It is difficult in any field to be the first presenter of the day, but when the presentation takes place at a major international culinary congress it is even more so. Chefs, culinary media and aficionados who attend also like to experience what the local region has to offer and even for those from the area, it is not everyday that they get to have fun with a wide array of international peers. In short, it is party time. Credit must be given, though, to the organizers of Mesamérica, who programmed the start of the day at a relatively reasonable 10:30Am. Even with that, though, people straggled in and the coffee machines were in high demand.
The dubious honor of being the first speaker of the day went to Mara Robles, the Mexican Secretary of Education, who announced a project in conjunction with Alice Waters to show children where food comes from. She emphasized the importance of teaching children about food and how to make good choices. She also emphasized the importance of feeding school children healthy diets and described her and her government’s efforts at feeding those children in such a way. Despite the hour and the many bleary eyes, she conveyed her important message well.
Following the vein of community activism, the next speaker duo, Gabriela Vargas and Ana Elena Guerra highlighted their efforts at promoting community agriculture within the confines of Mexico city itself. At first glance, given the smog and hyper-urban nature of the city, one might not expect it to be a city to lend itself to agriculture, but so far their eforts have been very successful with a number of local restaurants, amongst others, using their quality produce.
The Basque Culinary Center is a major initiative in promoting the flow of ideas in knowledge in culinary circles. To that end, the next program on stage focused on a discussion on “Culinary Connections.” Led by Joxe Maria Aizega and including Spanish luminary chefs Ricard Camarena, Enrique Fleschmann, Alvaro Garrido and Mario Sandoval, and Mexican chefs Jorge Vallejo and Basque born Mikel Alonso, the discussion covered a lot of ground. Many important points were emphasized. Here, paraphrased, are a few from the various speakers that particularly resonated: What is the point of connecting to the world if wee are disconnecting from ourselves?; We need to know what makes us happy, to develop our identity, to work on what we really want; Know cultures of countries different from yours where you learn to cook in different manner; It is important to learn the recent why of things; Come close to an expert who can tell you why things do what they do in the kitchen; Cooking is an exchange of culture; Spain got a great wealth of products from the Americas (and vice versa); we are a pool of experiences and we don’t always realize where they come from; the driving force of what you do has got to be your guests, who you cook your meals for; what is known as the Mediterranean diet today wasn’t the Mediterranean diet 1,000 years ago, it was important we opened our borders to new influences; it is necessary to keep one’s mind open to new ideas; you have to respect what you see in the country you go to and you have to be respected for your work; and perhaps most important, we share together and we make each other richer.
The discussion of culinary connections made an excellent segue into the presentation of Eric Werner, a chef, who grew up in upstate NY in a farming community, came of age as a cook in NYC and along with his wife returned to the land in Tulum, Mexico in the heart of the Yucatan peninsula. Werner talked about the sense of isolation and community in the Mayan jungle, where everyone and everything is interdependent and the most is made through hard work and the traditions of the Mayan milpa system. Through recounting his own experiences in the Yucatan as well as reading those of others, Werner provided a sense from an outsider’s perspective of both the difficulties and the joys of the environment. The Yucatan represents a very difficult place to grow food and to farm, but somehow, through much hard work and persistence, the locals manage and moreso, according to Werner, manage with bright smiles and strong optimism. It was this that Werner found most appealing and inspiring upon settling in the area to open a restaurant. Among the lessons that he has learned are the importance of function and simplicity. While the homes and buildings of the area seem simple, they are in fact, finely thought out. Nothing exists without a distinct purpose. This has translated to his own kitchen, which relies on the essentials. The Mayans know what they want from the forests, farms, water and jungles even before they go out to get it and are efficient in the process. Heartwood, Werner’s restaurant, relies on the basics including solar power, live fire, no walls and a reliance on a milpa-like system for sustainable agriculture as well as long market runs into the jungle several times per week. All fish are hunted and caught by themselves using spearguns. For Werner, the most important thing is not so much what one is cooking, but that one is cooking with the best intention in mind and serving one’s neighbors as one would like to be served.
