To know pozole and all that the stew holds is to know of devotion—to tradition, to family, and to a spirituality rooted in both. Teresa Ceja Bautista says her pozole represents a devotion to her pueblo Cherán, in the state of Michoacán, Mexico, and to the patron saint: San Francisco, widely known as Saint Francis of Assisi.
On a recent evening, the Ceja Bautista family is hosting the third of nine days set out for the saint's festival. Nearly a hundred people are gathered at the family's home to honor his miracles in their beloved Cherán, from which they all began emigrating in the 1990s. Many are single adult men, who traded growing corn and raising cattle in Cherán for better-paying landscaping and construction jobs here. Most are mothers and fathers whose children only know Cherán by the reimagined memories written on the faces they meet in Durham.
Every October, Catholic devotees celebrate Saint Francis of Assisi, whose legacy of humility—along with Catholicism and pork—reached the Americas with the conquistadors. The Aztecs revered pozole, a stew whose main ingredient is maize. The sacred kernel still symbolizes resistance today in places where Big Ag interests like Monsanto threaten traditions. The particular corn in pozole is what we call hominy—thick, mealy kernels cultivated by indigenous Americans in North, Central, and South America. (For a tasty pozole at a local restaurant, try Azteca Grill in Durham's Lakewood neighborhood, owned by the Resendiz Apolonio family from Michoacán.)
In the Ceja Bautistas' backyard, the evening air carries the aromas of church incense, teenage cologne, and simmering onions down a dirt path scattered with pine needles, which forges an aisle through eight rows of folding chairs.
Shiny papel picado hangs from above. The flags, cut like paper snowflakes into Mexican folkloric designs, crisscross with utility light bulbs strung from one mobile home roof to the other, the anchors for the celebration.
Padre Marcos Leon, a Peruvian priest from Saint Bernadette Catholic Church in Butner, arrives late to a seated congregation. Teresa and the women who cooked the pozole shuffle chairs into a row by the three cauldrons of soup behind the altar, so they can keep an eye on it.
Padre Leon, wearing a plaid shirt, stands at an altar cut out of cardboard to look like a tabernacle, at least twenty feet high and decorated with reflective paper, woven baskets, folk art, flowers, and candles surrounding two statues of San Francisco. Devotees have already pinned dollar bills onto the cloaks of each idol and adorned them with garlands of animal crackers to bless their pets and livestock—signs of gratitude and hope for more miracles. Teresa centers a portrait of her deceased mother at the front, to honor her roots.
Padre Leon slips on priestly vestments, the hem of his white robe stopping just above a pair of dusty blue Adidas Sambas. As he gets ready, he clearly smells the feast awaiting him and immediately chooses his opening line.
"If the priest doesn't eat, people get offended," he declares loudly as the congregants laugh. "So I have to eat two plates, minimum."
When Teresa finds out I've eaten pozole in Mexico, on Christmas, she laments not having enough time to properly prepare the dried maize herself. This nixtamalization process is what the indigenous people developed to aid in digestion: soaking the kernels in highly alkaline limewater to loosen the hulls until they slide off, making it softer. It frees niacin into the body so that nutrients are absorbed and the eater doesn't get sick. (This process is also employed to grind corn into masa for tortillas and tamales.)
Pozole is rarely reduced to a stockpot recipe for eight. Instead, it's a celebration food that simmers all day with an entire pig's head bobbing in a cauldron. Sometimes it's green or white, but this evening it's red, spiced by guajillo and other peppers.
"Corn is most economical in Mexico," Teresa says. "We harvest it in Cherán as our main crop. We don't use as much meat because it's expensive."
Here in the hog capital of the world, Teresa had reserved a large, shallow pan with extra shredded pork that she scooped into each Styrofoam bowl. After closing the service with an emotional prayer to San Francisco, asking him to protect immigrants who cross the border, Padre Leon is served a huge bowl of pozole. (It's so big, he opts out of seconds.) Men carry dozens of trays out to the seats, where members of the community grab soup and fixings: shredded lettuce, sliced radishes, lime wedges, and pickled chili peppers.
Hominy is more filling, gratifyingly so, than potato or any other stew thickener. Like the Aztecs and the Mayans in Mexico, the native Cherokee in North Carolina used hominy, nixtamalizing it with lye to ground into grits. Later, colonizers introduced pork, and hog and hominy became a Southern food.
At Monday's celebration, Teresa and other parents repeat a refrain like a prayer: that their children remember their Mexican culture is rooted in spiritual traditions and celebrations, ones that express gratitude with generosity.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The Power of Pozole"