800 TAMALES A WEEK!

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Standing at attention, these tamales were waiting to be steamed

If you have never had a tamale before you might not know that they are literally one of the tastiest, economical, and healthy breakfast, lunch, or late night snacks that is out there.  One of the things that I love about Mexico is that the “fast food” is in the hands of the community.  Easily obtained from markets stalls, roadside stands, folks that ride mopeds honking through neighbourhoods much like an ice-cream truck, on buses, and of course in every grandmothers kitchen. Tamales are Mexico’s answer to the munchies – though always homemade and created from pure and nutritious ingredients.

Tamales are fragrant and varied, sometimes wrapping the homeny dough in corn husks and while other varieties are wrapped in plantain leaves.  The paste like dough is called masa, and is made from a variety of corn that is dried and ground for the tamale. Some tamales hold sweetened masa and others hold a saucy centre.  Tamales sauces can, for example, be a mole or a green or red sauce with meat…the possibilities and varieties of flavour are really actually endless.

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Tamales with mole sauce in the centre and wrapped in plantain leaves

The family with whom I traveled to the country side in the previous post, live in Oaxaca City, and like many hardworking folks they have multiple ways of cobbling together a living, which for them includes their very own tamale business.  Every week this family dedicates Thursday evening to Saturday morning making 800 tamales that they go and sell every Saturday afternoon and Sunday.  From a simple cement building attached to their home this family begins the process of soaking, cooking, and preparing the corn masa that makes the base for the tamales every Thursday evening at about 5pm.  Earlier that day, the fillings for the 8 different varieties that they produce have already been started so that they are cooled and ready to use when the assembly begins.  At 2am (yes – 2am) this family meets and begins making these tiny packages of love, a job that continues through until early evening.  Like a well oiled machine, each member of this tamale team has a special job, with the expertise of the entire enterprise resting on the matriarch of the home. 

What I learned…tamales are all about technique, and controlling a mountain of variables including how warm the masa is when spreading it on the leaves or husks; real tamales are made from scratch – the spices are dry roasted before being ground and added, the dry corn is soaked and cooked and milled immediately before use – in short there are no short cuts and the difference is felt and tasted; I learned to imagine a world in which grabbing a quick bite could be another way to engage in the traditions of the community and support the survival of its members.  There is no reason that we need to hand over the solutions for the very basic of human needs of sustenance to large for profit corporations.  There are as many models as there is imagination for how we can meet our needs for food, whether it is a quick bite or a formal meal, and in the process of satiating hunger, support the economic livelihoods of the members of a community, eat healthy traditional food, and live low to the ground and in harmony with the land. 

I don’t have any recipes to offer this week.  If you want to learn how to make a tamale I recommend going to Mexico, and if you have never tried one and your not in Mexico I recommend going to the local flea market or just the part of town that there are latin stores and asking around.  You will be hard pressed to find someone making the masa from scratch instead of the maseca version that requires on to add water to a pre-made mix, but start there!

The Tamale Making Process 

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Tamales are all about the corn. It is from this variety, known as hominy that the masa is made
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First the dried hominy is soaked in water (much like dried beans are). Then it is cleaned through rinsing and straining it several times.
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Lime is added to the cooking corn so that our bodies can digest it. It was this small detail (or lack of knowledge of it) that killed so many of the earlier colonizers.
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After it is finished cooking the hominy corn is ground. In addition to a small amount of salt, pig lard is added to the masa to bring lightness and flavour to it.
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All 7 of the different sauces that filled the tamales was made from scratch. The bean filling was made rich and velvety from cooking with avocado leaves among other spices.
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The chiles and jalapeño sauce being prepared in a traditional clay cooking pot, the cazuela
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The masa is spread lightly on the pre-soaked corn husks   
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The saucy fillings are added, and the tamale is folded up, ready to be steamed
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My favourite…the chicken mole tamale
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800 tamales is a lot of tamales
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The assembly line of tamale love
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Tamales are cooked by steaming them…seriously healthy good stuff here folks

THE HEART OF A OAXACAN CELEBRATION IS THE COMMUNITY

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Santa has arrived! And is seen here arranging the fall-off-the-bone goat meat roasted in an underground over

The alarm clock, which was the mama of the house knocking on all the doors, came at 4am. A little early considering the quantity of mezcal that had been shared between myself and the dearest and eldest member of the family the evening before.  But little did I know that that was just a warm up to the festivities that were about the unfold. Seriously, after 4 days with this family, I was ready to check into rehab.

