Photo: Chris Van Dyck
“Dulce, dulce, dulce, dulce,” sings my two-year-old son as I stroller him over cobblestones.
Yes, “candy” is one of the first Spanish words he has learned since moving to Mexico. It turns out that Morelia, this highland city of rain-pocked stone, is to dulces and children what Jalisco is to tequila and twenty-somethings: Heaven.
As someone raised on whole wheat and homegrown everything in middle America, I can’t quite describe the horror I felt when my son came to me sucking on a lollipop at the end of his first day of daycare in Mexico. Seeing that forbidden pink between his lips was a bittersweet mothering moment: a premonition of the day I will discover his generation’s equivalent of pot paraphernalia stashed in an underwear drawer, or Playboys under the bed.
Tomorrow I will speak to his teachers, I vowed that first day.
But living abroad, like parenting, is all about adaptation and acceptance. “Tomorrow” became next week, and by then it was too late. I got used to the idea that sugary incentives were part of the school’s pedagogy (a Pavlovian twist on Maria Montessori’s method), and my routine-loving toddler expected them.
I reasoned that he was different enough with his English words and yellow hair: he didn’t need to be set apart any further from his classmates with special rules. Besides, school wasn’t his only sugar source.
Soon we began to be invited to Saturday birthday parties, from which we retreated laden with piñata loot. He was even offered dulces—lollipops, chocolates, chunks of fruit ate, slices of sugar cane—by strangers in the streets. So I grimaced as I picked half-sucked, yellow, Starburst-type things off the inside of his lunch bag, but I knew not to pick a losing battle.
It’s only a year, I told myself. It’s not going to mess him up forever. Kids forget. Baby teeth fall out whether or not they’re rotten.
But these facts are cold comfort. We didn’t go to all the hassle and heartache of leaving our home in the U.S. to bring our son to Mexico with the assumption that the experience would all wash off in the end. Quite the opposite. We came hoping that, as a child, he will experience a second culture in an unadulterated way, in a way that adult travelers – for whom everything stands in juxtaposition with previous experience – simply cannot.
I realize that these hopes may in fact be realized when I compare my son’s sweets immersion with my own clunky, contrived attempts to experience this city. Whereas my son’s first tastes of Mexican sweets occurred in context (he was sad, hence, dulce), mine began when I followed the map in my Lonely Planet to Morelia’s touristy Mercado de Dulces: a long, dim building behind the public library.
Passing through for a quick look one day while my son was at school and my husband was off conducting his own, more substantive research, I happened to stop in front of a stall with a particularly dramatic spread of crystallized fruit: desiccated half oranges, slabs of pineapple, and other fruits I did not recognize, all petrified in sugar. Flies and bees hovered above them in the shafts of dusty light, but even without the bugs they didn’t look like anything one would want to eat.
I asked a few awkwardly phrased questions of the bright-faced, bottle-blonde woman who was shooing bees from the display, and was launched into my first sweets lesson.
“These,” she told me with some pride, piling various forms of dulce de leche and ates in front of her.
“These are the traditional specialties.”
“Of Morelia?” I asked.
She nodded and began to ply me with samples that looked like fat, crusty worms.
“This is guava in chile. Try some! And this, tamarind in salt.”
At first taste, the savory sour-and-spice made my eyebrows quiver. Then I wanted more.
I left laden with candied fruits: more of those fruit worms in salt and chile; ates of guava, membrillo, tejocote, and pear, all encrusted in sugar granules; and large slices of crystallized pumpkin, sweet potato, cactus, and chilacayote, a melon-squash with stringy flesh and large black seeds.
I allowed myself to be enchanted. It was all so different and exotic and new, a real taste of this foreign place we’d come to. I couldn’t wait to show my husband my decadent haul, and maybe I wanted to impress my son with my receptivity to Mexico, however clumsy.
After dinner that evening, I set out a plate of crystallized fruits. My son and I leaned in to watch as my husband sliced each one open. I set a slice of cactus on my tongue. Within its sugar crust, the fruit all but dripped with juice that tasted—I thought—like raw maple sap. I moved on to sweet potato, then pumpkin.
“Pretty ’icious!” my son pronounced the spread at large. I wondered, will he someday think raw maple sap tastes a bit like candied cactus?
In solidarity with my son’s experience, and out of a traveler’s sense of responsibility to Lonely Planet, I set out to know more about Morelia’s dulces: it just so happens that Morelia has a candy museum.
The three of us ducked into the Museo de Dulces one evening just as it was starting to rain, and signed on for the full lecture and tour. What we learned at the Museo is that ates are Morelia’s real niche. Inaccurately described as “fruit leathers” in guidebooks, ates are densely jelled fruit-and-sugar candies that are sold in molded blocks, rolls, or bite-sized chunks dusted in sugar granules, salt, or powdered chile.
Ates were first made in a convent in Morelia (according to the Museo’s presentation), where the nuns—or their indigenous wards—applied European food conservation methods to Mesoamerican fruit. This made the otherwise ephemeral fruits transportable, which meant Europeans, so passionate for cocoa and coffee, could enjoy still more flavors from the exotic New World.
Initially—and in spite of my ability to eat an entire bag of assorted ates—I didn’t love them. Bright, sour guavas don’t taste remotely like spicy-sweet mangos or musky tamarind, but cooked and super-saturated with sugar, I couldn’t tell the three apart. My son was no such critic, but of course, he’d already developed a taste for dulces.
At the back of the Museo de Dulces, a woman puts on an ate-making demonstration in a Disney-esque kitchen hung with dried maize and horsehair strainers. The presenter, who was no more indigena than the shop ladies at the Museo’s front were criollas, wore a white tunic embroidered around the neck with large flowers, and her hair was wrapped around her head in braids. She apparently represented the indigenous cook happily engaged in the alchemy of candy-making.
For her show she prepared membrillo ates—one-half membrillo paste made from the whole fruit, peel, seeds and all, and one-half sugar—in a copper pot (copper is another Michoacán specialty). Once the solution would not longer drop from a spoon, she pressed the translucent, ruby-brown glop into molds embellished with images of Morelia’s cathedral or other landmarks.
Then she handed my eager son a dish of still-warm membrillo jell.
As I watched him eat, I thought, Mexico may change me, but only in comparison to whom I would have been back home. I am not, for one thing, the mother I would be in the U.S.
But Mexico is making him, composing his language for the world, forming his tastes. He may not remember Mexico or have a taste for membrillo when he’s older, but he will always have a trace of Morelia’s sugar in his veins.