Pork Belly Prayer
SECOND PRIZE IN THE 2019–20 WRITING CONTEST
On the eve of Super Tuesday, I leaned against a wall on Calle de los Libres, wiping crispy pork skin out of the corners of my mouth. My chest was tight with anticipation; I was optimistic that zayde Bernie would sweep the field, breathing life into the Progressive movement that was germinating back home. My tongue, tingling from habanero, worked to dislodge a fleck of cilantro from between my two front teeth. It was far past dark, but the fluorescent strips on the vehicle’s ceiling sputtered every now and then, lighting the jolly vinyl humanoid pig that waved at customers from the plastic banner suspended over the prep station. The truck illuminated the otherwise empty sidewalk, an old TV buzzing music videos from the aughts in the corner. A flame rose from behind the stainless-steel counter, licking four pairs of forearms and reddening the faces of the taqueros inside the truck.
We stood at El Lechoncito de Oro, clutching foam trays of suckling pig taquitos with chicharrón, poring over the little plastic cups of salsa verde, salsa roja, and blow-your-mouth-off salsa especial that lined the counter. I was there with Rachael, a friend I’d made on a walking tour of Mercado Central de Abastos, one of the only markets in the city I hadn’t explored on my own. She’d called me on WhatsApp asking if I wanted to run errands with her, and I met her at a bar for a cocktail shortly after saying yes. We wove in and out of mezcalerías in the city’s center for hours, until, buzzed and hungry, we slumped in the shadow of Lechoncito’s metal frame and ate until we could no longer feel our tongues.
That night was the penultimate Monday of the ten weeks I spent studying in Oaxaca. During that time, I was fortunate enough to encounter tastes and smells, textures and temperatures, songs and silences that exceeded the bounds of my comfortable descriptors, forcing me out into a new lexicon brilliant with specificity. Despite my familiarity with the Mexican culinary traditions found in the States, Mexico’s food culture felt entirely novel. Oaxaca’s food systems are uniquely part of the city’s fabric in a way that I’ve felt viscerally in so few other places, and not without reason – Oaxaca is known as the food capital of Mexico. Oaxaca’s indigenous past and present is a salient feature of the state and its cuisine: to this day, sixteen different ethnic groups continue to live in the place formerly known as Huaxyacac, the Nahuatl name for the land. Oaxaca’s seven kinds of complex mole, iconic tlayudas, funky huitlacoche, sour chapulines, crunchy chicatanas, smoky pasillas, and countless uses of maize speak to this – if you’re an attentive eater, you can’t help but literally internalize Oaxaca’s past and present. In short, there is a connection in Oaxaca with the land and the flavors and the sun that you cannot find anywhere else. That’s paraphrasing an offhand comment made by Erica, a Chiapan-turned-Oaxaqueña, a mezcalera I met on the night spent running errands with Rachael.
That night was also sardine-packed with stories, each one sliding up against the next, leaking funk and flavor into its neighbors. Stories were an enormous part of my time in Mexico; I’d learned about the Olmecs’ colossal heads, about Zapotec and Isthmian writing systems, about La Malinche and the skewed retellings of Cortes’s arrival to the Americas. I’d read legends of the Virgin of Guadalupe and the forced conversion of the Incas, accounts of political corruption and voter fraud, of the construction of a Walmart a stone’s throw from Teotihuacan, of NAFTA and the border crisis. But through all of these, the stories that stuck with me like the adobe-red soil on the soles of my shoes were about food. Rachael and I spoke about cuisines lost due to colonization and genocide, the ways that language and food can be preserved side-by-side, and how recipes change as they crawl from the outskirts of a city closer to the center.
Still, embedded in the thrill I felt walking through the buzzing streets and smoky markets of Oaxaca was a greasy discomfort; I couldn’t shake my U.S.-student-abroad eagerness, but the tumultuous relationship between Mexico and the US was constantly in the back of my mind. I wanted to experience the tastes and smells of the country without being the oily foreign consumer, a superficial tourist, a voyeuristic intruder. Selfishly, I wanted to free myself of implication and seek refuge in the realm that I felt the most connected to – I wanted badly for food to act as the salve, the connective tissue, the equalizing force in a parasitic political relationship. I wanted something soothing; even though so much of this regional food was new to me, I felt a depth to the culinary experience in Oaxaca that I’d only felt in my own family’s home cooking. Sure enough, Middle Eastern and Polish influences were present from Puebla to Guanajuato, crypto-Jewish recipes were in use in modern Mexican restaurants, and the worldwide fermentation fads that had crept down to Oaxaca were met by existing ones that had already existed – and in fact originated – in Mexico’s indigenous foodways.
