I started this year a little heartbroken. Crayton and I had plunged ourselves into a new city. (An expensive one.) We made our home in a pre-war building in Queens, which had roaches in the kitchen and sputtering radiators that woke us up in the middle of the night.
We learned to ignore our neighbors. We fell back in love with the American drugstore. We watched snow flutter on the lone pine tree across the street, and in the summer we stood on the stifling subway platforms and sweated through our shirts. We saw a free concert in Central Park, went upstate to look at foliage, and enjoyed two musicals, one dance performance and one play.
I went back to Mexico a lot and brought home bags full of dried chiles, mole powders and my favorite toasted pumpkin seeds… and at the end of the year I realized that I wasn’t heartbroken anymore, because I had a foot in both worlds.
Piecing a new life together in New York has been frustrating, scary, and many times, not fun. But just a few days before 2014 begins, I admit that being here feels right. It took guts for both of us to leave our comfort zone and start over. I’m proud of both of us, and at peace with whatever’s around the bend.
Here are my top food moments of 2013.
1. Making tlacoyos with street food artisans.
For a while now, I’ve harbored a secret dream to learn how to make tlacoyos from a street vendor. This summer, I somehow convinced a woman I’d become friendly with to let me come to her house in the State of Mexico so I could learn. She’s been selling tlacoyos on the street for probably 40 years, and to say I had stars in my eyes when I showed up to her house would be an understatement. (I think I actually glowed.) She and her daughter were friendly and kind, teaching me how they nixtamalize their corn, how they use the metate to make their bean fillings, and, most importantly, how they fold the tlacoyo and where to place it on the wood-fired comal. Both of them asked me a few times, “Why do you want to learn this so badly?” I told them that I didn’t have a mother or grandmother to teach me, but, truthfully, I couldn’t quite put into words the real reason why.
2. Visiting the Santiago Tianguistenco Market.
Several people had told me that the Tuesday tianguis in Santiago Tianguistenco, in the State of Mexico, was not to be missed. I finally made time to go this spring and I’m so glad I did. The sheer size of the place was astounding, swallowing up nearly the entire downtown area with stalls of local beans, local and imported fruits, vegetables, charred tamales and regular steamed tamales, cacahuazintle-flavored atole, dry goods, chiles, cheeses, textiles, homemade mole pastes and powders, and all varieties of tlacoyos. It was a paradise for people like me who like nosing around and buying things they’ve never seen before.
3. Seeing up-close how pulque is made.
My guides and I traveled to Tlaxcala in July to visit a working pulque farm. We ended up wandering through agave fields and apple orchards with one of the staff, Don Miguel, who walked us through the pulque-making process and taught us about local quelites. Tlaxcala is one of the smaller states in Mexico, but I’m fascinated by the culture there — I’m eager to go back.
4. Learning about the foods of San Luis Potosí.
I hadn’t known a thing about San Luis Potosí food when I showed up at my friend Esperanza’s house earlier this year. She was a great host, taking me to several markets where I oohed over cactus blossoms (cabuches) and tiny potatoes called papita del monte, and sweet, milk-sugar dipped pecans called nuez encanelado. My favorites were the jobo liqueur, made from a local plum, and the thick, spongey gorditas de horno, cooked over an intense wood fire and then drowned in salsa.
5. Hanging out in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas.
Crayton and I had wanted to visit Chiapas for years, and in late June we finally were able to spend about five days there, splitting the trip between San Cristobal de las Casas and Palenque. I think I underestimated how cool San Cris was going to be. The streets were pretty and quiet, the air fresh; the vibe seemed much more down-to-earth than Oaxaca City, where we’d traveled together a few years before. We drank excellent coffee and browsed around the textile shops, and we nibbled on local cheese and jamón serrano in a chill, slightly grungy wine bar. I didn’t take a lot of pictures, but I’ll never forget my early morning visit to the market. It felt like being in another country: women in furry black wool skirts (from San Juan Chamula, although I didn’t know it then) carried dead chickens looped over their forearms, like purses. Other women shuffled by wearing stiff, triangle-shaped embroidered shawls covering their shoulders, their thick black braids trailing behind their backs. Still other women sold hot pink tamales from colorful cloths, and bunches of wild mushrooms, and hormigas chicatanas from plastic buckets. I’m generally conscious of my gringa-ness in Mexico, but I’d never felt like a complete outsider before. It was jarring and fascinating. I want to go back.
6. The Mexican Cookbook Devoted to American Homes.
A few months ago, while researching a few recipes at the library inside the Fundación Herdez in Mexico City, I came across a cookbook of Josefina Velazquez de León that I hadn’t heard of. It was bilingual and aimed at American cooks trying to make traditional Mexican food. Which was basically me. As soon as I got home, I Amazoned it, and lo and behold, the book popped up. Since then, I’ve fallen hopelessly in love. I have started to refer to the book as “Josefina,” as in, “What does Josefina say?” or “I’m going to consult Josefina.” I store it in a Ziploc bag and don’t dare take it on the subway, even if I’m on the train for an hour and would love the company. While reading, I am known to sigh and squeal and pump my fist in agreement, particularly at lines like, “The reader will notice that almost all of my recipes for sauteing or frying call for the use of lard. Here again, she must take into account my aim of preserving the original flavor and quality of our traditional cooking.” Sing it, Josefina.
7. Making homemade tlacoyos in Queens.
I’d insisted to my new friends in the State of Mexico that I would make tlacoyos at home in New York, and take pictures to show them later. One day in November, I invited my good friends over for a tlacoyo party. I nixtamalized a bag of red corn I’d bought in Mexico, and once my friends came over, we rinsed the corn multiple times and fed it through the Nixtamatic. We kneaded the masa for a good 20 minutes, adding water as we went. The result — a soft, airy, damp masa — was the best I’d ever made, and similar to the kind I had seen and adored on the streets. We made two types of tlacoyos: refried bean, and acorn squash pureed with a little chipotle en adobo.
8. Eating poutine twice in Montreal, and biking a zillion miles.
This is the secret to traveling in Montreal: rent the local city bikes and ride everywhere you can, which means you’re hungry all the time, which means you have room for all the great local beer, poutine, and fabulous restaurants. I think this might be the first vacation in which I actually lost weight. Also, take the Fitz & Follwell bike tour!
9. Sembrado NYC
I don’t have any pictures of this place, usually because I’m there in the evening and the light isn’t too good. But Sembrado, in the East Village, has become my favorite taquería in the city. Mexico City-born chef Danny Mena nails all the details — the salsas on the table, the al pastor trompo, even the paper menu where you enter what you want with a little pencil. The alambres are better than the ones I’ve tried in DF, and the gringas satisfy with melty cheese and charred bits of pork. The chicharrón de queso and cebollitas preparadas are pretty acceptable, too. Every time Crayton and I go here, we’re reminded of home. It’s on 13th between 1st and A.
10. Getting a cookbook deal.
Forgive me for being self-promotional, but I am really, really excited to be writing my first cookbook — on Mexico City food! — for Kyle Books. Look for it in 2015.
Wishing you a Happy New Year and all the best in 2014!