“FOODS OF THE MAYA/ A TASTE OF THE YUCATAN”’ by Nancy & Jeffrey Gerlach is a beautiful (and unique!) soft-cover book by The Crossing Press, first published in 1994 but apparently reprinted in 2002. A Google search offers numerous ways to obtain a copy.
(The name Nancy Gerlach seemed familiar – a little checking revealed that she has co-authored a number of books with Dave DeWitt – so of course her name sounded familiar!) Dave DeWitt has written numerous cookbooks.
The authors explain that although they have been traveling south of the border for more than twenty-five years, they were introduced to the Yucatan in 1984. Their first trip, a snorkeling and diving vacation, was all that it took for them to fall in love with “this wonderful magical place” and over the years they returned as often as possible.
Say the Gerlachs, “There’s a lot to like: the weather is just about perfect, complete with a rich, deep blue sky filled with massive majestic clouds: the forests are as vast and dense as they are mysterious: the Mayan ruins are both extraordinary and enigmatic: the palm-lined beaches are heart wrenchingly beautiful and the turquoise sea is warm, crystal clear, and full of spectacular life…”
They also explain that, because the Yucatan was physically isolated for so long by water on three sides, as well as impenetrable forest on its southern border, it was influenced more by Europe and the Caribbean than by Mexico. It has developed a cuisine that is distinct and separate from what is commonly called Mexican food.
FOODS OF THE MAYA contains a fascinating Introduction, or background information, on the Maya and the Mayan ruins as well as traveling information and tip s, information on renting a room, airport customs, and helpful information on traveling around the Yucatan. For instance, we read that “Despite some of the world’s most impressive ruins, historians still cannot tell us what really happened to the Maya. Dates can be attached to sites, and it is possible to differentiate the various architectural styles, but nobody can answer the most important questions, ‘Why did the Mayans walk away from these incredible cities?…Mayan society became extremely complex and diverse, requiring specialized professions, such as architects, scientists, mathematicians, and artists. This led to the create of some of the world’s most spectacular buildings and temples, a calendar so accurate that it continues to amaze scientists today, complex mathematical calculations that were the most advanced in the world at the time, and a vast array of artwork that is viewed with awe even thousands of years later…Archaeologists and historians have been trekking through the forests of the Yucatan ever since the publication of John Steven’s intriguing travel books in the 1800s, searching for answers and generally finding questions instead. The ancient Maya remain mysterious inhuman geniuses, builders of noble empires that were intellectually superior, yet, they never developed the wheel and they worshipped gods that required barbaric behavior and constant bloodletting. (And, despite the accuracy of the Mayan mathematicians – you may have noticed, the world did not end on December 31, 2012, as predicted by the Mayan calendar. My son Steve suggested that the Mayan calendar might have been accurate but we have changed our calendar on at least a few occasions since ancient times–and I have my own theory about what happened to the Mayan people.
Trust me when I tell you I have barely skimmed over the information to be found in the Introduction to this fine book. And then – and then there are the recipes.
Say the Gerlachs, “One thing you can always count on when eating in Mexico is that there will be a bowl of salsa or a bottle of hot sauce on the table with your meal – in our travels we sometimes have to ask for silverware or napkins, but rarely ever do we have to ask for salsa. Salsa is essential to Mexican cuisine – eating a meal without is like eating a bowl of cereal without milk”.
They further explain that the Yucatan is home to a number of unique salsas and then provide a wondrous assortment of pastes, sauces and salsas that are to die for…how about a recipe called “Dog-snout Salsa (Xnipek), pronounced roughly ‘schnee-peck’, It is literally translated as dog’s snout salsa –because it is so hot, it can make your nose run. I do intend to try a recipe called Black Seasoning Paste, a seasoning most often used with turkey and other meats such as meatballs and the recipe for Salsa Verde sounds like one I had been searching for when I first reviewed FOODS OF THE MAYA—since then green salsas have become available almost everywhere you go. Salsa Verde is a green salsa made with little tomatillos – possibly not available in all parts of the country—but you are in for a treat if they are available where you live. The first time I ever saw it prepared with the little green tomatillos, it was being made by Connie, a close friend who was my son Kelly’s godmother.
There is a most unusual enchilada recipe—Enchiladas Stuffed with Hard Cooked Eggs’ (Papadzul) that I think would make a fine brunch recipe, the next time you are looking for something a little different…and a Yucatan Ribs recipe (which is served with a plateful of lime wedges) that I think would draw rave reviews at your next family cookout. Look also for various recipes using turkey, fish, shrimp, beans and corn…various foods indigenous to the Yucatan. There are also a variety of dessert recipes including one for flan that I will be sure to try the next time I do a Mexican-style dinner.
And last, but certainly not least, there is a helpful glossary to help the un-initiated with food terms ranging from A for Achiote and Albondigas….to Y for Yerba Buena meaning spearmint! Also thoughtfully provided is a page of mail order sources for those of you interested in trying some Yucatan recipes but are unable to find all of the ingredients ….and a bibliography for all of us who just love bibliographies.
If you Google Foods of the Maya, you will find an abundance of references (over a million hits) but to find a copy of FOOD OF THE MAYA/A TASTE OF THE YUCATAN, visit Amazon.com. It’s available new for $14.06 and pre-owned for $11.06.
–Review by Sandra Lee Smith