2000s Archive

Mexican Outback

Originally Published September 2003
In coastal Veracruz, the road less traveled leads to coffee plantations, raging rivers, and six-foot tamales.

There isn’t an easy road to follow in Veracruz. They all seem to be littered with pot-holes the size of small ponds and punctuated by topes, speed bumps that appear out of nowhere in the middle of tiny villages of thatch-roofed huts. If you bang into one of those topes going, say, 30 miles an hour with a trunk full of luggage, you may find your brain rattling around inside your skull and the muffler of your rental car broken into bits on the roadside.

It can take you three hours to travel 60 miles here, but in the moonlight, when the mangrove trees turn silver and the dense tropical air smells like vanilla and orange blossoms and allspice, it doesn’t matter much. You crank up the Antonio Aguilar CD, open the windows wide to the night air, hit another pothole, and keep driving. The Mexico you’re entering is nothing like the country you thought you knew.

If you land in—and never go beyond—the cosmopolitan port city from which the state of Veracruz takes its name, you can say you’ve become acquainted with this slip of land on the Gulf of Mexico. And you have, in a way. There, you can find the freshest fish in the country, hauled in daily, deposited in the market, and then reincarnated as ensalada de mariscos. If you’re there on a Saturday night, you can put on your white Panama hat and do as the locals do—go to the Plaza de Armas and perform the courtly, Cuban-inflected danzón. You can have breakfast at the Gran Café de la Parroquia and eat velvety-smooth huevos tirados (omelets with black beans) while a waiter, summoned by the tap of a spoon, tops off your glass of high-test Cuban coffee with a stream of hot milk from a kettle held a couple of feet above your head, completing the ritual of café lechero. You can duck into the suburb of Boca del Río, at the mouth of the Río Jamapa, eat a seafood cocktail called vuelve a la vida (“return to life”), and, to the syncopation of a jarocho guitarist strumming at your elbow, drink deeply of the sea air. This may be the only heaven you need.

But sometimes your pulse can’t just beat; it has to race. And in the state of Veracruz, that happens when you hit the road into the country, attack the topes head-on, and just drive. For Veracruz isn’t Puebla, and it isn’t Oaxaca. It’s part Africa, and it’s a bit of Cuba and the Caribbean, and it’s a whole lot of Spain. When the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés arrived here on Good Friday in 1519 and christened his settlement Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz (“Rich Town of the True Cross”), he forever changed its sense of place. Cubans joined the Span­iards in their struggle to control the lands of the indigenous Aztec, Huastec, and Totonac peoples, and enslaved Africans were brought in to work the sugar plantations. Over time, the cultures mixed, and nowhere was this mestizo culture more evident than it was (and still is) in the fields and orchards and kitchens of the region. Huastec farmers cultivate corn; Totonac growers hand-pollinate vanilla orchids; and yuca, sweet potatoes, plantains, and peanuts mix with Caribbean spices, native chiles, and Spanish olive oil to form a cuisine unlike any other in Mexico.

Only about 150,000 Huastec survive in Veracruz. When Cortés arrived they were an agrarian people who worshiped Centeotl, the god of corn. Today, along the Gulf Coast in the northern Huasteca, near the city of Tampico, it’s oil, not corn, that’s god, and Pemex refineries dot the shoreline. But gradually, as you leave town, oil tankers are replaced by herons dipping into salt marshes with early-morning light on their wings and humpbacked bulls lazing under shade trees.

If it’s Sunday, you’d be well advised to follow that road all the way to Tantoyuca, a town in the hills about 100 miles from Tampico. Sunday is market day, and the winding, rutted streets are taken over by stands of the usual suspects—wrinkled, dried black chiles mulatos; reddish black chiles chinos; chiles cascabeles and chipotles; just-picked lemons and black beans; fat little chorizos and marigold-yellow chickens, along with the other regional ingredients that let you know you’re in Vera­cruz: cinnamon and allspice and locally produced yuca and green coffee beans and the small rounds of the mild white cheese called requesón, toasted and ground peanuts, coconuts, dried shrimp, and raw sugar wrapped in palm leaves. The air becomes seasoned with hints of woodsmoke mingling with a steamy exhalation of corn and sizzling meat as families cram around picnic tables to feast on zacahuitl, a hulking Huastec tamale that is a weekly celebration of community life as well as an homage to corn. You might be tempted to pull up a seat at the picnic table, and the zacahuitl you buy at the market is a fine thing indeed. But if you hold on to your appetite long enough, one of Tantoyuca’s cooks may invite you over for dinner. It’s worth the wait.

Cruz Torres Perea, or Cuti, as everyone calls her, makes maybe the best zacahuitl in the Huasteca. And she’s about to share it with a bunch of strangers. “Let’s open it outside,” she says. Nobody argues. The blimp-shaped object in her arms is bigger than most fireplace logs and appears to have been hastily woven from stalks of burned grass. Cuti lugs the monster through the rooms of her cinder-block house and sets it down on a card table on the balcony. Wisps of charred banana and palm leaves float over the white floor tiles as Cuti, in her housedress and flowered apron, peels back layer upon layer to reveal the crusty brown tamale of coarse-grained masa, its interior packed with pork and chicken, made spicy and sweet with ancho chiles. Sometimes she tosses in chunks of ham and faldilla (skirt steak), she says, and venison was once used, but one thing never changes: The zacahuitl, which traditionally could be up to six feet long, take 3 people to roll and wrap, and was built to feed 50 people, is baked for seven hours in a communal wood-fired clay oven. (That mammoth oven, just up the hill from Cuti’s house, is a smoldering brick beehive big enough to accommodate up to three enormous zacahuitles.) Cuti’s smaller version, whose recipe has been passed down from generation to generation, can feed 20, she says, and often does.

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