My late grandmother Martha made mole—which I knew as a dark peanut and chocolate sauce over chicken—for her nine children on their birthdays. Originally, I’m told, she slaved over the stove with the garlic and cocoa and dried chilies. By the time I was around to notice these birthday dishes, they came from a can she bought at the HEB across the street.
Oddly, I had to turn to a cookbook by a gringa to learn how to do mole right: Oaxaca al Gusto, by Diana Kennedy, a U.K. native who moved to Mexico with her New York Times correspondent husband in 1957. Though not a summation of her work, Oaxaca al Gusto is perhaps her last foray into the genre of cookbooks. As she said to me via e-mail, “Time is running out, and I want to work on an official project about the wild edible plants and their uses.” Kennedy, who did the translation for the massive gastronomical text and took many of the photographs herself, has arranged the recipes by region around the three stables of Oaxacan cuisine: chocolate, corn and chilies.
The preservation of ritual and ceremony alongside culinary instruction is at the heart of this ethnographic enterprise. Detailing “The Ceremony to Observe the Mourning of a Dead Relative,” Kennedy writes: “They sit silently around the room on chairs. Atole agrio is served, followed by a tesmole of chicken and later tamales of light colored beans—because they say it is not appropriate to use black beans for a mourning occasion.”
The recipes in Oaxaca al Gusto run from simple atole—which growing up I assumed was a heated bowl of cream of wheat with sugar and milk, but as it turns out is a corn drink that can look like a welcoming froth or a forbidden elixir—to iguana enchiladas. I’m not heading to a pet store to get dinner anytime soon, but next time I see a wasp nest along the front door, I’m going to think hard about making salsa de panal.
Dishes from the caldo de piedra (broth of stone) to the estofado de bodas rely on time and tradition, yet Kennedy sees the process of preparing them outside Oaxaca involving modern methods. “The special chilies,” for example, “can be traced over the net. The upscale supermarkets all over the U.S. carry exotic ingredients flown in from all over the world … how about giving impetus to the growers living and cultivating those chilies in marginal agricultural areas by creating a market for those chilies and other ingredients and perhaps stemming if only a small flow of immigrants searching for work?”
Finding the right ingredients for these recipes takes work. Cooking them requires culinary discipline. You have to stick to the script. I put the divided dough for a desert into the fridge when I was meant to “refrigerate in a cool place, but not in the refrigerator, overnight.” So my attempt at empanadas de Corpus Christi tasted OK, but looked like crushed snow angels in The Nightmare Before Christmas.
The mole coloradito from Cuicatlan over enchiladas de bautizo (enchiladas for a christening) took three hours and called for—outside of chocolate, corn and chilies—raisins, capers, three types of meat and lard. The guy at the meat market hung up on my wife when she asked if they carried fat back, so I compromised, and we used the kind of manteca that can stay on the shelf forever but moves us that much further away from the Oaxacan experience. The chilies were easy, but they needed to be baked, so I got a taste of what pepper spray might feel like. Through watery eyes, I added the tomatoes and cooked the garlic and onions. For the mole: “All of the prepared ingredients are usually sent to the mill to be ground into an almost-dry paste.” I destroyed a blending utensil instead.
Our dinner guests consumed the guacamole they brought as an appetizer, listened to several Coltrane CDs on repeat and drank most of the wine as they waited for me to get the dish going. I followed the instructions as closely as possible, and the mélange of cumin, pork, cloves and sesame seeds started to become the most savory Mexican food I’d had in years, way better than any mole I could recall, way better than what I remember my abuelita making. I think my grandmother moved from traditional Mexican cooking into the world of American convenience partly because of her big brood, especially when the good mole recipe required killing the chickens they’d received as Easter chicks and a supermarket had just opened up across the street.
Roberto Ontiveros is an artist and writer whose fiction has appeared in The Threepenny Review, the Santa Monica Review, and the anthology Hecho en Tejas.