The Weight of the World on a Corn Sandal

Doña Carmen Gomez Medina sitting beside her food stand. This is the only surviving photo of her.

THE HISTORY

When we think of inventors, we think of Alexander Graham Bell, Henry Ford, or Steve Jobs– but what about Mrs. Carmen Gomez Medina? She sounds like someone who lives on your block or someone that you might be related to. To the people of Mexico, Mrs. Carmen Gomez Medina is the inventor of the huarache. In 1930 when Mexico City was a still canal town, (boats were the mode of transportation), Mrs. Gomez moved from place to place, selling tlacoyos at her food stand. Her initial best-seller, tlacoyos, elongated tortillas stuffed with fava beans and topped with cactus, cheese, tomato, salsa, and sometimes lettuce. But one day she did something revolutionary, she prepared the masa in an oblong or ellipse-like shape, poked some holes at the top, and grilled it. Derived from the Nahuatl word kwarachi, meaning “sandal,” the huarache was born. The first toppings to grace the popular street food’s surface were shredded ribs and egg, and today it is one of the oldest surviving Mexican street foods. From her humble beginnings at Mexico City’s Zócalo, Mrs. Gomez started an international huarache craze!

PRODUCTION OF INGREDIENTS

The main ingredient, masa, is made from corn. Historically, corn has always been used in Mexican food since the times of the Aztecs. And their advancement in technology and in early foodways has contributed to the foods we love. Corn as we know it needs human invention to flourish. And since the moment corn cultivation had been mastered, it changed foodways as we know it, “What the Spanish hadn’t yet realized was the marvel the native enacted each day when creating masa, the corn dough made by women after treating freshly picked kernels through one of the more serendipitous culinary innovation in human history: nixtamalization” (Arellano 18).  This revolutionary methodology has given the world the gifts of tortillas, tacos, and antojitos, like huaraches. In any Mexican dish involving corn, it must endure the process of nixtamalization, in which the corn is cooked in an alkaline solution of lime, ash, and salt. This is necessary so that the corn does not become toxic and so that people who regularly consume corn do not develop pellagra (Arellano 18). Pellagra can occur due to a lack of niacin, which could lead to dementia, diarrhea, and irritated skin. With these symptoms in mind one can appreciate the Aztecs innovation– they were the people who understood before anyone else that a system needed to be implemented to safely consume corn. Regarding the process of nixtamalization, after being soaked in the alkaline solution, the dried corn (hominy) is ground in a manual or electric mill. The result is fresh corn dough, which can be made into tortillas. During this process, it is also important that the dough is not too wet, or too dry, or else it will not be up to par for Mexican cooking. In a place like New York City, restaurants like Rosie’s NYC and Cosme operate as their own Tortillería, so they do not depend on companies to supply masa. To demonstrate, check out the video below on how Suerte in Austin, Texas produces their in-house masa– with both yellow corn and blue corn!

There’s nothing that says Mexican like the cactus– it is so crucial to the culture that on the national flag the eagle is depicted to hold it in the clutches of its feet. It all dates back to the Aztecs witnessing of an eagle a serpent while perched on a cactus tree– which translates to evil’s loss to the good and the signal of where they should create their civilization. So yes, cactus means business. The variety of cactus native to the majority of Mexico, Nopales, is different than the typical Saguaro cactus native to the American Southwest. Nopales grows in a branch-like form and even produces some lovely flowers.  Harvested approximately fifteen times a year, Nopales is tasty but is unusual due to its prickly reputation. When picking Nopales, the leaves with that are a light green color are best for serving because it maintains a nice earthy and green taste before it gets bitter. Then the thorns are removed with a knife, and the leaves can be either grilled or boiled. For huaraches, Nopales are usually cut into long slices and spread over the surface.

Next, the main ingredient to top the huarache is frijoles or stew beans. The beans used can be fava, pinto, black or red beans– whichever is preferable. In northern subtropical Mexico, healthy beans are able to grow in well-irrigated soil with plenty of sun. Specifically, green string beans a.k.a, fava beans are harvested once it begins to seed within four to six weeks before they are fully grown. Now, when it comes to the process of cooking the beans, it is easy but one must pay very close attention. First, one must use a large clay pot (especially if it is for a lot of people), fill it with water, and have it come to a boil. In the meantime, wash the beans in a strainer bowl with water to get rid of dirt particles. The beans used can be fava, pinto, black or red beans– whichever is preferable. Then, add the beans to boiling water; after a while, the beans should start to float the top and the skin of the beans will begin to peel away. As they continue to cook, it will thicken, and the clarity of the water will disappear. During this process, it is important that the beans always have enough water, if the water level gets low it will burn– that is a no-no. Towards the end of the process, after about one hour and thirty minutes, add onions, garlic, salt, black pepper, and a bit of oil; some may also prefer to add lard or manteca, instead of oil. 

