Six years ago, my partner and I were sitting in our first apartment (a cramped 500-square footer in Fairview) on our free, tattered, blue loveseat watching Mexico-One Plate at a Time on a laptop. One episode took place in a city in the Yucatan called Merida. After a scene of the Sunday night market showing a vibrant town square with live music, dancing, and food stalls as far as the eye could see we decided at that moment to make visiting Merida a goal. It is at this same time that I was working in a specialty cooking store on Granville Island and introduced to the Cookbooks of Dianna Kennedy, the ‘Julia Child’ of Mexican cuisine. I would read her books in slow moments at the store and was struck by the ethnographic and historical research that went into her cookbooks as well as the brief inclusions of personal narrative, and stories that accompanied the recipes. I used three elements to create this blog entry. The first is a photo diary with tidbits of reflection from my trip. The second is integrating inspiration from My Mexico by Dianna Kennedy. I used this and some of her other cookbook stories and recipes along with my own experience and creativity to cook a meal for friends using my Merida trip as inspiration.
Merida is a beautiful city full of vibrancy and culture. The town squares are centered around beautiful Spanish colonial buildings and churches from the 16th-17th century built of reclaimed limestone from abandoned Mayan pyramids. At night, there is literally music floating through the air coming out of cantinas and town squares which mixes with the smells of food stands and snack vendors covering the streets. There are half-hearted hawkers who sit on little plastic stools trying to beckon buyers outside of their shops, their pitch? A laid back and friendly ‘buenas noches senorita, good prices for you’.
There is an international vibe in Merida. The Lebanese influence, for instance, was intriguing, I spotted kibbeh on many street corners sold from strange looking plastic boxes for fast cheap lunches. There are people living and working in Merida from all over the world. Many of the tourists are visiting from other parts of Mexico, or from different parts of Europe and of course from North America. There is a big expat community, but from my observation, the expats don’t segregate themselves into isolated communities, they are there to be a part of Merida too. There is certainly a visible class divide but expats and tourists frequent the same places as locals, (some places obviously have more well-off locals) but Merida seems to have more wealth and more ‘middle class’ than other parts of Mexico. There are a few American chains and tour companies around (we joked about taking the hop-on-hop-off bus tour) but it isn’t littered with them and it doesn’t have a nauseating commercialized resort vibe to it that we, unfortunately, found at Chichen Itza and other places we went outside of Merida. Something that struck me right away was the visual silence from a lack of advertising. For example, some ads were painted on the walls of buildings, like a red Coca-Cola bottle painted on the side of a shop blending in with the environment. A few billboards here and there along major roads and there was a big box store area and mall outside the downtown so it wasn’t free of them but certainly not as invasive as I’m used to.
The food in Merida is good everywhere, it didn’t matter if it was a fancy restaurant or an outdoor food stand. Many places serve Yucatecan staples which are hard to find outside of Merida (so I hear), but cuisines from other areas of Mexico and from other parts of the world can be readily found as well.
I need to mention my visit to Chichen Itza even though there isn’t much to do with food. I dreamed to visit there ever since I was a child. In grade Five we watched an educational T.V series called Voyage of the Mimi which I was completely excited and inspired by where the crew studied humpback whales in different parts of the world. I’m sure the show drew me in initially because of the focus on whales. Apparently, whales have always been my favorite animal. My mom says it because we went so frequently to the Vancouver Aquarium when I was a toddler that the Orcas would recognize me and come up to the glass to say hello. I don’t know if this is true, nor do I have a memory of this but both my parents swear this is. (I strangely remember the names of the whales as I am writing this; Hayak, Finna, and Biosa.) Anyways in whatever season it is, we watched of Voyage of the Mimi the crew went to the Yucatan to study the humpbacks there but they were also studying Mayan ruins and culture. I remember being so interested that I wanted to become an archeologist. Visiting the Yucatan and its Ruins such as Chichen Itza became a life goal for me back in grade five, to be able to finally visit a place that had such a memorable impact on my childhood was very intriguing and emotional experience.
