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Meeting the Great Traditional Chefs of Michoacan

I was rather shocked when I got the invitation to be a judge for the Encuentro de Cocineras Tradicionales de Michoacan. I’d attended the event a few years ago and just loved it. About 60 women set up temporary kitchens in a park and the public was invited to buy tickets and sample their traditional dishes, which were competing for a good cash prize. Most of the cooks were indigenous women, many of whom traveled through very dangerous country to attend. They mostly cooked on huge clay cazuelas and comales over a wood fire. Even though many of the cooks made similar dishes, it was amazing to taste the difference of each woman’s touch.


After looking in my Spanish dictionary to confirm that jurardo did indeed mean judge, as I thought, I accepted the invitation. What choice did I have?


The event itself is very well organized by a team under the supervision of the State Secretary of Tourism, Roberto Monroy Garcia, a gregarious and charismatic leader who seems at odds with one’s vision of a stuffy, bureaucratic Mexican government official. He knew when to be respectful of visiting dignitaries and he knew when it was time to pass the mezcal and relax a little. His staff was casual but never unprofessional and you always had the feeling that the welfare of the cooks was the most important thing, and that celebrating them was the reason we were all there.


They say that it’s the journey, not the destination. It’s hard to believe now but as I was packing to go to Morelia for the event, my destination was to get past it so I could come back to work. At Rancho Gordo, we’re on the verge of solving some very serious inventory issues (as those of you who have tried to order Royal Coronas and other favorite beans have discovered). We’re also moving ahead with a website makeover and adding staff dedicated to customer service. It’s exciting to finally see the business you’ve imagined in your mind for so long, coming into full fruition. Sure, a trip to Mexico is always appreciated but my loopy head was more looking forward to a new Rancho Gordo website. Oh, how the mind loses perspective!


Now, back to the main event. The general public was allowed in for free over the three days, and could purchase tickets to sample the wares from any of the contestants. Some of the women were natural salespeople and others seemed very shy. They were all supported by local culinary students who seemed just as in awe of the women as the rest of us were.


There were dinners and events and lots of chances to play but it was made crystal clear to the judges: When we were dealing with the cooks, all play was over. We were expected to be on time and ready to taste the moment we were scheduled. This was out of respect for these women who had traveled so far and had so much riding on the results. Less than all of our attention wouldn’t have been fair.


One’s immediate reaction to the festivities might be: How great. These women, who probably don’t have the most wonderful lives, especially these days of narcos, bad economies, and lack of opportunity, come to Morelia and they are queens for three days. But the attitude is a little condescending. The women seem to understand their value and don’t need us tourists to validate their talent. They obviously appreciate the opportunity and they are somewhat tickled and confused when a group of chefs crowd around like groupies. But for the most part, they have a real sense of who they are, what the culture is, and it’s we tourists who gain as much, if not more, for their being in Morelia.


I didn’t eat one less than wonderful thing the entire time, but I do remember in particular a taco made with charrales (minnows), smothered in an intense green sauce and served with a tri-colored tortilla. It sounds so ordinary on paper but it was magic. Also stuck in my mind is a gordita invention that was a layer of masa patted with refried beans, ripped in half and one part put over the other, then the sides were folded, and then finally covered with masa. What looked like a nice fat sope or gordita was in fact a multi-layered bean-and-masa treat. The fish wrapped in tamal corn husks and then poached in a broth with hoja santa and aromatic vegetables was also a surprise, and I think I have a new party dish.


Arguably, the queen of the event is Benedicta Alejo Vargas. It seems that whatever she cooks is destined for greatness. It’s a real joy to watch her work. As she grinds nixtamalized corn for masa on her metate, you see the hard kernels fall apart from the pressure of the volcanic rock and yet her fingers fly daintily, helping stray pieces of corn back into the mixture to become masa. She shapes her tortillas with confidence but there’s always time for a gentle pat or push. It’s almost like she’s infusing her food with love, as corny as that sounds, but one taste and all traces of cynicism are gone.


While I loved seeing all the adulation for Benedicta, I couldn’t help but feel the success has complicated her life. I had the impression that she just wants to do good and share her kitchen, maybe even help outsiders understand her culture, and serve God. This all happens, but people (me included) have the need to hug her, tell her how wonderful she is and take their photos with her when she probably would rather get back to lovingly forming tortillas and gorditas with her delicate yet strong hands. Once in a while, when swarmed by a group of fans, she breaks her steady smile and flashes a look that almost seems to say, “Somebody help me here. This isn’t what I signed up for!” but of course she’s too gracious to say something so unappreciative and the smile returns and she tolerates the adulation.


I can’t thank my hosts enough for this amazing experience. Lucero Garcia Medina was running the show and her passion for the cooks was never far from the surface. Aliz Reyes helped this fumbling gringo arrange the trip and practical day-to-day matters and America Pedraza scared the crap out of me and made sure I was never late, but she always did it with humor and believe me, if I were needing help, I'd want her on my team. She also refused to try and understand my English and in the end, made me a better Spanish speaker. I think the world of her!


I also had the chance to eat out and there were many memorable meals. A fabulous dinner at Tata from chef Fermin Ambas was a highlight. Cynthia Martinez’ San Miguelito makes me want to fall in love with someone, anyone, with its romantic atmosphere and delicious food.


Lucero Soto of the famous LU Restaurant was kind enough to remember I was “the bean guy” and had a rare bag of beans waiting for me in my room when I arrived. (Sadly, I thought it was weird granola and bit into it after a mezcalito or two.) The Sopa Tarasca she serves at her restaurant is the version to beat.


Finally, I want to mention my fellow judges. What a nice group of really smart, really fun people. These kinds of things can be deadly but you could feel the collective love for the cocineras from everyone involved.

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