Mill Valley resident and businesswoman, Dena Cornett, won first place in the home chef category at the Mole to Die For! Contest last week at the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts in San Francisco.
The couple has been making mole for 26 years, often with the help of their mole-loving Mill Valley friends, Lisa Bookstein and Doug Patridge, who help them can jars for sharing with others throughout the year.
The holidays are a special time for all cultures and nowhere is the prevalence of food and family so pronounced as in Mexico, especially in Puebla and Oaxaca, known as the “Land of the Seven Moles.” Mole, (pronounced , MOLE-lay), from a name derived from the Nahuatl word, molli, meaning mixture, is a sauce used to cook meats and served throughout Mexico at family gatherings, celebrations and ceremonially during Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead.
In Mexico, to say "to go to a mole" (ir a un mole) means to go to a wedding. 2] October and November are when most mole-based festivities occur and often coincide with a Thanksgiving Turkey Mole dinner in Mexican-American homes.
In preparation for writing “My Mole Story” for this year’s Mole to Die For! Contest at the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts in San Francisco, I sifted through my collection of books and notes about mole which I have collected in my 26-year quest to make authentic mole. While reviewing what Wikipedia had to say on the subject, I learned, sadly, that mole is losing favor among the Mexican people. Not only is this dish a time consuming labor of love to make, but it is becoming associated with lower class status, and further deemed untrendy due to mole’s impairment to wine pairings. According to one survey of upper-class housewives between 30 and 50 years of age, 95% had never cooked it from scratch. Mole is becoming regarded as a treat made by one’s mothers or grandmothers, if not found off-the-shelf in its commercialized form.
After winning first place at the MCCLA Mole Contest this year, I spoke with a man who had enjoyed my mole because it reminded him of his late mother’s mole, one he has regrettably replaced by adding a few ingredients to a base of a store-bought brand.
Not being of Hispanic descent and speaking very little Spanish, I was heartened to read that modern mole is a mixture of ingredients from three continents, North America, Europe and Africa, making it the first international dish created in the Americas. As a result, I feel less unworthy to take up the gauntlet in an attempt to reverse the trend of mole’s decline. Competing at the MCCLA mole contests over the past few years is a way to promote the art of mole and appreciate all cultures in their celebrations with family and friends over fine food.
It was in Oaxaca that my husband, Tony Sannella, and I first experienced the many varieties of mole. All require a multitude of ingredients, which need to be roasted, toasted, and/or sautéed, then ground and blended at various stages of the process, then simmered until reaching the desired texture and thickness. As Oaxacan author and Seasons of My Heart cooking school proprietor, Susana Trilling, wrote in her book, My Search for the Seventh Mole, “There are as many kinds of moles as there are families.”
Traditionally, mole was prepared by a battalion of mothers over several days as they met at the local mill to grind their mixtures and combine efforts in the preparation of their regional moles. In Laura Esquivel’s enchanting book, Like Water for Chocolate, the turkey mole feast preparation commenced 15 days before the turkey was scheduled for slaughter, when it was time to being feeding the bird small walnuts, starting with 2 a day and increasing each day along with its diet of corn. Our mole is prepared over multiple days, often with some help of a kitchen-slave friend or two, but does not involve the care and feeding of animals.
Our mole, which I have dubbed, That’s a Mole!, in reference to my Italian husband’s contributions to our recipe, can be classified somewhere between Mole Rojo, also known as Mole Colorado, and Mole Negro Oaxaqueño (Black Mole), known as “The King of Moles,” It begins with the advance preparation of chicken broth and the roasting and reduction of our homegrown, heirloom tomato and tomatillo sauces which then complement a similar volume of chilis, which are often roasted and prepared on the penultimate day, taking care to preserve the dried-pepper-soaking water and the seeds. Since many Oaxacan chilis are not available in Northern California, we use a variety of fresh peppers, often from our garden, and dried peppers available at local Mexican markets. An embarrassing amount of garlic is separated into cloves and dry toasted on the stove. Onions are sliced and fried in oil, until very soft. Much blending of all of these primary ingredients follows, using a blender, food mill or, should you be so lucky as I am to have an Italian husband, a spremipomodoro. The blending process is improved by adding some of the reserved pepper water and chicken broth, helping to liquefy and smooth the mixture. Next, the remaining 20+ ingredients — a combination of spices, nuts and seeds — are prepared by roasting, toasting or frying, then ground and blended as smooth as you can possibly accomplish with your blending tools. Next, the spice mixture is added into the primary mixture, and then simmered for several hours. Lastly, Mexican chocolate is added, and the mole is further simmered to thicken and mingle all of the flavors together in the sauce.
Although it seems like a daunting task to prepare, I hope others will discover this wonderful Mexican dish, encourage its tradition and its well-earned place at holiday celebrations and special occasions.
A toast to a Thanksgiving filled with family, friends and fine food!