More Than Masa: Learning Mexican Home Cooking

Tlaxcala, Mexico
Tlaxcala, Mexico

By Justin Dash

Mexican CookingI always like a glass of good pulque and my friend Pedro had some of the best.

Once allowed only to Aztec nobles and priests, pulque is produced by cutting out the center of a Maguey cactus and collecting the liquid that rises from it. Fermenting naturally in two to five hours, the resulting drink is mildly alcoholic, viscous and sweet. Served at room temperature, it is an acquired taste - as are the locations, or pulquerias, where it is sold.

Pedro’s pulqueria in Tlaxcala, Mexico is definitely one of the best. But, you won’t find it in any guidebook; it is hidden from the world, left over from some other Mexico that doesn’t even exist anymore.

Calling me his "brother," we would sit together in the shade of the bottlebrush tree in the sandy area behind his gate listening to his clientele of farmers and peasants talking in Spanish or Nahuatl as they sat surrounded by an assortment of dogs, chickens, turkeys, and goats, drinking what Pedro called "the elixir of the gods."

Pulque in Mexico.
Pulque in Mexico.

Pulque, I was told, would cure everything from guilt to senility. When served with chito (a dried meat), they assured me that it would produce a male child. As we sat there soaking up the earthy ambiance a car pulled up. Amid clouds of swirling dust and barking dogs, blond heads were visible over the high gate.

Pedro yelled "Johnny!" and rose to hug a thin blond guy who had just arrived, followed by three middle-aged women and another man, all Americans. Odd I thought. Quite odd. It turns out that I have another "brother!"

Pedro leads him along with the others into the distilling room. He motions me to follow. My new brother Johnny is here with students from his cooking school for a "Pulque Experience."

A Stuffed Armadillo

We are led into a tin-roofed adobe room, lined on one side with old rakes, sacks of corn, broken shovels, religious statues, burning candles and a stuffed armadillo.

On the other side are dozens of five-gallon plastic cans full of bubbling, fermenting pulque. Pedro is serving, and the air is heady. Johnny tells me that pulque is used in many recipes here in central Mexico and that his Mexican wife Estela considers it part of the culinary experience of the country.

To think that I thought that Pedro and I were merely having a drink when it turns out that I am actually having a culinary experience with my "other" brother and four "gringos!" I followed them out, around señorita Romero, the sleeping pig, to the road, into the dust and on to meet Doña Estela at her home in the next town.

I liked what I saw, and figured anyone who sent her students to Pedro’s for a culinary experience had to be interesting. So I signed up, moved out of my hotel and into Estela and Johnny’s house for a week of lessons at Mexican Home Cooking School. My fellow students –- Crocker and his daughter, Hester, and the two women, Billie, and her friend, Bridget -- turned out to be as interesting as the rest of the crowd at Pedro’s.

They all loved cooking, and with glasses of wine at hand, we diced and sliced and fought over who got to dredge the chicken breasts. As classical Mexican music seeped into the food, Estela and her helpers did their best to empty our heads of measuring spoons, cups and any preconceived ideas of Mexican cuisine we may have had. "Touch, mix, taste - use your hands - feel the food!" she said.

Doña Estela has at least 15 uses for masa (tortilla dough) -- round, oval, open, topped, flat or thick -- which we covered with sauces and filled with unknown greens and blossoms, cacti, mushrooms from the fields and fungi from corn.

A parade of meats appeared as neighbors brought rabbit, lamb, possum and barbecued goat. Yes, we even used pulque, that "Elixir of the Gods." And feeling a little godlike ourselves, we ate the forbidden amaranth (banned by the Spanish as the food of the devil) while visions of the Inquisition filled the kitchen...

Letting Go of Busy Minds

Gradually we began to let go of our busy minds and entered the world of sensation and tastes, of mingled aromas and people (hilariously stumbling about) trying to execute that perfectly flowered cauliflower. Success!...with much clapping and patting on backs.

Chiles en Nogada
Chiles en Nogada

It was Mexican Grand Opera with music in the air and a toast to ourselves and Estela! The days were filled with delights. There were visits to ruins -- the Mayan-style murals and pyramids at Cacaxtla -- as well as a colonial city to explore, with cafés and dancing under the portales on the square.

And best of all, the tastes... There were tastes I never dreamed of in Mexican cooking! It was winter; the nights were chilly and filled with the smell of burning wood and cooking tortillas. One by one we would wander in to sit and talk.

One night, around the fireplace in my room, Billie told us a little of her own story: In 1936, her father had lost everything in the Depression. With his last money, he bought a ticket in New Orleans and boarded a ship for Veracruz.

He arrived with one bag and a stolen typewriter. He soon sold the typewriter and bought two more. A business was born, and two years later, in Mexico City, so was Billie!

Selling typewriters, her father became one of the richest men in Mexico. The story ended and music called us to our dinner. It was our last meal together and the musicians had arrived. They serenaded us into the evening singing "volver, volver" -- come back, come back to Mexico -- as we ate and sang and sipped our margaritas.

In the end, it was okay that Hester never was able to get her hands into those duck eggs to separate the yolks. It was a color thing, she later admitted -- the brilliant yellow yolks did her in.

And Billie and Bridget never did discuss their (I thought) rather excessive enjoyment in the soft masa dough. But for me, it was the "fiancées sighs" covered in honey, lemon and cinnamon that left me forever changed.

Mexican food, for me, has become an elusive smell, a subtle, delicate or intense flavor remembered from there and never quite found again...except sometimes, with Estela's recipe book out. I begin to remember to taste and touch, to feel the food, and I try again for that perfect walnut sauce for chilies in nogada.

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