The Red Beans and Rice Roadshow comes to Houston!
Guest Chef: Bryan Caswell at Reef
One night only!
The Red Beans and Rice Roadshow comes to Houston!
Bread of the Dead (Natural History Magazine, November 1998)
Francisco Marquez and I are sitting at the farmhouse table, drinking hot chocolate and eating sweet pan de muerto, the bread of the dead. It is the morning of November first, Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. As we talk, just beyond the dining room’s open-air doorway, three baby turkeys peck at the bare dirt in the courtyard. Several radios are playing in other parts of the village, and boys are yelling down by the river. But by far the loudest sound is the frantic mooing of cattle. “They want to eat too,” Francisco chuckles.
His wife, Margarita, shows me the kitchen. It is in a shed made of sticks fastened together vertically, so the light on the dirt floor is striped. Mole negro, the deep black sauce which is traditional on Dia de los Muertos, is cooking in a cazuela, a clay pot that sits directly in the coals of the wood fire. Two dead chickens are lying on the dirt floor waiting to be plucked. “Chickens to eat with the mole,” Margarita explains. In the poorest houses, the mole negro is eaten in a bowl like a soup. To have chicken with the mole is a luxury.
In bags throughout the house, there are many more loaves of pan de muerto. I ask how many loaves of bread the family bought. The week before Dia de los Muertos, she says, it is the custom for the family to buy a ten-kilo sack of flour and take it to the baker along with five dozen eggs and the other ingredients needed for the sweet egg bread. Most families also bring along the papier-maché decorations that are inserted into each loaf. The papier-maché ovals have little faces painted on them; when the pan de muerto is finished, each loaf of bread represents an individual soul. The baker prepares the family’s entire order of pan de muerto at one time. The ten-pound sack of flour yielded 130 loaves this year, including the tiny loaves for the angelitos.
“The angelitos are here now,” says Francisco, as he shows me the family ofrenda which dominates an entire wall of the living room. There are tiny cups of hot chocolate and little loaves of bread on the altar. Angelitos are the souls of dead infants, including the souls of miscarried and stillborn children.
“Has your family lost many children?” I ask.
“No, not so many,” he says. “But that’s not important. Some of the spirits don’t have families to go to, so we have to put out food and drinks for all of them.”
The ofrenda is the center of the Day of the Dead celebration. It is an altar that is generally built of three tiers, each smaller than the one beneath it, like a pyramid. The tiers are covered in cloth, and an arch of sugar cane stalks is formed above the altar. It is decorated with the marigold-like flower known as zempoalxochitl (“flower of the dead” in the Nahuatl language).
“The angelitos will leave at noon, and then we will put out the food and drinks for the adult spirits,” Francisco says. I am not wearing a watch, and neither is Francisco. I look around the house, but I don’t see any clocks. I wonder how he can be so precise about the timing.
It is very warm indoors, so Francisco and I go outside and sit on a porch facing the courtyard. An old woman walks by carrying a bundle of firewood, which she drops outside the kitchen before she enters. “That is my mother,” Francisco says. Her name is Vincenta, she is 76, and she has the classic hawk nose and high cheekbones of a full-blooded Zapotec.
Suddenly, the church bells begin ringing and fireworks explode all over the village. A parrot in a cage hanging from the eaves above us begins to shriek. I marvel at how perfectly the village is synchronized. There is never any doubt about when it is precisely noon on November first in the village of San Lorenzo Cacaotepec.
Francisco looks squarely into my eyes. “The angelitos are leaving now,” he says with a quiet smile. Vincenta and Margarito come out of the kitchen carrying a bowl of black mole, a bottle of mescal and glasses and some pan de muerto, which they take into the living room to place on the ofrenda. Francisco and I go watch.
“My father was born here on this farm 85 years ago,” says Francisco. Crispin Marquez worked so hard that people called him El Machin, “the machine.” As soon as Francisco was born, people called him El Machin Chico, “the little machine.”
