Well, I woke up Sunday morning
With no way to hold my head that didn’t hurt.
And the beer I had for breakfast wasn’t bad,
So I had one more for dessert.
When I was a younger man, I would seldom consume an excessive amount of alcohol on any evening other than on a Saturday. When I became an older man, however, I began to forget what day it was and would sometimes become somewhat inebriated on the other days of the week. This can be a problem in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.
In Mexico, there is a medicinal miracle that, on the morning after, can rid you of all of the evils that entered your mind and body on the previous evening. As it is generally only consumed by Mexicans, however, and, as almost all Mexicans are younger than I and still only drink heavily on Saturday nights, the substance is carefully controlled and the remedy rarely available at any time other than Sunday mornings.
This medicinal magic is called menudo. It is so good that it should be consumed not just as the hair of the dog but even when you haven’t seen hide nor hair of a dog in days. But first a little warning about it. In order to enjoy menudo, you must be comfortable with gooey, spongy, rubbery, slimy, chunky, chewy pieces of meat causing a symphony of flavors to dance in your mouth. I am quite comfortable with this sensation. Don Day’s Wife is not. So, like many or, perhaps most, ex-pats in this town, Don Day’s Wife has decided to live without this almost erotic experience.
OK, now a little more about menudo but not from me, from one of my favorite Mexican writers, Gustavo Arellano, from his book Ask A Mexican: “…menudo is amor. It’s the soup Mexican women slave over for their hungry families on weekend mornings, the dish over which families unite and teens pitch woo while passing along a wicker of tortillas…true menudo is a difficult feat, taking hours to create, but it comes with a payoff that transcends tastebuds and strives for the sublime.”
In the most simple of terms, menudo is a broth, flavored primarily with dried chiles but usually also including a little onion and garlic and, occasionally, hominy (corn). In that broth is simmered the meat that originates, usually, in a cow’s legs and stomach. Not exactly the most exciting description is it? But let me turn it back to the more appetizing words of Gustavo Arellano: “Menudo is a sociohistorical lesson in a bowl; the fat, pale kernels of pozole have nourished Mesoamericans since time immemorial; the use of tripe and not the better parts of the cow is a testament to its status as a poor person’s meal. Menudo is delicious, the trinity of firm pozole, chewy tripe, and fiery, blood-red broth producing a comforting, fatty flavor.”
When I eat menudo, I feel the closest I ever come to being an actual Mexican, to being part of a Mexican family, to understanding the history of the country and its cuisine, to having a constant smile. If there was a national dish in Mexico, menudo would be the most logical contender.
Now a little more about menudo. There is nothing that has a more inviting color than menudo. Except for candy apples, I’d never even seen that color in food until I came to Mexico. It’s the color I always wanted my dream car, my 1956 Mercury Montclair, to be. And a little more about the meat that’s in menudo. It’s definitely cheap meat. And not the meat that most of us are used to eating on a regular basis. The first ingredient, cow’s leg, includes everything that’s in the leg, including the tendons and feet. The second ingredient, beef stomach, is best known to us as tripe or, if you’re from the southern U.S., chitterlings (or chitlins). Tripe is very complicated because a cow’s stomach is very complicated. There are four chambers to the cow’s stomach which you probably don’t really want to hear about but I must share because I’m probably one of the few food writers who knows these obscure facts.
The first chamber, the rumen, is where the smooth tripe comes from. The second chamber, the reticulum, is where the honeycomb shaped tripe comes from. The omasum is where the tripe that looks like a little book comes from. And the abomasum is where the reed-shaped tripe comes from. Most cooks use only the first three chambers in their menudo.
If you make the same mistake as Don Day, you may go for years thinking that the Spanish word tripa meant tripe, you might therefore think that there is tripa in menudo. There is not, for tripa is, in fact, the Mexican Spanish word for intestines, particularly when they’re used as casings for sausages.
Along with its first cousin pozole, menudo is Mexico’s hangover dish. On New Year’s Day, it is almost impossible to get into a restaurant that serves menudo. In San Miguel de Allende there are at least six places that have menudo on the menu on Sundays where it’s usually eaten before the bells in the Parroquia toll twelve and rarely available after they strike two. My favorite is El Cedro. It is where the inhabitants of San Miguel’s Valle de Maíz eat their menudo. It is also where some people drive to for miles to eat their menudo. If you peek over the restaurant’s garage doors, you’ll see that even mojigangas eat their menudo at El Cedro.
I went to El Cedro today. First I asked Don Day’s Wife if she would like to join me. She sang her answer, “I don’t think so”, going a couple of keys higher on the word “think”. I then asked my friend Mark Tamiso if he would like to join me. His answer was, “you bet”.
Eating at El Cedro is like eating in a family’s kitchen on the day a track meet is being held there. Rachel, the chef/owner mans (or would womans be more proper?) the five huge pots that bubble on the stoves. A young guy, perhaps one of Rachel’s sons, glides around the double layered plastic chairs (courtesy, as always, of Corona) taking an order; clearing a table; refilling the bowls of chopped onions, lettuce, radishes, cilantro and limes; checking to see there are still some chiles de arbol in the oregano bowl.
Sweat pours down the cheeks of the two women pressing the tortillas and flipping them on the comal, occasionally wrapping a few in a tea towel and heading out on the floor chanting, “¿Quién quiere más? ¿Quién quiere más?”.
There are two doors to El Cedro suggesting that once the neighborhood restaurant was the neighborhood cantina. At one of those doors there is a line of people with tin buckets, glass jars, plastic pails, clay cazuelas; all waiting for Rachel to dip her ladle into one of those cauldrons and pull out her magic potion.
El Cedro’s menudo comes in two sizes, grande and chico. I choose the grande because you get almost twice as much for a measly 10 pesos more.
When the menudo comes to the table, I, like most of El Cedro’s customers, add chopped onions, dried oregano, cilantro, lime and smoky, red chiles to the broth. Though I add chiles, I do not crush them like Mexicans do, as I do not like smoke coming out of my ears the way most Mexicans do. I then eat my menudo very carefully so the chiles remain in the bowl and do not actually enter my mouth which would cause me to be potentially slain by the lance of someone called San Andrés.
So, does El Cedro’s menudo really cure a hangover? I think it’s a lot like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. It does if you believe it does. And I know absolutely for sure menudo really cures a hunger.
El Cedro is located at Salida a Querétaro 131 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. The lyrics are from “Sunday Morning Comin’ Down” by Kris Kristofferson.