The offhandedly profound comment about Oaxaca’s land, food, and sun occurred as Rachael and I sat in Erica’s living room with two thousand pesos worth of mezcal laid out precariously on a wicker table in front of us. Erica explained the production and origin of each one – the kind of agave used, the soil properties, the climate in the region – while Rachael squinted at the labels. We commented appropriately on the nose of the first mezcal, on the roundness and smoothness on the palette. It was doubtlessly a performance on my part, knitting my eyebrows over the tiny glass in my hand, swishing it dramatically from cheek to cheek, letting the smokiness coat my tongue. (Perhaps by the end it was earnest.) On how the mezcal opened on the second sip, the notes of sea salt and soil hitting the back of the throat after the last esophagus contraction post-swallow. We did the same for the second bottle, a little greener and more lactic, fiery in a way that stayed in my cheeks and hugged my teeth.
In the lulls between tastings, the conversation shifted from agaves to tepache, a fruit-based alcohol made from pineapple skins, a peel from a plátano macho, and piloncillo, or cane sugar. Left to ferment in a vat with water for several days, the result is a tart and fizzy liquid, an ecosystem-specific elixir. Having dreamt of starting a fermentation dungeon somewhere in my off-campus Chicago walkup, I asked again about the process, already trying to map my route to collect the ingredients once I got home. Erica turned to me and shook her head, smiling. You can’t make it the same way in the States. My friends up there will call me after trying and say ‘Erica, I have a jug of sweet water! What have I done wrong?’ It’s the problem of the globalized world, I tell them. She explained that in the importation of Mexican fruit to North American markets, the washing process eliminates a lot of the wild yeasts necessary for tepache’s fermentation process. As she poured the last of the three glasses of mezcal, Erica continued with a shrug: There is just some special magic here.
The third pour was not mezcal but comiteco, the liquor from a single distillation of pulque. Pulque is fermented aguamiel, the sap, or more literally, honey water, found at the center of maguey comiteco, a specific kind of agave. She warned us, as we each raised the short glass to our nose, then our lips, that we’d be tempted to name the flavor immediately. She asked us to sit with it for a moment in our heads, rather than our tongues: Taste this with an open mind, with a lot of thought. Refraining from categorizing comiteco was a difficult task, but not impossible. It was an exercise for us, two earnest gringas whose home country meddled in the place we were calling a temporary home, whose home country turned economies, environments, and people on their heads on both sides of a border originally meant to prevent invasion from the North. Erica explained to us that comiteco’s categorization is in the process of evolution. It is not mezcal or tequila or pulque, or anything but a unique result of exhaustive research, precise heating and cooling processes, and quality control of wild yeasts. Comiteco comes from Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state, and originated centuries ago, before heirloom ferments were considered stylish. Like mezcal, the geographic origin is what distinguishes the beverage from others of its kind; the maguey plants don’t only stand for agriculture, but also symbolize the history, culture, and identity of Chiapas. Resisting the instinct to contextualize this unfamiliarity in and against what we knew was the absolute least we could do. Expanding our categories, or maneuvering around them altogether, helped us engage in some informal reverence towards a flavor intimidating in its namelessness, defiant in its exquisite familiarity.
A lot of these flavors – comiteco, atole, chapulines, nopales – I’d never come across before in Chicago or New York, the cities in which I spend the most time, and both cities with significant Mexican populations, but it didn’t mean they weren’t there. Rather, it meant that I hadn’t looked hard enough. Last year, Eater Magazine published a feature on the “United States of Mexican Food”, explaining the rise of the distinct Mexican cuisines that developed in the States. These “American-Mexican foodways” (named as such, even though Mexico is in the Americas) act as vehicles of new regional delicacies, but also as forces of culinary assimilation; food critics and Mexican food aficionados alike struggle with their claims to legitimacy. There remain “authentic” spots for purists: a famous Philly barbacoa shop, in-house maize nixtamalization at D.C. restaurants, and even “Puebla York”, a community of Poblanos in East Harlem, serving cemitas, tacos de guisado, and chiles en nogada.
But another layer of difficulty arises when considering Mexican food interpreted by white chefs, who are largely men acting as keepers to “foreign” flavors, connoisseurs of cultures and cuisines that are not their own – take Rick Bayless or Alex Stupak, for example. Rooted, artisanal foods are elevated to art, and priced accordingly. Even as this trend has come to Mexico, with Mexican chefs reinterpreting their cuisine to cater to tourists (as most “fine dining” does), there is something that rankles like a rotting onion when the circle closes, as it does at El Destilado. The restaurant, on Calle 5 de Mayo, steps away from one of the main squares in Oaxaca Centro, is the “brainchild of two young guys from the U.S.” who became “enamored” with Mexican food and ingredients and set up a tasting-menu restaurant whose advertising almost suggests that they know how to serve Oaxacan food better than Oaxacans do. The issue of haute Mexican cuisine is complicated and is, frankly, not in my wheelhouse. Nevertheless, it’s a problem of capitalizing off of claims to authenticity and refinement from a globally dominant vantage point. It begs an inspection of the split between the perceived timelessness of culinary arts, and the rootedness of food that is actually artisanal, not just branded as such.
