Eating History

“Eating History”, Denis D´Amico – Norman, Oklahoma

I never put the thoughts of history and eating together… until a recent trip to San Miguel de Allende in the mountains of central Mexico where I touched and ate a part of history.

I have always loved to look at old churches and ruins, museums, pottery, architecture and art from ages gone by when I visit different places. You learn about the area, the people and the culture. To my delight during this trip, I reached back 200+ years to prepare and eat the foods of Mexico… and I was moved.

I did this with the guidance of Maria Ricaud (Marilau), who has a cooking school in the lower floor of her apartment on Calle de La Luz in the San Antonio section of San Miguel de Allende. Marilau comes from a large family in Mexico City who prepared food for the family in traditional ways. Marilau has become the collector of the family´s recipes and techniques with hand written recipes from her family dating back to the late 1700´s. Marilau teaches her students fundamental techniques for handling chilies, spices and the other ingredients that make up the salsas, adobos, pipians and mole that anchor Mexican cuisine. Marilau moves on from there to teach the diverse and wonderful cuisine that rarely seems to make it out of Mexico to the streets of America.

Living in Oklahoma, we have a lot of Mexican food available. Most is fair… Tex-Mex style cooking. Some is good… fairly creative, well prepared. But Marilau opened a door to cooking and salsas that was quite honestly mystical. My job requires that I travel every week… I have logged over 1.3 million miles on American Airlines and also fly 100+ segments a year with Southwest Airlines… I eat out a lot! And never have I seen sauces as complex, layered and sophisticated as I learned from Marilau.

I took an initial class with Marilau to learn to cook a meal. We started with a chili based soup with oatmeal and tomatoes blended and simmered together to create a marvelous, lustrous soup. This was followed by traditional Mexican white rice, mixed with crema and cheese, topped with sautéed plantain, wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed. A fabulous dish, presented beautifully with the stark white rice displayed on the bright green steamed banana leaf. And the preparation method for the rice was unique to any preparation I had seen. The rice was washed, soaked in warm water for 20 minutes, drained, dried and then deep-fried until the grains of rice fell into the pan sounding like “coins falling into a fountain”.

Then the rice was boiled in water (or chicken stock) until all the juices were “chased away” creating a perfectly luxurious rice with every grain separate and a texture that cannot be achieved any other way. I rounded out our first lesson with a Pastel Azteca… tamale dough lightened with beaten egg whites and egg yolks, filled with rajas (poblano peppers strips) onions, garlic and tomatoes and topped with 1/3 of the “meringue” and a little sugar on top to contrast the heat of the peppers. I was hooked!!

I told Marilau that I had come to San Miguel looking to learn Mexican cooking. I am the cook in my family – my wife has not cooked in the 22 years we have been married and that works for both of us! Marilau told me that I needed to start with chilies and salsa and work from there. The next 4 days we did just that.

Learning from Marilau was amazing. Through her enthusiasm and genuine love for the techniques and ingredients, Marilau showed me a part of Mexican history. These methods were what her mother, grandmother and great grand-mother used. Marilau talked about the food preparation respectfully, even reverently. She spoke of the homogenization of the food in Mexico, happening there as it is in the US and all around the world and how she was saddened for what appears to be the loss of these historical techniques and combinations of ingredients that has created a cuisine in Mexico that is unique and complex.

We delved into my language first. I asked about salsa as I knew it in the US… a chunky, sauce that is tomato based for the most part. Often seen in its fresh iteration… tomatoes, cilantros, onions, jalapeño chili and lime juice, very roughly chopped and served with chips.

I also asked about my concoctions of fresh fruit such as mangoes or papaya mixed with tomatoes, onions, garlic and lime juice and the fact that I have referred to that as salsa. Marilau was patient and kind, like a parent explaining to a child that the words to the song they were singing since they were little were all wrong… my ideas about salsa were totally erroneous. None of these concoctions were salsas… We would learn what a salsa really was. And learn I did.

