In an old house a few blocks from the historic center of Mérida, Mexico, there is a restaurant created to recover and bring to light the different varieties of corn that grow in the Yucatán region: Pancho Maíz. Their dishes, inspired by the recipes of local mothers and grandmothers, rescue native products with which they speak, through flavor, about the traditions and culture of the area.
A sacred ingredient for the different native communities of Latin America, corn has been the basis and sustenance of the diet of the center and south of the Americas. The culture of corn has a millenary tradition that has given rise to religious and artistic connotations that are still present throughout Latin America today. The genesis of the Maya people – the so-called men of corn – was based on its grain, “which is made of God, his creation,” according to the Popol Vuh, their sacred book. For this culture, corn was holy. “Of yellow corn and of white corn they made their flesh; of corn-meal dough they made the arms and the legs of man,” its first chapter reads.
The strong bond to this product created by the Mayan civilization throughout all of Mesoamerica is the basis of one of the key ingredients of their diet. Corn, common in all Latin American society, is responsible for the basic nutrition of many families in this part of the world. For this reason, when Xóchitl Valdés and Selena Cárdenas, owners and cooks of Pancho Maíz, found out that the corn varieties from Yucatán were disappearing because no one was growing or selling them, they set to work to try to achieve their replanting and promotion in the state, with the help of local farmers.
“Searching for supplies throughout the region, we realized that, although it is an agricultural area that’s very rich in corn, this product came from outside. In Yucatán, the men of the families grow corn and the women grind it, but they do it for their own consumption, so it is only possible to buy the surplus of their crops. Also, speaking with people from the villages, they told us that many of the varieties of corn were being lost because the industry sold only yellow or white corn flour, disregarding the colored native varieties, giving the idea that they were worse,” explains Xóchitl Valdés, who four years ago left everything to partner with Selena Cárdenas to set up a corn mill in which to work with rescued seeds.
“In addition to selling our corn tortillas, made from nixtamalized flint corn seeds, we served tacos and quesadillas with different fillings,” she explains. “We started buying surplus corn and giving old seeds to families to grow, with which they became our suppliers. We created a small menu so that, while the tortilla dough was being made, people could eat these antojitos [traditional, corn-based Mexican snacks]. The tortillas were made by hand, the pre-Hispanic way, with corn from the region that was red or purple. Our idea was to give lower and middle class people access to high-end products and dishes, but they were never well received because they wanted common, processed tortillas. But when foreigners discovered us, they understood what we were doing and we began to transform into a restaurant,” she says.
This ode to corn, captured in Pancho Maíz’ menu, is a true tribute to a product that the entire Latin American community has in common; one of the most important ingredients in its culinary history. Thanks to this project, “for some time now, seed fairs have been held in Yucatán, where residents get together and share or exchange them,” says Valdés, emphasizing that they only use seeds from the region purchased directly from the cooperatives of communities such as Maxcanu, Opichen, Calkini, Hopelchen, Acanceh, Muna or Oxkutzcab.
In addition to the flint corn seeds, their dishes – inspired by traditional recipes but prepared with different techniques – also rescue other native products of Mexico. “In the milpas (the name that the ancient Mexicans gave to the cultivation areas), you can also find Spanish peanuts, sesame seeds, jicamas, local melons or paipais, ibes or espelon beans, manzano bananas, red plantains, as well as different types of mangoes,” explains Valdés. This is how they adapt traditional dishes such as ranchero-style eggs, bean tlacoyos with pressed chicharrón, sopes, grilled cheese or tamales, in addition to sweet options such as xoconostle cheesecake, sweet tamal or drinks like pinole, a pre-Hispanic beverage whose name comes from the word pinolli, which means “ground and toasted corn.”
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