Mexico Feeds Me: Exploring Mexico's Culinary Heritage
In rural Zacatecas, Mexico, a young writer explores his heritage by cooking the rustic, boldly flavored dishes of the region.
Enlarge Image Credit: Todd ColemanAs our airplane made its bumpy descent for landing, out the window were scrubby green fields and brown dirt roads as far as I could see. My mother and I were on an Aeromexico connecting flight, one of those tiny planes that travel to Mexico's less glamorous regions—in this case, the rural desert state of Zacatecas, which lies just north of the center of the country. Its capital is the colonial city of Zacatecas, just 15 minutes south of the airport, a place built on the wealth of the silver mines that lie beneath it. But we were headed in the opposite direction. At the age of 21, I was finally going to visit my parents' birthplace, a stretch of parched ranch land between the towns of Fresnillo and Valparaíso. I had always heard tales of the place; now, all I could think about was the food.
I couldn't wait to eat an authentic gordita Zacatecana: a fluffy, griddled corn cake that puffs up and lets out a hiss of steam when it's ready to stuff with cheese, meat, or whatever vegetables are in season or on hand. If what I had heard from my family all my life was true, the real thing would be infinitely more delicious than the meat and bean gorditas I'd grown up eating in East LA. Finally, I would taste my Aunt Marta's famously pungent raw-milk cheeses at the source—fresh, not smuggled in and frozen. Since I was a little kid, my parents had tempted me with descriptions of the sweet queso de tuna—a kind of cactus fruit taffy—sold in the local street markets, and the bright orange and pink, vanilla-flavored fresh cactus fruits that grew wild around their childhood homes. Up until now, these foods had been folklore to me.
My mother immigrated to the U.S. in her cousin Ruben's red Buick back in 1961, but she's never stopped missing the ranchito (ranch village) of her childhood. For a long time, she went back at least once a year to visit her family and stock up on Marta's beautiful cheeses. (Our freezer at home always looked as if it were ready for World War III.) But she'd made the trip less frequently in the last decade or so. "Ya no era lo mismo," she said: It wasn't the same. Her beloved Aunt Nachita, who'd helped to raise her, had died, and in recent years, the oppressive narco-violence that's troubling other parts of Mexico had made its way down to even the smallest Zacatecan ranchitos.
This time around, I insisted on going with her; she insisted on going in August, just after the peak of summer, the "season of the waters," as it's known in Zacatecas. "When everything is green and abundant!" she told me in excited Spanish. As our rental car hurtled deeper into the countryside, I understood. As if by magic, the desert had erupted with life. The foothills in the distance were blanketed in grass and dotted with grazing cows. Tree-size nopales (prickly pear cactus) had reached Jack and the Beanstalk proportions. Some were the height of two-story houses, with thick paddles that bore at least eight fat, multicolored fruits each, vivid against the clear blue sky. In the cornfields, burly ears hung from thick stalks taller than me.
We bypassed my mom's village, La Yerbabuena, which lies about a mile off the curvy, two-lane highway, and headed for the nearby town of Fresnillo to stay with my aunt Margarita Morales. She moved out of La Yerbabuena in 2000, tired of having no running water and inconsistent electricity (though she still uses a wood fire to heat the water for her shower). It was just after noon when we arrived at her home, which was built by her husband, my Uncle Albino. Like the other houses on the rocky, unpaved street, it was simple and sturdy, fortified with metal bars and concrete posts.
I'd expected an emotional welcome, complete with awkward cheek-kisses, but nobody was home when we got there: Their pickup truck had broken down on the way back from the neighboring state of Aguascalientes, where they'd gone to visit my uncle's sisters. Fortunately, my aunt had left the keys with my cousin Sandra, who lives up the road. Once she let us in, we found a big pot of spicy menudo (tripe stew) waiting for us and some leftover sautéed cactus in the refrigerator. These were wild nopales, extra sour and more tender than the cultivated ones we're able to get back in LA. Around midnight, the rest of our family finally returned. "Ya llegó…por quien lloraban [(The one) you've been crying for…has arrived]!" my aunt joked as she opened the door slowly. (Her wry sense of humor is legendary in my mom's side of the family.) Aunt Margarita decided it wasn't too late to put out a proper welcome feast for us; the centerpiece was rebocado, a fragrant stew of pork spine and purslane. After the rest of us had gone to bed, my mother and aunt stayed up until 4 a.m. drinking instant Nescafé, catching up, and laughing loudly.
I had deliberately arranged for us to arrive just in time for Fresnillo's Sunday tianguis, the big, weekly street bazaar—part farmers' market, part swap meet. Bargaining skills were as good as pesos here, my aunt told me, and you could get anything from laundry soap to cilantro grown in the vendor's backyard to the peyote-based arthritis balm brought down from the mountains by Huichol Indians. My mother and aunt insisted on arriving no later than 9 a.m. because they didn't want their produce to be all "revoltada y manoseada [touched up and bruised]."