In Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, a cooking class that turned out be a real turkey


The market in Mérida, Mexico, is a bustling place that sells all manner of chili peppers. (Alamy)
November 21, 2013

I’ve cooked many a Thanksgiving turkey in my day. I’ve brined them and dry-brined them, roasted them, grilled them, stuffed them and fried them. Name a way to prepare that traditional holiday bird, and I’ve done it.

But I won’t be doing it this year.

For finally freeing me from that Sisyphean task, I thank my trip to the Yucatán.

I’d flown to Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula at Thanksgiving for a wedding and had a day to kill. So I signed up for a class called “A Taste of the Yucatán.” It promised a market tour before returning to the kitchen, where we would cook our finds into “typical comida fuerte — the hefty Yucatecan afternoon meal.” I had visions of learning to cook cochinita pibil, a traditional local pork dish.

I showed up at the appointed address in central Mérida, the capital city of Yucatán state, at 8 a.m. and found myself with a dozen other American tourists sitting in a palm-tree-lined courtyard sipping coffee around a stunningly azure plunge pool. Then our teacher, who introduced himself as “Chef David,” herded us into the blue-and-white-tiled kitchen. Pots hung over the giant stove in the center of the room and tiled counters lined the walls.

“Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!” Chef David exclaimed. “Since it’s Thanksgiving, we’re going to cook a pavo chile negro today!”

A turkey in black chili sauce? Really? I was disappointed. Have I said that turkey’s not my favorite thing? I blame the Thanksgiving meal. I know that people adore it, but I’ve always felt that the difference between the very best version and the most mediocre is minimal. I trace my lack of enthusiasm for it to the fact that family Thanksgivings when I was growing up were spent in my grandparents’ overheated condo in St. Paul, Minn., downing reheated turkey and boxed stuffing.

Still, turkey is a favorite meat in the Yucatán, it was Thanksgiving, and I do love spicy food. So I got on board this black chili train.

“We’ll be going to the mercado to buy what we’ll need, but first I wanted to give you a peek at what we’ll be seeing,” Chef David announced.

He passed various chili peppers and herbs around the kitchen, telling us their names and how they’re used. Okay, I could see why we might do this in the relative calm of his spacious kitchen instead of yelling through the din of the market. But when we’d all smelled the herbs and asked some questions, it seemed time to head out.

Then Chef David said, “Of course, you really can’t understand Mayan cuisine without knowing the entire history of this peninsula.”

My heart sank. The entire history? The lucky ones among us settled deeper into their chairs; the rest of us slumped harder against our spots along the counter.

“Now, David,” David said out loud after mentioning that the sauce served with salbutes (turkey tostadas) has habaneros in it, “don’t forget to tell them more about the habanero later.” Apparently, foreshadowing — and addressing himself — were rhetorical techniques that the chef took seriously.

Later, “that’s what we do,” he said, talking about chilies for the fourth or fifth time. “We toast and we grind, we toast and we grind. We do this because this is how we’ve always done it. This is our way.”

We? Our? David wasn’t Mayan. He wasn’t even Mexican. He was one of the American expats who had moved to Mérida in the 1990s, on the back of the strong dollar, to live their early-retirement dream in the midst of the city’s abundant colonial architecture.

David’s particular dream, I was sourly concluding, was to beautifully refurbish a crumbling building in the centro histórico as an inn and torture American tourists with rambling half-baked history lectures under the guise of culinary instruction.

“Look at the time!” he exclaimed as the clock ticked past 11:30. “We need to get to the market!” He shook his head. “The more I learn, the longer that lecture gets!”

We followed David down the narrow sidewalks to a sprawling covered market heaped with piles of chilies and squash. Old Mayan ladies in brightly embroidered white dresses squatted between bowls of masa and hot griddles, patting fresh tortillas into shape. The stalls melded into one another, they were so close, and the smell from the carts selling cochinita pibil and salbutes overwhelmed all the others.

