the cook's tour
With food and respect, Marilyn Tausend takes us to the
Juventina Vina stirs the clay pot with a stick as a wood fire heats her crimson chili sauce to bubbling.
This dish, cochinita pibil, two days in the making, is a classic for special celebrations here in her village near Taxco. Three of Vina's daughters have traveled about 60 miles south from Mexico City to help.
Roosters crow, ranchero music drifts over from the neighbor's, and the fragrance of wood smoke, bubbling sauce and roasting tortillas perfumes the air. Four poles pushed into the dirt support a corrugated-metal roof shading the outdoor kitchen.
"We are surprised to see you here," Vina says in Spanish. "Not many people come here. We don't even speak English." And these travelers wouldn't be here, either, were it not for the woman seated in the shade of a blue tarp slung over the packed dirt yard: Marilyn Tausend.
For the past 18 years, Tausend has introduced people from all over the world to the foods of Mexico. To its villages and markets, mansions and outdoor kitchens, its hottest new restaurants, roadside stands and street food.
Providing an entree into a private home for a traditional feast these travelers could never otherwise experience is Tausend's trademark.
Anyone can lead a tour group. But it takes intimate knowledge — and connections nurtured over many years — to put gringos on the business end of a stick stirring a backyard pot of cochinita pibil.
"It's the real thing, it's what people eat, and the way you do it, and I want people to experience that," Tausend says. "I want people in the U.S., the consumers and chefs, to know about real Mexican food.
"A lot of these people couldn't do this on their own, the homes, they couldn't get in. They could always go to restaurants, but by and large the real food is in the homes, the markets and the fondas (roadside stands), and those are places they will not go on their own.
"I am not a tour guide. I am doing this to get people to love Mexico the way I do, the people and the culture. Not just to lead a trip."
It's working, says Maria Delores Torres Yzábal of Mexico City, at 79, a grande dame of Mexico's cuisine. "She has been a wonderful ambassador for Mexico," Yzábal says of Tausend, who is an award-winning author of cookbooks on the cuisine of the country.
"I think she is the person who has let Mexican culture be known, more than anyone else, in the States. All the groups coming from all over, mainly they know Tex-Mex. They are surprised to find there is something else. We need more Marilyns. She feels Mexico as a Mexican. She has the feelings that you don't find often in a foreigner. The places to go, the people to see, whom to invite."
Those places are often surprising: For their first dinner out in Mexico City, one of the gastronomic capitols of North America, Tausend selects a taco place.
Tacos? For people paying nearly $3,000 each, without airfare, for a seven-day, eight-night trip from Mexico City to Acapulco?
You bet, served with five homemade fresh salsas from chipotle chili to roasted tomato. The Americans hold the salsa dishes to their noses and wave their aroma closer, quaffing them like fine wine.
Dinner arrives — sliced, marinated pork, with a touch of pineapple, roasted with the meat until the sweet fruit caramelizes, all wrapped in soft, steaming corn tortillas. With those salsas, and a side dish of roasted onions marinated in lime and sprinkled with sea salt, it's the kind of food best eaten eyes closed, with little groans of pleasure.
All around, the tables are packed with locals, the scent of roasting pork and corn tortillas pulling them in sure as a net.This simple food, so authentically and delectably prepared at a beloved local hangout, elevates dinner at a taco place to a magical beginning. Who knew?
"We don't really wait for people," she warns the group, telling them as they break into teams when to meet back at the transport vans.
Their charge: To shop for a list of ingredients at one of Mexico City's primo markets.
This seems daring; you'd think a bit of hand-holding might be in order, this being a foreign city of oh, more than 18 million or so. But apparently not: These folks, nearly all black-belt foodies, snap open their shopping bags, gifts from Tausend the night before, and get cracking, threading their way into the labyrinth of market stands.
To piles of beef livers, cow tongues, kidneys; golden towers of chicken feet. To pig snouts stacked liked firewood; galleries of hogs' heads, hung from hooks, their expressions surprisingly serene, and glistening tubs of lard. To pig's feet being split with a hatchet, a sound like no other — WHACK.
