Monday, November 23, 2009

Steaming meat packages, also known as mixiotes...

I just got back last night from visiting two northern colonial silver mining towns (enough adjectives for you?), Guanajuato and Querétaro. I’ll post sometime this week once I’ve had a chance to edit the photos. It feels good to be home, even though I'm spending today cleaning up the apartment and doing laundry. In the meantime, here’s a recipe and a post I meant to put up before I left for this trip.

In the midst of everything going on for Día de los muertos came Sr. Canal’s birthday. His special request was mixiotes.

Mixiotes are defined as chile-seasoned meat steamed in maguey parchment (I wrote about them after eating them at two novenarios). The maguey parchment is the transparent skin removed from the maguey leaf. However, this harvesting is now illegal because the leaves used tend to be the younger leaves, which can kill the plant. Parchment is now often substituted. I prefer Sra. Zanella’s method of using individual plastic baggies, which are easily tied off with a knot instead of having to tie up parchment squares. 

Recipe from the Canal family.
Makes approx. 30 mixiotes. Expect each person to eat 1-2 mixiotes.
As Sipsy from Fried Greene Tomatoes would say, “secret’s in the sauce,” so try to use freshly ground whole spices if possible. We ground the spices in Sr. Canal’s grandmother Sara’s molcajete, but a coffee grinder would work well as a substitute.

This recipe also works well with chicken, especially thighs and drums, a variation I had at one novenario. After doing a little research, I found that a combination of bay leaves and cracked anis seed is recommended as a substitute for the avocado leaves. Sra. Zanella normally cooks her mixiotes in a tamale steamer outside on a wood carbon fire, but this time we cooked them inside on the stove. The water seemed to evaporate more quickly, requiring a little more attention.

5 kg mutton, with bone, cut into 2-3 inch squares

¼ kg chiles guajillo, wiped clean

½ kg chiles ancho, wiped clean (use red for less spice, black for more spice)

2 heads of garlic, roughly chopped
1 tbs. whole cumin
1 small piece Mexican cinnamon (substitute 1 tsp. ground cinnamon)
2 tsp. whole cloves
1 tbs. oregano
1 bay leaf
1 tsp. thyme
10 avocado leaves (3 ground, 7 roughly chopped)
½ cup mild vinegar
salt to taste

Remove seeds and veins from dry chiles, slicing them along one side to do so. Wear gloves if your hands are sensitive, as even dried chiles can leave you with burning, tingling hands for hours. Either way, wash your hands after cleaning the chiles. Burning sensations are rarely a good thing. Put the chiles in a pot of boiling water and leave them to boil for 15 minutes or until softened.

Meanwhile, grind the cumin, cinnamon (if not already ground), cloves, oregano, bay leaf, and thyme in a molcajete or coffee grinder. 

Blend the softened chiles, spices, garlic, 3 of the avocado leaves and vinegar. You will have to blend the ingredients in two batches. Add the water in which the chiles were boiled to aid in blending and to reach desired consistency, about the consistency of tomato paste.

Add the sauce to the meat and remaining 7 avocado leaves, making sure to cover all the meat well. Leave the meat in the refrigerator overnight.

The next day, place 2-3 pieces of meat in small individual plastic baggies, making sure to include extra sauce and a few pieces of avocado leaf in each. Twist and knot baggies. Poke each baggie with a needle 5-6 times to ensure steam does not rupture them.

Place mixiotes in large tamale steamer. First, line the bottom with a plastic grocery sack to ensure bottom mixiotes do not burn. Cover the mixiotes with a wet cloth. Cover that with a plastic bag, tucked in well along all sides to trap steam. Cover and place on high heat on stove. Once you can hear water boiling, lower to medium-low heat. Cook for 3 hours, checking periodically to ensure there is still water in the bottom of the steamer. A good tip I learned from Sra. Zanella is placing a small coin such as a dime in the water. When the coin clinks, there is still water boiling. When it stops clinking, the water has evaporated. I would check at least every hour. After 3 hours, open one baggie and check tenderness. If not yet tender, add 20-minute intervals to cooking time.

Serve with Mexican rice, corn tortillas and avocado. Sr. Canal and Bush like to mush everything together and spoon the delicious medley into their mouths with the tortillas. 

