In our book, the reader/cook will travel through a year of life in Mexico with all of its major festivals and fiestas that include special food. Our hope is that this journey will broaden your understanding of Mexican cuisine and culture by delving into the history behind the special events that occasion fiesta menus.
Mexico is almost 90 percent Catholic,4 and many of the holidays described in this book have religious roots or overtones. The liturgical calendar begins with Advent and the first holiday of the year is Dia de La Virgen de Guadalupe on December 12. That is where we begin our book as well, with the story of the Virgin of Guadalupe and that most quintessential of Mexican foods, tamales. Chapter by chapter, the celebrations in this book reveal a culture rich with folklore.
While we have included many, even most, of the recipes that are traditionally prepared for these special days and events, we have omitted those that require ingredients that cannot be found in the United States, such as pambazos, served up for Semana Santa but made with a bread roll that is essential to the dish and not available outside of Mexico, or recipes that call for huitlacloche or fruits such as mamey, zapote, or guanabanas.
This is just a glimpse into the festivities: with some historians counting over five thousand festivals, fiestas, fairs (ferias), and saint’s days, there is a celebration somewhere in Mexico every day of the year.5 In the pueblos, it may be a feria or the feast day of the patron saint that occasions a Kermesse (street fairs with food and games). Other celebration days are regional, usually highlighting an event or tradition important to the local culture or Indigenous group, like el Noche de los Rábanos (Radish Night), celebrated December 23 in Oaxaca, when the central plaza is filled with stalls offering radishes carved into flowers, animals, saints, and even entire nativity scenes.
To immerse oneself in Mexican cuisine is to immerse oneself in history and create a bond with an ancient culture and generations of Mexican women—not in some esoteric sense but in a very real way. Tamales are made the same way today as they were by Aztec women, with some minor modifications. The molcajete, a utensil used to ground seasoning and create salsas, is today made of the same volcanic rock of which it has been fashioned for centuries. Much of what we know about Mexican cuisine had, for years, been passed down through an oral tradition, and to this day, recipes are faithfully handwritten in the personal notebooks of Mexico’s daughters, as dictated by their mothers and grandmothers.
Every family has its own unique menus, and every family has its own special and secret recipes. Adriana Almazan Lahl, whose family recipes we share in this book, learned from her great aunts and aunts, who, in turn, learned from previous generations of Almazan women: Consuelo Almazan Reyes (Tía or “Aunt” Coni); Melquiades Almazan Reyes (Tía Melquia, who mostly baked breads and made sopas); her mother, Elena Romano de Almazan; and the family matriarch, Carmen Almazan Reyes. The food prepared by these women, their celebrations, menus, techniques, and culinary traditions have barely changed over time. That is part and parcel of what makes them so special. Newer, more convenient cooking implements are rarely substituted for old ones and ingredients are not swapped out; the cuisine is truly a testament to slow food. Adriana’s exuberance for the project comes through: “In this book I want to release my family recipes. They have been a tradition for many generations and I am proud to share them, since they are too good to be kept.”
We have provided complete menus, sometimes several, for each festive occasion, so as to allow the reader to plan a meal very much like what would be prepared in Mexico for the holiday. In most cases, the dishes suggested are the same as those that come out of Mexico’s kitchens for the fiesta or celebration covered in a particular chapter. There are days that do not have requisite menus, and for these, we have made thematic selections—for example, traditional Mexican street foods (snacks) for Benito Juarez Day and edible flowers incorporated into the dishes for Mother’s Day. The recipes are designed for a broad audience, from those seeking basic knowledge of Mexican cooking to the Mexican food aficionado. Our hope is that your culinary discoveries will leave you as enchanted by Mexican cuisine as we are!