To towers of strawberries, piercingly fragrant, to heaps of mangos and snacks of roasted, buttered ears of corn on a stick. To dogs begging for scraps; to creamy white tuberoses by the bucketful, their perfume penetrating and rich; to fighting cocks tethered to rocks; great swags of fresh herbs, and moist, coiled ropes of fresh sausage.
The shoppers emerge agog and on time, bags bulging, and meet up with Tausend, who expects this zealous performance from the people who choose her trips — which often sell out.
"This is different," she says of her brand of travel. "There are some people who have classes in their homes, and some who do trips for the ladies, they rent a villa, they have their tea, the maid comes in and does the cooking. That is not like we do. It's for people seriously interested in the food and the culture."
Even the siestas have a food theme.
The afternoon unspools at the pace of the boats, pushed along the canals by taciturn men with long poles. There is something enchanting about this languid procession, with the marimba players knocking out a sweet serenade, and the mobile kitchen in most delightful pursuit as the boats glide alongside beds of lettuce and strolling cattle.
The cooks raft up with our party boats to serve, passing loaded plates over the gunwales.
First come blue corn sopes — pizza-like treats — topped with potatoes, refried beans and cheese. Then poached chicken in homemade mole sauce and red rice: two days' worth of home cooking for our afternoon's pleasure.
Willows swish on the banks and towers of cumulus drift in a soft blue sky. Our boats raise the laziest of slipstreams, barely a splash. Some in the group hit the decks for a nap.
But not for long. After the day's languor, class is in session.
It's one of the few times in this trip Tausend leads the session. While always available, she usually gives the spotlight to celebrity chefs and local experts.
It's partly her character. A veteran of state Democratic politics, Tausend was happy to organize campaigns; she never wanted to be the candidate. But it's also her commitment to authenticity. When it comes to introducing foreigners to Mexico, Tausend says she wants Mexicans to do the talking. "It's their country."
On a lot of other trips, she says, the people leading "are talking about a country they really don't know well. I may have experience there, and I have researched it like crazy, but it's not my country."
Two of her longtime business associates, both Mexican, help provide contacts Tausend uses to put the trips together. They tap cousins, friends, taxi drivers, market vendors, any potential lead to the most important regional foods and best cooks making them.
Access then has to be arranged. Is the bathroom acceptable? Is the farm too rustic? Translation: Will the guests freak out at the manure?
It takes years for Tausend and her crew to put together a trip. The payoff, Tausend says, is providing an authentic connection to Mexico she hopes will open one mind at a time. "That's my covert plan," she says, laughing, but she's only partly joking.
"There is such a stereotypical idea in the U.S. about who the Mexican people are. How intelligent, how warm, how loving, how real they are, that's not known. We always seem to have to have someone to look down on, and right now it's the Mexicans.
"But I do think people have changed, a lot of people who just come down for vacation go back with a tourist attitude. But this is different, we are living with people, sharing with them, it's not just learning about the food, that's part of it, but it's only part."
One frustration is her inability, so far, to learn to speak Spanish.
"I just can't hear it, it's ridiculous," says Tausend, who has taken lesson after lesson, lived with families that speak no English — the works, to little avail. She says she can read Spanish, especially cookbooks, but still can't speak it; even the names of some towns on her itinerary will not roll off her tongue.
None of which seems to impede her ability to connect to Mexico and its culture.
FIELDS OF FRESHLY planted nopales cactus leaves cover the landscape like a Christo installation, the cut, ear-shaped pieces tucked into the soil at a jaunty angle, to take root and sprout a new plant.
So important it appears on the Mexican flag, nopales cactus is one of the keystone foods of Mexican cuisine. It's delivered by the truckload to markets like this one in Milpa Alta, a village outside Mexico City, where vendors sit cutting spines from the fresh, succulent leaves with quick flicks of a knife.
On a Mexican vacation, most Americans wouldn't find their way here, nor would they spend the morning with a local grower, who gives a talk at his farm about raising nopales.