Monday, November 9, 2009

Día de los Muertos

Día de los Muertos has come and gone. A few decorations linger, but the ofrendas have been taken down, the calaveras and papel picado stored for another year, and costumed kids no longer have an excuse to accost every adult in sight, asking for dulces or mondedas. Given the importance of Día de los Muertos to my fellowship year, I gave myself a few days to reflect (and edit photos) before posting.

Papel picado hanging in Puebla's Presidencia

I’ve been looking forward to this holiday with both excitement and nerves; excited to experience the holiday that represents the culmination of my interests for the year—death, food and family—and nervous that I would find the holiday a vacant shell of what it once was in this modern urban setting, nervous that I wouldn’t spend the holiday in the “right” place, that I wouldn’t have the means to observe the holiday at its most relevant and intimate, in the private family setting.

Traditional Mexican ofrenda featuring pulque, comal de barro
 and molcajete (mortar and pestle) in Cholula's Casa de cultura

Thankfully, I was able to experience the holiday in a variety of ways and in public, semi-public and private settings. First of all, I participated firsthand in Día de los Muertos, shopping for the different ofrenda elements with Sra. Zenella and putting up my own small ofrenda. I spent the mornings of the 28th through 31st working in the panadería, helping produce the indispensable hojaldras. 

I also went to see the ofrendas displayed in public buildings in Cholula, Puebla and Huaquechula. Each city puts up a public ofrenda in their Presidencia municipal (town hall).

In Puebla, the substantial ofrenda occupied the center of the Presidencia’s courtyard and was decorated with large papier-mâché calaveras, some juggling colorful skulls, many playing a variety of childhood games, some making chalupas on a large comal just like the women in the mercado. 

This colorful, modern ofrenda, covered with calaveras contrasted with the Huaquechula municipality’s ofrenda to a deceased ex-president.

 The nearly-architectural three-tiered ofrenda was constructed in the style unique to Huaquechula, covered with bunched white satin and featuring a photograph of the deceased reflected in a mirror. The lowest tier represents the earth and bears the food, drink, fruit and pan de muerte. The second tier is the in-between, adorned with llorones, small ceramic crying figures to represent our grief, and angels. The third tier is the highest, akin to heaven and bearing a crucifix.

Beyond these public ofrendas, I hopped on a bus to visit Puebla’s Casa de cultura, which hosted a contest for the best ofrenda. With over fifty entries, the ofrendas varied greatly, from those representing the most traditional styles from various regions to ofrendas making social statements or honoring celebrities and popular or political figures. And of course, to the King of Pop, Michael Jackson.

Ofrenda honoring José Guadalupe Posada

On Saturday we headed to Huaquechula, about forty minutes west of Cholula near Atlixco where Sra. Zenella’s sister lives and where we stopped to eat lunch after visiting the small town famous for its traditional ofrendas on October 31st.

Huaquechula-style ofrenda in the town's Ex-convento franciscano

Huaquechula is especially known for the ofrendas nuevas that community members have constructed for those who died in the past year. These grandiose ofrendas occupy an entire room of the often humble homes of the surviving family and require extensive resources, somewhere between 8 and 10 thousand pesos. Families save all year and often have to rely on compadres to be able to afford both the ofrenda and offering food and drink to everyone who visits the home. With the local newspaper predicting twenty thousand visitors to Huaquechula this year, due to the increasing fame of this town’s strong adherence to Día de los Muertos, the cost of offering food to everyone who comes to see these ofrendas was undoubtedly substantial.

With lunch waiting for us at home, we decided to forgo the meal when we went to see an ofrenda nueva for a male infant. Since we were visiting Huaquechula and the surrounding yet-even-smaller towns on October 31st, the día de los niños, instead of November 1st or 2nd when the adult dead are remembered, many of the offerings were not yet ready for public viewing. We were sadly fortunate that one of the deceased during the past year was a small infant, allowing us to see one of Huaquechula’s famous ofrendas nuevas. In this private setting, nonetheless open to the public, the holiday started to gain more significance for me. In contrast to the public offerings or Puebla’s contest, this ofrenda bore a name and a face—a photo of a young infant reflected in a mirror—and the formula he used to enjoy in his short life. This ofrenda also represented a family’s efforts to save enough money to honor the child they lost. But Día de los Muertos is never just about sadness and grief; outside a long table was full of people chatting and eating what the family had to offer. Life and death side by side, interwoven rather than clashing. 

