Blue Hearted Glutton
Blue Corn Goddess
You can smell the streets of Mexico City from the airport. Once you step outside of Internacional Benito Juárez, the faint smell of caramelized onions, diced pork, and spicy peppers greets you. Welcome to a world whose obsession with food is not dictated by Instagram photos or Facebook likes. Although the restaurant scene is flourishing, the best food in Mexico City cannot be found in a Yelp review. It is found only by following the trails of smells that are carried by the wind.
The streets of Mexico City are lined with entrepreneurial chefs; their children hang about the area as their parents serve torta after tostada after taco. Their faces are always perspiring from standing over the grill and under the oppressive Mexican sun. There are more outdoor tortilla stands than garbage cans ( which is an issue in its own right). Mexico’s classic meals are always served in these collapsible kitchens. There will be coolers filled with Mexican coke and aguas frescas ( fruit water) that mothers and babies guzzle down in between bites. Some stands specialize while others are versatile. Good food in Mexico City is a lazy man’s game. Although you will never have to journey far for quintessential quesadillas, there are still some secret ingredients worth hunting for.
Enter: the blue corn tortillas. Like most inexperienced gringos, I first heard mention of the blue corn tortillas after watching No Reservations by the late Anthony Bourdain. He interviews a tiny abuela who stands outside by her portable kitchen. Her hands have turned a shade of periwinkle after spending hours squishing, flattening, and frying up these blistered blue patties. Once I arrived in Mexico City, I was on a mission to find them. It took me two days of slowing down by every tortilla stand to see if their pans were lined with blue pod delights. No luck. Although I was always full in Mexico City, my hunger for these tortillas continued to grow as the days passed.
The afternoon of my last full day, I decided to take a long walk from my Airbnb to go to an unexplored neighborhood. I was walking off a large meal of huevos rancheros and cafe con leche, and, then, unexpectedly, I found them. There was a collapsible tent taking up a parking space, with plastic chairs and tables surrounding it, shading the customers and cooks from the afternoon heat. I slowed down to survey the area. And there they were. A few were lining the circumference of a large pan; the heat crisped the natural light blue into a steel grey. My eyes and stomach started fighting with each other. I ignored my stomachs begging to take a rest because, since I was leaving tomorrow, I might not get another chance. My food baby and I rolled up to the woman who was elbows deep into a bucket filled with a squishy shadow blue paste. It made the same pleasant sound of when your toes squish in the mud. I ogled at her for a while, watching her body undulate up and down, pushing and mashing and mixing this edible play-do. She was in the eye of the hurricane. Her assistants was constantly bobbing back and forth between customers, shouting and laughing at each other and people passing by, but she stayed transfixed on her job as if the world was only made of her and her tortillas.
She looks up at me; her hands scrape the bottom of the bucket,and I ask ( in passable Spanish) for a tortilla con queso y chorizo. She nods, doesn’t write anything down, and goes back to her patties. She takes a handful of dough and quickly passes it from hand to hand like she is playing catch with herself, and molds the amorphous blob of dough into a round patty. She then plops it onto the sizzling pan and squishes it down to form a large circle. She does this again, and again, and again, going back and forth in front of the fire until the entire pan is lined with periwinkle disks. She is cool-headed for all the heat she is taking.
I didn’t ask her the questions I wanted, like how long have you been here, why blue corn, how is it different from yellow, and how many burns do you have on your body. Instead, I fixated on the simmering meat pit behind her, sporting someone’s skull in one of its corners for ambiance and added flavor. At the other end of the stand were teens spending their Saturday afternoon chopping onions and peppers instead of playing soccer. From their banter with other workers, I’m not sure which they would have preferred.
A beautiful vat of meat with a nonchalant skull.
She has eight orders going on at once, but was able to keep track of the particularities of each one and served them to the correct customer. She walked me through her confederacy of toppings. Every color and texture necessary for the ceremony was accounted for: creamy green avocado, crunchy pink radishes, pickled green jalapeno peppers, soft queso blanco, and neatly sliced lime wedges. It was as colorful as a well-organized paint palette. I point at and poorly pronounce what I would like. She nodded and gingerly sprinkled on portions of guacamole, pickled vegetables, cilantro, and lime with her stained blue fingers.
Her helper rang me up, and I was alarmed at how cheap it was. The cost of the meal didn’t match the energy and love that I had just witness go into making it. Her actual sweat seasoned my blue corn tortilla, which I was happy to devour. That’s the beauty of Mexican cuisine, and why it is a caliber above the rest. It is a place that still insists that food should be made with your hands, not a machine. Where time is a necessary ingredient, and it is worth spending 16 hours making one large pot of beans that will be eaten in less than five minutes, lubricated with memories and anticipation. Where human fluids are seasonings- the nick of blood that gets sliced in with the tomatoes, the sweat that beads and streams over their faces and plops into the steamy pot of beans, and the tears that well up and cascade themselves onto a cutting board of freshly chopped onions. What makes Mexican food so sapid are the human emotions baked into them. I’m curious how homemade food affects us on a cellular level- if it is more nourishing than just the nutrients it provides and if we have lost something in our culture of processed food, microwavable meals, and fast food.
These were thoughts I had after I recovered from my food coma.
But what do I remember?
That I unwrapped the aluminum foil like a present that had nice wrapping paper I wanted to keep.
That it tasted a shade darker than its lighter friend- the yellow tortilla.That it was nutty and crisp- hot and flakey on the outside but softened by the tender romance of chorizo and plushy queso intermingling on the inside. It warmed more than just my mouth. It gently gave to each bite I took. I chewed slowly, switching each bite between both sides of my mouth, letting the flavors blanket my tongue. I was full, so that let me savor it even more at a pace at which I hardly ever chew.
As I felt my stomach push against my jeans, I knew it was worth it.