The group is attentive, full of questions, taking notes on the finer points of cactus culture.
For caterers, chefs and restaurant owners — some on their sixth Tausend trip — these journeys are research that keeps their menus, ingredients and presentation informed and current. Mexican Americans learn more about their roots, and Mexican-food fans deepen their understanding of the cuisine.
These are people who, when they aren't learning about food, or eating it, are talking about it.
In one van on the road to Acapulco the conversation is of that peculiar anxiety in the supermarket checkout line as other shoppers look over the stuff in your cart, memorably termed "groceria nervosa" by one traveler.
The virtues of fried parsley; the comparative mineral contents of gourmet salt, and the lovely way purchased, cubed ice crunches under the teeth, so much better than that cloudy crud spat out of the ice maker, are parsed in detail.
So when Tausend stops the vans at a fonda, or roadside stand in nopales country to sample a traditional squash-blossom dish, rhapsodic note is taken of the "flavor profile" and "pre-Hispanic roots" of the food.
And once in Acapulco, it is not the pulsing discos, the moonlit beaches or bars awash in margaritas some can't wait to check out, but the Super Gigante:
Acapulco's biggest grocery store.
A room is swapped, a seafood restaurant is booked, and Tausend cajoles someone into opening the bar; but then, she's not the easily rattled type.
A mother of five, stepmother of two and veteran of three surgeries for breast cancer, Tausend at age 71 says she is used to having more energy than anyone else, and still reads a mystery novel a night.
After a round of drinks it's back out for dinner — and confronting the neon clutter of the main strip of Acapulco's hotel row. The group, largely shielded so far from gringo-ization of Mexico, suffers from schlock shock as Hooters, McDonald's and Wal-Mart face off across the street.
They needn't have worried: The next morning Tausend whisks the group to the business compound of her longtime friend, Susanna Palazuelos, one of the country's leading caterers. Rick Bayless, owner of Chicago's Frontera Grill and a PBS celebrity chef, is scheduled to give two days of cooking classes at her compound's grand, open-air foyer.
No classroom ever looked like this: A waiter stirs icy offerings of tamarind, hibiscus or rice water as jazz music mingles with the rustle of palms and fans turn lazily overhead.
Palazuelos sweeps in to welcome the group, sipping their drinks and seated in soft chairs covered with white slipcovers tied in back with a large bow.
She details Acapulco's history as a trade center, and invites the group to her cliff-side mansion overlooking Acapulco Bay for dinner. Then she's gone with a rustle of her silk duster, leaving the stage to Bayless.
He unwinds his knives from their black cloth case like a magician swirling his cape, and launches into a flurry of chicken in red mole sauce; cleaning and de-beaking squid for Mexican seafood stew, and shrimp with sweet, toasty garlic sauce.
Over tasting plates of the chicken, Bayless says Tausend's trips are unique, and significant.
"It is really important to keep going with telling people what the real culture is like, and do it with no judgment, like Marilyn, from the high to the low. From the market stalls to Susanna Palazuelos, it's all Mexico, and she gives people a sense of everything."
In Acapulco the meal count climbs to four a day: breakfast; the food "tasting," a late lunch, then dinner at a torch-lit, open-air seaside restaurant run by Palazuelos' son, serving fusion Thai-Mexican cuisine.
But no one can outdo Palazuelos herself, whose white-jacketed waiters greet the group poolside for dinner on her terrace high over the water, the city's glittering lights set like a glamorous brooch in the curve of Acapulco Bay.
Flames lick the bottom of copper-topped chaffing dishes as Palazuelos helps dish up dinner, including butterflied quail; spinach salad with hibiscus-flower dressing, tuna with a subtle chili sauce, and coconut ice cream to finish.
But who ever wants to finish, as the candles on the banquet table flicker; red and white wines are offered, and musicians, first a trio, then a mariachi ensemble, take requests?
Tausend, seated at the center of the table with Palazuelos on one side and Bayless on the other, beams.
"Now this," she says, "is a real Acapulco experience."
Lynda V. Mapes is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. Barry Wong is a magazine staff photographer.
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