With Pati’s Mexican Table, Pati Jinich is probably one of the only TV cooking show hosts actually from Mexico, and it’s refreshing. A “challenger of stereotypes about Mexican food,” she doesn’t cook Southwestern influenced fusion nor Tex-Mex. It’s all la cosa real!
At Georgetown University, what did you learn about food culture from your Latin American history classes?
I learned so much and at the same time not enough! Before I started graduate studies at Georgetown, I had studied extensively about my native country, Mexico. It’s history, geography, culture, politics and its relations with the Old World and the US. Of course, I grew up with Mexican food and that was in my blood and taste buds. With the Latin American history classes I suddenly saw Mexico from a different perspective: rather than as an insider, as I had always done, I was able to view it from the US, as an outsider and in a much wider context, that of all of Latin America.I learned to appreciate many of the similarities between Mexico and other Latin American countries, in their history, evolution and culture. At the same time, I could understand the nuances, in those similarities, of how apparently similar things, like language, ingredients, traditions, have their strong variations and in many occasions, unique traits.
It helped me see the wider frame of where Mexico and Mexicans sit. And it made me hungry to learn, to compare, to taste. As I ventured more and more in to the culinary dimension, it was pretty fascinating to see just how much food and sitting down to eat means to most Latin Americans, regardless of the country. In between lines, through texts, I could sense the role of the mother, the importance of the kitchen, and the power in passing recipes down to the next generations: keeps people, families, generations connected. And being able to share them is a gift to behold. Of course it turned out that I was the only one in my class obsessing about the role of food…
When you decided being a political analyst was no longer for you, what feelings led you into believing you weren’t just having a bad day but needed a career change?
When I had way too many days that I thought were bad! What feelings? Mostly, feeling useless: like I wasn’t contributing anything meaningful to any one person or any one cause. Feeling sad and empty in the hours that I was “working”. Restless. Directionless. Lacking appetite. And that is a true sign of crisis for me: I am always starved, for food, for knowledge, for experiences. In hindsight I see that I went through a process, though I didn’t see it at the time. When I first landed that post at the Center for Policy Analysis, what I had considered for years to be my dream job, I was so excited about the possibilities, about the ways I thought could help, with ideas and effort to make meaningful changes, positive impact. That enthusiasm waned down quickly, and as it did, I kept on thinking, after one bad day and another, that it was all me, that I needed to give it more effort, that I had to work harder, focus more, that I had to get involved in more projects. Until it came a point where I was so unhappy at work, that resigning, and taking a plunge into the unknown wasn’t scary anymore. From where I saw it, I was so unhappy, and life to me has always seemed so precious and such a gift, that the contrast was unbearable. I switched gears, enrolled in culinary school, and I have never looked back. Ironically, with food, with recipes, with the stories behind them, I feel have been able to impact more people in positive ways, to break down myths and help build more bridges between families, communities and countries, even if by sharing one bowl of tortilla soup!
For President Obama’s Cinco De Mayo fiesta, how did you ultimately narrow down the best dish that would represent Mexico well and appeal to everyone’s taste buds?
Well, we had a pretty extensive menu! We had different ceviches, tacos, guisados (stews), but we knew one thing for sure, there had to be gigantic molcajetes (Mexican mortar and pestles) where we would be mashing away, non-stop, avocados from Mexico into mouthwatering guacamole. People can never have enough guacamole! It is fresh, it is fun, it is tasty, it is wholesome. It has become a dish that represents Mexican food and the good times people have when eating Mexican food. Having non-stop guacamole -mixed with a bit if red onion, tomatillos, fresh chiles, a dash of lime juice and a sprinkle of crumbled tangy queso fresco- was a no brainer!
What is a little known Mexican ingredient that we should cook with more often?
Chipotle chiles in adobo sauce. You can make them at home or buy them already canned at the stores. It is an intricate, iconic, rich and addicting condiment that adds so much to so many dishes. Chipotles in adobo sauce are jalapeño chiles that are picked when ripe, dried, smoked and then pickled in an adobo sauce made with tomatoes and ancho chiles, vinegar and spices. The result is so beautiful: sweet, smoky, spicy, rich, happy and very addictive. You can use it to add flavor to soups, stews, salsas, but it can also be used as a condiment on top of quesadillas, tacos, sandwiches. We go through a few cans a week in our home.
With your podcast, how do you work to successfully tell stories about food? It’s much harder than writing food articles or cooking for a camera.
Yeah, it is funny you say that! I have enjoyed doing the podcasts enormously. I find that I even enjoy it much more than cooking for camera. See, for my PBS TV series, which I absolutely love, and is airing its fourth season this spring (http://www.patismexicantable.com/tvshow/patis-mexican-table-season-4/), there are many things that have to happen at the same time: the food has to look gorgeous, the process has to be clear and concise, I have to make sure I am explaining every part of the process, as well as the stories I want to share, at the same time as trying to look decent for TV! The clothes matter, the hair matters, the make up matters, the lighting matters, the food has to look as good as it tastes too! For the podcast, I can show up at the studio in my pj, wearing a pony tail, no make up and all I just focus on one thing: connecting with you and my co-host through my stories, my voice. But in a way, yes, it is challenging in that my mind can go in so many ways and I never know when to stop, I am dying to share so many things, it is hard to edit myself. A way to be effective is to marrow down the topics we want to cover on each podcast and to write down bullet points of things I wouldn’t want to forget.
What’s your best Mexican dish for people who are not familiar with authentic Mexican cuisine?
That is a hard one! So many favorites… For people whoa aren’t familiar with authentic Mexican cuisine maybe I would go for Tarascan Soup (http://www.patismexicantable.com/2010/10/on_a_soup_and_a_book/). It is an incredibly creamy and earthy roasted tomato and pinto bean soup that is garnished with crispy tortillas, Mexican avocado, fresh cream and fresh cheese. It is homey, filling, nurturing, fun and a delight to eat. I think it represents the Mexican character so well. Full of rich contrasts and multi layered experiences in the same bite.