Photo courtesy of LA Plaza Cocina
The stretch of Spring Street between 101 and Cesar Chavez Avenues looks very different today than it did just a few years ago – where there used to be two largely unused parking lots now stands LA Plaza Village, four eclectic buildings that opened in 2019 more than 350 apartments, retail space on the ground floor and four large murals. But that’s not an uncommon sight in LA; There are many trendy apartment buildings that are constantly being built. The exciting part is tucked away in a courtyard in the southeast corner of the complex, facing the spring but unobtrusive against the chaos of brightly painted apartments and the nearby freeway – LA Plaza Cocina, a newly opened museum dedicated to history and culture dedicated to Mexican cuisine.
LA Cocina opened in February with an exhibition entitled Maize: Past, Present, and Future, a collection of artifacts, photographs and texts related to the meaning of corn. Why start with corn? According to Ximena Martin, director of programs and culinary arts at LA Cocina, it was nixtamalization — a method of processing corn with lime that makes the corn both more nutritious and malleable — that enabled the Aztec and Mayan empires to thrive, and civilization provided the basis for this. As Martin puts it, “This very simple grain spawned amazing empires.”
The gallery itself is a small space, but it’s packed with artifacts and information, thanks in part to co-curation by culinary historian Maite Gomez-Rejón. A stroll through the exhibition reveals tools for grinding and processing corn that have been used for centuries, such as metate, oloteras and millstones. There are also statues, urns and effigies from Oaxaca and Colima celebrating the nixtamalization process and Pitao Cozobi, a Zapotec god of plenty and cornfields. There are cookbooks and beautiful photographs, and most importantly, a box of different types of corn, separated by colour, size and country of origin.
The “Maize” exhibit is completing its run at LA Cocina, but will be replaced by a new one very soon. Details are still being worked out, but it will be a collaboration with USC professor Sarah Portnoy and her students, with a focus on grandmothers—matriarchs from Indigenous communities, Mexican communities, and Mexican-American communities. There will be photographs, recipes and a collection of important culinary objects, all by different women.
“Objects tell stories,” says Martin, “it’s a work of art, this spoon that has created so many things.”
However, the exhibits are just a piece of LA Cocina. The space also has a full kitchen that aligns to the space like a stage – perfect for the next thing to come down the tube, cooking classes starting in June. These are divided into three general groups: The first is “Hecho con Amor,” a chef-led series featuring LA-based, Mexican and Mexican-American chefs such as Holbox’s Gilberto Cetina and Todo Verde’s Jocelyn Ramirez. Then there is “Sabor A”, a series of deep dives into specific regions like Oaxaca and Jalisco. And finally they will have ‘Prácticas y Pruebas’, a series of informational sessions and lectures followed by tastings of the foods discussed.
Many of these food celebrations are timed to coincide with specific events on the Mexican calendar. Martin is particularly looking forward to the upcoming fresh corn season and they are planning a class around uchepos, a type of sweet corn tamal specific to Michoacan’s corn harvest festivals.
The other component of LA Cocina is LA Tienda, the museum store. The shop stocks a wide range of artisanal Mexican and Mexican-American products such as condiments, cookbooks by local chefs such as Jaime Martin del Campo and Ramiro Arvizu, hand-blown glass jars and Masienda chef-quality masa flour. These cookbooks and products are of course a way to support the museum, but they are also an extension of their educational process, a way for Angelenos to bring home a little bit of Mexican culture and culinary history.
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