Thirteenth B'ak'tun Bacchanalia
A Mayan feast fit for the end of the world or the beginning of a new age
According to the apocalyptic soothsayers, Dec. 21 marks the end of the world because it coincides with the end of the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar, the final date of a 5,125-year long cyclical calendar. It was a linear calendar based on units of 20; 20 days equal 1 uinal; 18 uinals (360 days) equals a tun; 20 tuns make a k'atun, and 20 k'atuns (394 years) make a b'ak'tun. Tomorrow marks the end of the 13th b'ak'tun, and the end of the long calendar.
According to Mayan historical creation theory, using their concept of "world ages," there have been three previous failed worlds, and we are now in a successful fourth world, the end of which occurs at the end of the 13th b'ak'tun (Mayan date 22.214.171.124.), or Dec. 21, 2012. Back in the 1950s and '60s Mayan historians suggested that this had some Armageddon connection, when the Great Cycle of the Long Count Calendar reached completion, and that theory held sway way into the 1990s. Modern interpretations by Mayanist scholars decree this fatalist theory pure poppycock and say there is nothing in the Mayan prophecy suggesting the end of creation. Indeed, most scholars say that the Mayans would see reaching the end of a Great Cycle as a reason to have a huge celebration, and that if the event suggested anything, it might more likely suggest a positive change in human consciousness.
So, you have two schools of thought. One says that the world will probably end tomorrow; you definitely party to beat hell – a bacchanalia like no other. The other school says it's the end of a grand cycle, our consciousness will be raised, and it is definitely, without question, cause for a huge celebration. It's rare that radically differing sides end up with the same result, and rarer still when that result ends up being a festive celebration. The choice is obvious: a Mayan-themed fiesta is in order, either to celebrate the end of creation, or the dawn of a new era, or maybe just because it's a good opportunity to throw a wingding on a Friday.
First Things First
The first order of fiesta business is booze, and it should probably be Mexican. A couple of beers to have on hand are Noche Buena (5.9% ABV) and Tecate (4.5% ABV). First introduced in 1924, Noche Buena is Mexico's only seasonal winter beer, made in a lightly sweet bock style, using Styrian hops. Noche Buena is the Mexican name for the poinsettia, which is featured on the label. Nochebuena is Christmas Eve in Mexico, and the last night of Las Posadas: Dec. 16-24, with the nine days representing nine months of pregnancy, as well as Mary and Joseph looking for lodging. It's the perfect beer to celebrate a world ending in December! Tecate is brewed in the American Adjunct Lager style; it's crisp and light, comes in a can (environmentally friendly), and tastes fine with some lime squeezed into it. Believe me, some burps will be recuperative when the world is crashing down around you.
The featured cocktail is La Paloma, or "The Dove." La Paloma may be the favorite tequila cocktail in Mexico; it's definitely the most refreshing one. Think of it as a fizzy tequila Salty Dog, made across the border with silver (blanco) tequila, a squeeze of lime juice, a pinch of salt, and Jarritos Toronja or Fresca Toronja. If you followed that recipe in the States, the best grapefruit sodas, in order, are: Kiss, Fresca (ideally the Mexican version made with cane sugar), and Squirt. I slipped on my mixology pants and came up with a delicious artisanal version of La Paloma, using blanco tequila, fresh lime and grapefruit juices, agave simple syrup infused with grapefruit peel, and a dash of grapefruit bitters, topped with Topo Chico seltzer (the bubbliest of all aguas minerales con gas). It's the perfect cocktail to celebrate the apocalypse – or the enlightenment!
Second, Start on the Food
For an appetizer, we go old-school Mayan with a dip called sikil p'aak, made from roasted pumpkin seeds and charred tomatoes, tomatillos, chiles, garlic, and onion, with sour orange juice – to be eaten with tostados (totopos). It is the Mayan variant of a traditional pipian sauce. P'aak is Mayan for "tomato" and sikil means "squash seed," and the recipe dates back to pre-conquest times. Delicious year-round, this dip was traditionally served in the autumn, when pumpkin seeds were used to celebrate the harvest.
