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Mexico’s Soul Food

Passionate Mexico City foodies are rediscovering and reviving Mexico’s rural culinary delights.

On the edge of the highway from Mexico City to the tiny, sunbaked town of Santiago de Anaya stands a billboard with a message, farmer to farmer: “Dear compañeros: Do not sell your land—before long there will be better opportunities.”

Although Santiago de Anaya, in the Valle del Mezquital, is less than two hours from the capital, outsiders rarely visit. More often, people flee from here. It’s a land of sudden dust storms, squat concrete homes, and hills covered with mesquite and dry scrub. The town is surrounded by vast expanses of prickly pear cactus and the agave plant known as maguey—the only crops that grow here dependably. Young men in white cowboy hats reminisce about construction jobs in Florida and tomato-packing stints in Louisiana, where they can earn more in four hours than they do in a week working the fields here.

But once a year, during the first weekend in April, visitors arrive by the thousands to devour the peculiar delicacies proffered at Santiago de Anaya’s annual food festival. The unofficial motto is an old Mexican proverb: “Todo lo que corre y vuela, a la cazuela,” meaning “Everything that runs and flies, into the pot.” Inside the festival’s striped tent, indigenous Ñhañhú señoras peddle plates of food. Their eager customers include middle-class city dwellers wearing embroidered folk dresses, neighbors from surrounding villages who have braved rickety buses, and members of the far-flung Valle del Mezquital diaspora returning home. Through the swarm, I struggle to move forward as I search for culinary revivalist Cristina Hernández de Palacio, my guide for the day.

The crowds lurch toward each new scent, ingredient, and cook offering samples. They ogle pots of rabbit mole stew, skunks roasted in maguey leaves, magenta xoconoxtle (cactus fruit) marmalade, black-and-orange mesquite beetles toasting on wood-fired comales (traditional griddles), and my favorite of the sumptuous curiosities: bowls of tiny escamoles, firm white ant larvae that have the creamy texture of roe. Indigenous groups in the Valle del Mezquital once offered escamoles as tribute to the 16th-century Aztec emperor Moctezuma II.

Finally, I spot Palacio, an understated 59-year-old, in the festival’s competition amphitheater. Wearing jeans and a white, long-sleeved Oaxacan peasant blouse, she is surrounded by the crew that films Bocados de Nuestra Historia (“Bites of Our History”), a public television program she helps produce. The program is one of many projects she works on with Cultura Culinaria, a Mexico City organization dedicated to preserving traditional Mexican food.

Mexico's Soul Food

Though she is already an expert in the minutiae of Mexican cuisine, Palacio is here to learn. At nearly every stand she pauses to ask questions, listening intently until the moment each cook delivers that tiny nugget of new information that brings her a rush of joy: “What is that flavor in your pulque [maguey liquor]? Celery!”

As the cameras roll, Palacio interviews the pulque producer, a man wearing a red Che Guevara baseball cap and a woven maguey-fiber sling that holds a gourd. Pulque, Palacio’s viewers will learn, is a historic commodity—and an inherently locavore one, as the delicate fermentation process makes it difficult to transport. The maguey’s sole flower bud is removed before it blooms, leaving a cavity that fills each day with sweet liquid, or aguamiel, which producers collect in the gourd and then ferment into a tangy, cloudy drink. Low in alcohol (farmers gulp it in the fields for hydration), pulque has been essential to indigenous groups in Mexico’s semidesert areas since long before the Aztecs used it in human sacrifices and in worship of the maguey goddess, Mayahuel.

This is what mesmerizes Palacio about Mexican cuisine. “It’s like an art,” she says. “It has evolved and changed, but its roots are incredibly deep—as deep as in China, as in India. The French have distinguished themselves with [culinary] techniques. But a cultural background of millennia? No. We absolutely have something to boast of.”

