Tuesday, January 25

The mission to reintroduce Mexican food to American popular culture

(CNN Español) — Despite the fact that it was a rainy afternoon in Atlanta, one by one the diners began to arrive at Maricela Vega’s house to enjoy one of her famous “Dinners in Chico’s Garden.”

“Three Mexican women cooking based on our collection of memories” highlighted the invitation to this event promoted on the social networks of Chicomecoatl o Chico, as the Vega brand is known.

The menu ranged from bean tostadas with marigolds, red mole broth, squash with epazote, to chocolate tamales.

“It manages to bring all the essence of Mexican cuisine but not the way we know it here,” says Nicolás Rojas, one of the people who attended the dinner.

And that is precisely one of Vega’s goals.

For many years, Mexican food in the popular culture of the United States has been associated with Tex-Mex, the fusion of recipes from Mexico with that of the state of Texas, which was once part of the Mexican territory.

But for Vega, that mixture of flavors is not the best representation of the culture and tradition of Mexican cuisine.

“The culture is so great. They can’t recognize us just by tex-mex, ”says Vega.

And so Chico was born. After years of working in different restaurants in the city, Vega decided to dedicate herself completely to her own project. “I have been with my business for almost 5 years. Our job is to teach people, show them ways to eat Mexican food, ”explains Vega.

Through her brand, Vega sells mass-based products such as tortillas and tamales in local markets, but also hosts dinners at her home. Most of the dinners are prepared in conjunction with other local chefs, but the base of the menu is always traditional Mexican cuisine, prepared with ingredients from urban farms in the city or from Vega’s own garden.

Ingredients from sustainable agriculture

Vega has dedicated a large part of the space in her home garden to growing her own ingredients. Days before hosting one of her dinners, dressed in comfortable clothes, she began to clean the weeds that grew after the passage of several storms in the area.

“Specifically, something I’m very proud of is epazote,” Vega says as she walks through the garden. The epazote is an indigenous plant of Mexico that the Aztec culture used as a condiment and that also has medicinal properties. “When I have my own herbs, I can make my beans with epazote, tortillas with epazote, quesadillas,” says Vega.

As Vega walks in her garden, she stops to see a yellow flower. “Another ingredient that I like to dry, if I can’t use it immediately, are marigolds or” marigolds “in English,” he explains. “I’m going to fry the leaves and put them on a bean toast that I’m going to have on the menu this weekend.”

People who attend the “Dinners in the Garden of Chico” have the opportunity to walk through the garden of Vega. “Some people don’t have opportunities to go to farms so it was part of my vision to teach them that this is how you can grow. This I did it all ”, says Vega.

A few kilometers from Vega’s house is the urban garden known as Mena’s Farm. Next to a busy highway, Filomena DeAndrade, a small farm, grows several hectares of vegetables that she then sells to local restaurants or independent chefs like Vega.

“For us it is important that we are using the crops of all kinds of people, but also the way in which they sow their land and how they use it,” says Vega, explaining the importance of sustainable agriculture and support for small farmers like Mena. “You can taste the difference in the vegetable, in the fruit, in whatever and that is part of the decision of how we decide who to work with.”

In the hot sun, Vega and DeAndrade talk about the ingredients of the season. After a while walking between the plantations, Vega gathers a bunch of vegetables. “Today I got some purple beans. We are going to fight these and we are also going to put them in vinegar so that they take on different flavors and it will be part of a red mole that we are going to cook ”, while Mena looks at her smiling.

“For me she is not only a person who sows, she is a teacher,” says Vega.

Preserving family traditions

Working the land is not a strange activity for Vega. “In a way, when I’m sowing I think about how my grandparents did it on their land,” says Vega. His family is originally from the state of Guanajuato. “We sowed a lot of corn, we were farmers,” says Vega.

His parents immigrated to the United States more than 30 years ago. Vega was born in the state of California and raised in the state of Georgia, where his parents currently work in factories.

Vega says that the influence of her mother and aunts motivated her to make cooking a profession. “I am very lucky. My mother always cooked food for us, she still cooks us when we go home, ”says Vega. “Or when we were going to visit my aunts in Guanajuato.”

And as time went by, those trips didn’t stop. Vega says she tries to visit family members in Mexico on a regular basis. In addition to the family connection, Vega says that visiting the land of her ancestors allows her to learn more about the traditions and roots of their dishes. “I’m taking those traditions to preserve them and hopefully in the future, for the next generation, to be able to share these recipes.”

Although Vega says that it has been difficult for her to find old recipes in her region of Guanajuato, in the United States the University of Texas library has been in charge of preserving historical documents that have preserved recipes from the Mexican and American cultures. The growing collection of recipes is in San Antonio. Stephanie Knoll, in charge of the collection, says that they have more than two thousand Mexican cookbooks, she assures that it is the largest of its kind in the United States.

“We have books that date back to 1789,” says Knoll, “and you can see the Aztec cuisine documented by the conquerors of the 16th century and its connection to mole with tamales.”

The collection is available in a digital so that as many people as possible have access to the recipes and the history.

But Vega says the traditions of her family and the small towns in Guanajuato are not being documented. “That is why this garden has many visions and many things to say,” says Vega.

“They are dishes of respect for the people who plant and also to give respect to my family.”


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