Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Dining with the Pope

Last month Bendicta Alejo Vargas of Michoacan cooked for the Pope. She honored the culinary traditions she learned from her grandmother by preparing a traditional Purépecha dinner for Pope Benedict XVI and other guests in the Vatican on December 12, the Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe. 

Benedicta, a Purépecha herself, has received numerous cooking awards and currently serves as a chef and instructor at Morelia's Culinary School.   In addition to the honor of meeting him personally and receiving his blessing, she is particularly thrilled to have prepared a meal for the Pope who is her "tocayo". 

"Tocayo" is the marvelous Spanish word that gets us around the awkward situation of addressing someone who has the same name as ours.  We can call that person "tocayo".  And when referring to him or her we can replace that person's name with "mi tocayo".  In most cases our tocayo is of our same gender, however there are cases of names that are similar for women and men -- with an "a" on the end for women and an "o" for men. 

For the Pope's dinner Benedicta prepared "corundas naturales",  similar to a central Mexican tamale. The corunda is traditionally more moist than a tamale, triangular in shape and wrapped in a corn husk and tied with a trademark knot.  For the second course she prepared two types of móle, rabbit and cheese.  The cheese móle was prepared with a kind of chile "que no pica" Benedicta said. I smiled when I heard her say that -- is there really such a chile? 

For beverages Benedicta prepared tamarind and sesame "atoles", flavored corn-based drinks.

The whole meal was prepared in the traditional Purépecha way.  The organizers of the event shipped the volcanic-stone metate (grinding stone), huge clay pots and a comal (a griddle on which tortillas are cooked) to Rome. They shipped stones for the hearth. They even shipped over Michoacan firewood.  Before setting off to the Vatican herself, Benedicta received word that the pottery had arrived in good order.  In her luggage she carried most of the ingredients she would need; however she purchased the rabbit meat at a butcher shop in Rome.  

A marvelous aspect of Mexican cuisine is that it has not changed much since the time of the Conquest.  UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, has recognized this by naming it to its Intangible Cultural Heritage List. The same meal Benedicta prepared for Pope Benedict XVI and other guests had certainly been prepared in Michoacán in the late 16th century.  The non-Mesoamerican ingredients in Benedicta's dinner were few. Cheese is of European origin and tamarind and sesame seeds are both of African origin and used extensively in Asia. They probably arrived in Acapulco on ships from Manila shortly after 1565.  

European food of the 16th century was very different from the food today. Food historian and Mexico resident Rachel Landau tells us that a European court meal of that time would seem strange to anyone accustomed to today's Western cooking.  Dishes of that time period "might include blancmange -- a thick puree of rice and chicken moistened with milk from ground almonds, sprinkled with sugar and fried pork fat."  Accompanied by "fava beans cooked in meat stock sprinkled with chopped mint or quince paste, a sweetmeat of quinces and sugar or honey.  To wash it all down, we would probably drink hypocras, a mulled red wine seasoned with ground ginger, cinnamon, cloves, and sugar."  

According to Landau it was in the mid 17th century that the European diet became similar to what we know today. This is quite unlike Mexico's cuisine which has stayed the course through the centuries.

The dinner celebrating Our Lady of Guadalupe Day at the Vatican was also unusual in that the Pope rarely attends large dinner parties. In fact, such is the fame of the Pope eating alone -- especially breakfasting alone -- that Cuernavaca artist of English origin, John Spencer, made a piece of sculpture he titled The Pope's Table.  Mounted on the base of a treadle sewing machine, the edge of the table has arches allusive of those in the Colosseum in Rome, with intricate sculpture rising up as a spire from the tabletop.  Characteristic of Spencer's quirky and whimsical sculpture, the pedals connect to a circle of bells to call for service.  

I haven't been able to find out how many people attended the dinner Benedicta prepared. She made 600 corundas and 700 handmade tortillas, both white and blue tortillas.  None were left over.  

And did Benedicto enjoy his tocaya's concoctions?  From the kitchen she couldn't see for herself, but she reports that members of the Michoacan delegation told her he liked the corundas and the cheese móle -- the one with the chile que no pica. 

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