So far, this arrogance hasn’t reached the carts that line the city’s streets with flames and flickering lights after dark. Once Rachael and I had licked our fingers and exchanged promises to keep in touch while she figured out a move to Mexico City to work for Gabriela Cámara, a chef who “transfigured Mexico City’s restaurant world” (Eater, again), I started home. As I walked the twenty minutes along Calzada de la República from the taco stand to my homestay, I counted my steps and shoved my hands into my pockets, suddenly cold. The dogs were howling maniacally like they did every night and I picked up the pace, zigzagging from sidewalk to sidewalk on Calle Almendros, heart beating in my ears. It was past midnight, but my host mom, Evelia, was still awake when I loosened the bolt of the front gate and pushed the door open with the toe of my shoe. ¿Como se fue? ¿Tomaste, no? ¿Mezcal? Ah… Paloma (she rarely called me by the right name) descansa. Les sirvo el desayuno a las nueve, como normal. I walked the short flight of steps upstairs and collapsed backwards onto my bed, eventually falling into a full, contented sleep.
This story gets stuck in the past tense, a night I’ve thought about nearly every day since it happened. Each time, the details get diluted and the recollection of the spice lining my tongue fades. It was supposed to be a story about tacos al pastor, the sweating streetlamp dripping grease from the roasting slabs of meat onto corn tortillas, and about the bright pink gelatinas de nicuatole that sat on our breakfast table every Sunday morning. It was supposed to be about the Jewish conversos in Guadalajara, about the Polish refugees to Chihuahua and Nuevo León during World War II, about how diasporic populations have so much fundamentally in common, and how we can still taste the traces they leave. But it is not that – I have to wrench this story out of the past tense because its relevance now is something I can’t romanticize with comparisons to my own home. When, the next day, my roommate (the real Paloma) and I found ourselves in a WiFi-less café after class, praising our lack of connection so that we could focus on our reading without checking the news every few minutes, I realized there was no way to separate the personal from the political. There was no way to isolate the food I admired here from the land that had been exploited by the country I reluctantly called home. There was no ignoring the politics of consumption, the literal and metaphorical internalizing of what this home, this city, this country had to offer. There was such extreme irresponsibility in imagining that the disappointing and potentially disastrous Super Tuesday outcome was, in any way, disconnected from where I was at the moment.
Indeed, when I arrive home and tap my phone awake, there isn’t a single notification from my News app that doesn’t include some variation of “JOE BIDEN SURGES ON SUPER TUESDAY.” I turn my phone off and try to rub the blue out of my eyes. I switch my bedside light on and let my journal fall open to where I left it last. I write:
A strange day. Class as normal but with added tension about the election. Everyone was refreshing the delegate count during lecture. Went to Cafebre after class and read some of Luiselli –
then I stop, last night still too potent to record, tonight too grotesque to face immediately. My notebook is thick with sketches and receipts and business cards and tickets and to-do lists and I am worried that despite any effort of cataloging and categorizing the day-by-day, I won’t be able to do justice to how complicated it feels to be someone from the U.S. in this exact intersection of space and time. It is an identity heavy with politics and baggage that is foreign in some ways and deeply personal in others. I try to shed the skin I have in the game by wriggling into a different one – to claim my space in the story as a descendant of a people who cross-pollinated with the ones here, who were physically, politically, geographically traumatized, too. But to be vulnerable to the intersections of our stories, I have to interrogate my facts and my fictions, my numbness and my complacency, my experiences and my desires, my luxury of separating the personal from the political. I have to ask myself how I am related to the governments who had a hand in this, how much I take the hegemony of the Ziploc bag or the United Fruit Company for granted, how much I lean on my earnest bilingualism and guilt as a way out.
I thought I could soften this story like hominy in a food processor, pulsing it again and again with electric shocks until I could rub the color-drained granules between my fingers and see them dissolve. But this story needs hydration more than it needs me, it needs to steep in a rainstorm of honesty, of accountability, of responsibility. I was disappointed that food could and would not be the great equalizer in this story. There is too much thievery for that. I learned that though you can taste and learn a place, it does not mean you should blindly consume it. In trying to remember and recount the night I spent with Rachael and Erica letting our mouths meld with our minds, I’d understand the tension between the story I wanted to tell and the story I had to tell, the gap between my aspirational fictions and the guilt-streaked facts. I don’t know where to go from here but I know it will depend on the bricks, on the corn, on the pigs and the water and the sky. I hope it will go up.