I’ve held a deep love for food and cooking for as long as I can remember. When I was too young to use the stove, I whipped up all sorts of (probably awful) smoothie concoctions. As I got older, I followed food blogs like Bakerella and the Pioneer Woman, watched the Food Network religiously, and would read cookbooks for fun (…oops. I still do that.) I’ve always been fascinated by fusion cuisine. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that I love fusion cuisine having grown up in the most diverse place in America; not to mention my dad always seems to be ahead of the curb when it comes to food trends. As a kid, I remember bringing him an ice-cold Topo Chico (the OG, Mexican ‘La Croix’) after especially heavy dinners and he first got me to try kombucha over 10 years ago. My Thanksgivings were always a blend of American and Mexican classics. For my birthday last year, I added a Turkish twist to a Mexican classic and whipped up a coffee-cardamom tres leches cake.
I’m not sure when or really, why, the idea of making a very elaborate Mexican feast for my birthday came up. It must have happened while watching the new docuseries, Ugly Delicious. This brilliant series focuses on a food item, finds its original strand and traces its culinary evolution across time and place; the pizza episode starts with Dominos and ends with the host traveling to Naples to interview the head of the True Neapolitan Pizza Association. (Side note: On a study abroad trip, some girlfriends and I made a pilgrimage to L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele in Naples. It was so glorious we teared up after the first bite.)
I decided to make chiles en nogada, a Mexican dish with a list of ingredients a mile long, to spend my birthday feeding the ones I love. On a deeper level, I chose this dish because it’s complex, it’s illogical, in fact, it seems downright irreverent to think that so many ingredients will be able to support and complement one another. In the end, it all comes together, like the contrapuntal composition of a fugue. “The name chiles en nogada comes from the Spanish word for walnut, nogal. The chiles used are typically poblano (meaning “of Pueblo”), the large, mild dark green peppers that are also used in chiles rellenos, another Pueblo dish that has made its way onto some Mexican-American menus.” The dish originated in Puebla is enjoyed seasonally from late August through September. Its typically Persian ingredients in the dish like pomegranates and walnuts hint to Spain’s Moorish history that inevitably followed the Spanish conquistadors and priests into Mexico.
In 1821, Mexican General Augustin de Iturbide commissioned a flag that would feature the colors of his Mexican army: green (hope), white (peace), and red (blood of slain heroes). Later that year, in honor of a visit by the general, Pueblan nuns (who also invented mole) created the colorful dish as a nod to the colors of the flag: the chile is topped with a pale, creamy, walnut sauce and dotted with bright red pomegranate arils and chopped green parsley.
I never understood why there was such a market for genealogical resources like Ancestry.com or 23 and Me until a few years ago. I think the closer you get to death, the stronger a desire you have to understanding your beginning and the beginnings of those who made you, hence my burgeoning interest in Mexican culture. Although Spanish was my first language, I never formally learned the language — what I know is only from hearing it in the home. My parents left Mexico almost 30 years ago and have only been back to visit a handful of times; it was purely through the sporadic visits from my abue that I was educated on traditional Mexican cuisine. My grandmother left her childhood home to run away with my grandfather (8 years her senior) when she was 13 years old. I understand that this is shocking in our American culture but this was not, and in some parts of Mexico is still not, an uncommon practice. By the time she was 30 years old, she had 8 children. She’s been through a lot of shit but has always remained buoyant and playful. I love her.
In my 28 years, the only time I visited Mexico was when I was 5 years old. The only things I remember are:
- watching my grandpa take off his chancla to smack the “little spider” (a tarantula) I found while swinging on the porch hammock,
- the smell of a cheap, little perfume bottle we bought at a mercado,
- and walking over to the tiendita around the corner to buy ketchup.
All in all, not a very representative picture of Mexican life. I’ve been sold a pretty atypical version of Mexican culture; my parents are not very “traditionally” Mexican. When asked if I wanted to have a quinceanera, I asked if we could go on a trip instead. When I started to have doubts about the Catholic dogma I was being taught at my private school, my dad suggested a controversial philosophy book written by an ex-monk. I always loved having the liberty to make up my own mind about things; it probably explains why I’ve developed into an opinionated person, sometimes to a fault.
I have been enjoying learning more about my roots, mis raices, these last few weeks. After being lucky enough to travel around, it’s about damn time I look to my own ancestry and the rich culture that has helped form who I am today. Happy (month-long) birthday to me!