Friday, May 7, 2010

Gracias Madre - Every day is Mother's Day!

Some acquaintances are surprised that my blog covers vegetarian and vegan Mexican food. Skeptics often ask me: What about the cheese? The Carnitas? Is that unusual, is that authentic? Let's think back for a second: If you are old enough, think back to the 1980’s. "New foods" were taking the US by storm - sushi was the all the rage, and you could find kiwi even in the soup. Today we have restaurants that feature Sushi and many different interpretations of Japanese food as well as "Asian Fusion". Mentioning “Chop Suey” to any food connoisseur may incite laughter and eye rolling. And kiwi is just a fruit that not many people get excited about.

The Mexican food we eat in the US has heavy influences of Northern Mexico, where cattle and the desert facilitate dishes heavy on meat and dairy. The "Chop Sueys" of Mexican cuisine dominate fast food restaurants. Corporate created"Tortadas" an "enchiritos" are as authentic as the food prepared at the Olive Garden's test kitchen. Adding to the confusion are the misconceptions that arise when trying to differentiate between Mexican regional cuisines, Tex-Mex, Cali-Mex and South West cuisines. To the unfamiliar, I could see how difficult it could be to recognize what "authentic" Mexican food is, let alone considering vegan and vegetarian options have always been in the mix.

Last Summer I sat down with Eva Ackerman and Chandra Gilbert to talk about Gracias Madre, the new Mexican vegan restaurant on Mission Street. "Gracias" is a venture from the same folks that operate Cafe Gratitude, a local raw food restaurant. I wanted to hear about their take on "Nuevo Latino", Mexican flavors, the cult for La Virgen de Guadalupe, non-Mexicans as experts in Mexican food (like Rick Bayless , the Two Hot Tamales) vegan organic cuisines and gentrification. My first question was an obvious one. So, why Mexican food? What is the difference between Gracias and Cafe Gratitude?

"About Rick Bayless and The Two Hot Tamales....We have to start somewhere" Chandra said. "For us, it just came down to the food we were eating. Most of the time we would en up eating Mexican. Instead of lining Monsanto's pockets, we cooked our own food [using] some greens and a couple of Primaveras* (organic tortillas)"."Gracias Madre It is probably more approachable for some. It is not a taqueria. It is a sit down, full service restaurant".

The Feminine Mystique
Gracias Madre is located in the middle of The Mission neighborhood, in San Francisco. The restaurant is beautiful and cozy. The little front porch has nice terra cotta walls, an artful metal fence, and a colorful mural. Inside the walls are cooler and people can sit family style in wooden Michoacan style tables and chairs. The tables are set with candles, simple unbleached napkins, recycled glass bottles, and simple pottery dishes and cups - they remind me of cazuelas and clay ollas that have been used in Mexican kitchens for centuries.

"I can say Gracias Madre is our offering to The Mother, the earth. For myself personally, I feel inspired by all the powerful Latina women I’ve gotten to know in my life, that I continue to known, and learn from and work with. I am excited to take leadership from them. Something I’m personally passionate about is the empowerment of women. In general” Said Eva.

"Gracias" also has beautiful Virgen inspired art, from the logo designed by local artist John Marro to what seems to be antique statuary behind the counter. I asked Eva and Chandra about the imagery and the wording for the name of the restaurant, and if they had any reservations about using an image that is highly revered, specially in a Latino neighborhood.

"It communicates what we feel - is not hiding our gratitude to The Virgin, our gratitude to the earth. To me, it is the same mother, the same planet. It is also a way to celebrate connectivity and oneness. We are on the same earth planet, the same earth together, we get to eat the same food" Said Eva. "To me that wording and that name help us break down the barriers that separates us based on race, class and culture. That is really what the point is".

The Menu - Organic and Seasonal Food
The menu at "Gracias" is simple, just like the tables. It is one single sheet divided by "antojitos" (literally, "little whims", or appetizers), sides, main dishes and a wonderful wine variety. Eva and Chandra told me more about the food.

"We are not using all kinds of fancy ingredients. We are really honoring the tomato by using the best, freshest tomatoes. Avocados, how do you really bring out the amazing taste of a perfectly balanced guacamole? Or the delicious corn, just having a tortilla and it is satisfying in every way"

When I cook vegetarian or vegan food at home, I generally prepare dishes that are naturally animal free, without using dairy. Just recently I used "vegan sour cream" for one of my recipes. I must say that the food at Gracias Madre has opened a new experience of cashew "dairy" for me. They really do a good job with their soups. I have tried the cauliflower soup and the Chile Poblano soup and they are so incredibly rich and creamy.

"We pay reverence to the simple ingredients that we are using. What is the earth providing? Purslane! So, we are having purslane tacos! Or maybe the cilantro is at its prime right now. It is almost like having relationships with the ingredients that are so uniquely flavorful and perfect. When combined together it is really magic".

One tamal, two tamales, three tamales...
Eva has a degree in Spanish, and she is a fluent speaker. I asked her to describe Gracias Madre's sazon. I realize it is not a fair question, since the sazon needs to be experienced, but I was curious to hear her answer. The Spanish word Sazon is hard to describe. It is one's signature, a special way of expressing yourself trough the taste of your food. It is as personal as the way you saute your onions, heating your water and your favorite seasonings. Eva's answer? "(Gracias Madre's sazon) is fresh. Simple, earthy, vibrant".

