National Geographic : 2014 Dec
62 national geographic • december 2014 phes in the kitchen, the result of the wrong mind- set. Anger spoils food, they agree. “Cooking must be done with love,” says María, stopping to tie her braids together. “ There are women who cook without love, and it really doesn’t turn out well. If I feel preoccupied, I tell myself, Lock up the problem. And then I cook with love.” For some of these women, food has also been a bridge to the divine power, a part of a heavenly plan. When white-haired Domitila Laguna Orte- ga spilled a pot of mole sauce that oozed boil- ing hot over her legs and onto the kitchen floor, she should by all rights have been harmed. But the firemen who came were startled: Why were there no red marks on her body? For Guiller- mina Suárez Meza, another volunteer, there was a mysterious multiplication of her shrimp soup served to the pilgrims at Chalma. She made large quantities but was convinced she hadn’t made enough. “I asked God for the food to last. And it replenished. I gave it with all my soul and all my heart, and it multiplied.” Shyly, she casts her amber-colored eyes downward. “Yes, I believe that it could have been a miracle.” By Friday, Fermín has cinched his waist with a thick leather belt to support his aching back. His vest is speckled with mud. The fires are burning; hundreds of volunteers are fast at work. One of the miracles of this effort is that everyone seems to know his or her part without supervision. They move in a choreog- raphy of ease—no one bumps into anyone else, though the workstations are crowded. One of Doña Cata’s culinary lieutenants gravely an- nounces to the women making tamales that chili sauce is leaking out of them. Take more care, she scolds. The cooking is almost done, but Fermín has done the math. More tamales are needed. The troops reassemble. María of the purple rib- bons digs her paddle into the thick cornmeal mixture, beating it quickly to add air. Slowly the lumps disappear, and the mixture is trans- formed into batter. Doña Cata tastes it. Add more lard, she says without hesitation. More salt. It’s as if each new teaspoonful is part of sobremesa—a stretch of time after the meal when the entire family, no excuses, stays seated and talks. It can be the time for shamefaced confes- sions, laughs, gossip. As a child, Loza soaked up stories at the dinner table about witches known as nahuales; his uncles described the nahual’s ability to change shape into a donkey, turkey, or dog. At sobremesa came testimony of miracles and omens, of the pilgrimage in earlier times, when men carried supplies to Chalma on horse- back. The table is the place where the history of Milpa Alta is passed on. María Eleazar Labastida Rosas has bright red braids threaded with dark lavender ribbons. She’s stirring a large pot of tamale batter under the watchful, stern gaze of the head cook, Cata- lina Peña Gómez. Doña Cata, as everyone calls her, attunes her senses to the smell of a sauce, the consistency of a paste, and makes her corrections with the confidence of a general. She won’t brook any horsing around where cooking is involved. Doña Cata is 68, crippled by varicose veins, but she cooks day and night during the final prepara- tions. “I feel love when I cook,” she says. Her man- ner is tough, but she cries a little as she speaks. “I feel love for God. I ask God for help and for the well-being of all my people.” She raised four chil- dren as an unmarried mother, a status that can be harshly judged in small-town Mexico. Until the pain in her legs forced her to quit, she worked as a cook. Now she lives off the money she makes pre- paring food for parties. But whatever her social position in the outside world, here, directing the show for La Rejunta, she is a person of authority, a woman who commands respect. María Eleazar, who is cheerful and energetic, ignores Doña Cata’s glare, which she knows is mostly bluff, and continues chatting with the oth- er women, laughing about how Mexican women share recipes with their daughters and daughters- in-law but otherwise jealously guard their culinary secrets. The women trade stories about catastro- The magazine thanks The Rockefeller Foundation and members of the National Geographic Society for their generous support of this series of articles.