Learning Mexican Food Culture

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By Russ Ham

There are many doors into Mexican culture — music, sports, religion, history, and more — but few offer such immediate gratification as food.  Working together to prepare a meal is an ancient human experience, and Bernardo Aguado Jiménez and Hilda Medina Vargas use that setting to combine lessons on culture, history, and language with hands-on cooking that culminates in a delicious meal.

How do you eat the paddles from the prickly pear cactus?  How could a cold soup made mostly of apples taste so savory?  What delights await in the use of peppers, corn, masa, huitlacoche, and the fresh seafood available in La Paz?  Hilda and Bernardo are guides through these mysteries, from how to blend a salsa pipián verde to how to bake a perfect flan.

Over the last two years, Bernardo and Hilda have conducted about 40 classes for no fewer than 280 students.  Many folks attend repeatedly, as the menus always vary.  “We try to make the classes entertaining,” says Bernardo, “but we also want people to share the experience of learning and cooking.”  Bernardo’s comment was in Spanish, of course (Hilda speaks very good English) and he used the polite phrase “residentes y visitantes” (residents and visitors) to describe the attendees, but the plain meaning is to say “both Mexicans and foreigners.”  The classes often include people from around the world, and the sense of community is obvious.  The kitchen walls feature dozens of little plaques with the names of former students.

Bernardo’s life has always centered on food and hospitality.  He is the oldest of seven children born to a butcher in León, Guanajuato.  He began working the night shift at a local hotel.  Two years later, he was promoted to manager of the Parador de San Javier in Guanajuato, where he was “constantly involved in the supervision and preparation of food and drinks.  Every day, the owner’s wife, Señora Cuquita, invited me to taste the foods that were being prepared, and I had the luck of learning to identify flavors and aromas that were previously unknown to me.  Eventually, I came to understand that the kitchen embodies the art, history, and culture of my country.  Cooking became a special pleasure for me.”

This enthusiasm shines through.  One repeat attendee — a full-time La Paz resident from British Columbia — says “Bernardo and Hilda make learning fun.  They are justifiably proud of the varied foods Mexico has to offer, and Bernardo is a history buff who loves to share his knowledge of Mexico’s past.”  Another repeat student adds, “I love the super-friendly vibe… Bernardo and Hilda are the most delightful hosts.  I’ve learned some amazing dishes that I would never have been exposed to.  Bernardo does a great job bringing in ideas from all over the country.”

Hilda and Bernardo met in Guanajuato, while she was doing accounting for the hotel company.  They became friends, but Bernardo thought she was special.  In February of 1978, he told her, “Yo me voy a casar contigo,” (I’m going to marry you) and by December, they were married.

Bernardo then managed banquets at the Convention Center, leading to a position at LaSalle University teaching Food and Beverage Administration through the 1980s.  The couple formed their own catering company, with clients like the Campestre Country Club and a large sports club. 

After a family visit to La Paz in April of 2014, they decided to move here. They arrived in July of the same year, seeking a more relaxed life and planning a small restaurant serving comida corrida lunches.  But six weeks later, Hurricane Odile struck, upending their plans.  For the next two years, they hosted homestays for Juli Goff’s language school, Se Habla La Paz.  When Juli retired in 2016, they added a new feature — cooking classes.

Class menus can be adjusted to accommodate personal preferences.  Students practice basic techniques, such as whipping egg whites, to advanced skills, such as coating a chile relleno with those egg whites and getting them properly browned.

The classes are held in Hilda and Bernardo’s home. “It is always a treat,” says one attendee, “to be invited into a local home.  Then to have the opportunity to learn and to eat is icing on the cake.  Hilda and Bernardo offer that opportunity along with their infectious love of cooking.”

A couple who spent last winter in La Paz, Amanda Sesser and Jason Mitzen, attended several sessions.  They have now opened a mescaleria in New Orleans called “Espíritu,” and credit Bernardo and Hilda for many of their menu ideas.  “Bernardo and Hilda,” they say, “ taught us traditional cooking methods and shared recipes, from accessible items to intricate preparations, from all over Mexico.  We not only learned how to make the dishes, but about their history and cultural importance, too.”

Another repeat attendee says “The best part is finishing the evening sharing a family-style dinner.  I love how they encourage us to speak Spanish and gently correct our mistakes, usually with a laugh.”

“The cooking classes are many things,” says another student.  “Learning to cook ‘real’ Mexican food, meeting wonderful people, and having fun, Bernardo and Hilda have taught us the joy of getting to know Mexican people, culture, and customs at a level you can’t get from just reading about it.”

Visit Hilda and Bernardo’s website micocinalapaz.com, or follow Bernardo on Facebook.  His email is beraguji@hotmail.com, and his phone is 612-217-1017.

Russ Ham is a musician, photographer, and writer who loves the people and culture of the peninsula.  He hosts an Open Mic night every other Wednesday at La Morante Art Bar.