Grilling for the 4th? Try the Wixárika Way

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What would the Smithsonian Folklife Festival be without food? Yesterday, Amanda extolled the virtues of the lassi sold by the Indian food vendors at the festival. But tasty treats on sale at the Mall aren’t the only culinary curio that will be leaving us after Monday: the festival also features daily demonstrations of many ethnic cooking techniques.

In the festival's "La Cocina" tent, I met members of an indigenous ethnic group from western Mexico, the Wixárika (the “x” is pronounced like an “h”) people, who inhabit a region that covers parts of Durango, Jalisco and Nayarit. They prepared a traditional meal that would be served at one of three major ceremonies during the year in their culture.

Heading into the 4th of July weekend, I found their presentation particularly fitting. Grilled meat, music, copious amounts of drinking and ritual animal sacrifice—sounds just like backyard barbecues in the U.S., doesn't it? (Okay, so maybe not the last part.)

I watched as Basilia Muñoz and several other Wixárika women prepared some of the gastronomical goodies their people consume at seasonal fiestas. (The ceremonies themselves are also demonstrated daily at the festival.) It’s simple food—the Wixárika don’t use any seasonings beyond salt, and they don’t cook with oil—but it’s steeped in tradition.

Supermarkets may have superceded traditional culinary practices in other places, but the Wixárika women (who do all of the food preparation in their culture) still make their tortillas entirely from scratch. Using a metate, a large flat stone (versions bought in the U.S. have little legs on them), they grind nixtamal, corn cooked in limewater. They add water and roll it into a dough. Nowadays, many people use a tortilla press, but traditionally the tortillas would be shaped by hand.

The tortillas are then cooked on a comal—a large, round clay griddle heated over an open flame. At ceremony time, each family will prepare a tray of smaller, almost coin-sized tortillas served as a ritual offering to the musicians and shamans, called marakames, who lead the ceremony, chanting and singing all night long and fasting for several days.

The sacrificial bull is carved up into long ropes of meat, which used to be so it could be dried and preserved, although modern refrigeration has made that unnecessary. The meat is seasoned only with salt and placed directly on the hot coals of an open fire or cooked on wooden sticks. The women turn it with their bare fingers.

Grilled cactus leaves, or nopales, also figure prominently in Wixárika cuisine. They harvest baby leaves from wild cactus plants in the mountains or deserts of central Mexico, cut out the thorns and serve it in soups or white molé (mixed with chilies and corn dough)—or simply grilled, as they prepared it at the festival.

Their salsa involves only fresh tomatoes, fresh chiles and a little salt. The vegetables are roasted on the comal—I noticed that the women used their nails to puncture holes in the chiles to prevent them from exploding. Then all the ingredients are pulverized in a molcajete, a mortar and pestle similar to the metate but smaller and bowl-shaped.

Traditionally, in Mexico, Wixárika people would gather stones from around their home and use them as molcajetes for generations. But now when young couples get married, they are more likely to purchase a metate or molcajete at the store.

And what would any fiesta be without libations? Before such festivals, the women spend weeks making tejuino, a traditional fermented corn drink made from the same dough as the tortillas. Entire days can be spent grinding, straining and mixing, the complicated drink. It isn’t bitter, but it’s also not quite sweet, Basilia tells me via a translator. “It just tastes fermented,” she says.

So, it’s too late to try your hand at tejuino this year, but you could still give your 4th of July barbeque a Wixáritari twist with some of the elements above. Grill up some bull meat and cactus, wrap it in a homemade tortilla with fresh salsa, and enjoy!

Guest writer Brandon Springer is spending the summer at Smithsonian magazine through an American Society of Magazine Editors internship.

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