David called out greetings to the vendors and pointed out achiote paste and pretty much every chili pepper known to man as we wove through the labyrinth of stalls. It was almost noon, and all I’d had to eat was half a pastry with my coffee beside the pool, more than three hours earlier. I spotted a vendor selling salbutes, and I pulled out my wallet.

“What are you doing?” David shrieked. He grabbed my wallet and thrust it back into my bag. “We’re about to cook a huge meal!”

We left the market an hour and a half later. David was carrying only a bag of squash blossoms. Everything else, he explained, had already been purchased. So much for buying what we’d need at the market.

A cross-culinary experiment

Back in the kitchen, David began the cooking part of the cooking lessons that had started almost five hours earlier. He assigned me onion-chopping duty. I cut the stem end off one onion and promptly asked for a sharper knife.

“Oh,” Chef David said, “they’re all like that. If you can teach a Mayan to keep the knives sharp, let me know!”

The room fell silent.

“I’m serious!” he yelled. “You people don’t live here. You don’t know what it’s like. No matter how many times I explain to wash the knives separately and put them in the knife block, they end up ruined!”

To a person, we stared at whatever counter was in front of us in disbelief. David’s love of and reverence for the Mayans and their culture had popped like a dish bubble at the mention of a sharp knife.

“Oh, come on!” he cajoled. “We need to get working if this meal will ever be cooked!”

An hour later, we were all starving. The sopa de lima, a Yucatecan specialty of chicken soup brightened with lime juice, was almost done. David promised that the food would be served just as soon as he’d finished demonstrating how to wrap the stuffed, deboned turkey in cheesecloth before setting it to stew in relleno negro, a black chili sauce.

We sat down to our sopa de lima. It was amazing. Rich broth from chicken and onions with a bright burst from lime juice. Delicate squash blossoms floated on top with a swirl of white crema. We all spooned the manna into our hungry mouths as David talked about renovating the building and what a wreck it had been. He and his partner had done an amazing job.

Maybe it was the beautiful, colorful mural of Mérida and the market on the dining room walls, or maybe it was the calming nourishment of the soup, but I found myself slightly less annoyed with the class and willing to give the whole thing another shot. Maybe, I thought to myself, more culinary delights would come out of that kitchen.

“David,” I asked, “I think a lot of us were wondering about the turkey dish. Can you tell us a bit about it?”

“It’s my own creation!” he exclaimed. “I use a French stuffing of pork, pork liver and onion and the Mayan sauce. It’s delicious!”

That turkey didn’t sound delicious at all to me. Traditional pavo chile negro — a turkey braised in a rich sauce made of dried chili peppers, onions, garlic, tomatoes, cloves, cumin and allspice — sounded possibly fabulous, but stuffing a deboned bird with French pâté and stewing it wrapped in cheesecloth sounded like a cross-culinary experiment that wouldn’t fuse.

Also, so much for the traditional Yucatecan cooking class I’d paid a hundred bucks for.

“Let’s see,” he said, looking at his watch, “it will be ready in about two hours.”

No, I thought. I won’t sit here listening to this man for another two hours in order to eat something I don’t want to eat, no matter how gorgeous the inn or how hungry I am. I grabbed my bag, made my apologies — claiming that I had a wedding event to help out with — and left.

To hell with that turkey, I thought.

On the walk back to my hotel, I vowed never again to spend all day making a Thanksgiving meal I didn’t want to eat.

For my first turkey-free Thanksgiving, I made manti, lamb-filled Turkish dumplings no bigger than my thumbnail. Another year, I made lasagna Bolognese from scratch, pasta included. Last year, we forwent the entire holiday and headed to Mexico City, where we happily tucked into chili-crusted fish at Oscar Wilde 9 instead of a turkey dinner on Thursday. This year, I’m thinking gumbo. Maybe some crab etouffee to start. And homemade beignets for dessert.

And I’m already plotting to get my family to Buenos Aires for Thanksgiving 2014.

Watson is a writer and recipe developer in San Francisco. Find her recipes at localfoods.about.com.

Comments
Show Comments
Most Read Lifestyle