The legendary chef answers the question…What did you eat today, Jeremiah Tower?
Until you have tasted a pig right out of the ground, you cannot know the meaning of perfect fat. At a house in Caucel, Yucatan, a day ago, I did. I was there to find out how nixtamalizacion is done at the grandma level–as opposed to in nationalized factories turning out masa (the ground corn paste that makes tortillas). That factory stuff is poisonous and tastes like it–industrial fat is killing everyone after it first fattens them up. Now when I walked through the door to bow to grandma there was so much smoke coming across the patio that I thought we were burning down. She shooed aside the huge white turkeys with turquoise wattles, clucked at the dogs asleep and in the way, and led me back to the fire. There on top of a decent pile of flaming logs was an enormous kettle filled with corn and, she said, “cal.” (Cal is short for calcium hydroxide, or dried lime.) Soaked in cal water overnight and then simmered for eight hours, the husk falls right off the kernels of corn. After that it was time to dig our fingers into a pig that had been turned into cochanita pibil by marinating in achiote paste and sour orange juice, wrapped in banana leaves, and cooked in a hot-stone pit in the ground. The dogs woke up, licked my fingers, and went back to sleep.
I felt like a nap too, but was due on the Yucatan Gulf Coast in a tranquil village called Sisal. This used to be the port from which all the Yucatan’s rope fiber from sisal was exported to the world, but now it relies mainly on fish and sustainable quiet to survive. After a lesson at one house on how to make fish kibbe, and then another on how to make ceviche out of fish still jumping on the butchering table, I arrived at the lagoon as the white-tern-laced sky turned flamingo pink. With throat muscles parched from the nixtamalization smoke, my heart leapt when I saw a long table with a white tablecloth and a huge tub of iced beer. “Just one,” I was told, “we still have to catch the crabs.” The temperature was still hovering around 95 and had hit around 110 next to that fire, so I announced I was not going near any crabs, blue or otherwise, until I had sucked down two cold ones. Then we were off across the glass-like water and an hour later came back with a basket of crabs. In the almost dark I could see more fire. One to fry the blue crabs and one to cook an enormous grouper that had appeared from a basket on a nearby tricycle. The fisherman split the grouper open, smeared more achiote adobo on it, and covered it with sliced tomatoes and sweet red onions. After two more beers and some damage from a bottle of tequila that appeared out of the dark I was not sure what fat the crabs were sizzling in. Pig or peanut? It didn’t matter since we chewed the crisp legs and sucked out the steaming juices from the bodies. As for the fish, I scooped up the tomatoes and onions and ate those first in some tortillas we had brought from Caucel, had another beer, looked out at the black lagoon, listened to my favorite Yucatan birds, the X’kau or grackles, bedding down for the night, and smiled at the victorious cries of the egrets as they finally found a perch. I knew I certainly had. // Jeremiah Tower