student writer for the Gate,
wrote about her Interterm experience researching Mexican
food for a special studies with Nancy Sternbach, professor
of Spanish. Miller will compile her findings
in an article this semester.
The writer takes a break from food to explore Mexico's
Rachel Miller ’09
It wasn’t what you’d call a classic “eat-off.” There
were no hotdogs, chicken wings or boiled eggs. But there
time limit, and I was surrounded by millions of veteran eaters.
I was in Mexico, and my assignment was to visit as many cities
and try as many site-specific gastronomical rarities as possible.
For a month, I worked my way through steaming stacks of corn
tortillas, pints of creamy guacamole, and jugs of fresh-squeezed
pineapple, orange and watermelon juice.
Do I miss it? Yes and no. Read on.
My tour began in the state
of Oaxaca (pronounced wa-haca) south of Mexico City, where
I had the best gelato of my short life. In Mexico it’s called nieve (snow), and it’s
pure frozen juice. Nieve comes in every flavor you
can imagine, and some you simply can’t. My travel partner
and fellow taste-tester ate mango with coconut. I tried something
a little more unusual: guanábana with tuna.
In English, guanábana is
called soursop. It’s a spiky green fruit and it makes
a cream-colored ice with tangy starfruit and softer banana
flavors. Tuna comes in two varieties in Mexico. The one
I tried was bright red and tasted like a young raspberry—not
one bit fishy.
Grasshoppers, called chapulines,
are another specialty of Oaxaca. They come in various sizes,
toasted with garlic, salt, lemon juice and sometimes chili.
Mexican lore has it that visitors who eat chapulines are
guaranteed a return trip to Oaxaca, while queasier snackers
won’t be able
to get past the leggy crunch. I closed my eyes and chomped.
To my taste the grasshoppers tasted like a compact,
garlicky potato chip. (At least, according to lore, I’ll
be going back—but not for the grasshoppers!)
On the beach.
Just two hours south of
Oaxaca City you hit the ocean, which I do miss—that and the giant chilled coconuts. In Puerto
Escondido, a town for Mexican tourists and devoted surfers,
a woman hacked the top off a green coconut as big as a basketball
and gave us each a straw. A local, who was sipping next to
us, claimed that the coconuts down the beach just weren’t
as sweet. We believed him.
San Cristobal de las Casas
is an overnight bus ride from the ocean, heading northeast
toward the center of the Yucatan peninsula. It’s a small town in the mountains of Chiapas,
nestled about 2,100 meters above sea level. High altitude
means perfect coffee beans, and it was in this quiet, chilly
town that we drank the perfect cup of coffee. It was full-bodied
and nutty, without bitterness or dusty aftertaste, and though
I dearly love our Northampton cafés, their espresso
just doesn’t measure up. How could it?
In Mérida, a city
on the north side of the Yucatan peninsula, not quite on
the ocean, we ate panuchos, a saucer-sized corn tortilla
filled with a thin layer of bean paste and deep-fried until
it shimmers and puffs. Toppings include juicy shredded
turkey or chicken, soft avocado and mango bits, lettuce,
and the vinegary, spicy purple onion salsa ubiquitous throughout
The markets everywhere
were full of strange fruits, some dangerously spiky (like
guanábana) and some,
such as mamey, scaly brown on the outside and tantalizingly
magenta when cut open. The papayas are bigger than footballs
and dripping with juice. Limes are everywhere, in small and
even smaller versions. The mandarins are nearly as big as
the grapefruit, and the grapefruit as sweet as mandarins.
The thought of freshly
squeezed juice, or a banana licuado—just-ripe
bananas whipped with milk and sugar – makes me want
to buy a one-way ticket back.
After a month of pork
and tortillas I have to admit: as soon as I landed back
in this country, I bought a juicy hamburger with cheddar
cheese and extra pickles. I’m still having
unwelcome dreams of floating tortillas.
But give me a week and
watch: I’ll be doing my best
to recreate those crispy-golden panuchos in my own