Milpas on the Move, by Sharon Byrne as featured in today’s Santa Barbara Sentinel
Last weekend, Eastside Beat Officer Adrian Gutierrez did a wonderful thing. He pulled off the First Annual Menudo Festival in Santa Barbara, as a fundraiser for the SBPD Youth Explorers program. Explorers are youth aged 14-20 interested in a career in law enforcement. They have to pass written exams, physicals, and do a lot of community service. The program is run by Beat Officers Beutel, Gutierrez, Reyes and Wojo. Explorers have always been polite and helpful at the Milpas Holiday Parade and neighborhood clean-ups.
For the Menudo Festival, Adrian pulled together 12 stellar Mexican restaurants eager to submit their treasured Menudo recipes in the hopes of winning the title of Best Menudo in Santa Barbara. Here’s the line-up:
Now maybe Menudo is not your thing. I am admittedly a Menudo novice, but have long been intrigued by the particular genius of cooks who take unpalatable, worthless, and discarded meat products, and turn them into something zesty, delicious, and then much coveted. The South has BBQ –stringy, gristly cuts of pork in danger of going off are stewed into something tangy and delicious that people line up to eat. Texas gave us chili –a poor harried camp cook, short on supplies on the trail, has to figure out how to make beans appetizing for yet another night The French made bouillabaisse and the Italians came up with zuppa di pesce for the fish no one particularly wants to buy, but is still edible, and they serve it up in a righteously spicy, fragrant tomato-laden stew. The Hindus have curry, and so on. Everyone was trying to kill a number of birds with one stone: a) take less-than-premium ingredients and stew them into something appetizing, b) feed people on the cheap, and c) conserve scarce food resources.
In other words, if you’ve got nothing else to eat, concoct something incredible out of something people tend to throw away. Cooking up the premium stuff like lobster and filet mignon is easy. Taking tripe, kidneys, or other throw-away parts, and making them into a highly sought-after flavorful dish takes some genius. Consider it a form of early recycling. Nothing gets wasted, people get fed, and it tastes great. What was reviled now becomes a delicacy.
Enter Menudo, Mexico’s much beloved entry onto this global field.
Held at Franklin Elementary, with lively dance music blaring, the crowd was huge, and as diverse as the Menudo itself. Turnout was excellent, picture left.
Turns out everyone has a prized, sacred Menudo recipe, handed down by a revered ancestor. No two Menudos are exactly alike. I was stunned at the differences between the dishes I tasted. It was a wide spectrum: heavy, rich, spicy and complex versions, to clean and simple, but still tasty concoctions.
Pedro Nava kindly showed me some of the ropes: I learned to sprinkle oregano liberally, and squeeze some lime in. Turns out honeycomb tripe is premium. The broth should be reddish brown in color. Taste it first, and then add some condiments.
I begged each of the restaurants to give me just a small sample – I had 12 of these to get through! But they all loaded me up, and of course, the home-made soft, warm tortillas (which I cannot resist) were not helping my cause. 6 bowls in, I was too full to continue. My partner, a determined Menudo enthusiast who’d arrived in a fairly famished state, was overwhelmed by his 7th bowl. He carried his 8th around for a while, nursing it along, but finally gave up the ghost. I was feeling for the judges, one of whom was Chief Sanchez. How’d they make it through 12???
I hugged Adrian as I was leaving. He was one happy beat officer. The First Annual Menudo Festival was a raging success. All the beat cops and Explorers had worked really hard to pull it off. They were tired, but happy.
We’ll definitely do it again next year,” he grinned.