Walking toward the exit after hours of filming, Palacio stops to buy a chile-roasted wild hare for her family. (“My job in gastronomic research is to eat,” says her husband, Manuel, a stout life insurance systems analyst.) Trailed by the crew, Palacio leans in to chat with the vendor, who carefully packs the purchase for the trip to Mexico City. The woman reveals her family’s trademark seasoning: guajillo chile and sesame seeds. “¡Ándale!” Palacio says, the thrill of discovery in her voice yet again.

After Palacio leaves for Mexico City, I double back to talk with the hare vendor, Jazmín Pérez Salinas. Decked out in thick black eyeliner, a white peasant blouse with red embroidery, tight jeans, and a studded leather belt, the 24-year-old Santiago de Anaya native helps run her family’s stand. Unlike many Mexicans her age, Pérez Salinas prefers thick, homemade corn gorditas instead of pizza or French fries, especially gorditas stuffed with sautéed quelites—delicate wild greens that many Mexicans consider “comida de los pobres,” or “food of the poor.”

“We love it that our food is known all over,” Pérez Salinas says, beaming as she and her mother reel off a list of places their visitors have come from, as far off as Africa and Japan, including some who read about the family’s stall on the Internet. “It is delicious, because everything—absolutely everything—is from here.”

Mexico's Soul Food

When I ask what she thinks about the role of researchers such as Palacio, Pérez Salinas quickly replies that academics from Mexico City should not be responsible for saving the ancient food traditions of towns such as hers. “It should be us ourselves,” she says. “Because it is ours.”

Vendors like Pérez Salinas and the campesinos who grow the ingredients certainly benefit from Mexico City’s foodies buying their products. But, she admits, preserving the culture sometimes means adapting it for different tastes. She gestures to an empty case next to the chile-coated hares. Hours before, she had filled the case with a new delicacy her family created just for the fair: pizzas topped with tiny white escamoles. This compromise between traditional and modern tastes was the stall’s single best-selling item of the day.

Before I arrived in Santiago de Anaya, I passed through the tiny village of San Miguel Huautla, in the indigenous Mixteca region of Oaxaca. There I visited Anastasia Velasco, a campesina, or peasant farmer, who works as a sustainable-farming educator. Velasco teaches other farmers about the importance of growing heritage vegetable crops, swearing off agrochemicals, and cooking and passing along ancestral recipes.

Sitting in the outdoor kitchen, I watched Velasco warm large tortillas and grill pads of nopal cactus over a wood stove as her herd of goats wandered nearby. She talked of her nieces and nephews who left to work as servants in Mexico City. “After they finish school,” she said, “man or woman, it’s off to the city. Why? Because they want money.”

Now, when they return for the annual village festival, her relatives tell her, “I don’t like the food from here anymore” and refuse to eat Velasco’s homemade tortillas—or any tortillas. Instead, they down package upon package of Maruchan ramen noodles. Even at Santiago de Anaya’s festival, alongside roast possum and sautéed palm flowers, savvy entrepreneurs hawk Maruchan, now a household name, although the festival officially prohibits it.

When Cristina Palacio and I meet up again in Mexico City after the food fair, I ask her how uncommon it is for a village like Santiago de Anaya to maintain its food heritage amidst the forces vanquishing many regional cuisines. “A lot has been lost already,” she says, frowning. “In many towns, the pride has already disappeared. It was very sad what happened here in Mexico, that the indigenous were so denigrated. Many indigenous people lost their identity [and their cuisine] out of shame, or from trying to be like the city folk. In many other towns, they no longer have the ingredients to keep eating the same way, because the men have crossed the border, because the land has been abandoned, because the kids go away to study. So they don’t follow the same way of farming, of hunting, of raising animals. Everything is lost.”

Mexico's Soul Food

While rural Mexico has spent decades shedding its indigenous eating habits—“poverty food,” as food historian Rachel Laudan calls fried insects and such—Mexico City foodies like Palacio have been scrambling to rediscover them. For much of the 20th century, middle- and upper-class Mexicans saw their own food as a poor stepchild to European cuisines. Professional cooks were men, trained in-house at French, Italian, or Spanish social clubs, according to Alicia Gironella De’Angeli, the owner of Mexico City’s El Tajín restaurant. Gironella helped lobby UNESCO to recognize Mexico’s corn-based cuisine for its historical and cultural importance.