Francisco leads me back to the porch and insists that I join him in a shot of mescal. I understand that I am not just joining El Machin Chico in this mescal, I am also joining El Machin Senior, and to refuse would be an insult. I can also see that by this logic I could become very drunk, very quickly. After a few, I say my good byes and head off for the village center.
I am surprised to see a Dia de los Muertos ofrenda in the village church. I grew up a Catholic, and I was aware that November First, All Saints’ Day, formerly known as Allhallows, had inspired Halloween, or Allhallows Eve. But Halloween is far from an official Christian holiday. In my community some fundamentalist Christians have complained that Halloween decorations should be banned from public schools. And yet here in Oaxaca, Dia de los Muertos is perhaps the most important Catholic holiday of the year.
As it happened, Davíd Carrasco, a professor of Comparative Religion at Princeton, was in Oaxaca for Day of the Dead. I called him at his hotel and we discussed the ofrendas we had seen that day. Carrasco was particularly interested in the similarity between the modern ofrenda and the ancient ceremonial pyramids of Mesoamerica, which were also heaped with fruits and flowers. The holiday predates Catholicism’s arrival in Mexico, Carrasco has written, but Catholicism cleverly expanded to include it.
I talked to several other trained observers about the ideas behind Day of the Dead, such as the belief that your life on this earth depends on treating the dead well, and that if the dead are not properly worshiped, your own economic security and health could be jeopardized. I heard about villages where people spend all night in the graveyard to welcome the dead back, and I heard about fear of the vengeful ignored dead and of angry spirits with no homes to go to.
In Dia de los Muertos, you can find layers upon layers of meaning stretching back into prehistory. But after spending the day with El Machin Chico and his family, I came to a very simple understanding of the holiday. Dia do los Muertos is a time for the living to join their dead family and friends in a joyful feast.
That night, I had a dream in which I saw the face of a crying baby. I woke up and thought of my first and only son, who was stillborn. At the suggestion of the grief counselor at the hospital, my ex-wife and I gave the child a name: Andrew, after my grandfather. We had a brief memorial service, and for a few years we lit a candle on his birthday. But since the birth of my two daughters, I had rarely thought of him.
But this year, I plan to celebrate the Day of the Dead. My ofrenda will have an old black-and-white picture of my dad and a sonogram of Andrew on the top tier. Underneath that, I’ll put out a glass of Scotch and a ham-salad sandwich for Dad and a tiny cup of hot chocolate and a sweet bun for Andrew. Then, on November first, all three generations of us will sit down and enjoy a meal together.
The Bread of the Dead
I am announcing my retirement from the Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce festival. The Chronicle has graciously bought me out of the event we founded together 27 years ago. I am happy to turn the judging over to a new generation of hot sauce lovers and wish the festival continued success. It was a great run, and I got to hang out with a lot of wonderful people. I will miss seeing everybody!
Enchiladas Suizas are a new item on the menu at El Real Tex-Mex Cafe. In fact we use the Suizas sauce on several enchiladas plates including the Chicken Enchiladas Suizas, Avocado Enchiladas Suizas, and Crab and Avocado Enchiladas. Enchiladas Suizas means “Swiss-style Enchiladas.” Our Suizas sauce is a bechamel sauce with sour cream and seasonings.
I noticed that the recipe of the week at the Houston Press website is also enchiladas Suizas. The recipe given comes from food TV celebrity Marcella Valladolid, a native of San Diego and it includes tomatillos.
Brooke Viggiano at the Houston Press quotes another writer from San Franciso who credits the name Suizas to Mexico’s Swiss immigrants. If anyone has any information on the location of a Swiss Colony in Mexico, please fill me in! There were only 5,000 Swiss in Mexico in 2011 according to Wikipedia, and I can find no mention of an earlier Swiss migration.
The image of La Lechera, as the fetching Swiss Milkmaid on the Nestle label is known in Spanish, and this restaurant recipe for enchiladas Suizas supplied by Nestle using its canned milk supports an alternate explanation.