Lastly, add the famous garnish, cilantro! This spice is so ancient it has been mentioned in the Bible and was found in the tomb of King Tut. For many years cilantro was put on the backburner of European cuisine, but with the coming of New Spain (Mexico) it became a staple spice, used in the majority of dishes. The variety of cilantro found in Mexico is called culantro, which has long leaves compared to the American type that a four-leaf clover model. That’s why if you are served a huarache with “long cilantro” garnish, it’s actually culantro.

HOW TO PREPARE

As Mrs. Gomez would have made it, the fresh masa dough is put into a specialized tortilla press that gives the huarache it’s oblong shape. For every clump of pressed masa, are two pieces plastic, this could be a Ziploc bag cut in two, needed so that the masa does not stick to the press. The press itself should be on the heavy side so that the huarache comes out at the appropriate thickness, and depending on one’s preference, one could use a press ranging anywhere 9 inches to 12 inches. If you encounter a 12-inch huarache, be sure to grab a friend! Continuing with prep, the huarache is put on grill until its browned. Unlike tortilla making, the huarache does not need to puff up, instead, it needs to develop a durable crust that will be able to handle everything on top. Once the huarache is removed from the heat it is smothered with beans, topped with shredded rib meat, and over-easy eggs. It also topped with green and red chili sauce and queso blanco. 

VARIETIES

Time to get creative with Mrs. Gomez’s invention. The first and most prevalent variation, of the huarache it the Huarache Toluqueño. This huarache is made with pounded blue corn and topped with beans, nopales, tomato, avocado, queso blanco, and red chili sauce. Other varieties include huaraches de carne asada, which has sirloin steak, onions, red chili sauce, and avocado; huarache con chorizo, made with chorizo, queso fresca, queso sierra, and crema supremo (sour cream). Check out the recipe for another variation of huaraches, carne asada!

A TALE OF THE TRAVELING EDIBLE SANDAL

Even though there is not much information available on the successes of Mrs. Gomez’s food cart, there are many restaurants in Mexico City that are famous for their specialization in huaraches. For example, Huaraches Ramoncita, located in Jamaica, Mexico City, which has been in operation for over 100 years. The current owner is of the third generation of his family and serves the community. Also, the huaraches served at Huaraches Ramoncita vary from the normal (per the example above) because they are stuffed with beans, and then pressed into the oblong shape. 

With its strong presence in this famous corn sandal has made it to places all over the united states. Starting in San Francisco, Veronica Salazar is the head huarache and mole chef at El Huarache Loco. In her hometown, Mexico City, her family had owned a restaurant for over seventy years and in 1996 she moved to the States bringing her huarache expertise with her. At El Huarache Loco, she makes a popular night time huarache called Alambre, which has fajita-style peppers and onions, steak, chorizo, bacon, and cheese, and huaraches with spicy tomatillo and jalapeno sauce as a base. Moving to the United States gave Salazar the opportunity to serve the Mexican community of the Mission District along with those Americans new to the richness of Mexican cuisine.

In my last article, I wrote extensively on my experience with huaraches. And it made feel that there is truly more to Mexican food than the mainstream tacos. Learning about specific foods is interesting because it allows you to understand that there is a history behind each bite. Moreover, though I am not surprised, a woman, by the name of Mrs. Carmen Gomez Medina, came up with a different way of looking the tlacoyos that she sold every day– just a mother has to keep coming up with inventive ways of feeding her children, Mrs. Gomez figured out a new way to improve Mexican street food. The huarache is a twist on how masa is used and an ode to the Aztecs, by not incorporating flour as the conquistadors would have wanted. Thinking about now, there’s irony in the meaning of huarache. Every time that I have Googled huarache, leather sandals appear, which made me think that the food “huarache” was meant to travel and evolve. The food literally means that it is supposed to be everywhere. Starting in Mexico, the huarache has been paired with endless toppings and as Mexicans moved to the United States the huarache has maintained its uniqueness and dignity by gracing the taste buds of people who have never had it before. So, It’s obvious– huaraches keep things together!

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