I was back in Oaxaca City, and there in the valley the mornings in late December are cold.  Dessert cold. I lay in my sleeping bag listening to the sounds of this family rising and feeling deep excitement for what was to come that day – my anticipation was the perfect medicine to shake me out of the warmth of my cocoon and dive into the sharp cold of the morning. I had come to this home at the invitation of a new friend, Ita. I was tagging along with her and her family as they travelled to the Oaxacan countryside, to a village that was the birthplace of her father, and the community of their extended family.  Her cousins whose home myself and the rest of the gathering family had been hosted at in Oaxaca City, are the godparents of a young woman who was celebrating her quince años, and it was for this celebration that they were making a great effort. 

Within Mexican cultures, a girls 15th birthday (quince años) is a very important celebration – perhaps even more important that her wedding, but definitely characterized by all the same refinement, tradition, and glamour.  Serious glam!  The quince años celebration we were on our way to also conveniently fell on the birthday of a grandson, and was smack dab in the midst of Christmas and New Years, all to say that this family had lots of reasons to celebrate, and it was clear that they were so dame happy to take advantage of all of them. So at 5am when all 17 of us and an undeniably large amount of luggage (thank goodness that for once I didn’t live up to the white girl stereotype of being an overpacker), had been stuffed into a covered pickup truck complete with airbrushed designs that dripped of dessert sensuality, the mood was festive and alive.  Our 5 hour journey deep into the hills and valleys of Oaxaca brought us to a tiny village where the people who live at least a kilometre apart call each other neighbours.

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The pick-up truck that defied the laws of space and fit 17 of us and way way too much luggage.

 

We were greeted by the family whom we would be visiting and celebrating with, and after the initial greetings and exchanges the real welcoming began with the unearthing of 4 goats that had been buried deep underground to cook within a traditional oven.  The poor dogs also tried to greet us but they had been chained up after doing their best to get at this brewing delicacy for the past 2 evenings…torture of the worst kind I imagine!  Every member of the family, which included myself as an honorary member, took a turn at unearthing this gift.  The carefully created and layered underground oven revealed the skewered goats that had been dressed with leaves of fragrant trees including avocado and cactus, and underneath their cooking meet were 4 large stewing pots filled with homeny (a variety of dried corn) chiles and spices, and they overflowed with the juices caught from the cooking goats.  These goats came from the families herd, and represented much more than the effort of providing a meal, we were eating the love and labour of this family and of this arid spectacular land.  It is no lie that you can taste love, and between the unbelievable meal that we shared at 10am and the obscene amount of aguardiente (homemade moonshine) that I was invited to drink – by noon I was really feeling the love.

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In front of the truck you can see what you can’t smell…the top layer of the underground oven.
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The family’s goat herd minus 4.
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I’m sure I wasn’t any help, but I’m always happy to provide the free entertainment!
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Unearthing the precious goods.

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The falling off the bone goat meat is removed.
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The 4 precious pots that caught all the juices.
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Melt in your mouth goat meat
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One of the four soups that came from the ground, each one distinct but always dressed with onion, cilantro, and lime.

We left by foot under the land-breaking heat of the early afternoon to visit the family who would be hosting the quinceañera the following day.  By extension this visit also included a visit with every single neighbour within a 10 mile radius since they were all there, pitching in with the preparations.  In the backyard under the welcome shade of a few trees there stood a table with a mountain of dead chickens and a group of young men, young women, and the women of the community all working to prepare the food for the celebration.  On this community train of labour, the chickens were plucked and pieced, but more than that that was happening.  I noticed right away after my conspicuous entrance (as you can imagine it would be) that the magic where kitchen, learning, community intersect, was alive.  These young men and women were the friends and comrades of the woman for whom this celebration was in honour (she was also plucking chicken feathers with us incase your wondering), and the women were their aunties, mothers, grandmothers.  The conversation that I eavesdropped into soon returned to discussing the coming of age transition that they were experiencing.  It wasn’t a condescending lecture of, “you should learn to do this because your this age”,  or “kids these days have no respect”, but rather it was characterized by laughter, sharing, memories, history, and wonder at the differences and similarities between the generations.  It included tales of the heartbreaking realities and impacts of migration and oppression, dreams for the future, joking and poking.  It was beautiful.

