It’s hard to go wrong with an event that combines two of Mexico’s most beloved cultural symbols.
As I wandered around Santa Cruz’s popular Mole and Mariachi Festival this weekend, I couldn’t help but reflect on how far the average American’s knowledge of Mexican food and music has come in the course of my lifetime.
Growing up on the east coast, I didn’t sample Mexican food until I was well into middle school. At some point in the early 1980’s, a chain restaurant opened up on the commercial highway near our house, and my mother, always the culinary adventurer, took my brother and I up there to check it out. It was one of those restaurants that is now ubiquitous throughout the US – the kind of place where your order two tacos, enchiladas, or quesadillas, and they’re served on an enormous white platter amidst a sea of runny refried beans. The waitresses there wore multi-colored (and very short) ruffled skirts, and they made sure you had an endless supply of this new snack item called “chips and salsa.”
It’s hard to believe there was ever a time when I didn’t know what chips and salsa were, or that there was once a time when they both weren’t staples in every American household’s pantry. There was, however; and it was in actually in my lifetime.
Soon after these types of restaurants took off, I started to travel to Mexico, and I quickly learned that the cuisine I had come to know as “Mexican food” wasn’t really all that authentic. Chimichangas were an American creation, I was told. And “taquitos”? A joke. Word on the street was that if I wanted to acquaint myself with REAL Mexican food, I had to try mole (pronounced “mo-lay” – from the Nahuatl word for sauce).
The first mole I encountered was made with chocolate (chocolate? In a main dish? Crazy!) – the one I now know to be mole poblano. These days, you can buy this variety of mole in jars at most American supermarkets; it’s what most people think of when you mention the dish. I liked it, although given its richness, I didn’t feel the need to eat it on a regular basis.
Fast forward a few more years, to when I found myself traveling and studying Spanish in Oaxaca, the mole capital of the world (and, many would argue, the culinary capital of Mexico). There I discovered that mole wasn’t just that dark chocolately sauce I’d had. It’s a term that is used to refer to a whole family of Mexican sauces which can contain a wide array of ingredients. Oaxaca boasts seven different moles, and any self-respecting gastro-tourist is obliged to sample all of them.
Chiles are the common denominator in all moles. They’re always roasted to bring out their flavor and then combined with all sorts of other treasures. Almonds, peanuts, sesame seeds, tomatoes, tomatillos, onions, garlic, cinnamon, and cumin are among the other common ingredients. These are blended and formed into a paste or a powder, which is then mixed with a broth (typically chicken) and served over chicken, pork, or turkey. You can have a mole rojo (red), a mole amarillo (yellow), a mole coloradito (dark red), a mole verde (green), and a mole negro (black – the traditional mole for weddings that takes two to three days to prepare) among others.
Ten years ago, when I learned about the existence of the full spectrum of moles, few other Americans seemed to know anything about them. Times have changed however, as evidenced by the turnout for the Mole and Mariachi Festival. Entrance to the event was free, but a “tasting kit” – which allowed you to sample six of the available moles and vote for your two favorites – cost $10. There were nine local restaurants and caterers offering up their painstakingly concocted creations in little white sample cups, and lines formed in front of every booth.
I deliberately chose a couple of green moles, a couple of dark (and thus chocolatey) moles, and two reddish ones. I suspected I would be partial to the reds, having learned how to make a mole coloradito in a Mexican cooking class many years ago, and I was. The two sweeter, more almond- and tomato-flavored of the options easily garnered my votes, so I slipped my two tickets into the colored shoeboxes with those establishments’ names.
While everyone analyzed their moles and supplemented them with the tacos, enchiladas, and churros for sale on site, a rotating schedule of mariachi bands serenaded the crowd. Mariachi music began in the late 19th century in Mexico, but really took off in the early 20th century when the Mexican government started using it for many official ceremonies. Most Americans probably didn’t know a whole lot about mariachi music twenty years ago either, but thanks to Mexican restaurants, frequent travel, and perhaps also Johhny Cash’s infamous “Ring of Fire,” nearly everyone can recognize the fast guitar playing, sappy-sweet violin sounds, and souring trumpets of a classic mariachi tune. Most of us know that a roving group of men in charro (horsemen’s) outfits carrying guitars, trumpets, and violins is ready perform songs about love and loss at the drop of a hat.
I’m not sure how may people attended this festival — or the Greek Festival that was going on downtown, for which several streets were blocked off. What I love is that these kinds of events take place constantly nowadays, and they are largely embraced. What’s more, nothing that is eaten or heard at any of them is all that unfamiliar. We’ve assimilated so many of these cultural trappings into the American melting pot that we just take them in stride.
I used to think these of these food-and-music appreciation events as “culture-lite” — the kind of thing that promoted only the most superficial acceptance of diversity. I’m starting to reconsider my condescending attitude, however, and I’m wondering if perhaps some Iraqi, Afghan, and Pakistani street fairs might be exactly what we need to pave the way towards better acceptance of Islamic-based cultures.
Whatever it takes…