After a spin in the Yucatan with Eric Werner, the content took a turn back to Mexico City via another expat from the USA, David Lida, a writer who has fallen in love with Mexico. In a very entertaining speaking style, Lida took his audience on a tour of his favorite Mexico City cantinas, small neighborhood restaurants that tend to specialize in particular dishes. These are places of great character, ambiance and food, quite unlike anything anywhere else, based on their tremendous generosity as much as anything.
The morning session finished with Dante Ferrero, an Argentine cooking in Monterey. Ferrero was all about meat and would fit right in to Josh Ozersky’s Meatopia festivals.
In addition to describing his work at roasting whole cows, he served a freshly grill-roasted rack of beef to share amongst the audience.
A few friends, my son and I stepped out for a totally beguiling lunch at Rosetta, an area Mexican restaurant with Italian and French influence. Alice Waters sat a couple tables away. The lunch was so beguiling that we didn’t make it back in time for the beginning of the afternoon session, completely missing some interesting presentations on “Opening a Bar: From Dream to Adventure” by the Argentine, Tato Giovannoni (I really would have loved to make that one!) and a presentation on Mexican food trucks by Edgar Nuñez, Maricarmen Linares and Bernardo Bukantz. By the time we did get back, it was towards the end of the presentation by the Brazilian chef, Rodrigo Oliveira, who spoke on “Dry Land, Deep Roots and Intense Flavors.” Olveira was followed by a film on Mexico’s cheap restaurants that was presented by Daniel Hernandez.
Alice Waters may be the biggest advocate for Slow Food in the Americas. Her reputation at Chez Panisse was built on presenting well grown and raised, quality ingredients, simply and deliciously, letting their natural flavors and textures shine. She took that approach to her presentation, speaking of our connection to the land and our responsibility for taking care of it. Waters emphasized that our “fast food culture” is distracting us from “real issues,” causing us to lose a true sense of what a connection to the land feels like. She stressed that this culture is “insidious” and needs to be countered. She urged getting back to to a positive relationship with nature through food by growing our own, or at least knowing where food comes from to discover how dependent we really are on soil. She said, “Fast food culture tells us cooking our own food is too much work and takes too much time, but this is not so. Growing our own food can be pleasurable and affordable and sometimes a measure of survival.” Her own family had been inspired by the Victory Garden movement during World War 2. She and they learned that people CAN grow their own food. People with vegetable gardens send a vital message about stewardship of the land as do people when they make a commitment to buy vegetables from a farm. To Waters, this network connects everyone – farmers, cooks and patrons, to the land and by association everyone is a steward of the land. It also happens to result in delicious vegetables! One of the main reasons she came to Mesamérica was that she wanted to know what was happening in Mexico and other countries, wanted to know how people are solving the problems, and wanted to know what their practices are.
Waters stressed, “when we don’t buy real food from farmers ranchers and fisherman, the whole environment suffers… we need to be constantly vigilant.” However, with this vigilance, sometimes even bad things can have good consequences. For example, the emergence of Mad Cow Disease, a health disaster, made people stand up and take notice about what was going on. It made people care about where their food came from. Food sourcing and food subsequently changed for the better in Britain, where Mad Cow came to light. Still, she cautioned, people need to remain vigilant as fast food culture tries to masquerade and invade farmers markets as products that they are not.
According to Waters, “schools are the most fertile grounds for change” with nothing as powerful an agent for change as “actually being in nature.” “This respect for nature can be awakened in all of us,” Waters noted, but “especially when still young, as children are still open to learning.” She opined, “how great would it be if school cafeterias supported small farms and small farms supported school cafeterias?” and then spoke about the genesis and role of “edible schoolyard” projects like those in New Orleans. That one, she said, came out of a similar project in a San Francisco jail, which was so successful, that the inmates wanted to go back once they had been released back into the community. She said, “if this could happen in a jail it could certainly happen in a school.” These kinds of projects need not be limited to jails and schools. Waters described another project in the “fast food infested” inner city neighborhood of South Central LA. Started by Ron Finley, the Green Grounds Project planted food on the streets. These “edible landscapes” deserve to be utilized in more inner cities and places where “hunger is so prevalent.”
