Umami: Balancing the flavours (and feelings) of Central Mexico

Is it impossible to portray a place fairly while you’re in it? Now that I’ve left Mexico behind, there’s an unidentifiable taste in my mouth.

“Routine kills love.” It’s a short line from Mexican writer Laia Jufresa’s book, Umami. She was writing about marriage. But I’m talking about location change. These words ring true for my quick relationship with Central Mexico. After only eight months—maybe after only five or six—I easily could have left. In town, I felt landlocked. I was too far from the coast for a weekend getaway. And the long hours made my work routine drag. As a consequence, my bad attitude cast a tangy taste on the small city where I was teaching. It felt like sour milk or turned cilantro lingering on my tongue. I counted down the last few weeks. I wanted to try something else– anything els but a small town mentality and the same quesadillas and occasional guarache.

Writing in Mexico while staying in Mexico would make me feel like an imposter. No one around me would be reading my English words, anyway—or so I thought. Yet would they figure me out? Would they stare at me blankly, maybe point and say gringa, like the neighbour’s kid does when I go to buy mangoes down the street? Would they say I don’t know what I’m talking about, that I’m just an observer, a clueless outsider? Most days, I couldn’t quite keep track of my own thoughts.

I much prefer reading about a place when I’m there to writing about it. Sandra Cisneros’ A House of My Own led me through Chiapas and into Guatemala in April. It moved me, made hours fly by on a bus—on too many buses. She anchored me as I made mistakes and poor travel decisions and failed to check the exchange rate before changing cash on the street at midnight and propped a backpack against a hotel door that didn’t lock, as if that were my watchdog. Sandra Cisneros was in Chiapas once, too, writing Loose Woman. She tracked down a typewriter and pulled a huipil over her head and wove poems out of her mind in San Cristobal de las Casas. I went there, too. But in place of penning poems, I ran my hands over textiles and drank cheap beer and watched a man propose to his girlfriend and asked a stranger to open a bottle of mezcal for me, on the street.

Then I went back to Tehuacán, that city that is the blister on the back of my heel. It’s irritating but liveable. People put up with it. Young women are kidnapped and the city turns its head. There, in this complicated town, is where a different book appeared as a recommendation: Umami. Laia Jufresa is a bruja. A witchdoctor of words. I’ve since returned the paperback to its rightful owner. But I want to climb back inside it.

Jufresa introduced me to the milpa. The milpa is such an integral part of Mexican agriculture and cuisine. But I’d been blind to it until reading the translation of her fictional story. Each of her characters feels alone in some way, but like the three sisters of Mexican cuisine, they overlap and fulfil some sort of balance. Like an impossible cast with entirely equal speaking parts.

I don’t love Mexican food. I feel like I have to say it as a whisper, far from the dining room table, tucked away in a kitchen cabinet corner. I love the components of Mexican food. The three sisters of the milpa: simple and locally grown corn, beans, and squash. The spice. The biting heat of a habanero. The late sting of salsa verde, long after it’s slipped down my throat. The fresh cilantro, topping everything. The texture. The soft, soupy black beans that almost resemble cream. The first lick of mole, and the subsequent tastes that follow. The warmth of a fresh, handmade tortilla against my lips. The mango I bite into, face-first, dripping down the street. My skin smeared as if with a creamsicle popsicle. The natural, tropical fruits. The stickiness that lingers on my fingers. “In Mexico, we use our hands,” my host mom had told me that first month, back in January. I had been trying to peel a mango with a knife. I love the messiness of it: throwing every component into a bowl and then spooning the mezcla into a tortilla. Lunch.

The end result is where it gets tricky. I don’t like the stomachaches, the racing heartbeat. The sugar scares me. The cucharas full of white sugar, shovelled into already sweet, ripe jugo de piña. I don’t miss the soda you’re expected to gulp. I’m still trying to forget about the queso crema squirted out of a plastic bag, onto thick queso-filled crepas and cheesey enchiladas and tacos durados

Everyone I’d meet would want to know what I thought about Mexican food. Don’t you love tacos? I’d smile and say it was all delicious. It’s easy to know what you don’t like. It’s easier, too, to tell a sweet lie rather than offend someone’s national pride. When the outsider’s image of U.S. cuisine is a pizza slice larger than their face and a McDonald’s double hamburger, it’s hard to convince anyone that you know anything about food. And maybe I don’t. Finding the right words is like mastering the art of buen sazón. You have to adjust the seasonings for each person at the table.