In 1983, she and a group of mostly female chefs pooled their collective knowledge—and personal funds—to establish the culinary preservation organization Cultura Culinaria. The group’s mission is to “ennoble Mexican gastronomy, promote it, and reaffirm its prestige.” Now well into its third decade, Cultura Culinaria comprises chefs, cooking school students, and anthropologists and other academics, who gather every few weeks in Mexico City for classes, lectures, conferences, and, with Slow Food Mexico, “taste laboratories” that connect organic farmers with restaurateurs.

Palacio first met Gironella in 2001, when she signed up for one of the chef’s cooking classes. “We clicked,” says Gironella. “Cristina’s questions were so intelligent, and we definitely coincided in our way of looking at many details of Mexican cuisine.” She immediately recruited Palacio to join Cultura Culinaria.

For Palacio, a former special education teacher with two grown children, it was the perfect retirement project. Today she works nonstop—with a minimal salary and usually behind the scenes—on dozens of Cultura Culinaria projects, including co-producing Bites of Our History, organizing a culinary history archive from a folk art library, teaching Cultura Culinaria’s food history classes at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, and helping Gironella update her tome on Mexican cuisine, The Larousse of Mexican Cooking.

Although she has always lived a comfortable Mexico City existence, Palacio’s interest in preserving Mexico’s indigenous food is rooted in her childhood. Her father, a London-trained neurologist and “a great gourmet,” took the family to dine in the country’s best restaurants as well as standing-room-only taquerías. Family vacations consisted of road trips all over Mexico, where Palacio gained an appreciation for the country’s diverse indigenous cultures.

She often stayed with her maternal grandparents for weekend visits filled with meringues and crispy mutton flautas de barbacoa, and her doting abuelos required that Palacio help clean and cook. (Her grandmother was the rare middle-class mexicana who refused to have servants.) Those rituals—first peeling peas, then helping prepare tamales, chilaquiles, and duck with black mole—left Palacio enamored with food and its traditions. “This is my life,” she says. “As a girl, as a wife, as a grandmother.”

Mexico's Soul Food

A few days after our trip to Santiago de Anaya, I tag along as Palacio shops for Easter groceries in the enclosed San Juan market downtown, a magnet for Mexico City chefs. Palacio eats a tiny mango as we wander past escamoles, bright-red dried crayfish, chickens yellow from a diet of marigolds, goats and rabbits skinned everywhere except the feet to prove their freshness, fried pork rinds—each taller than a toddler— and snails crawling out of their containers and up the white-tiled walls.

Palacio’s shell of reserve softens as she greets vendors her family has patronized since before she was born: the vegetable saleswoman who attended her mother’s wake, the fruit seller offering samples of his most succulent goods. Everyone addresses Palacio formally as Señora in deference to Mexico’s class divide. As the fruit vendor packs her purchases in boxes, he asks if Palacio is spending Easter at her weekend home in Cuernavaca. “Si Dios quiere” (God willing), she answers, turning to me. “He knows my whole life.”

Palacio’s driver loads the boxes into the minivan and takes us to a Walmart-owned Superama grocery store where Huey Lewis and the News blares from speakers. No one here knows Palacio. She fills her basket with Sensodyne toothpaste, putting her hand to her forehead in mock defeat as she recounts complaining to the manager about his meager stock of sausages.

Even though she prefers old-fashioned markets, Palacio understands the supermarket’s appeal. “You can go to the bakery, the tortillería is right here, fruits, vegetables, dried goods,” she says. “For many housewives or single people, it is much more comfortable.” Yet after the explosive sensory experience at San Juan, Superama feels sterile. The produce looks pallid; the bread is unnaturally uniform.

