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Real Mexican meals can be had only in Mexico

Thursday, August 17, 2000

By Diana Nelson Jones, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

GUANAJUATO, Mexico -- Mexico is a favorite source of ethnic cuisine in the United States, but most of us don't know how much we're missing. The ubiquitous orange rice here and the refried beans that look like taupe-colored paste do not resemble the rice or beans I had in Mexico; the enchiladas, burritos and tacos that pass in this country for the bulk of Mexican cuisine are merely the basics.

  (Daniel Marsula, Post-Gazette)

I learned how much more diverse the cuisine is on a weeklong stay in the south-central city of Guanajuato, where I lived with Dr. Sergio Rendon, his wife, Elvira, and their children, Sabrina, 22, and Sergio Jr., 19. They were the Rotary Club hosts of my sister, Karla, who served as a chaperone for a group of high school students from West Virginia. I went piggy-back.

My first meal with them included blintzes at Sunday breakfast. Later that day, at a feast of three families, I was passionately scarfing marinated pork rind salad asking, "Que es esto?" -- "What is this?" It was a question I would ask several times during my visit.

Many of the dishes Elvira and other cooks serve at the family table do not find a place on the menus at Mexican restaurants in the United States. Like so much in life, this is unfortunate and puzzling.

At the family table in Mexico, rice is common, as are beans, but they don't always go together, nor do they appear at every meal. The beans, or frijoles, are not pasty. Elvira's frijoles swam in a broth that included meats and spices. And the rice I ate was not orange. It did include bits of corn and was flavorful without butter.

Mexican family guides tour of foods


Big pots and bowls of ladled foods mark the traditional midday meal. Our senora brought steamed tortillas to the table in a covered container for us to use as a wrap for fillings of our choice. One day we had pollo con mole verde -- chicken in green mole (pronounced MOH-lay) sauce. The mole is Elvira's mother's recipe, and I could eat it like a pureed soup. One day, we had lentil soup with potatoes. Another meal included a pot of shredded beef in a chile broth and rice with corn that the family cut bananas onto, then covered with cocoa-based mole sauce.

At several meals, we passed whole avocados around the table, each of us cutting off a chunk.

Mexico is fruit heaven. But you have to know your supplier in order to be safe. Elvira, Sergio's wife and host mom, was scrupulous in her care. Her family drinks purified water, and she cooks and washes her food with it.

Fruit was a complement to every meal at the Rendons' home. Elvira made runs for fruit twice a week and kept huge bowls full on the sideboard behind where Senor sat at the head of the table.

Each day, we ate breakfast at about 9:30 a.m. On some mornings, Elvira prepared scrambled eggs, sausage or waffles. On other days, we munched on fruit and sweet rolls. The blintzes were a Sunday special.

Our big meal began each day at about 3:30 or 4 p.m. I paid for lodging and two meals, so when I was hungry later at night, I went out and foraged lightly at about 10 p.m. I ususally wasn't hungry after cena, the main meal, until breakfast.

The highlight of the trip was Sunday's repast, which began at 2:30 p.m. around a huge table on a patio overlooking a lake in the countryside and ended at about 8:30 p.m. One of those great days in life, it will go down in my memory as The Feast of the Three Families.

This was where I discovered I like pork rinds.

If you are repulsed by the thought of fried pork rinds, take heart. At first glance, they looked like tiny rings of raw onion. The consistency was slightly rubbery, but less so than, say, squid, and the taste was unexpected -- not smoky or porky, but fragrant.

The daylong meal began with fried tortillas and guacamole, jicama and cucumbers, both marinated in lemon and doused lightly with the powder of dried chiles. The chile powder you find in most stores here includes salt and preservatives that change the taste of simple dried chiles. There is no comparison.

Following the lead of the others, I spread the guacamole on the entire tortilla. Something happens to avocados when they make the trip north; I have never had fresher guac than I had in Mexico.

You can't cross the border with produce, and there are good reasons for this. Your basket of fresh foods from Mexico could include some pests unfamiliar to your plants back home. There is also some poetic justice in this restriction: Only in Mexico can you eat what is truly Mexican.

Related Recipes:

Mole Verde
Elvira's Frijoles
Marinated Pork Rind Salad

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