How Mexico’s national dish is feeding Detroit’s dining scene

A recipe for the American dream

click to enlarge Despite its seemingly slapdash origins, mole is not for the novice home cook. The traditional spices can be hard to find. Some recipes call for drying the chilies under the sun for up to a week. - Photo by Erik Howard.
Photo by Erik Howard.
Despite its seemingly slapdash origins, mole is not for the novice home cook. The traditional spices can be hard to find. Some recipes call for drying the chilies under the sun for up to a week.

Norberto Garita steps up to the ceramic bowl filled with a sticky, ebony paste, tiny wooden spoon poised. He tilts forward to let the familiar aroma of cinnamon, roasted chilies, and ground cocoa fill his nostrils.

He dips his spoon, then raises a morsel of mole paste to his lips.

Garita, chef-owner of El Barzon, knows the potent concoction well, having tasted it, smelled it, and practically lived in it since he was a boy growing up on a farm in the village of El Platanar Pecomatlan in the Mexican state of Puebla. Today, he's putting that experience to good use as part of a panel of judges at the annual Holy Mole contest at Ste. Anne de Detroit Catholic Church on the city's southwest side, rating the generations-old mole recipes created by 13 women.

It's no small task judging a food so quintessentially Mexican that it's considered the country's national dish.

"What I'm looking for is flavor," Garita says. "I know sometimes (the participants) don't even know how many ingredients they have used. I ask, they'll say, 'probably 10 to 15.' I know with mine, it's like 20 easily. I don't care if it's spicy or not spicy, as long as it has a good flavor."

For the uninitiated, mole in its finished form is a thick sauce that blends sweet and spicy, traditionally topped on turkey or some other form of protein. Its recipes vary dramatically by region, but Puebla and Oaxaca are most famous for it. At the contest, the mole was still in its initial paste form, which could be purchased by the pound by customers, who in turn use stock to thin it out into a sauce.

The varieties of mole span both the flavor spectrum and the country: from the sweet chocolatey mole Poblano that derives from Puebla to the slightly smoky, nutty profile of a bright red mole from Monterey, and the tropical essence captured in a stain-your-tablecloth mole negro from Oaxaca.

Some 15-20 years ago, such a discussion about the nuances of mole would not have been heard in Detroit, at least among non-Mexicans. Even today, mole's combination of sweetness, bitterness, and spice can feel alien to the American palate.

But that has been changing over the years. An influx of Mexican immigrants of all social strata have filtered into the Detroit area, and in doing so, they're not only changing the face of local Mexican cuisine — they're using mole to chase their version of the American dream.

click to enlarge Contestants at the second annual Holy Mole event in Southwest Detroit. - Photo by Erik Howard.
Photo by Erik Howard.
Contestants at the second annual Holy Mole event in Southwest Detroit.

An informal economy

In metro Detroit, mole-making has become part of an informal economy in the city's Mexican immigrant community. These underground enterprises often enlist entire families, as mole recipes can take upward of two weeks to prepare. At Holy Mole, some have had their goods vacuum-sealed and labeled. Most have business cards or their phone numbers written on small sheets of paper handy, advertising their food and catering services for bodas, quinces, birthdays, and other celebrations.

When local journalist and lifelong Southwest Detroiter Martina Guzman and sister Christina organized the inaugural event in 2015, their goal was threefold: to serve as a vehicle to empower these women's businesses; to highlight Mexican food as a world heritage treasure worthy of the same type of praise as, say, French cuisine; and to create an event by and for the city's Mexican community.

"They're the embodiment of entrepreneurs," Guzman says. "These women know food, so they started using what they knew to support their families."

What the women lack in access to traditional bank lending or investors, Guzman says, they make up for by using their treasured family recipes. They find whatever method possible to get their food out to the masses, whether it be cooking in a church kitchen, getting the word out after Sunday mass, or recruiting relatives to help.

Folks in the know can tick off where to find these underground vendors, as well as eateries that may lack signage or explicit licensing to operate, but who specialize in comfort foods like tamales, champurrado, and birria, a spicy stew usually consisting of goat meat, traditional to Jalisco, where a majority of Mexicans living Detroit hail.

That under-the-table market also includes mole, particularly from Puebla and Oaxaca.

The mole poblano dates back to the late 17th century, drawing from pre-Columbian cooking techniques. A group of sisters at the impoverished Convent of Santa Rosa in Puebla are believed to have been tasked with putting together a dish for the visiting archbishop, throwing together whatever ingredients they could find in their sparse cupboards. Utilizing a seemingly disparate mix of dried chili peppers, chocolate, fruit, day-old bread, spices, and nuts, they ground the ingredients to a thick paste-like consistency and used the sauce to top an old turkey that they had killed and cooked for the meal. When asked what was being served, one of the nuns says it was mole, a pre-Hispanic word that means "mix."

The mole in Oaxaca is as vast in diversity as the state itself, which ranges from humid, subtropical conditions to more high and dry regions. The most complicated is mole negro — black in color, owing to the use of charred chilies — but the state is also known for red, green, and yellow mole.

