In a dusty roadside restaurant somewhere in the north of Mexico, I first tasted mole. I remember the land was flat and heat radiated in waves off the pavement of the narrow highway. The sparse vegetation choked under dust. We were thirsty too. Ahead, rising out of a distant mirage, loomed a faded turquoise cinder block structure with a weathered sign in front: Loncheria Carta Blanca. We rattled the pickup to a stop in front.
Inside the cool interior were empty metal tables and folding chairs painted in Coca Cola advertisements. Other than a couple of fat red hens roosting near the kitchen door, we were the only patrons.
A small wiry man dressed in the color of dust brought us a menu and a toothless smile. “The chicken mole is delicious today,” he said.
I ordered a coke, influenced by the chairs, and my boyfriend ordered a Superior. The drinks refreshed us after our hot drive up the coast from Guymas and we were ready to order. Having heard so much about the mystical, ancient dish made with meat and chocolate, I ordered the mole.
My plate arrived. On it, a chicken leg drowned in what looked like a dollop of slightly runny chocolate pudding. The chicken’s skin curled up as though gasping for breath; the meat drifted in strings. It tasted thick, sweet, viscous.
“How can anybody eat this stuff?” I pushed the plate away. “It’s disgusting. Too much chocolate.” This from a confirmed chocoholic. Instead, we enjoyed Kirby’s huge plate of enchiladas verdes, frijoles refritos, arroz mexicano, and plenty of hot home-made tortillas while that poor chicken leg vanished back into the kitchen’s maw to the disapproving clucks of the hens.
Over two decades I continued to visit Mexico and told my chicken mole story that first day at an intensive Spanish course in Oaxaca. As part of the curriculum we had the choice of weaving classes, pottery making, or cooking lessons—all in Spanish. Every day I cooked wonderful dishes like chili rellenos, gorditas, tamales and enchiladas.
On the first day, Doña Carmen, our instructor, marched us to the central market. It was a mole experience. There were vats of mole, tubs of mole, mountains of mole. Mole verde, mole rojo, the famed Oaxacan mole negro and mole of every color in between. Each stall crowded into the huge market building brimmed with mole. Mole, spicy and chocolaty, pervaded the air with its nectarous fragrance. It blended with the meat smells of the butchers’ corridor, mingled with the sweet ripe smells of fruit and the pungent herbaceous odors of vegetables in the greengrocers’ section. The scent of hot bread and tortillas baking melded with the mole, becoming an almost palatable smell. Our every breath was wrapped in mole. It settled over the household goods and wafted through the clothing aisles, spilling out the many doorways, down the narrow sidewalks, and into the dusty exhaust-choked streets of the city. ¡Que rico! was the only way to describe it. I thought back to Loncheria Carta Blanca and the indignant hens clucking over my untouched lunch.
“Perhaps,” I commented to the group, “I could be persuaded to try mole again.”
In class I began to pester Doña Carmen for a promise to demonstrate mole.
“Oh, mole. It takes too long to make,” she replied as she spread out the ingredients for picante salsas, sweet atole but no mole.
On our last day of class, Doña Carmen greeted us in the kitchen at four o’clock as we straggled in from our sumptuous lunches on the plaza. By this time the class had dwindled to the hardcore. The long wooden table was laden with tomatoes, plantains, sesame seeds, raisins, four kinds of dried chilies, almonds and oil. On the counter stacked the thin patties of crumbly soft Oaxacan chocolate wrapped in pink paper. Doña Carmen announced that we were going to make mole negro—the quick way.
She allowed us to select only the finest of the fruits and vegetables. Tom and I had to hand pick the plumpest of the half-kilo of sesame seeds. Only the reddest tomatoes were good enough; the plantains could not be bruised; the raisins needed to be juicy. Jacquie ground the almonds to a paste in the molcajete. Linda roasted the chipotle chilies on the comal.
Two hours later the ingredients were ground to paste and simmered in broth to a velvety smooth sauce. When the sauce was thick but not too thick, we added just enough of the chocolate to deepen the flavor to a rich complexity. The little kitchen smelled divine. In moments the sauce adorned the tender braised chicken resting in a brown-painted clay serving dish with the fluffed rice. I set the table and we began the feast.
Someone passed the mescal, and toasting ourselves, and our crown of creation, we dug in. We ate, and ate; and we ate some more. We invited the weavers, the potters, and the guitar teacher. We invited the director and the teachers, and we all ate. When the feast was gone, and I was cleaning up, I found myself licking the mole pot. So this was mole—truly food for the Gods.
And so began my love affair with mole, and my three year quest for the best mole in Mexico.