We started by looking at all manner of dried chilies… mulatos, ancho, güajillo, pasilla, chipoltle and more. We smelled, and prodded them, then began to prepare them on the traditional comal, (a flat, iron “plate”) dry roasting them until their smell was intoxicating and the skin just the right amount of blistered. We sauteed others in oil and pork lard, we softened others in orange juice at room temperature. All were then simmered or soaked in hot water or chicken stock.

After softening in one the various methods we added the other ingredients… at first just onions, tomatoes, garlic and simple spices such as marjoram, cilantro, salt and black peppercorns. Sometime we roasted the spices, other times we used them as is. All these ingredients went into the blender and were pureed into a very smooth sauce.

I thought we were done… no. After blending we took the mixtures, some stained, others right from the blender, back to the stove top and we simmered these sauces in a cazuela (clay pot) adding salt, chicken stock or the soaking liquid from the chilies and reducing the mixture to create a perfect balance and roundness to the sauce. It was magical. The tastes were full, powerful, not heat dominated but with great layered taste. No one note stood out but all the flavors worked together. We did 6 salsas that first day… each a different variation on the theme. Maria was a pleasure to work with and said that tomorrow would be fun as we moved into the adobos and pipians.

The next day brought new insights. The techniques we learned on salsas were now expanding. The number of ingredients and the techniques to blend these became even more intense. Toasting and grinding nuts, seeds, and spices, then blending simmering and reducing these sauces gave them wonderful depth and flavor. The adobos were for marinating and simmering meats, chicken and turkey. The pipians were incredible with the richness of pumpkin seeds at the heart of the sauce… rich velvety tastes balanced by the chilies and tomatoes, tomatillos and other ingredients… again, no note taking over the symphony of flavors in your mouth… all the notes playing a harmonious melody. We made 6 more sauces that day.

Then the day for mole. Preparing mole felt almost religious. The number of ingredients is incredible… 25 or 26 at minimum as there are variation on the mole theme. We started in the same way but used multiple chilies, then added many of the same ingredients we had used before but went on with the addition of fruits, dried and fresh, multiple nuts, seeds, white bread, chocolate, tortillas and spices. We toasted, roasted, sautéed, chopped, ground, blended and strained all these ingredients until we brought back to the stove top a shamanistic mixture that we reduced, tasted adjusted the seasoning and finally allowed to simmer until we had what I can only describe as the finest sauce I have ever tasted in any cuisine, any where. This mole made your body buzz… the depth of flavor and layering of tastes was marvelous, moving, wondrous.

The mole class was my last class with Marilau as we were leaving the next day. That evening I prepared a dinner for our group and laid out all 13 sauces that I had made with Marilau that week. I put them in the order they were made from the more simple, one or two note salsas, to the adobos, pipians and lastly the mole. We all took spoons and sampled each sauce, savoring the variety and intensity of the flavors. We were all struck by the increasing complexity of these sauces… when you got to the mole there was s symphony playing in your mouth. Going back to the first salsas, you could see the simple layers, great in their own right, but more simple and straightforward in their taste. Each new ingredient added to the adobos, pipians and mole gave new and greater depth to the sauces. We feasted on pulled chicken and pork wrapped in fresh tortillas and smothered in the new found sauces of Mexico.

And so I left Marilau´s class having been given the gift of history. Not a dry museum based look at artifacts or shards of pottery, but a living, breathing gift. The gift of her family´s recipes and cooking techniques. I walked away feeling privileged to have had this history passed on to me and also duty-bound to pass these techniques on to others in my family. My grandson, now 5, cooks with me all the time. He will receive this gift of living history from me, so that the lessons learned in Maria´s kitchen will continue to live on and hopefully never be lost.

I left San Miguel changed… changed for what I learned and experienced and have now brought home and am using with my family and friends. I cannot think of a better history lesson. History that I can serve to others!I had dinner tonight at a restaraunt in Oklahoma City (Adobe Grill) that prepared food from Mexico City. The style of cooking is very good. The chef’s name is Leticia Hernandez and her husband Mario. She knew I was going to San Miguel and asked about our trip. I told her about you and she said she knew your name and said she knew about you. You reputation is wide!!

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