As we walked from the center back to the car, we passed dozens of caminos of cempasucil starting in the shape of a cross in the street leading into the home and the location of the ofrenda, helping the dead find the food and drinks waiting for them.

Every region, every city, every tiny pueblo differs in how Día de los Muertos is celebrated. Even though I stayed in Puebla state, I was fortunate enough to visit a few different towns and get both an urban and a rural view of the holiday. The next day we headed to Sra. Zenella’s brother’s ranch near Atoyatempan where Sra. Zenella grew up. (She recently told me about having to go to bed at 8 o’clock every night, but waiting until she and her older sisters heard their father snoring to sneak to the bathroom and smoke cigarettes when she was fifteen.) She has been buying her meat here for 25 years. While we waited for the butcher to finish with her ground beef, filet and other cuts, the church bells struck noon. When they kept ringing the butcher explained they were tolling the bells to signal that the spirits of the niños had left. At three o’clock, the grandes would leave the panteón to visit the family homes. Others said noon, but either way, there was a definite sense that there was a specific time when the spirits of the different dead came and went.  (While Sra. Zenella and Sr. Canal put up an ofrenda, they definitely have a different relationship with the holiday than these pueblo residents. The pueblo residents and those who live on the surrounding ranches differ socio-economically and racially. As Gustavo noted, racism exists within Mexico! Those who live in these pueblos are much more the campesino type and are fervent in honoring their dead. By contrast, those on the ranches in this area are mostly of Italian descent and are lighter-skinned, gueros, and while they do participate in Día de los Muertos, it cannot be said that it is to the same extent. As a result, I was learning right alongside Sra. Zenella and Sr. Canal.) 

When we arrived at the ranch, the ofrenda por los niños, put for Lupita who passed away ten years ago at 5, was in place but the ofrenda por los grandes had not yet been put up. Manolo, Gustavo and Bush’s uncle, teared up as he talked to me about Lupita. I teared up along with him as he called his niece his niña. It felt right, having this day to look at her picture, the sweets she used to like, an opportunity to remember this little girl, to smile and to mourn again with family. I met Anita who married Franco, a young man from the neighboring pueblo Ahuatepec (slightly scandalous!). They had three boys before he passed away at 31 from a brain tumor.

That afternoon, Anita reheated mole, caldo de mariscos, barbacoa en salsa verde and made rice, beans and corn chips, all favorites of Franco’s, to place on the ofrenda. Her mother Irma confided in me that she believes Anita puts up a more substantial ofrenda and visits the panteón because she married someone from Ahuatepec, taking on his family’s customs. (But this is the woman who told us upon arrival that the night before she had been alone at the ranch and had heard a noise like a chair scraping in the kitchen. She swore it was Lupita, there to be with her for the night. She also recounted how one of Anita's sons had fought over a ball when he was a toddler. No one was in the room with him. Everyone in the family believes he was playing with Lupita, years after she had passed away but still returning as a five-year old. I found throughout the days preceding and during Día de los Muertos that it is also a time to recall stories of returning spirits and various other supernatural stories. Everyone, from the guys in the bakery to Gustavo to Irma to Sra. Zenella's sister, told ghost stories.) After Anita had placed all the dishes, I helped the twins Franco and Paco and the younger brother Manuelo place fruit on the increasingly crowded offering.

Anita and her sons lit veladores, Anita retrieved photos of Franco, another of his grandparents and a crucifix. Adding a camino of cempasucil and relighting copal incense and the ofrenda was complete. Anita and her youngest son walked away from the ofrenda holding hands.

