A Tale of Two Cooks

And then it was time to construct the sandwiches. Araceli scooped out some of the crumb from the inside of the rolls and stuffed them generously with the chorizo-potato filling, pressing them together firmly with her hands. Then she dipped each one into the brick red salsa, allowing it to penetrate the dense bread. On a very hot cast-iron comal, she griddled the sandwiches on both sides, pressing down with a spatula, until the surface was crisped and dark brown. She finished the sandwiches by adding a little shredded lettuce, some tangy grated queso canasta, and a drizzle of thick crema. Biting into one of these pambazos was a messy, totally absorbing act, with so many flavors and textures to process: the bread, drenched in piquant salsa and caramelized to a complex sweetness where it had met the griddle; the salty, spicy chorizo and starchy potatoes; the freshness of the shredded lettuce and the richness of the crema and the cheese. Amazing, what a perceptive cook can learn on the streets of Mexico City, where food is a collective fixation, a topic of passionate conversation, a basis for lasting friendships, and a home with doors that are open to everyone.Penny De Los Santos

Visiting Mexico City not too long ago, I spent time with two women, Araceli Piña and Susana Rangel Gutierrez—neighbors, good friends, and great cooks. They live in Azcapotzalco, a community with ancient roots, once a leafy suburb of Mexico City, swallowed up years ago by the city's unremitting outward expansion, now a post-industrial urban neighborhood that not many tourists make it to. Cooking at home with Susana and Araceli, I got to know the two women a little bit better, and I asked a lot of questions about what food means to them and to their families. They seemed kind of amused by the whole thing, but happy to talk about what they love doing. Cooking, I found out, is what brought these two friends together in the first place—and what has provided them both, at different times, consolation, a livelihood, and a sure sense of their place in the world. I'm forever trying to get to the bottom of what makes a food culture like Mexico's so consistently excellent. How do Mexican cooks, from housewives to high-end chefs, receive and impart that incredible wealth of knowledge and skill? In the kitchens of these two extraordinary cooks—who happen to consider themselves perfectly ordinary—I set out to better understand.