After trying the food several times, I agree with Eva. Gracias Madre has a lovely, home made sazon. The food has beautiful hints of chile, onion and garlic that don't overwhelm the dishes. The food tastes homey, what my mother would call "saborcito como el de allá", or what loosely translates as "back home" taste. Appropriately what Italians call "Al Gusto De Mama"- Mom's taste. I also like that the folks at Gracias Madre understood the little cultural nuances that persnickety writers like me appreciate. They serve black beans, more common in central and southern Mexico. The menu lists one Tamal a la cart without the E, not the common misspelling "Tamale". It is a little pet-peeve of mine, no self respecting Mexican would ever say "tamale". Eva also communicated that one of their senior employees, Imelda Martinez, is responsible for making the tamales, 5 days a week. "She is loving it, feeling excited and blissed out!"

She will provide
The tortillas at Gracias Madre are not at all like the stuff that comes out of a bag. The tostadas really remind me of "totopos" from Southern Mexico, they have the same consistency. "Gracias" uses all organic corn for their tostadas, tacos and tamales. Growing organic corn is a big deal, since corn is one of the most genetically modified foods. What once was sacred to early Americans is now probably killing us. See my post about genetically modified killer corn. Chandra, who is a trained chef in the European tradition understands the importance of using organic heirloom corn and seasonal produce:

"Getting the masa perfected was the number one thing for me, so our tortillas and out tamales were perfect. Besides that the earth is going to tell us what the menu is. As someone that has been on the restaurant business for more than 26 years, that was very liberating for me. One year the butter squash freezes, we won’t use it"
. She also shared her experiences working cooks like Imelda Martinez, the tamales expert. "It is an education opportunity to get out of the way of the women that know how to do it. It is in their DNA, who they are"

I am so glad that Eva and Chandra acknowledge their employees. "We have amazing women in our community. Like Lourdes, working the main meal at noon, blossom quesadillas. They’ve been doing it with their grandmothers. It is going to provide the flavor" Similar restaurants like Nopalito, a spin off the restaurant NOPA came about after the owners discovered the traditional simple Mexican fare their employees were eating.

I shared with Evan and Chandra that I also learned from amazing Latina women in my life: My maternal grandmother, domestic workers, and my friend Juanita. My mother was a lawyer so she didn't cook much - but she taught me about eating nutritious meals and the enjoyment of good food. Moving to the US as a teenager I became aware of how my Mexican-ness became political. Having to work as a dish washer and in fast food restaurants I became aware of how Latino immigrants were the mistreated, unsung life force of the food and service industries. Women in particular got the raw end of the stick. I am glad that one restaurant, directly or indirectly thanks our mother(s), the one(s) that bring food to our tables every single day.

Muy caliente - The Internet was on fire!
Once at a workshop for young Latino artists, Amalia Mesa-Bains spoke of the unfairness of expertise, race and identity politics. "If you are a person of color and an expert in your own culture, you are going to be called self serving. If you are a white person and an expert in the culture of someone else, you are going to be called revolutionary".

I get a feeling that the folks at Gracias Madre understood the delicate politics they were dealing with, this is San Francisco after all. Since last Summer the internet was on fire and buzz around the restaurants was polarizing. There was some talk of cultural appropriation, gentrification, over pricing food and targeting specific elite groups, not necessarily locals.

There is also the issue that to certain groups Vegan Mexican food is always going to be the food of "The other". By "othering" the food is easy to call vegan Mexican a gringo invention, food that has been whitewashed; food for hipsters and the elite; food that is overpriced. Yet, I find that vegan Mexican is probably the food closest to our ancestral American memory, before cows and pigs were introduce to the continent. There is nothing "Nuevo" about it. "It is almost like Viejo Latino", Eva said. Organic doesn't mean elite, a fad, a "new" idea that comes along. The food is revolutionary by its own merits.

So, is the pricing fair? I feel the folks at Gracias really want to share their food. At Cafe Gratitude they had a policy: A small bowl of food with the special of the day was available to everyone. The payment was on a sliding scale, on the honor system. Everyone pays what they can. "The most someone has paid for one is $100" Chandra said. Even if they don't instate a "Gratitude Bowl" at Gracias Madre, one could make a meal choosing several sides - nothing is over $6. The escabeche is $3. A tamal a la carte is $5. Rice and beans are $2 each, an order of tortillas is $2. They also have lunch specials at $10 dollars. The folks at Gratitude and Gracias have also donated to MCCLA's Dia de los Muertos celebration, and to Galeria de la Raza's holiday Pachanga, that I was honored to be a part of last year!

Eva and Chandra, manager and chef
of Gracias Madre

The other day I had to work late. I walked by Gracias Madre and the place was packed. There was music playing, lit candles, people having a good time. Strangely enough it reminded me of one of my fondest memories:

I'm in the middle of the country, close to a corn field in Chiapas. I'm six or seven, enjoying a simple meal (with no pesticides, genetically modified organisms nowhere to be found). That night was nothing special, just friends and relatives enjoying each other's company, listening to a soulful guitar in front of the fire and eating fresh roasted corn under the moonlight.

I'm hoping to bring my mother to "Gracias Madre" soon, to spend some time together. Every person I've invited to the restaurant has liked it, even non-vegans. A friend from Los Angeles said it best when we dined here recently. "It is like visiting someone's home".


Gracias Madre
"Our Mission is Love - Organic Mexican Cuisine"
Organic Biodynamic method, grown at their farm in Pleasant Valley, Be Love Farm. Masa and tortillas are non-GMO Organic heirmloom corn.
2211 Mission Street
415 683-1346
11 am to 11pm, 7 days a week. Website:

If you want to help organizations that support women you can donate to Arriba Juntos , or visit The Women’s Initiative for Self-Employment. You can also support La Cocina, and "incubator" kitchen for women.

*Check out Primavera, organic tortillas and Tamales

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