"What's the world for you if you can't make it up the way you want."

-Jazz, Toni Morrison

Holy Guaca-mole

Holy Guaca-mole

One sore and despondent evening, I cruised the streets of Poughkeepsie looking for salvation. I instinctively parked at a Mexican restaurant and moped my way inside. Guacamole served en molcajete attempted to lift my spirits, but I was swimming in pain and self-pity. Then I saw it. Mole was on the menu. Desire hit me like a spice cabinet in an earthquake. I crave poultry simmered in chocolate-chile sauce like sailors covet pin-up girls. For me, mole is ancestral medicine. Indigenous ingredients (chile, chocolate, tomatoes, tomatillos, cinnamon, pumpkin seeds, corn tortillas) infuse imported ones (almonds, sesame seeds, peanuts, bread crumbs). I had ordered a dish just like me: heavy on the brown sauce covering not-really-white meat.

The root word for my favorite dish comes from the Spanish verb moler, meaning to grind into a paste or, using the tools of industrial-age cookery, throw the ingredients in a blender and whirr until they’re inseparable. Such forced intermingling is also a metaphor for colonial miscegenation, which nowadays leads to a “But where are you really from?” identity inquisition. I have an odd privilege in this department. Pigeonholed as an unthreatening, nondescript, not-white person, I am at low risk of being shot, high risk of being sexualized, and perpetual risk of being appropriated and/or Othered. I get interpolated into various bloodlines via “You must be from the east/south/west/north part of my country and might be related to my second cousin” speeches in Mexico, Italy, Spain, and the vehicles of numerous South Asian and Middle Eastern NYC cabbies. Few people accept that I am from California with “four generations on this side of the border that crossed us” family history. Eurocentric physiognomy says my Spanish-indigenous roots are badly blended, even though it took over five hundred years to create my twenty-first century Xicana self. But I digress. Let’s return to dinner.

Waiting for the main course, I pondered mole's troubled history. It was invented as a sauce for turkey, pre-Columbian meso-America's largest indigenous meat bird, tastier and more tryptophan-loaded than Spanish colonial chicken. Among the innumerable offenses of capitalism, confusing us all about our origins and messing with ideal recipes constitute capital sins. Pondering the contemporary political implications of my meal, I wondered about the restaurant staff and their immigration status. Would they be safe in the midst of a rising Trump-inspired neo-Nazi tide? Who would secure our food chain - picking produce, washing dishes, running countless family restaurants - if ICE went on a rampage? I suffered a series of historical trauma flashbacks, then began to panic over the future of my relationship with pivotal ingredients. How would chocolate and avocados scale a looming border wall?

You might not care about these questions unless you live off beans, tortillas, and daily doses of hot sauce, but I was in a cold sweat. I was experiencing gastronomic panic. If that wall goes up, I might never see mole again. It was worse than the most tragic breakup I could imagine. To my relief, dinner finally arrived. We were together for now, although it couldn’t last. I tried to relish the flavors but desperately devoured half my meal in record time. Temporarily sated, I paused to consider the velvety sauce and went limp with pleasure, but I think that’s a conditioned response to chocolate. For Mexican-heritage gente, cacao is the love child of money and a communion wafer. The Aztecs used it as sacred currency and only royalty were allowed to consume it. I am genetically predestined to salivate for chocolate like a Pavlovian dog. 

The national tragedy called the 2016 presidential election soon ensued, and I again turned to food for solace. At first, I pondered reparations for political racism. You think Mexicans ought to be deported? Then give back all the chocolate, tomatoes, chiles, beans, corn, peppers, and return all the pumpkins in time for Halloween. This imagined food justice policy helped on good days, but on the bad ones I couldn’t drown my sorrows because the subletter kept filching my top shelf tequila. Instead, I lived off chocolate-cinnamon smoothies and nightly doses of chile-spiced chocolate caliente, soothing panic attacks with ancestral infusions. By early December, I had transitioned from reparations to a punitive model. Imagine (insert problem) in a giant corn tortilla straight-jacket, pleading for mercy as you drip chile in their eyes. I am not advocating for torture or cannibalism, nor am I suggesting that political tacos would be tasty, but enough hot sauce can cover up even the most rotten meat. It works for questionable leftovers mixed with the dregs of sauerkraut from the back of my fridge, so why not the present U.S. administration? I envisioned a series of gastro-theater commercials promoting recipes for international relations sponsored by the Mexican consulate.

In light of family separation at the border and spiraling public suffering, now is time for us all to partake in meso-America’s culinary medicine. The capsaicin in chile improves immunity and digestion, and has been reported to alleviate depression. Historically, mole was created by desperate colonial nuns who needed to impress a visiting dignitary. Personally, I invented taco-smores while jonesing for a gluten-free campfire treat, created a ceremonial tool from a gigantic can of “Rosarito” brand refried beans, and taped a tortilla to my bedroom window on the overcast night of a much-anticipated super-moon. Mexican food is a universal panacea. Perhaps mole is the silver lining we need to survive the dark days ahead: warm tortillas served with a rich and spicy dose of hope. I raise my fork and say buen provecho to that.

Ramona Lee Pérez holds a doctorate in sociocultural anthropology and teaches Latino history, food studies, and feminist anthropology. Her works are published in academic venues, the literary journals Hispanecdotes and Snapdragon, and by Silver Needle Press. Her latest writings address social and psychological transgressions for recovering from trauma. Website: wildwomanista.com, Twitter: @wild_womanista

Cover photo by Daniel Apodaca on Unsplash

Fear of a Thing

Fear of a Thing