20 years or so ago, when I was interviewing Chef Michael Cordua of Americas and Churrasco’s fame, he offered a personal view on the history of Tres Leches cake. Cordua explained that here in the United States, canned milk isn’t held in very high regard by chefs.
But he said that during his childhood in Nicaragua, canned milks, which were usually imported to Latin America from Switzerland, were a luxury. Local fresh milk was suspect as it was frequently stretched with water (often contaminated). According to Cordua, the original Tres Leches cake recipe was printed on the back of a Nestle milk can–the 3 milks were Nestle evaporated milk, Nestle sweetened condensed milk, and whipped cream or another milk. The theory that Suizas, or “Swiss-style,” is a reference to Swiss canned milk is pretty persuasive.
Post Script: A Saveur article with recipe suggests that Enchiladas Suizas was invented at Sanborn’s Cafe in Mexico City in 1950 and that the name does indeed refer to the liberal use of dairy products.
On Wednesday mornings from 9 am to 11 am, you can buy fresh vegetables, eggs, honey and whatever else is being harvested that day at the farm stand set up by the front gate. A plastic supermarket bag full of greens goes for $2.
If you would like to volunteer, show up on Saturday morning in your gardening gear and do some weeding, watering, or whatever else needs done–you will be paid in fruit and vegetables.
The vision behind Seeding Galveston is provided by veteran urban gardeners, Debbie Berger and John Sessions. The pair have been honored for their work with UTMB and other community organizations–both for making fresh produce available to those who need it, and for helping those who teach children and the disabled using gardening as a learning experience.
If you’ve ever visited the Galveston Farmers Market on Sunday, you’ve probably noticed Seeding Galveston’s half block “rent-a-garden” area at Post Office and 25th. There individuals and organizations use the raised beds to grow their own vegetables.
When I visit the Wednesday morning market at N and 33rd, I buy a lot of French sorrel. Its long been a favorite ingredient of mine and you can’t find it at the grocery store. The past few weeks, I’ve been trying out some new sorrel recipes–including several from former Israeli spy Yotam Ottolenghi.
It’s amazing stuff!
The 2nd Edition of Legends of Texas Barbecue Cookbook went on sale April 19.
There are some great new photos from Robert Jacob Lerma, 32 new recipes from famous Texas pitmasters like Joe Burney and Aaron Franklin and cook-off competitors like Robert Sierra and Ernest Cervantes. There’s also new information about community barbecues in Texas.
Billy Gibbons stopped by El Real Tex-Mex for brunch today. He wanted to try the bacon enchiladas–two cheese enchiladas with bacon inside and a sunny side up egg on top–it’s our number one brunch entree. Billy loved them. I gave his wife, Gilligan Gibbons, one of those northern Mexican goat’s milk caramel and pecan candies known as Glorias. That was a hit too.
We talked about the couples favorite versions of hot chocolate–they recounted awesome cups of chocolate they had been served in Paris and Madrid. Billy bought his wife a copy of the Tex-Mex Cookbook and the Chili Cookbook–she cooks at home all the time. They were knocked out by the photo of lobster in green chile with corn on the cob that’s one of the first images in the Chili Cookbook.
I once ran into Billy in the Hobby Airport food court. We were both traveling alone. I was carrying a tray of Chinese food from Golden Happy Panda Dragon or whatever that place is called. He was sitting by himself eating a plate of enchiladas with chips, salsa and a beer. I said hello and he recognized me from the restaurant and from a couple of other encounters and invited me to sit down. The Chinese food was awful and I found myself drooling over his refried beans.
“Billy, tell me the truth. Do you eat Tex-Mex at every meal?” I joked.
He said he ate lots of other stuff but there wasn’t any good Tex-Mex where he was going, so he was stocking up.
Galveston’s most popular seafood market and the family that runs the place are featured on a new National Geo reality TV show. It seems to be an imitation of Deadliest Catch, only without the icy water. Sure it’s a little contrived, like all reality TV shows, but its great to see Galveston and our local fishing fleet on the tube.