‘A Place at the Nayarit’ Opens a Portal to Home

In this newsletter, we look at how Natalia Molina’s work of history, the October California Book Club pick, explores food as a doorway into Mexican culture.

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Alta

In 2010, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization added Mexican cuisine to its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. This came as no surprise to anyone familiar with the tradition and passion behind each plated meal.

Flavors, textures, and presentation join to make each dish not only sustenance but an art piece to be savored with all five senses. And dishes are not prepared the same way twice. Mexico has 62 Native groups and 32 states, and the differences in cooking methods from state to state, and cook to cook, are palpable.

Specific recipe adjustments and plating reveal personality and regional identity; even the choice between using banana leaves or corn husks when making tamales pays tribute to your roots. The amaranth hailing from Nayarit, Mexico, is a nod to the Indigenous Cora, while the agua de jamaica from Jalisco and other regions traces its roots back to the Maya.

Take, for example, my family’s dinner table. One glance at the pork tamales steamed within corn husks, birria tacos with consomé, or tortas ahogadas divulges our lasting Jalisco connection. More than that, the preparation of the food weaves itself into our family’s gatherings. Grinding guacamole in a molcajete releases fresh, tangy aromas that complement the spicy gossip of aunts. The sizzle of the carne asada on the grill underpins the bustle of a cousin’s birthday party. Any awkward moments of silence are broken up by the crunch of a freshly warmed tortilla.

Family-owned Mexican restaurants re-create the intimate atmosphere of the kitchen within the larger setting of the local community. In A Place at the Nayarit, the California Book Club selection for October, Natalia Molina chronicles the history of the Nayarit, a restaurant in Los Angeles’s Echo Park neighborhood, from 1951 to the 1970s. Her grandmother, Nayarit-born Natalia Barraza, owned the restaurant. Doña Natalia and her Mexican employees catered to people craving homestyle food and familiar faces.

The food was more than an experience of texture and taste. For customers who had immigrated from Nayarit, Doña Natalia’s dishes were a portal to a home that at times in their lives in the United States must have felt very far away.

Nayarit is a coastal state, and freshly caught seafood is a staple in most of its dishes. People from the region have spun classic Mexican recipes by incorporating shrimp or fish: shrimp tamales, shrimp meatballs, shrimp empanadas. Ceviche de pescado and camarones a la diabla are two more meals, featuring fish and shellfish, respectively, that inland states cannot boast about.

Given the difficulty of always procuring fresh ingredients in Los Angeles, Doña Natalia had to adjust her Nayarit dishes. When she struggled to find fermented cow’s milk, or jocoque, a yogurt-like substance, in the local area, she replaced the ingredient with sour cream. Special dishes like pescado zarandeado were served only when Doña Natalia found fresh fish that met her standards.

While these adaptations often worked, Doña Natalia still traveled 300 miles round trip to Tijuana to nab ingredients like canned chiles, Mexican chocolate, and mole paste, which were not readily found in Los Angeles. Her eye for detail left an impression on everyone who entered the Nayarit.

Even customers who had grown up eating different regional Mexican cuisines recognized that this food was special, connected to different histories, imbued with pride in local traditions, and offered up in a spirit of welcome.

Meats, vegetables, and spices used by the Maya and Cora in times past are the stars of recipes passed down through generations. Pozole, a soup first made centuries ago, is still enjoyed today. Dig into a mole de pollo, a centuries-old dish, and you know you’re merely the latest in a long line of people to enjoy a culinary staple that has withstood the test of time. Molina’s portrayal of Doña Natalia’s Nayarit demonstrates that food serves as a portal to home.•

Join us on Zoom on October 20 at 5 p.m. Pacific time, when Molina will join CBC host John Freeman and special guest Alex Espinoza to discuss A Place at the Nayarit. Please stop by the Alta Clubhouse to let us and your fellow book club members know your thoughts about the book. Register here for the event.

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