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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When a friend returned from Ozolco with a bag of pinole--a product he'd never seen or heard of before--Bloom had an idea.

He brought the pinole to Buddakan's pastry chef Carlos Rojas, who's married to a woman from San Mateo. Rojas tweaked existing recipes to whip up a pinole mousse and pinole banana muffins. It was all the evidence Bloom needed.

"The goal," he says, "is to help a few farmers market their product differently."

Bloom's plan is to have Ventura and other farmers in San Mateo produce pinole as a specialty product to be exported to the U.S. and even within Mexico. It can be sold either in bulk to restaurants and markets (Bont� Caf� is already a customer) or premade into baked goods like corn muffins. Eventually Bloom hopes to develop and market an entirely new pinole-based product--something like yogurt or granola bars.

With a simple business plan Grupo Ozolco can pay farmers three times as much for their blue corn as they're used to getting, and possibly create a few new jobs in the process.

"And it's cool that it's corn, too," he says. "A lot of third-world development discourse is, 'Grow this, grow that.' But [the people of San Mateo] already know how to grow corn. And since we don't have the power to overturn NAFTA--which 99.9 percent of the time works against the community--we can turn it into an advantage."

Bloom received a three-year grant to work with a customs broker and graphic designers and food scientists to develop a suitable product, brand it and import it properly. Ventura and his team in San Mateo Ozolco received a similar grant from the same group to buy their own grinding machine and industrial seed toaster.

"I call it fair trade 2.0," says Bloom. "For example, with fair-trade coffee from Chiapas they give the growers a decent exchange rate but the buyer makes most of the money. The cool thing about this project is it's transnational--wherever the money is made it stays in the community because they live here and in Mexico."

For now, as Bloom and Grupo Ozolco figure out how to transport large quantities of pinole up north, sales are by word of mouth. But with so many Mexican natives running restaurant kitchens throughout the city, the news is beginning to spread.

"Pinole is such a rare thing," says Adan Trinidad, executive chef at El Vez, Stephen Starr's Mexican-themed restaurant at 13th and Sansom. "If you ask people from the north of Mexico they probably will not know it. Only people from Puebla, Oaxaca, Chiapas--[the areas with] more tradition. Even in Mexico City you won't see this," he says, gesturing toward two small bowls filled with pinole just purchased from Bloom.

Trinidad is from San Lucas, the next town over from San Mateo. He remembers eating pinole at his grandmother's house as a youngster.

Now he's experimenting with creative ways of working pinole into the dessert menu at El Vez. He's testing a pinole ice cream, and champurrado--a thick, belly-filling hot beverage similar to the more-popular Mexican staple atole.

"It takes a while for something to fly," Trinidad says, unsure if American palates will appreciate such a simple, subtle, earthy taste. But he's willing to try--if only out of pride.

"It's like if you go to Mexico City and find someone selling scrapple. When I found out Peter [Bloom] was selling pinole I thought, 'Cool. We're a Mexican restaurant. I want to make something with it.'

Kate Kilpatrick is a PW contributing editor. Special thanks to Ruben Chico of Grupo Ozolco for providing information for this story. Jaime Ventura sends a big hello to his comrades still working in the restaurant business. He's grateful for all the support and friendship he received during his time in Philly.

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Comments 1 - 3 of 3
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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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