Scouring Mexico City’s food stalls with Penny de los Santos

Penny de los Santos was in Mexico City this week on assignment. I’ve written about her before — she gives photography workshops and works often for Saveur, and is generally always doing a million cool things at once.

We’re friends, so I sent her a little note suggesting we get together if she had time. She responded with a better offer: Would I mind being her assistant? The payment would be street food.

Dude. Would’ve done it for palomitas.

I didn’t really know what being a photo assistant meant, but it turned out to be a lot of hanging out (looking for “moments,” as Penny says), and holding the light reflector and flash bulb. The flash duties ended up being a lot of fun — I squeezed with Penny into a cantina booth and aimed the light at a serenading musician’s face, and then later captured a churro-maker in the Centro Histórico. I’m a timid photographer generally, but this flash stuff was liberating. I suddenly didn’t care if anyone yelled at me.

Really, the best part of the gig was watching Penny. She has this unbridled enthusiasm for her job. If she liked a certain fonda or a certain scene, she’d just stand there dumbfounded for a second and then exclaim, “This place is freaking awesome!” with a smile like she couldn’t believe this place existed, that the world could even come up with a place like this. And then she’d squeeze her way in, walking behind the kitchen counter to snap photos of pots bubbling on the stove, or standing on a chair, or walking up to a group of people eating to stick her lens between their shoulders.

It’s funny, because people seemed to forget about her after a few seconds. That seems like the real gift — how do you arrive on the scene as a photographer and then disappear?

I brought my own camera with me on these trips, but it stayed in my purse most of the time. Finally, on the third day, I got a little bolder. I even asked Penny how to adjust my white balance. She gave me a sort of pained look, like, “You really don’t know how to do that?”

Penny’s giving a workshop in Mexico City in July, if you’re interested in catching her next time she’s in town. I’ll be helping her out as a guide.

Here are a few shots I took when I finally dragged my camera out of its hiding spot.

Verdolagas con puerco at Fonda Margarita

The famous refried beans, creamy with lard, at Fonda Margarita

A plate of warm conchas from El Cardenal

Pork heads at the Xochimilco Market

Squash flowers at the Xochimilco Market, almost too pretty to be real

Fava bean salad at the Xochimilco Market

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17 Responses to “Scouring Mexico City’s food stalls with Penny de los Santos”
  1. Steve Vender

    Lesley…Wow! I’ve very much enjoyed reading your blog the past few months, but this one had me salivating from looking at your photos. My wife and I will be visiting Mexico City this coming December for the first time, and it’s like a part of me has already left for our trip, reading books about El D.F., rereading Nicholas Gillman’s blog along with yours and rewatching the Anthony Bourdain episode of his tv show, No Reservations, where David Lida is featured in a segment. I know that I’m going to have the same reaction as your friend, Penny. Mexico City is going to be incredible for us, and we had already penned in the Fonda Margarita as one of our first stops. Without ever having been there, I know we’ll be returning.

    • Lesley

      Hi Steve: So glad you’re coming to visit and ignoring the overblown drug-war hype in the American press. I can promise you that you’re going to eat *well.* If you have any other questions about where to eat, just let me know!

      • Steve Vender

        Hi Lesley,

        Your comment about the American press had me smiling. The mainstream American press hasn’t the slightest idea of what’s happening in Mexico. My wife and I have been traveling to Mexico every December for the last seven years, and not only have we felt perfectly safe, we’ve fallen completely in love with the country, its people and Mexican culture, which, of course, encompasses food. Mexican cuisine, which has been largely unknown and ignored, is finally getting the attention it deserves, especially through writers like yourself. We can’t wait to continue and expand our explorations with Mexico City on this year’s horizon. I’m sure we’ll have some questions as our trip grows near.

        All Best,

        Steve Vender

      • tita buds

        I’m a little guilty of sometimes believing that hype. I am ashamed to admit that after I read your post on Xalapa, I immediately followed my ”I-want-to-go-there!” thought with ”if-only-it-weren’t-so-dangerous”.
        Coming from the Philippines (of the highly-undeserved kidnap-for-ransom fame), I should know better. My country is beautiful and safe to visit, and so is Mexico and I am RESOLVED to go there next year, hah!
        Btw, I clicked on here because I wanted to say that your photography is awesome. (Penny de los Santos chose you!) :)

        • Lesley

          Hi Tita: Yes! You should come visit. Not all of Mexico is dangerous. And funny that you mention the Philippines — after living here for almost 3 years, I’ve really developed an interest in visiting. Hopefully I’ll make it there someday and then I can eat my way through the country.

  2. Dana

    Ah, this is so great. I can feel the energy you’re describing- it must have been amazing being there. Your pictures are very good- keep pulling out the camera! And maybe in between assisting Penny you could translate these Mexican food tweets for any of us gringos…

    • Lesley

      Thanks Dana. I really need to get over my fear of drawing too much attention to myself. It’s funny, because as a newspaper reporter I had no problems interviewing strangers. The camera just adds a whole new dynamic. Gotta keep trying!

  3. Julia

    Wow! How lucky you were… I just recently attended a workshop given by Penny. She’s amazing! Thanks for sharing your experiences.

    • Lesley

      You’re welcome Julia. Glad you liked the post.

  4. cinnamon21

    Verdolagas! That brings back memories of my father and how much he loved them. Most people don’t know about them, but in English they are Purselane. Verdolagas is much more poetic! I am in awe of anyone with photography skills, especially those taking photos of food. Truly, “savor” is in the eye of the beholder!

    • Lesley

      Cinnamon: I adore verdolagas. They seem to be much more plentiful lately — I should buy some next time I’m at the market. Verdolagas in salsa verde is one of my favorites.

  5. Joshua Wait

    I love the juxtaposition of pink pig heads against the yellow squash blossoms. I imagine that it was unintentional, but still really wonderful colors.

    • Lesley

      Ummm… it was totally on purpose. :-) (Kidding — I should probably pay more attention when I’m posting photos.) Thanks for the kind words.

  6. Heather

    Very green with envy! 😉 I followed Penny’s food photography course with CreativeLive recently and was one of the best things I have taken part in.

    • Lesley

      Heather: I heard great things about that course. Glad you liked the post!

  7. Benito Mexico

    Lesley, it is fantastic that you and Penny connected! I’m a new fan of hers and I have enjoyed reading you for some time and look forward to more words and pictures. Viva Mexico!

  8. Susan

    Hola Lesley! I found your site thanks to Penny 😉 I’ll be joining her in July’s workshop and cannot wait to roam DF (I have a special place in my heart for Mexico..)! Perhaps I will meet you based on your post? I’ll be staying a few days afterward as well. Hopefully we’ll all get together and share stories :) XO.

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