By Susan Bean Aycock
Ever since I moved to Oaxaca nearly two years ago, I’ve been on a great food adventure. Like learning Spanish, you have to get out in the street if you want to get the real taste of Mexico. For me, it’s been a grand love affair on every street corner.
There are so many taco fillings – from pig snout to goat parts – that you just can’t find in any American grocery store. Chapulines (fried grasshoppers) with a variety of flavorings. I love huitlacoche, which is literally corn fungus, but with an exquisite earthy taste like truffles. Fruits with textures that lean towards the alarming but reach the sublime in taste. And then there’s jello, gelatina, in Mexico.
Where I’m from in the south United States, jello is a wiggly, watery non-food given mostly to children and convelescents. You can always count on getting a plastic cup of jello in the hospital. Moms give it to sick kids along with tomato soup and a grilled-cheese sandwich.
American jello flavors are pretty simple and fruity: lime, lemon, grape, cherry, strawberry. Rarely is it considered party food, though I’ve seen a Fourth of July jello flag made with cherry and blueberry jello, with whipped cream for the stars and stripes.
Oh, but jello in Mexico. Every other corner vendor sells it in plastic cups in an astonishing number of forms: clear (with water), cloudy (with milk), multi-colored and textured with all kinds of fruits, nuts and more -- are those raisins? -- suspended in the various layers. Red, white and green for Independence Day. Clear cubes suspended in cream.
Mexican jello is also a little unsettlingly perky on the plate; it barely even wiggles. You can actually cut it with a knife if you’ve made it according to the package recipe.
The flavors are as exotic as the fruits that I still sometimes don’t recognize in the market. There are all the regular fruit flavors available in the states, plus coconut and mango. And more. Chocolate (not as strange as it sounds; made it with milk, it’s like pudding). Rompope, their famous eggnog-flavored liqueur. Pistachio. Nut, though that one’s a weird beige color. Syrup (would that be maple?). Vanilla, more like dessert flan.
Jello accompanies every major food celebration here. Often, the birthday “cake” itself is a jello concoction with fruits and nuts suspended in it. Or it accompanies a more traditional cake, like ice cream on the side. My English class in Teotitán del Valle surprised me on my birthday last month with a vanilla cake and a side of orange jello. It was wonderful.
Jello in Mexico is a great metaphor for living here. It’s familiar and yet it’s not. It’s doesn’t seem like it’s going to surprise you, but it will. You might be tempted to pass it up because you just can’t imagine what it’s like, but you’d really be missing something. (I eat pig snout tacos and grasshoppers; maple syrup jello might be next.)
In fact, I’ve got to go. I need to stir the milk heating on the stove: the bottom later of this jello dish I’m making is going to be mocha (chocolate jello laced with instant coffee) and the top vanilla. It will be all nice and stripey when I cut the slices.
There’s no recipe and I’ve never made it before, but odds are it will turn out to be delicious -- if a little unexpected. Just like life in Mexico.