Sunday, October 02, 2005

Pan Dulce and Coffee

This week's Rio Grande Valley food custom is Pan Dulce and coffee. You will probably not see a panaderia outside of the RGV. Even here, they are losing their appeal because Wal-Mart and other grocery stores are picking up that customer base. Panaderia means bakery. If you live outside of the RGV, you may see packaged Mexican breads and pastries. These are OK, because our culture is getting out there. Unfortunately, they never taste as good as the fresh stuff. So, let me give you some details about the custom.

In Mexico, people don't always just wake up, have breakfast, and go to work. Many people, like farmers here, wake up early, and have some prep time before breakfast. Now, this mostly happens on weekends. People wake up, they have a desayuno before almuerzo. Desayuno, directly translated, means breakfast. Being "en ayunas" means that the person is fasting. The desayuno varies from region to region. In Guanajuato, where my mother's side of family originates, they will have bread with atole and coffee or chocolate. The atole is a starch ... drink? Kind of like oatmeal, but instead of oats they use cornstarch. You can find flavored versions under the Maizena brand. Most people buy it flavorless. Depending on how much you have to spend, you may only have the atole and bread.

In the Rio Grande Valley, we don't do maizena. We just have bread and coffee or chocolate. The breads are generally conchas, cuernos, empanadas, marranitos, cake, eclairs, cookies, doughnuts, and some other varieties. Conchas are a bun with baked frosting on top. They are supposed to resemble seashells. Cuernos are a croissant-shaped bread. The main difference is that cuernos are not as soft and are generally covered in sugar and or have baked frosting. Empanadas may be the most well-known. They are a round bread that is folded in half with a filling inside. The filling is usually pumpkin; but, it can also be pineapple, cajeta, or some other sweet filling. Marranitos are along the same lines of gingerbread. They are a dark, flat bread made with molasses, no ginger, in the shape of a pig. The cake is self explanatory. You can usually buy it by the square. The rest of the pan dulce could easily be American items.

Typically, you drive by the panaderia and buy your pieces of pan dulce. They usually have a large tray and tongs that you use to make your selections. When you check out, they will count the pieces and charge you accordingly. It used to be that panaderos would drive around the neighborhood in the evenings, like ice cream vendors in the summer, and people would run out and stop him to buy bread. Now with city ordinances prohibiting street vending you don't see that part of our culture anymore. You have to live in a neighborhood outside city limits to maybe see this. Panaderos usually drove around in the evenings.

Going back over the previous paragraphs, I may have given the impression that pan dulce is only eaten in the mornings. Sorry, it's more of a snack before, between, or after meals. In the morning, before almuerzo, you'd have a piece of pan dulce to carry you over until the morning meal is ready. Later in the day, you may have a piece of pan dulce if somebody came over to visit or you feel a little hungry between lunch and supper. You may also have a piece of pan dulce after dinner as a dessert. There are more occasions that call for pan dulce. You may see it at funerals or other family crises. You may also see it at celebrations. You will most definitely see pan dulce on really cold days, which rarely happen in the Rio Grande Valley.

Pan dulce, as mentioned earlier, is accompanied by a hot drink. Typically, we have coffee. Even the kids will drink coffee. Mexicans are not squeamish about giving coffee to kids. You may also have pan dulce with canela, also known as cinnamon tea, or hot chocolate. The hot chocolate is not the usual Hershey's syrup or Nesquick. Mexican chocolate is sold in rock hard tablets that need to be chopped and boiled for an eternity before it is ready to drink. Mexican chocolate tends to leave sediment on the bottom of your cup. It is possible to drink other hot beverages with pan dulce, but not commonly. The only exception is cold milk. Hey, sometimes you're in a hurry.

Pan dulce is not one of the Mexican customs that my family and I carry. We'll have the stuff on special occasions, such as really cold weather. Typically, we eat pan dulce once every couple of months or less. We live less than a mile from De Alba's bakery and even closer to Wal-Mart, so access is not an issue. Our families, my wife's and mine, have a history of obesity and diabetes. We don't very much care to have either one of these conditions, so we stock up on the vegetables instead. We do eat stuff like barbacoa and menudo, causes of heart and circulatory diseases. My thinking is that cholesterol causes one type of disease. Obesity can cause diabetes and heart disease. In addition, there are complications of these diseases such as blindness, congestive heart failure, loss of limbs, heart attacks, joint problems, and back problems. It's just easier to avoid obesity altogether by skipping the refined sugars, starches, and flours in pan dulce. The occasional piece is OK. Regular consumption, as many Mexican families in the Rio Grande Valley do, is not for us. Still, it's a part of the local culture, so I am sharing this with you today.

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