiere ver triunfante." (Roughly, “triumphant I want to see who kills me and I kill who wants to see me triumphant.”)

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Remains of Sor Juana found in that same room.

“Had Aristotle cooked, he would have written even more”

The life of the also called Tenth Muse is shrouded in myths; some stories say she was sent to the kitchen as a punishment; however, researcher Lourdes Aguilar Salas claims otherwise: “Sor Juana has several passions, among them poetry, music, writing and, of course, cooking.”

To enroll in the convent of Saint Jerome, one of the largest in the city, Sor Juana received the support of Jesuit Antonio Núñez de Miranda, and her godfather, Governor Pedro Velázquez de la Cadena, who paid the dowry required – three hundred Mexican reals – which was a lot of money in those days.

Life in the convent allowed her certain privileges, her cell were a two-story apartment. Aguilar explains she had a library which housed, at least, four thousand books, a birdcage (which wasn't allowed to the nuns), and even an entrance hall for guests, as well as her astronomy instruments – a hobby she shared with poet Sigüenza y Góngora.

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The convent was founded in 1586. It's one of the oldest buildings in Mexico City, although little remains from the original structure. The image above depicts the 17th-century floor.

Moreover, according to the book of Mónica Lavín, Sor Juana was accompanied by a slave woman named Juana de San José, gifted to her by her mother when Sor Juana became a nun. Aguilar details she had people under her service to do the heavy kitchen work, reason why cooking was part of her passions.

“Well, what could I tell thee, Madam, of the natural secrets I have discovered while cooking?...What can we women know about except kitchen philosophies? Lupercio Leonardo spoke the truth upon saying one can philosophize and season dinner. And I tend to say in this regard: Had Aristotle cooked, he would have written even more,” wrote Sor Juana in "Reply to Sor Filotea".

Sor Juana observed daily life through a scientific lens. For instance, she marveled at the physical changes of sugar, at the many reactions of an egg depending on whether it was friend with butter or oil, or at the many things you could do with the yolk and the white separately, “the sagacity of her mind is such that it goes beyond following a recipe, she relishes in witnessing the alchemy of cooking,” writes Lavín.

Aguilar Salas considers the kitchen was a space for reflection for the nun: “I think Sor Juana rested because she invented, she invented as she went along with a recipe, it wasn't necessary for her to write it down. As a good, intelligent and wise woman, she was also all those things in the kitchen.”

Poetry and chocolate

Another myth surrounding Sor Juana was that she loved chocolate, so much so that she had to change convents to be in one whose rules allowed her to eat it, according to Carlos González Romero, guide of the Museum of Chocolate.

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Illustration. Museum of Chocolate.

Aguilar Salas explains the matter of chocolate could've been the least important reason why Sor Juana left the convent of the Discalced Carmelites. Although it was forbidden because the order believed chocolate interfered with reflection and contemplation – in addition to being associated with festive and aprhodisiac matters and expensive – this was a resource nuns stole from kitchens to share amongst them.

The expert declares Sor Juana left the religious order of the Carmelites because all their rules were very strict, furthermore, her family believed Saint Jerome would be a more fitting place for her, because it was conceived as a university, a place where young women could have great accomplishments.

Ana Rita García Lascurain, founder and director of the Museum of Chocolate, explains that in the times of Sor Juana the history of chocolate in Mexico was transcendental, specially in the convents where nuns began to develop new methods of preparing it. Previously, chocolate was drank according to the tradition of the native peoples, but with time ingredients like flowers, chili, and achiote were removed.

Convents back then had a place called the chocolate yard or the chocolate room, and these were spaces dedicated solely to drinking chocolate. In Saint Jerome, this place was in front of the lower chorus, close to the kitchen.

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University of the Cloister of Sor Juana. A furnace used by the nuns in the 17th century is shown in the background.

The director of the Chocolate Museum tells that in the times of Sor Juana – the Colonial Era – chocolate was highly valued in everyday life. Back then, sugar and wheat arrived at the current Mexican territory, and a wide variety of sweet bread began to be baked.

Enjoying this type of bread with a cup of liquid chocolate became an irresistible delight, to the point that the mancerina cups where designed to serve both, bread and chocolate, so the bread could be dipped in the chocolate ( which in Mexican Spanish is called chopear.)