Alice Waters finished her presentation with a heartfelt exhortation that transcended national boundaries and spoke deeply to the contemporary Mexican food culture, which is as under siege as that in the United States. She said, “cooks need to be gardeners and gardeners need to be cooks” in order to ensure the stability of our food system. Waters said that she recently gained a much deeper understanding of what that means – “we truly are what we eat.” When we eat fast food we digest not only the ingredients, but the values of the culture. When we eat fast, cheap ingredients, everything is the same and the result is that we want and create the world like that. With Slow Food, however, we have the values of the land and all that comes with that. She evoked Thomas Jefferson, who planted his garden for the pleasures of the table and combed the world for different ingredients. He planted a thimble-full of lettuce seeds every week to always have lettuce on his table. Waters opined, that “all of us need to bring back respect and support for these values, not only for the pleasure of our lives, but for the survival of this planet.” She finished with a nice bookend to the first two presentations of the day by saying, “we are on the front lines, we are the leaders and we can revive the victory gardens of years ago and inspire everywhere…in our schools…we can bring people back to their senses by demonstrating vital link between what we eat and the land.”
Alice Waters would have made a fine and appropriate ending to the savory/non-pastry portion of Mesamérica, but there was still more fun to be had, even if the subject, Thai Street Food, was not immediately intuitive in its relevance to the cuisine of Mexico. Featuring perhaps the two biggest non-Thai giants of Thai cooking, David Thompson and Andy Ricker, the connection became apparent by the nature of the kind of cooking inherent with street food anywhere. Thailand, like Mexico, is a bastion of street food. Thompson with the added insights of Ricker, provided a glimpse into the similarities and differences between the street foods of both cultures by describing details from Thailand. According to Thompson, “the Thais love food” and he has “never seen a people who so relish eating.” He continued, if they are not eating, if not in the market, if not preparing food, Thais are “asleep dreaming about food” and that food is the one thing that unifies the nation during their current political squabbles. For Thompson, “Thai culture is food culture.” In Thailand, street food is food that is not shared, is eaten “rather quickly,” and is a snack hybridized from Chinese, Cambodian, and Thai culinary cultures. In short, it is “fusion food.” Thompson theorized that one “could chart the history of a nation and various ethnic influences by the food you could find on the streets.” Street food in Thailand became widespread and common in the 1920s as Bangkok began to industrialize and as Chinese immigrants began to spill out into Bangkok proper and brought with them their eating habits. The food of the Chinese was “urban food,” while most Thais did not live in cities. Over the years, the Thai street food scene continued to grow and is bigger now than it was upon his arrival in Thailand in the 1980s. He went on to describe his view of what Thai street food is. According to Thompson, most “Thais work to live. They will not spend all day at work, but will work enough.” They try to inject an element of fun into everything they do including their markets, food and more. Thompson laid down a bit of a gauntlet too by proclaiming “Thai chilis make Mexican (chilis) look less scary – hands down a little bit hotter.” Thai street food can be eaten any time of the day – there is no specific breakfast food, which “can be disconcerting when you’re used to cornflakes, but Thailand is disconcerting.” In Thailand streetfood is fast food. Compared to their home cooking there are many fewer ingredients and these are cooked in front of the diner. Many Thai dishes, he said, are Chinese dishes that have been “sodomized” with slightly changed taste. Thais love eating their own home cooking but aren’t necessarily able to eat it as much as they used to. Now more people eat out than eat at home. The good news, though, is that the streets of Thailand provide delicious entertainment and diversion as well as a healthy way of eating.