Today, mole is used not just on turkey, but also chicken, enchiladas, and other dishes.

Despite its seemingly slapdash origins, mole is not for the novice home cook. The traditional spices can be hard to find. Some recipes call for drying the chilies under the sun for up to a week. Once all of the components are ready, some cooks still spend hours grinding them into its pureed paste form with a molcajete — a mortar and pestle — unlike in Mexico, where all of the chilies and spices can be sourced already ground and ready for use at molinos, Guzman says.

Because of this, mole is a recipe that's typically reserved for only the most special of occasions.

click to enlarge Mariana Valdez and co-chefs place the finishing touch on their mole recipe. - Photo by Erik Howard.
Photo by Erik Howard.
Mariana Valdez and co-chefs place the finishing touch on their mole recipe.

An evolving food culture

In 2010, UNESCO designated traditional Mexican cuisine as part of its Intangible Cultural Heritage list — acknowledging its cultural significance in the global scene. "While people think it's delicious, and love to get tacos and burritos, they don't understand the richness that goes into making the cuisine," Guzman says.

In Detroit, an ever-evolving dynamic in Mexican immigration has created a bright spot in Detroit dining.

Maria Elena Rodriguez, author of Detroit's Mexicantown (Arcadia Publishing), says that beginning around the 1920s, a small number of Mexicans, like other immigrant groups, started trickling into the region, drawn to jobs in the automotive industry. The community primarily centered around a concentration of businesses in what was then known as "La Bagley," set along Bagley and Vernor Highway roughly between Michigan Central Station and as far west as Clark Park. Among the earliest businesses in what is now known as Mexicantown were a few restaurants that emphasized larger portions, melted cheese, and beans and rice — all designed to appeal to American palates. Mexican Village Restaurant remains the oldest such eatery to remain in the area.

By the mid-20th century, the bulk of the city's Mexican population were U.S.-born and had become more assimilated. At the same time, another wave of immigrants started making their way to Detroit from Jalisco, they brought food traditions native to that region. Today, Jalisco natives, known as Jaliscienses, make up the majority of Mexicans in Detroit, and have brought us a number of well-known restaurants along West Vernor Avenue, like Nuestra Familia, El Nacimiento, and La Terraza, as well as Taqueria Lupita on Bagley.

Rodriguez gives the occasional food tour around Bagley to show visitors the historical footprint Mexicans have had in the neighborhood. Along the way, she points groups to the old La Jalisciense Tortilla Factory, which opened in 1946, the iconic "Cornfield" mural that covers a brick wall nearby, the tiny Algo Especial market that specializes in stocking its shelves with hard-to-find spices and produce like cactus and squash blossoms, and the venerable Honey Bee Market, which first opened its doors in 1956.

The most recent cultural and culinary shift in the local Mexican population can be traced back some 15-20 years, a diaspora that Guzman explains has to do with globalization.

The North American Free Trade Agreement resulted in a dramatic economic upheaval for millions of Mexicans, regardless of income or social status. U.S. subsidization of agriculture into Mexico led to widespread poverty among peasant Mexican farmers, from rural states all over the country, who looked elsewhere for employment. At the same time, as automakers relocated production to parts of the country, a number of more affluent Mexicans began forming ties to Detroit.

Thus, Detroit went to see an influx of both displaced workers from rural states like Puebla, Nayarit, and Oaxaca who made their way to the southwest side, while some high-paid automotive professionals took root in the suburbs.

Today, several newer restaurants that reflect that migration pattern have been hitting the scene as of late, including El Barzon a decade ago, and more recently, Mariscos El Salpicon and Mi Lindo San Blas, both seafood restaurants inspired by the cuisine of Nayarit.

It is also reflected in the DIY mole industry.

"Many of these recipes are passed down from grandmother to granddaughter ... it's a way of fighting colonization."

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Preserving heritage and fighting colonization

At the Holy Mole contest, that changing dynamic is evident, with contestants representing Guerrero, San Luis Potosí, Guanajuato, Zacatecas, Monterey, Morelos, and especially Puebla and Oaxaca.

Hundreds of people with rosy cheeked and bundled up in over coats are crammed inside a parish hall at Ste. Anne on one of the first chilly days of November. The scene resembles a busy day at Eastern Market, save for the fact that many of the rows of table tops are adorned in colorful textiles, displaying a cornucopia of Mexican chocolate discs, raisins, pumpkin and sesame seeds, peanuts, almonds, plantains, and animal crackers — just to name a few of the dozen-plus ingredients used to make mole.

The children and grandchildren of contestants help out, some dressed like little vaqueros (cowboys) or folklorico dancers, with flowers and ribbons braided in their hair that match white flowing dresses. The younger generation are seasoned translators, happy to answer questions for their Spanish-speaking parents from English-speaking patrons. The elders exchange warm abrazos (hugs) and indulge in a bit of chisme among their friends, but on the sales floor, it's all business. Along the edges of the space are a number of other food vendors selling homemade tamales, queso fresco, empanadas, and pan dulce.

