In cen­tral Mex­ico, a small vil­lage of bak­ers sup­plies fresh­made loaves to the coun­try’s re­li­gious fes­ti­vals


Chal­lah-like pan de fi­esta,


grand­fa­ther started mak­ing bread in the early 1900s, San Juan Totolac was just a tiny hill­side vil­lage. He and his fam­ily would make their dough from wheat ground at the Span­ish mill up the hill, mix in a lit­tle lard and pi­l­on­cillo (un­re­fined cane sugar), and leaven the dough with pulque, a mildly al­co­holic bev­er­age made from the fer­mented sap of agave plants, which once pro­lif­er­ated in the re­gion. They would load their bread into wooden crates, strap them to the backs of mules, and sell the loaves at whichever nearby vil­lage or town was cel­e­brat­ing a fes­ti­val, usu­ally tied to the lo­cal Catholic pa­tron saint. Their cus­tomers called it pan de pulque,

pan de burro (mule bread), or pan de fe­ria (fair bread). In Totolac, they called it pan de fi­esta (party bread), and it was how just about ev­ery­one in town earned a liv­ing.

Now grown to a town of 10,000, Totolac is prac­ti­cally con­tigu­ous with the neigh­bor­ing city of Tlax­cala, the cap­i­tal of the state of the same name. Most fam­i­lies—the Cua­pios in­cluded—have long since traded out pulque for pow­dered yeasts, but the sweet, chal­lah-like pan de fi­esta is still avail­able at fairs and fes­ti­vals. For David, his wife, Clari­bel, and their two chil­dren, Bar­bara and David, pan de fi­esta re­mains a fam­ily busi­ness. “My fa­ther did this work ev­ery week,” the el­der David says, dig­ging his hands into a deep wooden trough and press­ing yel­low rib­bons of but­ter through his fin­gers, “so to learn, all I had to do was watch.”

Most weeks, the Cua­pios—as well as the other 200 or so bak- ing fam­i­lies in Totolac—pre­pare hun­dreds of loaves at a time. On Wed­nes­days, when most fam­i­lies bake, the en­tire vil­lage is sat­u­rated with the heat from the ovens and the aroma of fresh bread. On Thurs­days and Fri­days, the bak­ers drive out to whichever town—near or far—is hav­ing its an­nual fair that week­end. “There are bak­ers here who have trav­eled to ev­ery state in Mex­ico,” Clari­bel says. David once trav­eled as far as the state of Aguas­calientes, more than 300 miles to the north­west. Even in states as far north as Za­cate­cas and as far south as Oax­aca, you can usu­ally count on at least one baker’s hav­ing made the trek for the an­nual fair.

Pan de fi­esta is not only one of the most com­mon bread-bak­ing tradi-

tions in Mex­ico, it’s also among the old­est. Dur­ing the Span­ish con­quest in the 1500s, the Tlax­calans formed an al­liance with the in­vaders to de­feat their old en­e­mies, the Aztecs. As a re­sult, the Span­ish Crown gave them spe­cial priv­i­leges, in­clud­ing the right to grow wheat. The first in­dige­nous bak­ers learned their trade un­der the Fran­cis­can monks who had es­tab­lished monas­ter­ies in cen­tral Mex­ico, and of­ten pre­pared bread for rit­ual use in the church. Ac­cord­ing to Roberto Gar­cía Juarez, one of the last bak­ers in Tlax­cala who still leav­ens loaves with pulque, some Tlax­calans would bake pulque—to them, a sa­cred drink—into those rit­ual breads as a way to make sur­rep­ti­tious of­fer­ings to their own gods hid­den in the body of Christ.

By the 1950s, the mod­ern­iza­tion-ob­sessed cen­tral govern­ment, which saw any ves­tige of pre-his­panic tra­di­tion as a hin­drance to progress, had al­lied with the in­dus­trial brew­ing com­pa­nies to re­place the vast fields of agave with bar­ley for beer, and the use of pulque in bak­ing largely dis­ap­peared. Juana Flores Perez, at 77 the old­est work­ing baker in Totolac, re­calls weekly trips as a girl to buy pulque for her par­ents’ dough. But by 1960, when she had started her own busi­ness, pulque was scarce, and shelf-sta­ble yeasts—iron­i­cally sold un­der the name “Aztec Brand”—started ap­pear­ing on shelves around town. Even with­out pulque, the fam­ily tra­di­tion re­mains strong; all of Juana’s 10 grand­chil­dren have pro­fes­sional de­grees, but five of them, she says, still spend week­ends help­ing her bake. David’s kids are study­ing too. “I don’t nec­es­sar­ily want them to sell bread,” he says, hand­ing off the fin­ished dough to his son. “But I do want them to learn the value of a peso.”

The younger David tears the dough into balls and hands them to his mother and sis­ter and a neigh­bor’s 6-year-old daugh­ter, Luna, who form an assem­bly line at a long table. They roll the balls into rings, shap­ing each wind­ing loaf by bind­ing six rings to­gether with the press of a thumb. The kids coat each loaf with an egg wash and a sprin­kling of sesame seeds, and with the last few pieces, they roll out broad, flat-faced loaves that Clari­bel and David dec­o­rate with coil­ing vines of dough.

After rest­ing for an hour and a short time in the oven, the loaves emerge the color of glazed earth­en­ware. “This one is the baby,” Luna says, grab­bing the small­est loaf, “and those are the mom and dad.” She points to the two largest, shaped like di­a­monds. “They’re all fam­ily.”

Clock­wise from top left: Bur­nished loaves of pan defi­esta; baker David Cuapio; Clari­bel Cuapio brushes loaves with beaten egg; baker Juana Flores Perez; David kneads but­ter into the dough; the shaped loaves await their turn in the oven.

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