Palacio laments the fact that so few of the items are from Mexico. “There is very little awareness,” she says. “Many people prefer cheap products to Mexican ones.”

The landscape of Mexican agriculture has changed drastically in the past 15 years. The country’s agricultural industry has traditionally revolved around corn, much of it grown on tiny plots of land by farmers planting and harvesting by hand. For generations, Mexican farmers grew enough corn to feed their families and sold the excess to government distribution centers. But after the North American Free Trade Agreement was enacted in 1994, the distribution centers closed and prices for American corn, subsidized by the United States government, dropped so low that Mexican corn farmers could not compete.

Mexico's Soul Food

As the domestic market for Mexican corn was drying up, so was the land. With climate change, rains that had been dependable for centuries became increasingly scarce, and most farmers have no access to water sources for irrigation. Now, more than half of Mexico’s agricultural land has become too dry and overused to yield crops, with another 600,000 acres drying up annually. Between 1991 and 2002, more than one-fifth of all farmers—900,000 people—gave up on agriculture entirely. Every year, nearly a million people leave Mexico’s dry rural land for larger cities or the United States.

Oddly, one place where farming is coming back is Mexico City. Though the capital is now so parched that, in sections of the city, residents go without water for days at a time, the whole area was once a lake. When Spaniards arrived, the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán, where modern Mexico City now stands, was a floating metropolis of canals, gardens, and palaces on Lake Texcoco. The Xochimilco district, a rural section of southern Mexico City, is the only remaining portion of the city where the area’s original ecosystem and agriculture exist. Today, Xochimilco farmers still harvest food from ancient floating plots of land called chinampas, set on 114 miles of canals, and several have formed a successful urban farming cooperative.

At the market, Palacio warns me against going to Xochimilco: The barrios populares (working-class neighborhoods) are preparing for their big Easter fiestas, which can get raucous. When I arrive in Xochimilco to meet farmer Rigoberto González, however, I find a bustling market and quaint central plaza—a still-charming small town pressed on all sides by capital sprawl. A few blocks from this plaza, after crossing a series of canals reminiscent of Venice, González and I board his canoe to see his fields.

As songbirds chirp from the trees, and herons and ravens glide above us, González, a soft-spoken man of 36, rows. We pass laughing children swimming in the canals, and González waves at fellow chinamperos working tracts of corn, flower beds, and cow pastures until we reach his own plot of greens and herbs.

A Puebla native who married a Xochimilco woman, González joined the farming collective Productos de la Chinampa when it began two years ago. The collective sells fruit, vegetables, free-range meat, eggs, herbs, honey, pulque, and products such as homemade ice cream, tortillas, and mole to individual customers and more than a dozen Mexico City restaurants. Before the collective started, chinamperos sold their products only in the Xochimilco wholesale market. Like farmers across Mexico, they often could not make a living and had to emigrate to find work. Now González earns enough from selling his lettuce, greens, and parsley to hire workers to help him. Once the collective got going, some Xochimilco residents even began farming their long-abandoned chinampas again. Soon, González believes, people who were forced to leave to find work will return as well. Since my visit, he has left Productos de la Chinampa and is forming another collective with 20 other chinamperos.

Many Xochimilco chinamperos shun pesticides and fertilizers—even if they cannot afford to become organic certified—since the canal sediment they dredge up to spread on their fields is a free, natural fertilizer. These ancient techniques and stewardship of Xochimilco’s fragile environment are the chinamperos’ calling card, González says. “It’s a way to reactivate the whole area. If we sell more, then there are more chinampas. There is plenty of future here. In food there is a future.”

For socially conscious restaurateurs like Gerardo Vázquez Lugo, networks such as Productos de la Chinampa are essential to bringing food from campesinos to capitalinos (Mexico City residents). “As individuals, it would be impossible for them to reach me,” Vázquez Lugo says. “I would have to travel all over the country in a truck hunting products, and I’d never live in Mexico City.” When he does find the exact product he has been searching for, whether through word of mouth or by coincidence, Vázquez Lugo says, “It is magical.”

