The Corn Ultimatum

Will an ancient Aztec snack disappear, or become a local foodie treat?

By Kate Kilpatrick
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 3 | Posted Aug. 20, 2008

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Heat wave: A woman in San Mateo Ozolco, Mexico, cooks the rare blue corn that might make its comeback in Philadelphia.

There's an old saying in Mexico: No se puede chiflar y comer pinole ("You can't whistle and eat pinole.") It's sort of the campesino equivalent of walking and chewing gum.

But unlike sticky gobs of chewing gum, pinole--a toasted, ground, blue-corn flour snack usually sweetened with sugar and cinnamon--is a rarity.

Mexicans from more traditional, rural areas recall childhood memories of sucking on pinches of the dry powder. But pinole is practically extinct from the modern Mexican diet.

That, however, may soon change.

In South Philadelphia there's a movement brewing to bring the historic ancestral snack not only back to the Mexican diet, but to the American palate as well--starting with the city's upscale restaurants.


"To work with corn in Mexico is to enter a historic, cultural, political and economic world that's very complex--something like how they talk about grapes in France," says Jaime Ventura, who spent several years working in Philly's restaurants before returning to his hometown in Mexico two years ago.

Ventura comes from the dusty, mountain town of San Mateo Ozolco, about an hour's drive from Puebla city. As has been documented in this paper in the past, more than one-third of the population of San Mateo Ozolco has immigrated to Philadelphia, the majority of them to work in the city's booming restaurant industry.

Stalking his wares: Farmers in San Mateo Ozolco tend to fields of blue corn.

In traditional towns like San Mateo, families develop their own seeds and strains of "criollo corn" or "campesino corn" that have mutated over generations but remain untouched or modified by modern science.

Post-NAFTA (and the flood of cheap, genetically modified American corn into the Mexican market), small farmers from places like San Mateo can't compete against big agribusiness and U.S. government-subsidized corn prices.

So in turn they're forced to flood the U.S. economy with their cheap, available labor--which is how a big chunk of little San Mateo ended up in Philadelphia.

But after a few years in Philly, Ventura--unlike most of his friends--returned to San Mateo. Once back he started a community center and began working on his grandfather's land, which is essentially an organic co-op farmed using traditional Aztec techniques. For Ventura, it's a world away from his former life in Philly.

"In Philly I was working in cool restaurants along with nice people, earning good money. At Alma de Cuba sometimes I had eggs with a little salmon for breakfast. Now I'm working in the dust with animals, eating corn tortillas and chilies as lunch. But I decided to come back to see what I can do for my family and my community from here."

He grows fruit, pumpkins, chilies, fava beans and, of course, corn--some of it blue criollo corn.

And that's how the first pound of pinole from San Mateo Ozolco ended up on a desk in Philadelphia.


No surprise the pinole landed in the hands of Peter Bloom, director of JUNTOS/La Casa de los Soles, a community organization center for Latino migrants that's housed in the Houston Community Center at Eighth and Snyder.

For the past five years Bloom has taken a special interest in this Mexican transnational community. He helped form Grupo Ozolco--a group of community leaders from San Mateo living in Philadelphia--and assists them with economic development projects to improve life on both sides of the border.

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COMMENTS

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1. Brenda Armstrong said... on Aug 20, 2008 at 08:04AM

“Great article. You might be interested in our Oaxaca and corn related project.”

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2. Ihadira Lopez de Search said... on Feb 14, 2010 at 11:51PM

“I beg to differ that people in Northern Mexico do not know pinole! My grandmother and my mother are from the state of Sonora, my father and his mother are from Nayarit, his father was from Guadalajara and I am from Baja California Norte. I grew up eating pinole and they would always make it for me as a child. Now in my 30's I make it for my friends as well as my own organic tortillas - both corn and flour and a variety of other dishes I grew up eating. I am very glad that Jaime Ventura went back to his community and is using Aztec techniques for cultivating the land and is involving his community in an organic coop. Great article and inspirational story (other than the incorrect statement that Nortenos do not know what pinole is)!!”

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3. Anonymous said... on Apr 8, 2010 at 08:48PM


i agree with Ihadira Lopez de Search. i have never been to mexico; i live in baltimore maryland and i know what pinole is and i like chia too.

don't assume anything”

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