The Popul Vuh teaches that humans, the gods' creation of the current Long Count cycle, were made from maize. (The creation of the previous great cycle, which was made of wood, spoke without understanding and so was condemned to spend this great cycle as monkeys.) We continue to acknowledge our origin by sustaining ourselves on tortillas, tamales, and atole even to this day, as our own Long Count comes to a close and we ponder our fate.
The historical role of atole as the agua de uso - the liquid taken throughout the day to slake thirst - has been declining as quickly as our farmland, while plastic bottles of brand-named reverse-osmosis city water have taken its place. Too plebeian for the fancy restaurants and too filling for the mainstream ones, atole now tends to be served primarily by aunts and grandmothers in remembrance of their rural childhoods. It is passing into a cultural symbol enshrined by clichés... If you're más viejo que el atole, you are even older than the hills. If you have atole en las venas, you're more unflappable than if you had ice-water in your veins. If you are dando atole con el dedo (serving atole with your finger), you are telling someone a story bit by bit, a sure sign of deceit.
Atole is made principally by boiling masa and water to the consistency of a thin porridge. By tradition it has been drunk instead of plain water, hot or cold, from calabashes throughout the day. It's now served in mugs as a comfort food and is most particularly trotted out for the festivities of First Communion, Christmastide (12 December to 6 January), and Candelaria (2 February). Variations include the addition of plum in Morelos and Guerrero, pineapple or coconut in Veracruz, cacao pod in Uruapan, blackberry in Michoacán; throughout the country strawberry, guava, nance, prune, walnut, capulín (Prunus serotina var. virens), almond, pumpkin, or tamarind might be added. The original recipes involve a lot of time and effort, so modern food science has made the more common atoles available in the instant-drink aisle of every Mexican supermarket. (There's a good chance, however, that people who hold to the powdered stuff will spend the next Long Count as Republicans.)
Francisco Hernández wrote about the curative properties of a dozen atoles that he, as the physician to Felipe II, prescribed in the sixteenth century. He mentioned particularly those made with chile (chilatole), honey (necuatole), chocolate (champurrado), and chia seed (chianatole) and those made from toasted corn (pinole) and toasted tortillas (tlaxcalatole). He learned these traditional remedies while living in New Spain and many of them are still used throughout Mexico today. Just as a mother in the U.S. gives her child 7-Up and soda crackers for an upset stomach, for example, a mother in Mexico relies on plain atole and water crackers.
None of the many forms has been so elusive as xocoatole (show-co-ah-TOE-lay), the "sour mash" atole, which Diana Kennedy spent years tracking down. Fausta Hernández finally made a batch for her in the remote indigenous village of Santa Ana, Puebla. It has the unusual ability, noted Kennedy, both to take the chill off a cold morning and to refresh one from the midday heat.
2¼ lbs blue corn
13 cups water
12 oz scarlet runner beans, shelled
salt to taste
1½ oz chiles japonés or de árbol
Begin no later than noon on a hot day with plenty of sun. Crack the grain, sprinkle with water, and set out in the sun to warm. When the sun loses its strength, put the maize into an earthenware jug filled with water, cover loosely with a clean cloth, and leave overnight on glowing coals or other source of low heat (145°-150°F). On the following morning, strain the maize, reserving the liquid, and grind the maize finely. Return it to its liquid and boil in an enameled pan, adding salt and water until it achieves the right consistency.
In a separate pot, boil the beans in salted water until tender, then drain. The chile sauce is made with dried serranos, known elsewhere as the chile japonés. Chiles de árbol and the dried chiles sold in Chinese markets can be substituted. Toast them on a dry comal and purée them with a little salt and water.
When it's time to serve lunch, pour the warm xocoatole into serving bowls, add a tablespoon of beans to each, and garnish with a dollop of chile sauce. Yields sixteen servings.
For further reading
These recipes originally appeared between 1992 and 1994 as an occasional feature, "Recetas Rescatadas" by Diana Kennedy, in the magazine México Desconocido. They represent Kennedy at her most anthropological: she was writing in Spanish to a very educated readership about traditional dishes of which the majority are now either endangered or almost extinct. You are not likely to find many of them in Baja California. We chose to translate these recipes for our readers as a counterpoise to the sort of food currently being offered in our area, that is, as a way of understanding what is in terms of what was.
It helps to have an historical perspective to what a Baja California restaurant puts on your table. Without such a framework, Mexican cuisine - a very complex gastronomy drawn from many regions, eras, social classes, and racial castes - collapses into a wanton jumble of minutiae where the inherent and the superficial are easily confused.
The current style in cookbooks offers voluptuous photos of glycerine-covered food interspersed with recipes endorsed by celebrity chef-tourists. These works are designed to promote consumerism and brand-loyalty. Their pictures are pretty and their recipes are often tasty, but their haphazard methodology obscures the structure of Mexican cuisine. On the other hand, when Mexican cuisine was introduced to English-speaking readers, several cookbook authors were careful to address its underlying structure. Their work retains great value in consequence. Here are four such authors in order of their appearance.
Idella Purnell Stone and Elisabeth Lambert de Ortiz write from Anglo-slanted bicultural perspectives and offer the kind of cooking popular among the bourgeoisie of the midde twentieth century. Purnell Stone's deceptively slim book, 30 Mexican Menus in Spanish and English, allows the reader to see how entire meals are put together while Lambert's The Complete Book of Mexican Cooking made a first tentative stab at thoroughness. Adela Fernández, the daughter of a famous rags-to-riches movie star, wrote La tradicional cocina mexicana y sus mejores recetas / Traditional Mexican Cooking and Its Best Recipes
with a non-Mexican readership in mind even though only its fourth edition was bilingual: she begins with an overview of culinary history and materials, offers many suggestions for adapting recipes for use in the U.S., and, in honor of her origins, she gives plebeian dishes as well as bourgeois ones. Fernández is unquestionably the place to start. Fortunately, for those who don't read Spanish, her fourth edition has been reissued.
Just as unquestionably, advanced study is with Diana Kennedy, who was received into the Orden del Águila Azteca for her work and which, in turn, has received the distinction of having been translated into Spanish. She has spent more than half a century with the cuisines of Mexico, learning first from her housemaids, then from restaurateurs and bon-vivants, and finally from anthropological field-work. Diana Kennedy's books set a benchmark by successfully combining the respective strengths of British slog and Mexican anarchy. By reading her books in roughly chronological order, you can follow her journey from the general to the abstruse.