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The mountain of chicken and some of the folks working on it
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Meanwhile indoors, corn masa was being ground for the mountain of tortillas that would be prepared

When we left that afternoon I knew 3 things.  The meal that we would eat the following day would be perhaps one of the best of my life (and it was); that all the learning that I needed to do in the world was rooted in community – if I didn’t see how I could learn what I needed in a community I just needed to look for the right community; and finally,  that I needed to start thinking about how I was going to pay forward (in concrete terms) all the time and love and inclusion that had been extended to me. 

Early early early the next morning I awoke in the living room, still within the military like designated sleeping spot I had been appointed, somewhere within the 2 rows of 20 people that occupied our hosts living room (forever putting to shame for me the idea that there isn’t enough room to house people if you don’t have a bed for everyone).  We woke and started the long preparations that finally had us arrive at the community church at 9am for the kickoff to the celebrations.  From there we formed a walking parade that arrived at the young woman’s home where we were greeted by a 2 story sound system under the tent that now hosted a minimum of 50 picnic tables.  How it all got there and where it came from is a question that I never did sort out. 

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The young woman at the centre of it all
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The parade of guests on our way to get down!
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The tent
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Pollo coloradita…impossible flavour

And so, with the party officially starting at the ripe hour of 10am the drinks and food began to flow.  My only mistaken preconception of the day (my expectation was for the best meal of my life and an off the hook party) was that the day included 2 of the best meals of my life and far more interesting conversation and laughter than is possible for one to hope for.  That day I met a dizzying number of folks with whom I engaged in conversations that covered topics as diverse as women’s rights; foraging and agricultural practices; the impact of global climate change on the living habits and survival of the community; how special needs are worked with and incorporated into daily community life; the challenges presented by tradition and machismo (by the way I had that conversation with both men and women); the pain of addiction; the struggle for better lives, for technology, for preserving tradition and the discomfort and work to change tradition.  And at the heart of all these conversations and learning (for me) was food…I engaged a lot in talking about what I don’t yet know how to live, which at its foundation was the practice of living and creating community and learning through food, designing the way a community lives based on shared values, and the intentional work to decolonize through deciding how the community is fed.  I learned from experts that deserve to be honoured as experts.

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Grateful

MAKING FRIENDS AT THE MARKET

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In making my plan to spend time n Mexico learning technique, flavour, tradition, and the intersection of community, learning, and justice in the kitchen, I hoped that I would spend time meeting Señoras in the marketplace with the intention to learn from them.  In all reality I just spent a lot of time in markets, and did my best to make friends.  My time with these women who were experts in all areas of my interest, were the moments that brought some of my richest learning and hilarity.

At the outer edges of a small local market in Puebla, I met Señora Edith.  A beautiful woman that rounded in at about 4 feet tall, wore a toothless grin that always managed to come off as mischievous, and with whom I often sat down beside and waited while she enjoyed one of her many daily naps. She indulged me in entire afternoons sharing her life history and secrets of the kitchen. Señora Edith, at her small market stand filled with overripe fruit and vegetables, offered me a lifetimes worth of advice – some of which pertained to the kitchen.  She also sold the most amazing sweet and fiery hot accompaniment for – well anything that calls for such a dressing, but my favourite occasion is plain roasted meat, or using my altered version, spreading it on a cracker topped with cheese. The mild fresh cheeses of Mexico made the most beautiful and smooth combination for my palate. It is no joke that on Saturday afternoons Poblano folks traveled from near and far to this tiny market for her magic chile love.

SEÑORA EDITH’S SWEET FIERY LOVE

  • 15 dried chipotle or modita chiles.  They should have a smokey smell and be of the dark variety.
  • 2.5 – 3 cups olive oil (the oil should land a good inch above all the ingredients once inside the pot)
  • 2 heads of garlic, cloves peeled and rough ends chopped off.
  • 1 cup of brown sugar or more to taste.  Remember sweet and fiery is the point.

