(Photograph by Bill O'Leary)

Joe Yonan

47, Washington, food and travel editor, The Washington Post

Joe Yonan

47, Washington, food and travel editor, The Washington Post

For someone who grew up in West Texas hearing it at school and around the neighborhood, I picked up shamefully little Spanish as a kid. (For years, I wondered why so many people’s nickname was “Mira” before learning it’s the imperative “Look!”) But I did pick up an abiding love of Mexican food and, later, cooking, starting with Tex-Mex and branching back to the mother cuisine.

When I saw a molcajete a decade ago at a market in Mexico City, I had to have it. It’s a volcanic-rock mortar (along with its pestle, a tejolote) whose use goes back to the Aztecs and Mayans. I had seen molcajetes at the homes of Mexican friends, at restaurants that make tableside guacamole, in the kitchen of my sister Rebekah, wiser than I and fluent in Spanish. They’re usually round, three-legged and often decorated with the head of a pig, but this one is four-legged and square: rustic but still somehow elegant, as the best Mexican food can be.

My sister helped me haggle the price, and I lugged the thing home to Boston, moving it from carry-on to checked luggage after the airport gate agents insisted it was heavy enough to be a weapon.

I spent weeks seasoning it; if you don’t do it right, you get grit in your guac. Then I pounded out some salsa, whose chunky texture tasted of Mexico, scooped it up in a corn tortilla and exclaimed, to no one in particular, “Mira!”

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