Mexico's Soul Food

In addition to buying from Productos de la Chinampa, Vázquez Lugo works with artisanal vendors who travel as many as 20 hours to bring their products to his restaurant, Nicos, and his new, ultra-Mexican locavore grocery, Nicolasa, in the Azcapotzalco neighborhood. He admits that dealing with small producers and farmer networks can be challenging: Producers have little capacity to supply goods on credit, their products are often painfully limited by seasons, and it can be tricky to get what chefs want when they want it. But, Vázquez Lugo says, the social benefit of ensuring that producers are paid a fair price, as chefs work to advance Mexico’s culinary heritage, ultimately makes it worthwhile.

Marco Bernal, the manager of the Mexican fusion restaurant Los Danzantes in Mexico City’s Coyoacán neighborhood, agrees. An early customer of Productos de la Chinampa, he remembers when restaurant staff had to drive to Xochimilco to pick up orders. “You have to look at them as your business partners,” says Bernal. “You are the coproducer of their product.”

The evening after I visit the chinampas, I stop for dinner at Los Danzantes and sit at an outdoor table overlooking the Semana Santa (Holy Week) revelers in the plaza. I start with taquitos de chapulines: moist handmade tortillas enveloping salty, crisp grasshoppers, avocado, and crumbly queso. They are sublime, but my spinach salad, with mango dressing and chunks of orange and grapefruit, brings a different kind of satisfaction. The greens, I know, are from González’s chinampa.

Before Palacio heads to Cuernavaca for Easter, I visit her at her condo in the Condesa neighborhood near Parque Chapultepec, Mexico City’s version of Central Park. Ever the generous cook, she offers to feed me numerous times as she gives me a tour of the kitchen, which she helped design when the building was constructed three years ago. She swapped the steel handles for wood—“This isn’t a restaurant kitchen, it’s a family kitchen!”—to complement her rustic furniture, and converted the maid’s quarters into a storage area for her assemblage of pots and pans as well as an extra freezer. She points out a bag of dehydrated grasshoppers she bought from Los Danzantes. “Those with a little mezcal…” she says, kissing her fingers with a sly smile.

I see the hare from Santiago de Anaya stashed in the freezer, too. At the festival, when I asked her why she bought that, rather than one of the more off-the-wall offerings, Cristina smiled a bit. “I prefer to get something that I know my family will eat.” Despite her best efforts, she said, “I don’t think they’d eat squirrel at my house.”

As we step inside the pantry, I swoon at her immaculately organized jars of Mexican cuisine’s primordial elements: dried shrimp, ground chiles, cones of blond and brown compressed sugar, tamarind, hibiscus, roasted pumpkin seeds ground to varying textures, organic coffee from Chiapas. The mélange exudes a spicy, caramel earthiness. When I ask which ingredient she couldn’t live without, Palacio looks at me as if I’ve asked her to choose between her daughter and son.

These days, Palacio’s foodie obsession has taken over her office as well as her kitchen. Over the past year, she has been working to uncover a new branch of Mexico’s edible genealogy, in a groundbreaking project of culinary detective work. With anthropologist and Bites of Our History host Jiapsy Arias González, Palacio has been tracing royal recipes from a 16th-century colonial codex down to the everyday dishes, nearly unchanged, of modern Mexican cuisine. As she adapts the recipes to test in the kitchen, Palacio has just one regret: The writers of the codex only recorded what the wealthy of their day ate, not the common people’s fare.

She opens her computer and reads a letter she wrote to accompany her wedding gift to her daughter. It was a collection of recipes Palacio received as a wedding gift from her own mother, which she has been adding to ever since. “Putting this gift together has taken us many hours of constant and delicious work. Some of us learned and passed on our knowledge as oral history. In your hands is the continuation of this tradition. Take from us all this succulent heritage.” A

This article appeared in the May/June 2010 issue. Photographs by Joaquin Trujillo and Brian Paumier.