We had left Merida and traveled 3 hours to stay overnight in Valladolid in order to get up early and reach Chichen Itza before the tour buses and the incessant vendors showed up. However, our plan was thwarted by some unfortunate ‘lettuce tacos’ that I had disappointingly eaten the night before. We were caught off guard by the lettuce tacos as the outdoor food courts in Merida were of high quality everywhere, we didn’t know until too late that the same cannot be said of Valladolid. After a few hours and a healthy dose of all the medications, I could find we grabbed a collectivo and headed out late in the morning to Chichen Itza. Unfortunately, all the vendors were set up on every inch of ground selling skulls and mini pyramids all made in China out yelling each other with ‘senorita, only one dollar’, or ‘Ola, Coca-Cola, one dollar” followed by the loud mimic of leopard growls made from wooden toys. It was HOT! Hot is an understatement. Yet even given these undesirable atmospheric additions, there was something about Chichen that could not be drowned out by the tourist trappings. There is a feeling to the place, something ancient, and something unspoken. I sometimes find this with buildings and places with a lot of history, Merida had a vibe for that same reason (though different from Chichen). The buildings and carvings were more than impressive. We hired a guide for a quick one hour tour to tell us very briefly about the significance of in his words ‘the greatest hits’ which was well worth it, then explored the rest of the grounds on our own. While sitting in the refuge of shade for a few minutes we spotted a large Iguana in the tree above us. We said hello and a few minutes later I felt something tap on my shoulder. I looked down to see a small stone sitting squarely in the middle of my purse that was on my lap and looked above to see the iguana directly over my head. Allowing a new age impulse to get the best of me in this situation I interpreted this gesture as a gift from the iguana. After Chichen we went to Ik-Il, a senote very close to Chichen that was very crowded with busloads of tourists from all-inclusives that were talking loudly, smoking, and swigging the overpriced beer and tequilas at the bar outside the change areas. A positive side of the popularity of this senote was I was able to rent a lifejacket, thankfully as I can barely swim and as senotes are very deep I wouldn’t have been able to go in otherwise. So, we climbed the steps down into the cool cave, the rock lined with vines growing up the sides and filled with deep blue water for my partner to swim and I to float in the senote, the last taste of the Yucatan on our trip.
I could say more, about all of it, but I will let the pictures convey the rest of the details…
My Mexico and the post-trip Dinner
My Mexico is a cookbook that contains a significant amount of Dianna Kennedy’s memories and experiences of living in and traveling around Mexico to find elusive, unique and authentic regional recipes and ingredients. She focuses in on the areas of Mexico most familiar and personal to her, disappointingly to me the Yucatan was missing from this book. I read through all the chapters, recipes and felt inspired by her clear passion for Mexico and its cuisine, landscapes, and people. I also feel inspired perhaps to take on a similar format for a cookbook in the future exploring my personal narrative in some way weaving it with recipes. Perhaps I should try this in a future blog? If only I would have had the foresight to write down some notes while cooking in order to make recipes, next time perhaps.
For my dinner, I had to go outside of this book for research and used another book of hers featuring Yucatecan recipes The essential cuisines of Mexico. I invited some friends for dinner and decided on making Panuchos, a Yucatecan dish of fried tortillas stuffed with black beans with a variety of toppings. For the feast, I Home-made all the elements; corn tortillas, Merida style hot table sauce, pickled onions, jalapenos en escabeche, Yucatecan style black beans, and achiote seitan. On the request of my partner, I also made vegetarian tacos adobada with a salsa verde (not from the Yucatan.) One flavour that was truly missing was the sour orange. I created a substitute with a mix of lime, lemon, and orange juice but it was nowhere near the bright, fresh, and tangy distinctness that permeates Yucatecan cuisine.
There is a certain Zen that comes from prepping and cooking a meal. The Pickling and making condiments took ½ a day the day before which quieted yet engaged my mind. The repetition of chopping evokes a meditative loss of self while drifting into the action, in the moment. The next day I made 100 or so corn tortillas, for which I was ‘In the zone’ for sure. For the first time, all my tortillas puffed like they are supposed to though I still found it difficult to stuff them so I eventually gave up and the beans were spread on top of the tostadas instead of inside for the Panucho base. After 2 days of prep, the meal was done in like 30 minutes. Only cooking is such a process based creative outlet that leaves no trace of its efforts except for in the memory of the consumer and perhaps an Instagram photo or two. Of course, I forgot to take pictures of the final meal as I was distracted by needing to attend to my guests but I did take some photos of the process.
Kennedy, Diana. 2013. My Mexico: A Culinary Odyssey with Recipes. Updated edition. The William and Bettye Nowlin Series in Art, History, and Culture of the Western Hemisphere. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Kennedy, Diana. 2009. The Essential Cuisines of Mexico. New York: Clarkson/Potter Publishing.