This was the golden age of chocolate in convents. San Jerónimo was one of those who had the most regulated and constant production, claims the director of the Museum of Chocolate. While there is no knowledge of chocolate recipes Sor Juana invented, it is believed she consumed it, as it was the custom in her days. While she was at Court, it's possible she drank in luxurious mancerina cups and then in the humble cups used in the convent, diluted with atole or as champurrado. If Sor Juana “dipped” there's no way of knowing, yet it is very likely she did as it was the custom back in her times.

In her book, Mónica Lavín explains Sor Juana was an expert on sweets in her convent, with a gift for verses which she used to send messages to her friends. Artemio de Valle-Arizpe details: “And what about those delectable and fragrant 'chocolate notes' she sent together 'with a shoe embroidered as was the fashion in Mexico,' as a sample of her heartfelt affection for her darling friend, the Honourable Madam Vicereine, Marquess of Paredes?”

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Interior view of the ancient Cloister.

Sor Juana was always rebellious, says Aguilar Salas. The latter years of her life were very tumultuous; she had a written confrontation through with the Bishop of Puebla, Manuel Fernández de Santa Cruz (alias, Sor Filotea) who accused her of arrogance and vanity upon her criticism of a sermon. Likewise, the expert states throughout her life, Sor Juana had several quarrels with her confessor, Núñez de Miranda, because he wanted her to dedicate more of her time to the life of a nun and less to writing.

By the end of her life, Sor Juana had stopped attending to the locutory. She began her definitive silence, a spiritual retirement. Death surprised her while the nun was taking care of the sick and she was gone in three days, Aguilar recounts, passing away between fevers and blisters, probably of typhus or murine typhus.

The expert explains that even during her last years, Sor Juana never stopped writing. There is evidence she sent riddles to her fellow Jerome nuns in Portugal and a text called Enigmas. Aguilar concludes Sor Juana was seeking to develop herself in other areas, after all, she had dedicated all of her life to writing: “her last two years she spent with herself.”

In 1979, the first cookbook with recipes from the former Saint Jerome convent was published, and at the beginning there is a sonnet as a way of introduction, and at the end, the signature of Sor Juana. After analyzing the paper, it was confirmed it belonged to the 18th century, a copy of an original which is believed to have been written in the poetess’s own handwriting.

Mónica Lavin explains it's possible that Sor Juana was in charge of preserving the gastronomic heritage of the convent, of making a manual for the initiates. Despite Sor Juana experts continue to debate the authorship of the cookbook, they recognize its value regarding the customs of that era.

There are 36 dishes featured in the cookbook, all are sweets except for 10, a “clear vocation of the convent which had to trade presents for favors and coins to ensure the sustenance of the order and the building, to which the nuns and their personal cells had made labyrinthine modifications,” writes Lavín.

“We can imagine Sor Juana delighted with 'antes' (Mexican dishes made with sweet potato) of a great variety of fruits, such as mamey, pinapple or walnut, and tubers such as beetroot and dairy products like butter; and that alfajores (sweet biscuits) and cajeta (milk caramel) were prepared with secrets listened before the brazier (as it happens with the teaching of gastronomy),” remarks Lavín, because if indeed Sor Juana wrote the cookbook, one has to assume she wrote down the recipes of her choice to preserve them.

Aguilar Salas explains the Jerome nuns had one of the best kitchens, but they were very protective of their secrets and at times they didn't allow the original recipes to be known. Each order had their own dishes with their own ingredients, “the detail was in the secrets, and the nuns took them to their graves.”

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Where the ancient convent of Saint Jerome once stood, the University of the Cloister of Sor Juana rises now. Founded in 1979m it is located in the streets of Izazaga, 5 de Febrero, Isabel la Católica, and San Jerónimo.

Ancient photographs: Photographic archive EL UNIVERSAL
Sources: "Sor Juana en la Cocina" by Mónica Lavín & Ana Benítez; “Respuestas a Sor Filotea”; interview with María de Lourdes Aguilar Salas, Ana Rita García Lascurain & Carlos González Romero.

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