Remember that fluttering feeling that takes over the day before school starts? Whether we feel nervous, excited, scared or indifferent, each of us has had that feeling.
As a child, the first day of school I was genuinely terrified about failing to make the top of my class (and I mean getting THE highest GPA and being in the Honor Roll), whether I’d be bullied…again, and being asked to dribble a basketball in gym class because I never managed to.
Later in life when I went back to college after a 6-year break (and as a working adult, mom and wife), I was still mortified, mostly because I was taking Effective English for the fifth time in my college career and I felt embarrassed.
But today, I woke up excited, comfortable with the uncertainty of not knowing anyone and not having a schedule ( if you are a planner like me, that is huge!), and simply in awe of the opportunity to be thousands of miles away from home to literally get my manos en la masa to learn about and create Mexican food flavored with the history, culture, and traditions that make Mexico unique.
Plus, I made it to the escuela without getting lost! And with that little victory under my arm, I proudly skipped toward my classroom.
Since today was my first theoretical class, I wasn’t sure what my classroom would look like. I imagined there would be seats and a board of some sort, but what I didn’t imagine was to be welcomed by a beautiful display of mostly pre-hispanic ingredients including fruits and vegetables, plants, seeds and edible insects; not to mention cooking utensils made out of gourds, clay, wood, woven palm leaves and a goat’s skin basin for aguamiel.
This display – known today as a bodegon – was intentionally set up to remind us of the harmony with which my ancestors engaged with nature; it was a reciprocal relationship where everything had a purpose and a use, where pre-hispanic cultures sought to reciprocate nature for providing them with resources for food, clothing, shelter and ceremonies by preserving natural resources, such as corn.
After all, as the story of our creation in the Popol Vuh , the Maya’s sacred book, narrates: we are la gente del maiz / the people of corn. It was then that I found myself immersed in much more than a salon, it was a time and space where the purpose of my trip clicked in my mind in a way I hadn’t expected.
MY AHA! MOMENT
As you know, the purpose of my trip is to learn about traditional Mexican pastries as well as ingredients, from pre-hispanic times to today, so I can develop recipes (and maybe classes) that are genuinely representative of Mexico’s history and culture, delicious, and available to you.
However, most Mexican pastries – as we know them – are made with wheat flour and some are a direct adaptation of European pastries; for example, Mexican Wedding Cookies which are very similar to Russian Tea Cakes.
Hence, looking at the pre-hispanic ingredients in the bodegon – such as corn and amaranth – it made sense that there is no history of pre-hispanic pastries since wheat, sugarcane, butter and other ingredients were introduced later in Mexican history – meaning after the conquest.
What did exist in pre-hispanic times were alegrias, popcorn (you are welcome Hollywood!), and palanquetas: amaranth, corn, and nuts’ bars bound with pre-hispanic sweeteners such as honey.
So what does it mean for our pastries? It means that while many of them have European origin, they are still as Mexican as it gets. Why? Because they evolved within the historical context of Mexico, adopted Mexican ingredients such as cacao beans, pulque and vanilla, and became part of our everyday households, ceremonies, and identity – from conchas to Roscas de Reyes, chocolate alegrias to pan de muerto, y más.
So, I feel I am in the right path and that in the coming weeks I will continue to have more “aha moments,” to share with you. It also means that new ingredientes will make their way into our pastry case, bringing closer Mexico and Minnesota.
Now, I am off to bed because tomorrow I will head to the kitchen to grind corn in a metate and on Wednesday I will grind cacao beans to make chocolate tablets from scratch.