My Food Story: Mole Poblano

Paulette Atenco

My eyes slowly open but then quickly reclose. The sunlight shining through my blinds is overwhelming. Somehow I force myself to turn over and reach for the phone on my nightstand. It’s 2:43pm. Having to get up early this morning for church has prompted this afternoon nap, a Sunday ritual. My final moments burrowed in the sheets end abruptly with my mother’s call. That gets me out of bed and on my feet real quick. The longer I take to respond, the greater the chance that my mom gets mad at me. I start to run down the stairs but stop midway when I hear the electric blender going. Then I hear water running into the sink, then the chime of our oven, the sign that a preheated temperature has been met. But the most important thing to hit me is that smell. It is so potent and thick, much like the consistency of the sauce. I can already taste the mixture of chocolate and spice. All of this tells me two things: we are expecting company, and we are serving them the usual, enchiladas with mole.

I cautiously finish going down the stairs because I can never tell whether having people come over will lead to harmony or a complete warzone. My mom is a total extrovert. She loves people and parties. Any social event there is, my mother volunteers to host. She would have people over every day if not for my dad. Sandalio is mostly anti-social. My parents’ marriage is the posterchild for the “Opposites Attract” philosophy. They could not be more different from one another. That being said, having guests over often results in conflict, which then leads to division and bickering, not something I want to be caught in the middle of.

As I walk into the kitchen, everything seems to be okay. My mom is overlooking the stove. Sandalio is washing some dishes. Samantha, my 28-year-old sister, is cutting vegetables. All of this is happening to the soundtrack of cumbias and norteños, which can best be described as mariachi music. I cautiously ease into the kitchen, knowing that in a matter of seconds I will be appointed a job. “Poetita, haz me un favor. Debone this chicken,” my mother tells me. I always get this job when we make enchiladas with mole. I absolutely hate this job. Having to debone and shred boiled chicken always leaves me smelling like poultry for the rest of the day.

I’m sure there are many Hispanic young adults who have gotten stuck with this job and feel my pain because mole isn’t just an Atenco recipe. Mole poblano, its proper name, is actually the most popular dish from our region, Puebla, Mexico. The origin of mole poblano is a much debated topic. Some claim that Italians were the first to invent mole, and that it was later brought to and adapted by the Poblanos, residents of Puebla. Others disagree, saying that mole’s origins derive from the Aztecs because the word mole is similar to the Aztec word for a sauce or concoction, moll. Still others say that mole was simply a happy accident from chocolate falling into stew. I personally side with the argument for an Aztec origin, due to pride in my heritage. Sandalio would kill me otherwise.

Although deboning chicken comes at a smelly cost, my mom has been dealt the hardest hand. Mole is no walk in the park. Traditionally, it cooks for hours and hours, not to mention the actual process of creating the mole. The most labor-intensive part of the process is grinding the spices in the metate. A metate is a stone tool used for grinding down whole spices, nuts, seeds, and chilies. There are two parts to a metate: the stone “bowl” and the pestle, a blunt club-shaped object. My mother combines the chilies, sesame seeds, raisins, and garlic cloves in the metate, takes the pestle in her hand, and lets the rhythmic arm movements and strength take care of the rest. I’ve watched her do this ever since I could look over the counter. She’s let me try the metate a couple of times, but within thirty seconds I’m begging her to take over. It takes a lot out of your arm, but it’s a vital step to getting that spicy but sweet flavor my family and I have grown so fond of over the years.

To our dismay, our guests, my mother’s side of the family, have only given us two hours to prepare for their visit. As much as there is to do within those two hours, I cannot wait for them to pass. My mother’s side of the family is pretty wonderful—but it’s my grandparents that bring joy to my soul. Grandpa Jacinto is so comical and silly. He always has scruff on his chin, which he purposely grows out just so he can trick me. It’s the same routine with him. He’ll reach out to hold my hand, stroke it for a bit, and then, when I’m least expecting it, rub it against his coarse stubble. It feels like sandpaper. I’ve caught onto his trick by now, of course, but I still play along to get a laugh out of him. Grandpa Jacinto also never shies away from speaking his mind. Whether that is a positive characteristic or not is still up for discussion, especially among restaurant managers and waitresses, who might question my grandpa’s “freedom of speech.”

Thank God for my grandpa’s keeper, my Grandma Roma. I know people always claim their grandma is the best, but I challenge all of those allegations. I know my grandma is sweeter still and more precious. Just thinking of her makes me feel warm and secure. She has the softest skin known to humankind and always smells like Downy fabric softener. Although she is kind hearted and nurturing, you wouldn’t want to get on her bad side. Just like the rest of the women in our family, Grandma Roma can be as sassy and smart-mouthed as she can be sweet. Maybe all of the spice in our culture’s cuisine has leaked into our blood stream, causing us to be a pretty feisty family.
Just as I set down the last table setting, the doorbell rings. Our guests, my family, have arrived. Now the smells of mole and chicken will be accompanied by the sounds of laughter and love. A lot of things can bring people together, but I have found food to be the most effective. As I cut into my mole-covered enchilada and indulge in that first forkful, the flavor is out of this world. I look around and see eyes rolling and hear “Mmm!” escaping everyone’s mouth. All of that work and preparation has once again paid off.

I can’t help but think of the past and future generations of my people who have experienced or will experience this culinary sensation. I just hope they experience the same love and closeness my family and I do when we sit down to eat mole poblano. It’s one thing to eat a good, well prepared meal; but to eat a good, well prepared meal in good company is completely different. Let me tell you a little secret. The second option is the better and more satisfying of the two.

Ingredients for Mole
1 whole chicken, shredded
1 pound of Chile pasilla , roasted and cut into small pieces
1/2 cup raisins
1 ripe plantain, fried and sliced
1/4 cup roasted sesame seeds
5 cloves of roasted garlic
1 tortilla
1 onion, grilled/roasted
1 ounce Abuelita chocolate, broken into pieces
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 cup chicken broth

Combine the chiles, onion, garlic, sesame seeds, tortilla, raisins, and cloves. Puree small amounts of this mixture in a blender until smooth. Fry the mixture in a little oil and add the chicken stock slowly, stirring frequently, over a very low heat for 45 minutes. The sauce should be thick. When it’s ready, ladle mole sauce over cooked chicken pieces.

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