In Latin America many of our towns and cities are named after saints, we have fiestas patronales, and we celebrate our saint’s day. When I came to live in the United States I was surprised that Americans were getting ready to celebrate a saint: we were going to have time off from school, there was going to be a big parade, and all the stores had sales. I found the explanation to this holiday interesting, but I didn’t see any connection with a saint, or had ever heard of him.
As a teenager I never fully embraced this holiday because I associated it with the tremendous piles of dishes that had to be done (by my sister and I) and cleaning up afterward (the same reason why to this day I don’t like backyard barbeques.) Stuffing, cranberry jelly, and pumpkin pie, were new foods to me, and after all these years in the United States, I still don’t understand American football. I don’t always celebrate it with the traditional meal with all the trimmings, but I look forward to this time off from school to catch up on my sleep, research, and grading.
When I think of turkey, the first dish that comes to mind is mole poblano. I spent one summer in the nineties attending weekend festivities with my Mexican friends: baptisms, weddings, quinceañeras, graduations, etc. on both sides of the border. I went to so many family events that by August everyone thought I was another cousin, and I was “la prima.” I learned to say “mande” and “propio” and that when a Mexican is waiting for you “en la casa de usted” it doesn’t mean that they are waiting for you at your house …
At the beginning of the summer at the anniversary party of el tío Jesús, we were served mole poblano with chicken, mashed potatoes and asparagus. On my first taste my mouth was confused by a combination it had never experienced. I didn’t like it. I ate the potatoes, I ate the asparagus, I discreetly covered the chicken with my napkin, and spent the rest of the evening learning to dance tambora with a cousin from Los Mochis.
The following weekend we were served mole poblano with chicken, rice, and tortillas at a graduation party. I pushed the chicken to the side, and I made a rice taco with the tortilla.
At the third event I attended: surprise! Mole poblano with chicken! I stopped thinking they were coincidences. I asked my friend:
-Why mole poblano AGAIN?
-Because it’s a party… (I could hear the “duh” in her tone.)
-Why does it taste like, like, this…?
I was not prepared for that answer, I thought that she was joking and I didn’t understand. I realized my dilemma: it was going to be a long summer of mole poblano weekends. Since I was sitting at a table with the aunts from Sonora, I asked them to tell me about this chocolate party dish (this was before Google, and you had to talk to people.) It was a long summer indeed, but slowly I began to detect the different flavors and layers of the moles poblanos, appreciate the differences that each cook gave it and I started to look forward to it. I was crushed the time that carne asada was served at a baptism in Tijuana instead of the mole poblano.
About twelve years went by before I attempted to make this dish. It was the hardest thing I had done in the kitchen, I swore never to do it again, and I cursed those 17th century nuns in Puebla with so much time on their hands and angels helping them. In the years since, I have become a more confident and organized cook, I now enjoy the laborious process involved, and I welcome the sense of accomplishment that it brings to me. Making mole poblano is therapeutic; but not the part of toasting the dry chiles -that makes my eyes itchy.
In 2010 I moved into an apartment that didn’t feel like home, I missed my old kitchen and I lost my inspiration to cook. Motivated by the mole poblano I had in Puebla that spring, I decided to make some for my students for our Cinco de Mayo potluck. It wasn’t a good sign when my blender died and I had to buy a new one that night -the therapeutic effect I was hoping for wasn’t materializing.
I finished cooking at two in the morning, I let the mole poblano rest, and the following day I was ready to take it to school. I re-heated it on the stove, and I began to feel the accomplishment that mole poblano brought to me. I turned around and I filled a glass with water at the kitchen sink, I heard a horrible noise, a horrible noise that told me something had broken and that something had splashed on the floor. I didn’t turn around; I drank my water, and cleaned up the sad remains of the therapeutic accomplishment I had been so proud of a few minutes earlier. The blender I bought that night died a few months later.
Now it’s that time again: everyone is talking about turkeys and I am remembering (mourning) the last mole poblano I made two and a half years ago. I have a new blender, my apartment finally feels like home, and even though I don’t cook as often as I would like, my inspiration in the kitchen has returned -thanks San Pascual.
With a lot of apprehension I decided to join this year’s festivities and surprise my students with mole poblano with guajolote (and I had a backup plan: lasagna.) I spent two days in my tiny kitchen: I made a tomato and chayote salad, fried plantains, corn pudding for dessert, agua fresca de chayote, and my mole poblano made it safely to the table this year. Mission accomplished.
Happy San Guiven!