By Jose Gaspar
The cooler weather is here, and I welcome it. It means leaves will turn colors and brighten up the neighborhood. It will no longer be too hot to ride a bicycle in the middle of the afternoon or take a walk. No more shorts and sandals, although my friend Bruce will still wear shorts no matter what the temperature is outside. And I'll also crave a dish of pozole (poh-so-leh). Truth be told, I like pozole all year round, but it tends to be served up more often in the winter months. What a shame.
For those of you who have never had this pre-Columbian meal, pozole is a traditional soup or stew from Mexico made with maize, meat, usually pork or chicken, chili peppers and other seasonings. There are side garnishes to customize your bowl of pozole such as cabbage, thinly sliced radishes, chopped onions, avocados and cilantro. Instead of eating it with a tortilla, it is served with tostadas or pork rinds.
Just like tamales, pozole is commonly served around Christmastime. Maybe this has something to do with the fact that pozole once had a ritual significance to the indigenous people of Mexico. They ate it up. In his book, "General History of the Things of New Spain," circa 1500 by Fray Bernardino de Sahagun, the good padre mentions pozole. Maize, or corn, was considered a sacred plant for the peoples of Mesoamerica, and it was used in making pozole, which was to be consumed on special occasions.
Maize is probably the most important plant for much of the Spanish-speaking world, with the ancient Olmecs and Mayas cultivating it in different varieties. It remains a basic staple today and is used of course in making tortillas (flour or corn, as they say in restaurants), tamales and other good stuff.
For the ancient peoples, maize had a spiritual tone. They believed the gods made humans out of masa, which is cornmeal dough. The Aztec emperor Moctezuma would honor the god of the sun by eating and serving pozole. And during those times, human meat was used in making pozole, courtesy of prisoners caught by Aztec warriors. After the Spanish conquest, cannibalism was banned and the ingredients of pozole changed, but the staple corn remained. And instead of human meat, pork became the staple meat because it "tasted very similar." Today, red, green or while pozole is available depending on the seasoning sauce. The most common around here is the red one.
But apparently, it's not common enough. Not for me, anyway. My wife and I have lost count of how many Mexican restaurants we've dined at all around Bakersfield and surrounding areas. Sad to say that only a few of them serve this meal made for an emperor (minus the human meat). And I can only wonder why. I say, if you serve it, they will eat it. Some places that do have it serve it only on weekends, perhaps because it can be laborious to make.
So I asked my friend Art Ruiz of La Mina restaurant on Auburn Street about this injustice. "It's a dish for the wintertime," Art said. Oh, come on! Currently, no La Mina restaurants offer it. I say if you offer it, they will order it. "People do ask for it," said Art. See? In fact, there's a restaurant in Chicago called Pozoleria San Juan that specializes in pozole and its many varied forms. A whole restaurant dedicated to pozole! Maybe it can branch out west and come here.
As long as we're talking about food here, other items I sorely miss are barbacoa, tortilla soup and good spicy salsa. Barbacoa de cabeza is slow-cooked beef from cattle head. Properly prepared, it is moist with natural juices. Try it on a corn tortilla with some good green salsa, and it is heavenly! The closest thing I can compare it to is deep-pit beef, but barbacoa has its own unique texture and taste.
As for tortilla soup, you'd think it would be more of a staple at most restaurants. I mean, if Taco Bell can offer it, surely more locals can whip up a more authentic version. Unlike pozole, tortilla soup is quick to make and consists of crispy fried strips of corn tortillas, chicken and seasoning including chili peppers. Add custom ingredients to taste such as avocado and onions.
My last quest is to find good spicy salsa. I can't tell you how many times I've gone in to a restaurant only to be disappointed when they bring out the chips and salsa. The salsa is so bland and watered down that it sorely lacks any flavor. A good salsa has to emit an aroma that tells you it is freshly made and loaded with savor. Good thing my wife usually has a plastic bag of serrano peppers in her purse when we go out to eat, as we put salsa or chili peppers on just about anything. Everything goes better with spicy salsa.
Perhaps I might have missed some places that offer pozole, barbacoa and good spicy salsa. If you know of such a place, let me know and I'll forever be in your debt. Meanwhile, I'm trying to convince my friend Art to put pozole on the menu.
"We might do it," he said. Yes!
-- Jose Gaspar is a reporter for "KBAK/KBFX Eyewitness News" and a contributing columnist for The Californian. These are Gaspar's opinions, not necessarily The Californian's. Email him at email@example.com.