As a judge, Garita is joined by Luis Garza, chef-owner of Mexican chophouse El Asador on Springwells, and Rodriguez, the author. The two chefs are considered in some crowds to be Detroit's most venerable Mexican chefs, and both prominently feature mole on their menus. Rodriguez is probably the foremost authority in local Mexican history.

The contest attracts 500 or so people, from the immigrant vendors, hipster Chicanas, and Anglo-Americans who otherwise assumed the paste sold by each participant was to be dipped in chips — not made into a sauce. Last year, the inaugural event drew in a similarly sized crowd.

Rodriguez, who helped Guzman coordinate the event, tells us she's been blown away by the response thus far and is already thinking about scouting larger venues for next year that will accommodate bigger crowds.

"There clearly was a buzz — there was a void that had to be filled," she says. "It was literally like walking into a mercado open-air market in Mexico. I think that's the feeling that a lot of people got and I think that they want it."

For Guzman, the event was a way to take back an aspect of Mexican culture, which she says is all too often appropriated for profit. It's sad, she says, to see holidays like Cinco de Mayo and Dia de los Muertos reduced to excuses to drink.

"What I was tired of, was people sort of co-opting our culture," Guzman says. "It's like, 'Let's extract the gold from your culture and then profit from it. The mole was something that, it's such a beloved dish, that I knew that people would really want it.

"Many of these recipes are passed down from grandmother to granddaughter — it's a way of preserving your heritage and fighting colonization. We would have watered-down versions of everything if we didn't try to preserve our traditions."

Meanwhile, the judging panel, with clipboards and scoresheets in hand, quietly floats around the room, digging into the mixtures with their spoons to inspect the texture and consistency of each blend of spices. The judges take care not to interact much with the competitors, lest they be seen as favoring any one recipe over the other.

Once the judges have sampled each recipe, they convene in a small room next to a large performance stage, where moments before, a baile folklorico troupe danced to mariachi music, their swooping dresses twirling about in big circles to the delight of the crowd.

The judges rate the taste, texture, and presentation of each contestant's craft.

"For texture, it should be like a paste, what I'm looking at is that it's not too oily," Garza says.

A mole poblano made by Karina Huerta "esta espicy," exclaims one of the judges. She will eventually get second place. Amparo Luna from Oaxaca, who made a mole negro, will earn third place.

"It's difficult to pick mole, but it's also easy to pick mole in that, there are 32 ingredients, but no single one stands out, that's how it's supposed to be," says Rodriguez, who also has a long background in cooking, before the three panelists ascend to the stage to declare the winners.

Each of the top three will walk away with either cash prizes or gift cards to local mercados like E&L or Honey Bee — plus plenty of free publicity to help attract new business.

click to enlarge From left: Co-chefs Marta Valdez, Mariana Valdez, and Genoveva Palacios. - Photo by Erik Howard.
Photo by Erik Howard.
From left: Co-chefs Marta Valdez, Mariana Valdez, and Genoveva Palacios.

Realizing the American dream

Mariana Valdez will win first place.

Valdez, 33, is short in stature, but unflinching in her razor-like focus as a mother of six daughters and as a small business woman. At the contest, she wears a quiet but warm expression on her face as the many shoppers sampled her mole negro recipe from Oaxaca. A few of her daughters were on hand to help her answer questions, as were her co-chefs, sister Marta and sister-in-law Genoveva Palacios.

Through her daughter, Noedelyn, 12, Valdez says her family's mole recipe was inspired by her grandmother Raquel Reyes who created it some 60 years ago. It won Valdez a $500 prize for its rich ebony color, its fruity, almost tropical flavor, and its nutty quality and texture, thanks to the use of raisins and roasted sesame seeds.

The award-winning mole made its way to Detroit when Valdez followed her husband here 13 years ago, after he found work in construction. The two are originally from the town of Santiago Ayuquililla in the Huahuapan District of Oaxaca.

While Valdez's husband worked long hours doing manual labor, Valdez and her team began making mole from her home.

Like the other contestants, the three winners make batches for sale among family and friends. They prepare about three or four batches a month, enough for maybe 10-15 customers to take home 1- or 2-pound bags for $15-$25 apiece. They scour the local super mercados for ingredients and dedicate a full day of work during each session. It's not available in stores, so you have to know the family for the connection. The money she earns goes toward more ingredients, and whatever's left over is used to supplement her husband's income, while allowing her to stay home with her girls — whose ages range from 1 to 12.

The Valdez family's two-story house towers on the city's southwest side. Though constructed in much the same fashion as many of the homes on the block, Valdez's husband used his construction skills to build a comfortable home, complete with an attractive stucco to remake the exterior in warm beige and sienna tones — more reminiscent of an impressive hacienda than a typical Detroit bungalow.

The family doesn't get to visit their small pueblo much. They're too busy working and raising children. And besides, such a trip would be expensive for a large family.

Still, it's that mole — which Valdez calls Mole Doña Raquel in honor of her abuelita — that binds her to home, and helps her realize her American dream.

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