Sophie Hughes is the English translator of Umami. In her replacement words, Laia Jufresa hits a political note: “Tell Me What to Eat could be a description in five words of the average educated gringo.” Are gringos really just impostors claiming some reachable food identity as their own? Are even the most educated people totally clueless when it comes to food? I could name about 10 food trends and diet trends from the last two years alone. “Middle-class America,” she writes, is “so lost in questions of diet, so lacking in tradition, so at the mercy of the latest food-group elimination fad.”

My family certainly doesn’t have much of a food tradition. We eat what we like. And while we were encouraged to try new foods as kids, my sisters and I were never force-fed something we were told we should enjoy. I think about food decisions as less about food– what type of pasta paired with which sauce– but more so about nutrition. What will the ingredients create together?

With this observation (accusation? I’m not sure), I’m brought back immediately to Najla Said’s memoir, Looking for Palestine. Schoolchildren mocked her “weird food” before hummus became mainstream. My suburban family has bought hummus in family packs, plastic tubs of Sabra and Trader Joe’s varieties, green from peas or magenta from beets. We follow the trends. I’m in the Tell Me What to Eat group,  you could say. But I want to know about food. In my family, food doesn’t come from a cherished matriarchal tradition of women in the kitchen. I look for answers elsewhere, in books. Cookbooks, mostly. And I much prefer it that way. It’s like embarking on a research project where the end product, instead of a paper, is something you can eat.

The idea of passing down recipes, learning from your grandmother, all of that– it sounds idyllic. And while many cultures still practice this tradition, I can’t help but notice when this responsibility is exclusive to women. Tradition’s side effect is pride. This is typically a good thing. But I’ve now seen the danger of pride in traditional food: telling growing children to eat, eat, eat, to clear the plate, to indulge meal after meal and day after day in queso crema and quesillo and organ meats and white sugary breads and donas and coca cola. It’s worrisome. It’s a traditional way of eating that is often propelled forward, into the next generation, by the women who are preparing the food.

Tradition and routine are separate entities. Or maybe they start out that way. Maybe tradition morphs into routine, up to the point where no one really knows why they’re doing what they’re doing. Other than the fact that it’s what they do day in and day out. It’s what they eat.

I spent my first four months in Tehuacán with a host family. This lady-run family was gracias to cook for me and my roommate, Vivien. We were guests in their home for four entire months, and they could not have been more welcoming. Luckily, they’d had a vegetarian teacher stay with them before. And when prepared at home, it’s easy to leave the meat out of many Mexican dishes. After the first two months, perhaps, the older son in the family whispered across the table while his mother’s back was turned. “I want to try to be vegetarian, too,” he said. “I watched a video about animals and it was so sad.” Sometimes it can be this simple. A video you can’t un-see about animal treatment on factory farms. But those effects typically wear off after a few days.

“I haven’t had meat in three days,” he said with a side glance in the direction of his mother. I’d been in town long enough to know that this itself was a feat. “I just don’t want her to notice– she’ll be so mad. She won’t get it,” he said. His mom turned back around and slid liver onto his plate. “I’m not hungry,” he said. An argument ensued. Liver is an essential part of a healthy diet, she said. You need to eat it at least once a week, apparently. When food becomes routine, it’s harder to change diet. When the routine is backed with tradition– or what someone perceives as tradition, a sharp emotional pull seems to attach itself.

I don’t know that people in Tehuacán are any more or less connected with their food than people in cities anywhere else in the world. Everyone still buys their tortillas from the women who shape them by hand down the street. But I was more than ready to pull myself away, to look for something different. I’m still digesting it, in pieces. And Mexican food wasn’t quite as I’d imagined it beforehand. Why is the guacamole blended with milk? But that’s no one else’s problem but my own; an outsider’s misinterpretation. When we want to know what we really know, the plate gets a little messy.

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