Process

  1. Remove the stems from the chiles (you can take the seeds out as well if you want to tone it down a notch).
  2. Put the olive oil in a smallish pot and add the chilies and the skin and ends removed garlic cloves.
  3. Turn on low and let warm for an hour (chiles and garlic should be good and soft.
  4. Add sugar until disolves
  5. Salt to taste
  6. Señor Edith sold it as is, but I like to blend and strain it through a fine sieve so that it has the consistency of jam.

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Adobo

Dried chile heaven at the Cinco de Mayo market in Puebla. Chiles are the foundation of many dishes including the adobo
Dried chile heaven at the Cinco de Mayo market in Puebla. Chiles are the foundation of many dishes including the adobo.

By the time I got to my dear friends home in Puebla, I was ready to start cooking.  So we threw a party.  What better way to get feedback on your creations?  It was also a wonderful opportunity to hear the stories of food, family, and community that every person formed from this culture seems to hold.  And this was my excuse to explore the Adobo and the markets.

An Adobo is one of the fundamental types of sauces in Mexican cuisine.  It varies greatly in flavour, colour, and thickness, but the basic structure of the dish is made up of dried chiles (a combination or selection of Guajillo, Ancho, Pasilla), tomatoes, spices, and vinegar.  In this sauce the meat (or tofu/beans/lentils if you prefer) is marinated and then cooked long and slow.  Traditionally, adobos are cooked in a cazuela, which is a clay pot said to improve the flavour as it retains sazón over the years.  Pork and chicken are the most common meats to find in this dish.  It is common to serve the dish with finely chopped onions and lime and accompany it with rice, beans (refried or whole) and of course tortillas. 

When making an adobo you want to keep a few things in mind…  

1. The flavour before and after cooking the adobo changes a lot!  The bitterness of the chiles will transform into a deep flavour that is cut by the vinegar and the warmth of the meat cooked in the sauce.  

2. Use meat with bones on it.  Incase you didn’t know, these have huge amounts of flavour and nutrition to add to your dish.  Also use real pig lard if you can; real flavour, real nutrition.  Watch for my coming rant on why we should be eating more pig lard and less processed oil and ugh margarine. 

3. Add your final salting at the end….cause otherwise, ouch the reduction of the sauce can leave you with a super salty dish.

4. Processing the dried chiles is the bedrock talent of this dish.  If you burn them…start over.

5. There are two basic preparation methods.  The first includes browning the meat and then marinating it.  The second is to cook the meat in a stock which will be incorporated into the sauce.  I have included a recipe using each method below.  Each of these recipes also features different flavour profiles.  The first is my own take after much experimentation and feedback.  The second is inspired by a cookbook and altered by my own taste

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IMG_0252Guajillo, Ancho, Pasilla Chile Adobo

  • 18 guajillo chiles (the thiner ones have less heat kick to them)
  • 5 ancho chiles
  • 3 Pasilla chiles
  • 1 medium head of roasted garlic
  • 12 roasted roma tomatoes
  • 2 Tbsp of dried oregano
  • 2 tsp powdered cumin
  • 1/2 tsp dried thyme
  • 5 laurel leaves
  • 12 fresh avocado tree leaves or more if they are dried
  • 1 Tbsp of white vinegar
  • 1 Tbsp salt
  • meat with bone: pig or chicken is best.  This quantity of sauce is enough for 10 meat portions.
  • Pig lard or oil.

Method

1. Process the chiles.  This is an important process to understand how to do many dishes in Mexican cuisine.  It is an art, but we all can start somewhere. 

Step A. Remove all the seeds and veins, and any of the stem.  You only want the leathery beauty of the chile itself.  I have found using scissors for this very useful.

Step B. Heat a small bit of oil of choice in a fry pan.  Use an oil that won’t carry a flavour…grapeseed is always my personal choice because it is flavourless and is happy at high temperatures (doesn’t turn carcinogenic like some others). Heat the pan to medium high heat.

Step C. At the same time have a pot of soft boiling water ready.

Step D. A few at a time, fry the chiles.  Use tongs and turn and remove, putting in the pot of water.  Be very careful not to burn them.  You are aiming to cook them about 10 seconds or less.  You only want to release the flavour, golden them…but it is so easy to burn them, and if this happens start again.

