Nora Mendez protects the secrets in her pot of bubbling chicken mole like one would guard a weapon."Es mi machete," she says. It is my machete.
"Campesinos in Veracruz used to say that if someone takes your machete, they might as well take everything from you: your wife, your family. It's all you have and you have to guard it."
On Saturday, March 22, Mendez, a cook at Dos Perros restaurant, will blend her kitchen secrets into three traditional moles for a community dinner to be held outside the Full Frame Theater in Durham as part of the FARE Project (www.fareproject.com).
The event will include mole with chicken or tofu, and one gluten-free option.
The FARE Project combines documentaries with community food events. Mendez's life behind the stove and beyond will be featured in the documentary Vida Propia. Mendez and filmmaker Sarah Garrahan have been working on the project for two years. They met in August 2012 while both were working in the Dos Perros kitchen.
"It's good for a cook like me to have this, to show the hands preparing the customer's food," Mendez says. "It is giving us recognition in society, where we all coexist."
"I am interested in highlighting the seemingly mundane moments in life that have the potential to speak to larger social issues," Garrahan says. "I hope that audiences will find commonalities in Nora's story. There are family dinners, birthdays, school and work. But I also hope that audiences will reflect critically on the treatment of immigrants in the United States."
Mendez is nervous about how people will react to the film—but feels confident about her food. "What really makes me happy is to share the meal I'm going to prepare. I'm not worried about that at all."
Mendez, 44, grew up in Martínez de la Torre, a city in central Veracruz, a state along the Gulf of Mexico. She was studying to become an esthetician, but sought better opportunities in the U.S. She moved to Illinois in 2006, eventually settling in the Triangle with her husband and three children.
Here, she rediscovered her love for the kitchen, or, as she says, the "provincial tasks" of cooking that she learned while growing up. She has worked for nearly a decade with restaurant owner Charlie Deal—first as a dishwasher at Jujube, a pan-Asian restaurant in Chapel Hill, and now as daytime coordinator at Dos Perros.
Deal refers to Mendez as the "matron of the kitchen."
"She keeps the wheels moving during the day," Deal says. "It's her and a bunch of boys. They're all young men back there except for Nora. The guys tend to be all badass and macho, and they may not have the most progressive attitude toward women their own age. But when it comes to women who are older, it tends to be a different story. She's like the mother figure."
At Jujube, Mendez frequently brought in food for her coworkers: empanadas, with perfectly puffed dough, or enchiladas buried under a blanket of smoky or spicy mole.
"One of the things I like about the food that Nora makes is that there's a humility built into it," Deal says. "It's not tarted up and fancified."
Mendez starts her day between 8 and 9 a.m. by standing in the tall, narrow industrial kitchen cooler and surveying the available ingredients lining the shelves. From there she garners inspiration for the day's specials.
"It's like asking a poet what inspires him or her to write a poem," she says. "For me it's putting a lot of love in it, more than anything else. That's the sazón that keeps us going."
Her mole appears daily in Dos Perros' lunch specials, incorporating sweet dried raisins or tart prunes, crumbles of sweet bread from local Mexican panaderias and an assortment of chilies that add the depth of Mexico's varied terroir.
One day, Mendez would like to open her own restaurant.
"The reality is that a woman is always capable to do what she wants," she says. "You don't have to be scared."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Mole and a movie."