This essay is excerpted from The Bad Catholic’s Guide to Good Living (2005), which remains an excellent Christmas gift (hint, hint).
If you think Mexican politics are raucous now, you should have been there in the 16th century. Before the Spanish arrived, the warlike Aztec Empire based in Tenochtitlan held the neighboring nations in brutal slavery. The religious dogmas of the Aztecs were so dark and pessimistic, they make the Left Behind books seem appealing: These pagans believed that their gods were fragile and fading, and that if they weren’t fed a steady diet of freshly spilled human blood and beating hearts, they’d die and the sun would go out. And as hot as it gets in Mexico, nobody really wants that to happen.
So the Aztec kings sent warriors to conquer nearby tribes, and bring back prisoners to sacrifice on their vast pyramid-shaped temples. Their priests slaughtered some 20,000 prisoners each year, whose bodies were cooked and served to the Aztec nobility. It’s said that their favorite snacks were hands and thighs—which the last king, Moctezuma, liked stewed with tomatoes and chipotle peppers. (See recipe below.)
This regime was so popular with the non-Aztecs in the neighborhood, that when Hernando Cortes arrived in Mexico in 1519, he was swamped with volunteers to help him overthrow Moctezuma. Which he proceeded to do, exhibiting astonishing courage and ruthlessness; within five years he’d subjugated most of the country. At first, some thought the Spanish benevolent gods returning to set them free. As the conquistadors enslaved the Indians and seized every shiny object in the country to send home to Spain—well, the truth sank in.
This stealing frenzy didn’t win as many Catholic converts as one might have hoped. Despite an influx of Franciscan, Jesuit, and Dominican missionaries, the sullen, subjugated Indians showed no interest in Christianity, as somber letters Bishop Juan Zumarraga sent home to Spain make clear. It seemed to him that Mexico was liable to remain an entirely pagan country, ruled by an elite of kleptomaniacs in big tin hats. (Nice work if you can get it.)
But in 1531, something happened that changed everything. On December 9, an impoverished Aztec of noble lineage who’d taken the Christian name Juan Diego saw a woman on top of Tepeyac Hill, the former shrine of the Snake Goddess. She explained that she was there to hear the cries of her suffering people. She soon revealed herself as the Blessed Virgin. But she didn’t resemble the pasty-faced holy pictures posted by the Spaniards. This lovely lady looked like an Indian.
She sent Juan Diego to Bishop Zumarraga with orders to build a church on the spot. The bishop was skeptical of this alien construction account, and asked for some proof. On Juan Diego’s next visit, the mysterious lady sent him to gather roses. He must have thought she was pulling his leg—it was a cold December.
But Juan Diego went where Mary sent him. And there he found a garden blooming despite the frost. He collected a tilma-full of fresh Castilian roses, carried them for miles, and spilled them on the floor of the bishop’s palace. Then Juan Diego noticed they’d left a stain on his cloak. Since it came in the shape of an exquisite, miraculous portrait of the Blessed Virgin Mary standing atop the moon wearing native Aztec dress, he decided not to have it dry-cleaned.
The bishop nearly passed out. He picked up the roses—which grew in his home province, but not in Mexico—and examined the miraculous tilma. Then he fell to his knees. He ordered the first shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe built on the site she’d indicated. He enshrined the tilma, which was made of cheap materials that usually decay within a decade, for public display. Natives flocked to see this Lady, who was not just the mother-goddess of the Spaniards, but their own patroness in heaven—and within 10 years they had by the millions abandoned their pagan shrines and joined the Church.
You can still see the image of Our Lady today, in perfect condition after almost 500 years on that flimsy tilma—and in ten thousand other places: Painted on the walls of churches and barrios, fluttering on banners at soccer games, on bumper stickers and children’s lunch boxes, and tattooed on the arm of that hard-working guy who’s probably outside right now—remodeling your house.
CELEBRATE: Mark this magnificent, home-grown Mexican feast by serving a tasty native treat. No, I don’t mean “Leg-of-a- Tlaxacalan-War-Prisoner-Who’s-Been-Sacrificed-to-the-War-God-Huitzilopochtli” over rice. I was kidding about that. More modestly, I suggest the delicacy called “Aztec truffle” (huitlacoche), made from corn that has blossomed into giant, purple kernels that taste like the very best kind of mushrooms. You can pick it up canned at any ethnic food store or bodega. It makes a delicious filling for an enchilada or burrito—but my favorite way to serve it is in a fondue, the way they prepare it in Monterrey, Mexico.
Aztec Truffle Fondue
8 ounces Emmentaler cheese, cut into small cubes
12 ounces Gruyère cheese, cubed
1 tablespoon flour
2 cloves garlic, peeled, crushed
2 cups dry white wine (such as Fendant or Neuchâtel)
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 tablespoons cognac
Salt and freshly ground pepper (to taste)
5 ounces Huitlacoche (available canned at most bodegas)
Toss cheese with flour and set aside.
Add garlic, wine, and lemon juice to heavy saucepan, enamel or stainless steel. Bring to a slow simmer and begin adding cheese, a handful at a time. Stir constantly with a wooden spoon in a figure-eight motion. Let each batch of cheese melt almost completely before adding more. The fondue will bubble but should never boil, becoming creamy and smooth.
Add huitlacoche, cognac, salt, and pepper, stirring constantly.
Transfer to fondue pot or place saucepan over a table burner. Moderate heat to keep fondue warm but not boiling.
Serve immediately. The action of your guests swirling their forks in the cheese will keep it well-stirred and creamy.