I spend all morning at the Museum of the Tehuacan Valley. This shrine to the history of corn is located in the former Convent of Carmen, where I stroll happily from exhibit to exhibit in a geek’s paradise. Today, the Tehuacan Valley is a dusty nook between the states of Puebla, Veracruz, and Oaxaca. Yet, people have camped here for 12,000 years. When ice-age chill dominated North America, this cave-dotted hot spot was a migrant tribe magnet and seasonal tourist destination. The museum documents a transition of humanity from hunting and gathering to irrigating and farming. Mighty important stuff for those of us unprepared to track, stalk, kill, and skin our dinner every day.
The wall décor features etched glass panels magnifying ears of maize, a triptych of cavemen planting seeds with sticks, and a mural of the corn goddess made from white, yellow, red and blue kernels by artist Benjamin Huerta in 2002. Cool art.
Nevertheless, most of the collection of ancient cobs, seeds, fibers, and pollen comes from the (literally and figuratively) groundbreaking work of archaeologist Richard Stockton MacNeish. His team of scientists excavated here in the 1960s. Their revolutionary dig documented the domestication of corn and squash around 5000 B.C. then chile and amaranth around 4000 B.C. then beans around 3000 B.C. (Taco Bell evolved a little later.)
Most people in Latin America are still consuming these same basic crops today. The museum curator Jose Ramirez enthusiastically relates his personal encounter with foodie rock-star MacNeish as if I should offer a wad of cash just to touch him. I don’t. All this talk about prehistoric cuisine is making me hungry for some fresh grub. Time to head out for the city square.
Tehuacan’s zocalo is a classic Mexican plaza, sporting manicured flowering shrubs, leafy trees with white-painted trunks, and romantic wrought-iron benches all around the center island. Along the sides are cafes and a towering Catholic church.
At La Lonja restaurant on the corner, I watch fresas (Spanish for strawberries or well-kept, high-maintenance shopaholics). The lovelies gossip with style, while their bilingual, fashionable, ruling-class children demonstrate the art of unbridled temper tantrums. My ears ring. Such audio discomfort is a tradeoff for the visual candy provided by the elegant moms, who seem quite secure that their status justifies a dominance of both the scene and the airwaves. No one appears disposed to disagree.
The waiter brings a mountainous salad of lettuce, spinach, tomatoes, cucumber, bacon, panela cheese, avocado slices, and lime juice with a glass of Garci Crespo mineral water plus crunchy toasted tortillas. Only the beauty, aroma, and savor of food can distract a man from that of the ladies. We’re relatively simple animals.
After lunch, I walk over to the cathedral built in 1724. Black iron fencing with gold spear points encircles a courtyard of cream cobblestones and rose fountains. There are two renaissance bell towers with a clock tower between and a Talavera dome behind. The edifice color scheme is ivory with gray columns, terra cotta niches, and blue accents. This church is eye catching but not gaudy. It’s flashy (as Mexicans prefer) but tasteful at the same time. Chiseled Latin over the entrance reads: “This is the house of God and door of heaven.”
Inside, the sanctuary has marble floors with soft pastel panels (blue, green, and rose) gilded above. The cathedral is shaped in a T-cross. A row of dim lit chandeliers hanging from the arched roof leads to the high dome and altar. The front is lined with classical columns and white-winged, human-sized angels. This angelic theme dominates the whole church with feathery wings painted, sculpted, and gilded everywhere.
On one side is an oil painting of Mexico’s Virgin of Guadalupe with the indigenous peasant Juan Diego kneeling to receive her gift of flowers that left a miraculous image on his garment. Nothing unexpected here. On the other side is an eastern-style portrait of Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrow with a baby Jesus glancing over at a frolicking cherub and dropping his sandal in the process. Damn cherubim have no grasp of how tiring a mother’s day can be.
I sit down on a pew for a brief meeting with the Boss, which always leads to the same conclusion: You’re big, I’m small; You’re right, I’m wrong. These regular meetings could probably be replaced by a mass memo, but it’s important for us peons to feel that management is listening. (Spotting leather-bound scripture on the podium reminds me there have been memos, but I haven’t spent enough time reading them, which is odd since I’m usually so attracted to black leather.)
I have no legitimate gripes with cosmic administration, because my troubles are mostly my own handiwork, but that doesn’t stop me from whining and bitching. How about you? Speaking of the water of life, it’s time to hustle over to the famous Peñafiel underground springs for a tour.
Take a taxi to the mineral water bottling plant. In front is a mysterious stone tower with barred windows ascending diagonally along an interior staircase up to a railed lookout at the top. What’s that for? I wonder.
My tour group is a crowd of Mexican kids, moms, and grandmas. Apparently, men are only interested in mineral water when it contains a shot of whisky. (Bourbon also comes from corn, guys. Are you paying attention now?)
Entering the facility, we pass by a white and pink rock garden with scores of rare cacti. A cave mouth yawns ahead. We descend into the dark and dank under a tiled archway and a family coat-of-arms. The long low tunnel resembles those plaster rocks on a Disney ride.
Eventually, we reach a large open-roofed cavern where the 1st spring pours from the wall into an alabaster basin. I drink some. The taste is refreshing but a bit salty from the minerals dissolved en route from Pico de Orizaba. This water has a sacred history. On the side of the cavern is a mural of Natives using the springs for curative rituals then later to grow maize.
Here is the primordial source of American food. Before Hollywood celebrities came to Tehuacan spas for natural cures and health rituals, before Spaniards bottled nature’s brew to make an easy fortune, ancient cave-dwellers dammed and channeled the valley’s springs to make their lives easier by irrigating the new-fangled invention of corn.
We wind around in more cool, cramped, humid tunnels. A 2nd spring flows like liquid glass from a side channel, passes an antique brass bottling-machine, then tumbles into a clear deep pool in a round cave rigged with spotlights to accentuate the dramatic water theater. Chiseled over an exit is a quote from the creation story of Genesis: “The spirit of God moved over the face of the water.”
Cheesy or not, the point of the melodrama is well taken. Moderns who consider pure water less essential than cell phones are badly mistaken. Civilization is built on water, not oil or gold or literary masterpieces. A tall spiral staircase leads us up a claustrophobic tube that turns out to be the previously-mentioned tower when we step out into another essential element: fresh air. Returning to my hotel, I drink deeply, breathe deeply, and sleep deeply. Tomorrow, I'll visit the exact birthplace of American cuisine.