In the seven years since the Mexicantown Community Development Corp. offices closed, some residents say the area has fallen behind other neighborhoods like Corktown and Midtown in attracting visitors from the city and suburbs. That's about to change, according to Maria Elena Rodriguez, a local historian and former head of the group. She says the seven-year drought of high-profile public events in the community will change this weekend with Holy Mole!, a culinary contest featuring Mexico's national dish. "This event is the inaugural event that's reintroducing Southeast Michigan to Mexicantown," Rodriguez says.
Co-organizer and journalist Martina Guzman agrees. She says there's been a growing concern in the community that the Mexicantown brand is getting lost. Guzman says she wanted to create an event in Mexicantown that centered around food and family, not bar-hopping. "Cinco de Mayo has turned into that," she says. "I feel that when other people take over your cultural events or holidays, it starts to become beer- or alcohol-driven festivals. I wanted to do an event that celebrated Mexican culture through food."
Many people outside the Mexican and Mexican-American community probably know mole (pronounced moe-lay) as a heavy, chocolate-y sauce usually covering a serving of turkey or chicken. What's less known is how varied mole can be and how difficult it is to prepare. "It is really labor intensive," Rodriguez says.
"Every region has their own version," Guzman says. "Some are heavy in chocolate, some have more cinnamon. There's green mole, there's red mole, there's brown mole. Depending on where you're from in Mexico" the ingredients will change.
On Sunday, 17 people (most or all of them women) will compete in Holy Mole! by making their own version of mole for a cash prize. Guzman says the competition will be challenge. "One of the rules is that it has to be homemade and to make mole homemade, it's going to take two to two-and-a-half days to prep, fry, grind, and eventually simmer the sauce to a perfect consistency."
Ofelia Saenz is one of the women taking part in the event. She's learning to make mole by taking lessons from her mother, Gloria Saenz, and Doña Marta Nino, a respected older woman in her family who has been making mole for decades. Picking it up fresh is no easy task.
"I've made it one time in my life and it was really hard," Saenz says. "After that, I figured that I didn't need to know because so many people in my family could make it wonderfully. But at some point, I'm not going to have these people in my life, and I want to be able to make it and share the recipe with others."
For Saenz, mole is a chance to spend time with the women in her family, while also taking part in a Mexican tradition. "It's one of the advantages to making something that's a labor intensive dish," she says. "It kind of creates the time for sharing and telling stories and spending time together."
Holy Mole! takes place 3 p.m.-6 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 15 at Ste. Anne's Church, 1000 Saint Anne St., Detroit. Guzman promises the food will sell out, so come early for a wide taste of an authentic Mexican culinary tradition.