In the Yucatán:
How to Feed a Hungry Mind
By Elaine T. Cicora (Cleveland)
When is a food tour more than a food tour? Any time we extend our attention to what lies beyond our plates.
For me, an otherwise well-seasoned traveler, this meant an eye-opening, culture-expanding, bucket list-busting first trip to the Yucatán Peninsula under the masterful guidance of members of our Mexico Chapter.
Yes, the traditional meals were fabulous. But there was more on the menu than food alone. Here is a quartet of only slightly food-related observations served up by this trip:
1. Mayan culture is alive and (reasonably) well.
Even some of my most sophisticated friends were taken aback when I mentioned our cooking lesson with Las Mujeres Mayas. "Wait," they asked. "There are still Maya?"
Indeed there are. In fact, the world's largest Maya population lives in the Yucatán Peninsula, where they settled as far back as 500 BCE. Their survival was not always a given. In 1511, they became the first native peoples to encounter the Spanish; by 1850, mistreatment and European diseases reduced their numbers to less than 10,000.
Today, while poverty and its attendant ills continue to plague the indigenous population, their numbers have rebounded: There are between 750,000 and 1,200,000 people in the Yucatán who speak Mayan. Three times that number is of Maya origin but they do not speak Mayan as their first language.
While contemporary Maya identify as Christians, they freely integrate aspects of their traditional religion into their lives. Cynics may tell you that these hybridized practices are more about cultural tourism than true spirituality. But after spending some time with the Maya-the chamán who performed our introductory blessing; the gnarled 83-year-old former henequen laborer on the Hacienda Sotuta de Peon plantation; the motherly women who walked us through the mysteries of masa; and our well-spoken guides on our tour of Chichen Itza-my lasting impression is of a people who are exceptionally genuine, warm-hearted and generous with both their time and talents.
Take it from groundbreaking chef and Merida resident, Jeremiah Tower: "The Maya are a very warm and kind people,” he told us. “And Merida is a very spiritual place."
2. Jeremiah Tower is pretty great, himself.
Speaking of Jeremiah Tower, the special guest at our Wednesday-night welcome dinner: If smarts, sophistication, and enduring good looks existed in a single package, that package would be a lot like Jeremiah Tower. Now in his mid-70s, the subject of the 2016 Anthony Bourdain-produced documentary The Last Magnificent
, quietly infiltrated our group during our blessing ceremony, then joined us for dinner at La Tradicion
restaurant, where he proved a charming conversationalist and companion. All right, I admit it: I am a huge fan. But in my book-and notwithstanding the hubris and controversy that accompanied him in the past-Jeremiah's role as an early promoter of California cuisine, starting with his work at the legendary Chez Panisse, and continuing with his lead role at his renowned Stars restaurant marks him as one of the most compelling, complex figures in American culinary history. Oh, and that third-act stint at Tavern on the Green? “A mistake,” is what he calls it.
3. There's no swimming hole like a cenote swimming hole.
There are nearly 7,000 cenotes
in the Yucatán Peninsula. We swam in one of them.
Derived from the Mayan word for “well,” cenotes are sunken pools that result when limestone gives way, revealing caves that often fill with sky-blue water. Those of us who chose to do so were able to swim in a cenote during our visit to the Sotuta de Peon plantation.
After changing into our swimsuits in a rustic, open-air enclosure, a half-dozen or so of us headed down long flights of steps into a dark cavern. At the bottom, we could just make out a pool of crystalline water guarded by a single, towering stalagmite. Drilled into the cave roof, a skylight provided some pale illumination; yet the water itself seemed to glow from within. Bouncing around in the pool in a mandatory life vesV t, I was immersed in natural beauty. Not too cold, not too warm, the cenote waters offered refreshment second only to an icy margarita; how lucky for us, then, that an alfresco bar awaited right outside the swimming hole, serving up seemingly endless rounds of those powerful, salt-rimmed wonders!
Those Mexico Dames truly thought of everything!
4. Chichen Itza
is worthy of its accolades.
Calling it “the most important archeological vestige of the Maya-Toltec civilization in the Yucatán,” UNESO declared Chichen Itza a World Heritage Site way back in 1989.
In 2007, El Castillo, the main pyramid of this ancient Maya city on the Yucatán Peninsula, was declared one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, part of a distinguished list that includes China's Great Wall, Petra in Jordan, Christ Redeemer statue in Brazil, Machu Picchu in Peru, the Colosseum in Rome, and the Taj Mahal in India.
There are obvious reasons why this is so, not the least of which is the glimpse Chichen Itza provides into the glory of one of the ancient world's most advanced civilizations.
Whether it is astronomy, mathematics, religion, or the waging of war, the echoes of Maya grandeur are ever present in this sprawling complex of temples, sports fields, and sacrificial altars. And with the help of our knowledgeable guides, we were able to absorb at least a little of it.
Of course, with temperatures hovering around 100 degrees and some of our group experiencing symptoms of heat stroke, the tour wound to a rather abrupt halt-but not before I ran my hand along El Castillo's steps, pondered the ironies of a culture that used ball games to determine its sacrificial subjects, and marveled at the rows of columns making up the Temple of the Warriors, allegedly topped with a stone whereupon steaming hearts were offered up to the gods.
Overheated but happy, we were met at our tour coach with diminutive cones of cool, luscious ice cream in flavors of corn and coconut. I can't remember any other ice cream ever tasting so good-or any other tour offering more satisfying food for thought.
Photo Credits: Oscar Velazquez, Mexico; Hayley Matson Mathes, and Elaine Cicora.