The soup choice is obvious; it has to be sopa de lima con pavo y chilmole – Yucatecan lime soup with turkey and "burnt" chile paste. It's one of my favorite soups in the world, and one I always get at Restaurante Los Almendros in old town Cancún whenever I'm in that neck of the woods. The soup is made with turkey stock and meat, lime juice, cilantro, and avocado, but the main seasoning is Mayan chilmole.
The base of chilmole is molli, which means "sauce" in Nahuatl, so chilmole is a sauce, paste, or mixture of chiles. In Spanish, the spice paste is called recado negro, which means "a black-colored spice mixture used in cooking." Dried chiles are charred black over a flame or on a comal, and ground together with other spices to make a thick, spicy, pungent paste. It can be rubbed on meats as a marinade or glaze, or used to season and thicken soups and stews. The heat level is based on the type and quantity of the chiles used; in the Yucatán, habaneros are used and the taste can be atomic. The fumes from producing the paste commercially are so noxious that making it within the city limits of Mérida is illegal.
There are a couple of refreshing salad courses. Zic de carne (or salpicón de carne) is a salad of braised shredded beef. Traditionally this is made using venison, but beef is an acceptable substitute. A lean cut like flank or brisket is perfect, as the flavor-packed meat gets shredded apart after a long simmering. Ensalada Xek is a Mandarin orange and jicama salad with cucumber and garlic, simply dressed with citrus and a sprinkling of pequin chile powder.
The Main Courses
The big daddy main course is cochinita pibil – pork shoulder marinated in achiote paste, citrus, herbs and spices, güero and habanero chiles, which is then wrapped in banana leaves and slowly baked until falling apart. Pibil dishes are traditionally cooked in a pib: a hand-dug pit in the ground lined with mesquite coals and hot stones. A corrugated metal top covers the pit, which is then sealed with earth. Meats cooked inside a pib are first wrapped and bundled in banana leaves to contain the juices and flavor. The pib cooks with heat and steam, making anything tender and succulent; a home oven and tinfoil work in a pinch.
For sides we have to have lentejas Yucatecas (brown lentils, bacon, pork, onion, garlic, carrot, chayote squash, potato, tomato, chile, epazote, chicken stock), in honor of the porkeriffic bowls of lentils we used to eat at Restaurante Gomar on Isla Mujeres. Make the dish with black beans and you have bul keken, the traditional Monday dish of Yucatec Mayans. Beans need rice, so a pot of arroz verde is in order: a rice done pilaf-style, sautéed with onion and garlic, cooked with roasted poblanos, lots of cilantro and parsley, lime zest, and chicken stock. It's rich and herbal, spicy and tangy.
Salsas are a must, and preeminent is xnipec (schneé-pek), or "dog's nose salsa" (xni translates to "dog" and pec to "nose"), so named because it makes your nose wet and runny like a dog's nose. This is traditionally made with habaneros, but you could use güero chiles to substitute for the milder xcatik chiles of Yucatán. But with the world ending (or getting better), why not flame out (or in) with verve and habanero? The other dominant salsa is k'uut bi ik; k'uut in Mayan means "crushed or pounded" and ik is the Mayan word for "chile." Traditionally, it is made using the small dried chile de país, instead of the much spicier dried habanero, but de árbol chiles make a nice, spicy substitute, paired with some charred onion. Cochinita pibil screams for a bowl of classic Yucatán pickled red onions, made with roasted garlic, citrus, fruit vinegar, allspice, and peppercorns.
Dessert is caballero pobre or "poor gentleman," a dish that is served all over the peninsula. I like to call it "Frenched" bread pudding; the bread is soaked like French toast, and then dipped in meringue before frying, like a sweet chile relleno. It gets layered with a canela (Mexican cinnamon) syrup with pecans, and the top is drizzled with Mexican brandy butter sauce. Pair that with some really strong coffee from the mountains outside Xalapa and some Azteca de Oro or Don Pedro Reserva Especial Mexican brandy to end the meal. A sinfully rich end for what was no doubt a sinful life, or a rich beginning to portend the success and fortune of the years to come. You decide.