Step E. Cook the chiles in the water a few minutes to soften. Reserve the liquid

2. Roast the tomatoes and garlic.  If you have a gas stove just roast the tomatoes over direct flame and the garlic in a dry pan.  If not you can do it in the oven (cover the tomatoes and garlic in a touch of oil).  Don’t worry about peeling…your going to liquify and strain them anyways. 

3. Toast the avocado and laurel leaves in a dry pan, about 15 seconds each side.

4. Liquify everything together.  Add liquid that the chiles were cooked in as needed.  You want a sauce that is liquid but not watery.  It will cook down with time

5. Brown the meat on high heat quickly.  Add to adobo and marinate. 

6.  Remove meat.  Heat a few tablespoons of pig lard in your pot on medium heat.  Add the sauce.  Cook, stirring constantly for 5 minutes.

7. Add the meat.  Turn the heat to low…as low as possible.  Cover so a little bit of steam can leave, check on it from time to time and stir.  Add more liquid as necessary, but in the end the sauce should be thick.

8. Cook for several hours.  The meat should be at the point of falling apart soft.  Add the final salt adjustment.

Adobo in the style number 2.  It tastes far better then my photo might indicate.
Adobo in the style number 2. It tastes far better then my photo might indicate.

Pork Adobo

Ingredients

  • 2 kg of pork with bone
  • 1 white onion cut in 4
  • 1 garlic head split up
  • 4 liters of water
  • 3 tsp salt
  • 16 guajillo chiles
  • 4 ancho chiles
  • 4 roma tomatoes
  • 1/2 white onion
  • 15 garlic cloves pealed
  • 2 tsp of cumin seed
  • 1 tsp dried oregano
  • 1/2 tsp black pepper seed
  • 4 cloves seed
  • 3 Tbsp pig fat
  • 1/2 cup white wine
  • 1 Tbsp white vinegar

Method

1. In a large pot add the meat, onion, garlic, water, salt and bring to a soft boil to make a stock.  Continue to cook until the meat is soft (an hour or so).

2. Process the chiles, but add the chiles to the stock for its last 10 minutes to soften.

3. Separate out the meat and chiles and strain the stock.

4. Roast the tomatoes, onion, and garlic. If you have a gas stove just roast the tomatoes over direct flame and the garlic in a dry pan.  If not you can do it in the oven (cover the tomatoes and garlic in a touch of oil).  Don’t worry about peeling…your going to liquify and strain anyways. 

5. Liquify the roasted tomatoes, onion, garlic.  Strain.

6. Separately, liquify the chiles. Add stock as needed.  The sauce should be thick but be strained with encouragement. Strain.

7.  In a dry pan, dry roast the cumin, pepper, and clove.  The idea is that the pan is on a high medium heat, you add the seeds and keep them moving by shaking the pan.  Cook for about 30 seconds and remove from the pan right away.  Turn them into powder in your preferred method. 

8. Add the pig fat to the pot of choice (deep with thick bottom are important features) on medium heat.  Add the liquified and strained chile sauce.  Reduce heat and let bubble for 15 minutes. 

9. Add the tomato sauce, the spices. Cook until reduced a little.

10. Add the meat, wine, vinegar, and 3 cups of the stock.  Put a cover on that lets out a little steam.  Either cook on a low flame for 2.5 hours or in the oven for an hour on low. 

11. Add the final salting at the end.

Día de los Muertos: Food and Mutual Aid

Some of the wall murals in Zaachila.
Some of the wall murals in Zaachila.

Please understand that I am new to Mexico, and this post is really truly just a reflection, made from my inadequate understanding of a celebration with many layers of significance and ritual. I am including a post about it because I was struck by how deeply preparing food and eating communally is woven into the fabric of celebration within the many cultures here in Mexico.  

Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is a celebration and communion with ones ancestors and loved ones that have left this world.  It seems designed to bring colour and light to the shadows of soul as well as buildings homes and graveyards, in the most artistic and dramatic manner.  Oh, and did I mention that food is at the centre of all this too?!  The smell of sweet breads and mole was everywhere.  Alters constructed both publicly and privately to honour the dead, are adorned with oranges, beer, mezcal, bread encrusted with candy skulls, tamales, and chocolate…oh the chocolate…and flowers.  Mountains of flowers.  There is a soft mix of smells everywhere. This is both a very private celebration within churches, homes, and kitchens, but it is also very public and shared within streets and cemeteries.

