From the Homestead Kitchen: Comidas Mexicanas, the Autry Museum, and National Cooking Day

by Jennifer Scerra

A truism for these trying times: Nothing brings people together like food.

I like to eat. The vast majority of my friends and family like to eat. I am assuming that you like to eat (and if you don’t, I am sorry!). Whether we like food or not, we have to go on eating. Even during a pandemic. Even when cooking seems arduous. Even when we are stuck in a rut. Food is nothing new, but it’s as vitally important as ever, and it makes up so much of our shared culture and experience.

All this is to say that when the staff at the Autry Museum of the American West invited the Homestead Museum to celebrate National Cooking Day together with them, it seemed like an obvious choice for us. Food, after all, is history.

My Homestead colleagues Alex Rasic and Gennie Truelock decided back in April that they wanted to turn their quarantine enforced home cooking into a chance to cook and bake from the museum’s collection of historic cookbooks. I joined them later this summer and together the three of us have been chronicling our attempts and discoveries weekly. 

It’s been a wild ride of desserts, sides, and even a roast! But it turns out that while we were cooking “From the Homestead Kitchen,” something similar was going on over at the Autry Museum. Their fantastic archival collection includes a 1937 cookbook Comidas Mexicas, and Autry Library Collections Assistant, Christina Lehua Hummel-Colla, was diving into its history and cooking its mole


So, in honor of National Cooking Day, September 25, 2020, the Autry Museum and Homestead Museum have taken up the challenge of cooking each other’s food. And more than that, we are inviting our followers to join us in #archivescooking. We would love to have you join us both in making foods from our blogs, but also from vintage family recipes. You can leave us a comment or post about your experience, just as we are posting about our own.

Front and back cover of Comidas Mexicanas, published 1937. Image copyright Autry Museum of the American West

The Autry Museum’s Comidas Mexicans is an exciting little cookbook with an equally exciting history. The book was published on May 22, 1937, by the Pasadena Settlement House and lists 11 recipes, each given in both Spanish and English. The recipes were contributed by “the women of the Mexican Colony of Pasadena,” some anonymously, but some with their name proudly listed. 

The Pasadena Settlement House, sometimes also known as the Edna Alter Memorial Association was located on Pasadena’s South Raymond Avenue, in an area known then as Sonara Town. Settlement houses were a Progressive era invention and part of a much larger effort to address the poverty and other ills caused by industrialization and inequality. Like other organizations working for social reform such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, settlement houses in the United states were largely run by and for women (by middle and upper class white women and for some groups of immigrant women). The Hull House, founded by Jane Addams in Chicago, is the most famous example, but more than 400 settlement houses were founded across the country in the late 19th and early 20th century.

A man sits on the front porch of a mission revival style building. Above, in painted letters, the building reads: "San Gabriel Settlement."
Another Southern California Settlement House, this one located in San Gabriel, on land donated by the Temple Family.

Settlement houses were designed primarily to serve immigrant communities by making new residents feel like welcome members of their adopted country. Community building, Americanization, and breaking down barriers between different classes of people who might not otherwise get the opportunity to interact, were all primary focuses. They also took a leading role in advocating for children’s welfare, labor reform, helped to found hospitals and nursery schools, and as a pleasant surprise to me, often encouraged the members of their immigrant communities to still practice cooking, cultural activities, and arts from their homeland.

The Pasadena Settlement House was founded in 1911 and open until the late 1940s. Primarily serving the Mexican immigrant community in the immediate area, it was an active organization that included a well-used playground, showering facilities, and classrooms, and hosted club meetings, pageants, and dance ensembles. A 1995 research project cites a December 1932 report indicating that it was utilized, on average, more than twice during the month for each member of the Mexican community in that neighborhood. Sra. Librado Garcia, who contributed a mole poblano recipe to the association’s cookbook, appears to have lived just down the street from the Settlement House for at least 10 years. Hopefully, in some small way, the Settlement House helped her feel connected to her Pasadena home, just as her tasty mole poblano surely helped people to feel welcome when they ate it.

Mole Poblano recipe given in Spanish and English. Image copyright Autry Museum of the American West

Mole Poblano

2 chickens

1 doz. chile pasiya (sweet chile)

1 cup sesame seed

2 fresh tomatoes

5 slices of toast

1 tablespoon chocolate

1 teaspoon sugar

¼ teaspoon cinnamon

salt to taste

Cut chickens into small pieces and cook. Toast chili, sesame, and bread separately. Grind the ingredients with the tomatoes making one mixture. Put the soup from the chickens, chocolate, sugar and cinnamon into mixture and strain and cook for one hour then add chicken and stir constantly.

Mrs. Librado Garcia

Another Truism: Good things come to those who wait.

Fair warning for anyone who hasn’t made a mole before: this is not a 30 minute meal. No part of the recipe was difficult, but it takes time to roast the chicken, toast the sauce ingredients, blend everything, strain, and then cook again for an hour. Often when I have made historic recipes, I have thought to myself something along the lines of “bless the poor souls who made this without modern kitchen equipment,” and this is one of those situations where you will definitely want a blender or a food processor, if you can get your hands on one. Or go ahead and grind everything like a boss with a mortar and pestle or molcajete. I’ll be impressed. 

As is my practice, I tried to follow the recipe as closely as I could but made a few changes as I ran in to challenges. Still, despite their brevity, I thought the instructions given were a pretty straight forward. 

I started with a large whole chicken that I broke down into chunks and cooked in a covered Dutch oven at 350°for about an hour. I didn’t bother to debone, figuring that the bone and fatty bits would add good flavor to the liquid. I forgot to measure before I drained it, but I think I got somewhere around 1-2 cups of liquid from the cooked chicken to add to the sauce. 

For the sauce, I took the stems off of a dozen pasilla chilies and then heated them in a dry frying pan for a few minutes on each side. Then I did the same for the sesame seeds, stirring frequently so they would not burn. The bread I toasted until quite dry in the oven. Then I blended each ingredient separately before adding them together with the tomatoes. I added the liquid from the chicken, chocolate chips, sugar and cinnamon, and put everything in the refrigerator for the night.

Mole sauce before it has been strained.

The next day I warmed the sauce back up and then it was time to strain. In doing so it was immediately apparent both that I did not have enough liquid in my sauce and that I had not blended the sesame seeds long enough before I added them. Everything went back in the food processor with an additional 2 cups of chicken broth. Then I pushed the sauce through a fine mesh strainer with a silicone spatula. This was by far the most time-consuming step and I would have saved myself a lot of trouble if I had done a better job with the sesame seeds earlier.

Once strained, it was time to cook the sauce and an hour later, I added the chicken. We served it for dinner with corn tortillas. 

Librado Garcia’s mole poblano.

Recipe Reviews

Kid 1: “I like the inside.”

Kid 2: *Unrelatedly spent all of dinner crying.*

Adult 1: “This is my first time having mole. I don’t think I could describe it to someone. It’s good!”

Adult 2: “I didn’t realize it was sesame I was tasting.”

Adult 3: “The smell is really lovely.”

Adult 4: “This is the best mole I ever had.”

So, a big thank you to the Autry Museum for sharing Comidas Mexicanas and Sra. Librado Garcia’s Mole Poblano. Do you have a family recipe for mole? Have you never made it before but want to try? Let us know! And a happy National Cooking Day to anyone who likes to eat!

One thought

  1. Only now discovered Scerra’s writing. Now my favorite blog. So interesting and well done!

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