That night I went with Anita and her costumed sons pediendo calabaza, the Mexican version of trick-or-treat. This also gave me the opportunity to see all the fogatas outside homes along the streets of Ahuatepec, a custom unique to this small rural town. Families place chairs outside of their homes to sit next to the fogata, helping guide their difuntos to their homes along with the camino of cempasucil extending into the street. Many kept their doors open so that their difuntos could enter and enjoy the altar. Some families brought out radios, blasting music and drinking refrescos and tequila. Around 9, most families ate dinner outside with their difuntos. Kids in costumes passed through the streets pidiendo calabaza from those sitting outside. 

It was such an interesting mixture of these two traditions, one ancient and one very much new and imported from the U.S. Anita’s sons, cousin and friend danced and told jokes to earn dulces or monedas. Cahuetes and other firecrackers were set off in the streets throughout the night. 

As we went pidiendo calabaza, Anita asked relatives of her husband and close friends if we could enter and see their ofrendas. 

Unlike Huaquechula, Ahuatepec residents are not used to visitors. Día de los Muertos at its heart is a private family celebration. I was lucky to be with a member of the community. 

We entered several homes to view their ofrendas, ranging from families de bajos recursos to the very affluent.

At one home, the cousin of Anita’s husband, the ofrenda was piled with hojaldras. The mother had moved the components of the ofrenda para los niños to one side, saying that she knew that they said the spirits of the children left midday on the first, but that she couldn’t remove the offering, feeling as though she would be running off her baby. 

On the way back from pidiendo calabaza, we stopped by their home again to visit. I tried atole, a filling gruel-like drink varying greatly in ingredients and flavors. For example, this was atole de leche con arroz. Fantastic for dipping hunks of hojaldras.

The next morning at 5:30 I left with Anita, Irma and the boys for the panteón after a breakfast of bright pink tamales dulces and atole de amaranto. We arrived before sunrise, and the cemetery was full of lit ceras (tall candlesticks). Anita and her sons placed more ceras on Franco’s grave. 

I went off to take photos before the sun rose, chatting with families as I worked my way through the cemetery. 

I watched as one family poured agua bendita (blessed water) in the shape of the cross over the grave before sprinkling cempasucil petals. They told me that the tradition is to stay until the ceras burn down completely. 

Every grave in sight was covered with flower petals and surrounded by lit candles. Vases held huge bunches of red and white gladiolas. Back at the Franco’s grave, his cousin offered me tequila.  It was 7 am, but what the heck. It helped with the cold, as did the second round of atole for the morning, this time a traditional Puebla variety made of ground corn and slightly sweet.

Putting the finishing touches on Franco's grave at 7 am. Photo taken pre-tequila.

More families arrived throughout the morning, and gradually, the solemn and quiet atmosphere (probably just the hour!) became more family and fiesta-like. Drinks and beers appeared at many gravesites.  

As the sun heated up the cemetery, families set up carpas  to provide shade. Families went around visiting other families and friends, bringing ceras, flowers (mostly gladiolas) and cempasucil petals to place on the tumbas. Beyond these reciprocated visits to leave flowers, family and friends went to different tombs to visit, to eat, to see relatives who came back for the holiday. Kids ran around with one another, playing with the candle wax and globos bought by their parents. Marimba players circulated through the pantheon, playing songs for 30 pesos apiece.  Stands were set up outside and along a central path in the pantheon to provide food, beer, ice cream, and other snacks.

It was a day of platicando and comiendo. We ate breakfast there with another cousin, Lupa and her family, yet more atole, this time a chocolate-flavored variety called champurrado and memelas. Later, passing by another of Anita’s family friends, I was offered chileatole, fresh corn kernels in a salsa verde made from hoja de aguacate and epazote.  A little spicy, a little pungent, a little sweet. Atole count at this point? Five. They may call beer liquid carbs, but beer has nothing compared to the rib-sticking power of atole. And we still hadn’t had lunch! Tacos and refrescos around 12 followed by ice cream, more visiting and chatting. At this point, I had been invited by several families to come for las Posadas, reenactments of Mary and Joseph seeking shelter but at this point a street party with music and free food, during the nine days preceding Christmas. Live music, dancing, free food? I might just have to come back.

Finally around 2 pm we packed up the boys, joining the growing stream of cars and trucks leaving the pantheon. Gustavo and I headed back to Cholula and I took a much-needed nap. My first thought as we drove through Cholula’s center: man, it feels good to be home. Second thought: Now what?