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Every year, beginning August 31 and lasting for about 10 days, the Mexican town of Cholula celebrates the Festival of the Virgin of the Remedies. For a lot of people, this is a religious pilgrimage. But for most, it’s a celebration of food. And, oh my, the food!
Located on the outskirts of Puebla, the village of Cholula (one of my absolute favorite towns in Mexico) sits in the shadow of the famous, snow-capped El Popo, Mexico’s second largest volcano. Quick backgrounder: Cholula’s history dates roughly to 400 BC, making this the oldest continuously inhabited town in the Americas. In the 1500s when the conquistadors colonized this village for Spain, they built a spectacular little church atop its biggest hill, not realizing the hill was actually an ancient pyramid that had long ago been abandoned—although it was still being used by local residents as a temple to worship their goddess of rain. The Catholics proudly dedicated their new church to the Virgin of the Remedies. And the indigenous people who stayed accepted this new virgin as their own—but mostly she became, in a way, their new goddess of rain. That explains why it’s raining cats and dogs when I’m attending this festival in her honor. The townspeople welcome the downpour more than I do. Every single one of them is dancing in the streets, dressed in their Sunday best. Firecrackers are exploding all around me.
The streets around the zocolo (town square) are closed to make room for hundreds of vendors whose stalls are marginally shielded from the rain by plastic tarps. I make a beeline for a maze of food stalls. I immediately spy a Volkswagon-sized pile of animal carcasses that appear to have been roasted, hooves intact. I inquire as to the nature of these beasts, and a man barely visible from behind the pile answers, “Cabro.” Goat. He waves me closer and twists off a lump of semi-dry flesh, sprinkles it liberally with salt and hands me a bite. Unlike the mild-flavored cabritos (kid goats) I’m familiar with, these are clearly full-grown billy goats, intensely gamey and pungent. My eyes water. I move on. It’s not goat I’m after, it’s mole. Mole Poblano. (For anyone not familiar, mole Poblano is that delicious black sauce made from roasted chiles and chocolate—along with every cook’s entire pantry of secret ingredients—originally created by the nuns at Santa Clara Convent in neighboring Puebla.)
Most of the food stalls are small, with maybe six or seven folding chairs squeezed around tables made from rusty barrels or old doors or even the hood of an old blue Chevy. They are crammed together on both sides of the street for two blocks. A daisy-chain of indoor extension cords provides the electricity for bare lightbulbs that are strung through the maze. The damp air is heavy with smoke from wood- and charcoal-fired stoves, grills and deep fryers filled with boiling lard.
I stop to watch a teenage girl leaning over a heavy tortilla press, rapidly turning out tortillas one by one. She’s a one-woman assembly line, pressing masa with her left hand while cooking and assembling chalupas with her right. It’s not what I’ve come here in search of, but I can’t help myself. I watch, mesmerized, as she dips one tortilla in red chile sauce, then a second tortilla in green chile sauce, then a red one, then a green one, and so on. She continues until she’s filled the sizzling hot cazuela (a griddle of sorts) with alternating colors of chalupas, flipping them so they begin to get crispy on both sides but are still soft and flexible. At this point, she begins stacking, red-green-red-green-red-green-red, about eight tortillas high. She hands me one of these stacks. They are unbelievably messy—and, wow, so spicy—and I’m thinking I need a fork, but I notice that everyone around me is simply lifting the tortillas one by one from the stack, folding them in half and popping them into their mouths. I find the nearest chair and grab a napkin.
I’m back on the mole hunt for maybe 10 seconds before I’m sidetracked again, this time by cemitas, sandwiches unique to Puebla. A petite woman with massive breasts is standing on a stool to reach the large griddle on which she is cooking at least two dozen cemitas. Or rather, she is cooking the milanesa (breaded meat) that goes into them. She slices open each bun and fills it Dagwood-style with nearly a pound of sliced milanesa and several fistfuls of shredded lettuce, string cheese, chipotle chiles, guacamole and tomatoes. I make a mental note to come back here for dinner. My first priority is still the famous regional mole.
By now I’ve already seen at least a half dozen stalls selling mole—in the form of enchiladas, tamales, tacos, smothered chicken—but with so many choices,
where do I begin? That question becomes rhetorical when I suddenly find myself staring at the fattest cooks in the market. They are every bit as wide as they are tall, about six of them total. Their stall is much larger than the others, with at least 30 seats around folding tables covered with yellow plastic tablecloths. Their kitchen is nothing more than an island made from wooden Coke crates that supports a dozen charcoal stoves. Each stove fuels a bubbling 10-gallon cauldron made from terra cotta. It smells like heaven. One of the cauldrons holds albondigas, the famous Mexican meatballs. Pozole simmers in another. Three are filled with pinto beans. And resting on a small makeshift shelf above the blackest pot of all are a dozen chickens that look like they’ve been tarred and are waiting to be feathered. Jackpot. This is the mole I’ve been looking for.
A gentle, rasping voice behind me inquires, “Te gusta mole?” She’s asking if I like mole. She’s wearing a large white cotton dress with frilly sleeves and a red gingham apron with hand-embroidered lace around the pockets. Even before I can answer, she’s assisted me into a chair and is preparing my plate.
Using both very plump hands, she grabs two tortillas at a time, dunks them into the mole and rolls them up like cigars. She reaches for a chicken and rips off a leg. Her fingers are moving too quickly for me to see exactly what she’s doing. All I can see are shreds of chicken showering down on the enchiladas like ticker tape at a parade. Next comes a flurry of white cheese. Then, in slow-motion, she gently hands it to me. I take a bit.
Damn, this is good. This is Mexico. And this is why I’ve come.
The Day of the Virgin is always September 8, but exact dates for the Festival of the Virgin of the Remedies varies, depending on the weekends on either end of Virgin Day. The festival generally runs from the end of August through the first week in September.
Where to stay: The nicest hotel in town is La Quinta Luna, a charming 17th century mansion that once belonged to pre-Hispanic indigenous nobility. It’s now a beautiful 7-suite hotel located just a few blocks from the zocolo and, thus, the festival.