A blockade expressing anger for the 43 disappeared students.
A blockade expressing anger for the 43 disappeared students.

Characteristically a joyful acceptance of the cycles of life, this years celebration also included expressions of palpable rage that threw light onto the shadow of the 43 students that disappeared at the hands of state forces in September.   These students were remembered very publicly.  Not declared dead and therefore not to be mourned in the way of the dead, but the pain of their loss brought clearly into the actions of everyone and everything passing.

On the eve of the Day of the Dead I arrived in Oaxaca City, which is renowned for many things including its celebration of this festival. I tagged along with a group of university students, one of whom had invited us to experience and engage in this beautiful celebration on the land of his childhood home.  Now vacant, this house became our communal space of rest, conversation, laughter, and of course cooking. I was honoured to be invited into the public and private spaces of this celebration by people proud to share their culture. 

Wall murals in Zaachila.
Wall murals in Zaachila.

On the Day of the Dead our group travelled to a neighbouring village, Zaachila, known for its veneration of their ancestors through celebration and art.  Annually, the walls of the town are converted into murals…folding into one another, there is no space that isn’t included in the elaborate and magnificent shades of death and mourning depicted on the walls.  There was also a children’s art show, live music, a carnival, a parade, and of course food everywhere.  As we meandered through the streets we stopped at one of the many stations that were serving hot chocolate, tamales and sweet bread.  These stations clearly powered by the community itself, a mix of women and families, young children running to a fro in total jubilation to be of service.  And it is all free.

Eating together at one of the many free food stations.  Everyone eating keeps the dead happy!
Eating together at one of the many free food stations. Everyone eating keeps the dead happy!

One can only imagine the time and energy that goes into preparing the food for such large scale festivals, and as I was to come to understand soon, it is only because of the highly practiced skills of mutual aid amongst community members that any of it is possible.

Lessons on Sazón At The Road Side Kitchen

Isla Mujeres at its most southern point.  So pretty.
Isla Mujeres at its most southern point. So pretty.

I have noticed that the best way to wiggle my way into Mexican kitchens, is to wear my hunger for knowledge on my sleeve.  That is how I met Abuelita (Grandma) on Isla Mujeres, where she runs a small roadside kitchen.  She had one main dish everyday, and then the usual selection of tamales, tacos, and quesadillas.  This woman was truly inspirational in her simplicity, flavour, and refusal to cater to the list of desires that the extrañeros (tourists) carried.  She never lacked respect but her exasperation and clear boundaries were often evident. Her two most notable dishes included an adobo of guajillo and ancho chile in which the chicken pieces were cooked.  More on this simple and extraordinary dish to come.  The other was a simple whole fish fry, covered in oil, filled with a tomato based sauce -influenced by the tradition of the Veracruz sauce, wrapped in tinfoil and cooked over the comal.

A señora at her comal.
A señora at her comal. A comal is a traditional cooking surface. It is metal and covered with lime (to prevent sticking, and heated by fire underneath.

Unfortunately, this experience happened before I felt comfortable enough to pull out the camera.  But I have a million pictures in my head of this joyful, firm, half-toothed woman, which are given colour and texture by the memories of our long and slow – in the heat of the day conversations.  Over a tall glass of cool jamaica water,  she explained cooking processes, chile combinations, and the definition and sensation of cooking with sazón.  Sazón is something that folks refer to and talk about in the tones of remembering the kitchen of ones grandma or mama.  Sazón is not something that you learn, you feel it, it is revealed in you.  It feels you, speaks through you.  It is the art, and bears the signature of its creator.  It is what there is no recipe book for.  It is love, and you can taste it.

My conversations with this Abuelita taught me a lot about how to enter respectfully into a conversation with an elder willing to teach you.  Through our conversations about technique and ingredients she wove the tapestry of community, culture, and history.  Her pain for the suffering land evident as she spoke to the multitude of animals and plants that have been lost to the kitchen with the destruction of their habitats. “They can no longer be honoured by becoming food”, she said.  She even offered me an invitation to spend time with her in her kitchen…but due to an unfortunate run in with a ceiling fan I was unable to follow through, but that as they say is another story.