When we finally arrived at the peak, the party was well underway. The path was lit with more candles to guide us, but we really didn't need them. We easily could have followed our senses—the aromas of masa cooking on the comal and warming cinnamon from spiced hot chocolate, caramelized sweet fruits candied in syrups, piquant peppers, and smoke and sizzle—all emanating from about a dozen different food stalls that lined the procession path on either side. Everywhere we turned folks were set up, serving juices and tequila, making tacos, sharing sweets, eating, and drinking.
We were rejuvenated by the otherworldly energy of the place. We set up and began making our way through the scene, documenting as we went along. We were trying a little bit of everything, and I was being handed a glass of tequila when a fifty-gallon drum caught my eye. It was hollowed out and situated over an open fire. Inside, corn cobs were waiting to become esquites--a traditional Mexican street food.
I approached and watched as people in front of us were served. The old man at the drum looked like he was about 120 years old, and he was sweating in the night, pulling up ear after ear upon request. With fingers that looked as if they'd never been clean of the soot that covered them now, he pulled off some ninja move barely visible to the naked eye. He impaled cobs on a convenient stick, slathered each with crema, tons of cotija cheese, and chile, and passed them off into hungry crowds.
When I finally had mine in hand, at first I made an attempt to be civilized. This was for television, after all. But in evaluating ways to attack the thing, I realized there was no earthly way to be delicate about it. Fuck it, I thought, and dove in for a massive bite—and I was rewarded. Smoky, charred kernels detonated with sweetness underneath this rich, creamy, salty, spicy coating. It was transcendent. It was visceral. My nose ran and my face was covered in cream and char. And I couldn't have been happier. As a trained chef, I could tell the camera this had everything a dish needed from a technical perspective—acid, heat, salt, fat, sweetness, texture—even though it wasn't prepared by some hotshot in a New York City kitchen. But as a human being, I knew there was no way to describe its perfection and really do it justice.
Looking around at the celebration, I could see why someone would come back from the dead—and after that corn, I could have died a happy man. But I still had unfinished business: my mole. And it wasn't hard to find.
I followed the path until I came to a Zapotec woman, and before her was a big, beautiful ceramic pot with a deeply colored paste percolating within. The Zapotec is a matriarchal society, led by strong women who manage everything from the economy to the cooking. Having been raised by a fierce Mexican mother, I was entirely at home with the archetype. But there was something a little unsettling about the way this particular woman looked at me when I approached her. It was as if she could sense I was searching for something—like she could actually see past the cameras and the lights, straight into my soul.
She had been making tortillas with handfuls of fresh masa she'd pressed into the scorching comal. Slowly, ceremonially, she reached for one. Wordlessly, she dipped it directly into the mole and handed it to me, past the other partiers patiently queuing up for their turn. I took the tortilla and waited for a moment, wondering where the rest of it was. Where was the chicken thigh? Where was the substance?
She must have sensed my hesitation. Without speaking, she indicated for me to eat it. As if to say, No, baby—this is the essence right here. This is Mexico, right in your hands. What followed when I finally took her silent instruction was nothing less than an epiphany. It was an explosion of flavor. It was chocolatey and bitter, fragrant from a symphony of different spices. There was a little bit of heat, and then it teetered on the edge of sweetness, before pulling back at the last minute. It was the most incredible sensation of flavors. I never knew food could be so balanced and deeply layered. So complex. So profound.
When I looked at her, she smiled softly and nodded. I couldn't find the right words—not in English or Spanish—but I tried to communicate. I get it now, I nodded in return. This is it.
This is Mexico. It is ingenuity and a certain kind of perfection born from resourcefulness, care, and keen awareness. It is a masterful layering—of thousands of years of influences, of ingredients both indigenous and introduced from other cultures—all folded into each bite. Flavor that isn't just about raw materials, but about feeling. It caused a paradigm shift inside me, and cameras be damned, it brought tears to my eyes.
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