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Paletas -The Mexican Popsicle and the Village that Could

Knowing Easter is coming soon, I began to think about traditional Mexican Easter foods. My favorite day starting the Easter celebrations in San Miguel de Allende, is Viernes de Dolores, held on the Friday before Good Friday. This is the day many homes erect beautifully decorated altars in honor of the Virgen Mary, our Lady of Sorrow. In the evening hours, these homes are then opened for the public to visit. This event is much different from the following austere Easter celebrations of Semana Santa. The mood is festive but not boisterous. Soft, religious music is played, while families, friends and newcomers visit with each other while wandering from home to home. Fruity paletas are offered to passersby, symbolizing the tears of La Virgen de los Dolores. Paletas are the part that children are most excited about, but the adults enjoy them as well.

Paletas (from the Spanish word palo, meaning wooden stick or paddle) are ubiquitous throughout Mexico. I have always loved this refreshing fruit treat, even in the US when I lived near Mexican communities. The tinkling bell from the cart of the paleta vendor proved Pavlov’s conditioning theory right; I came running whenever I could. I took this refreshing treat almost for granted, but for this article I wanted to offer more information about it and I went into research mode. Well, I ended up getting so much paleta information to be able to fill many pages of La Atención.

A millennium ago, the Chinese treasured edible ices and snow. Preserving ice throughout the year was difficult, and costly, a luxury reserved only for the royalty and the very privileged. Supposedly, the court of Moctezuma was no exception in craving this luxury, as snow from the Popocatepetel volcano was brought down to his court to create iced concoctions.

Electricity made it possible to produce ice without the help of freezing temperatures in nature, thus, it became a treat readily available for the masses. The popsicle, so popular in the US after its invention in the 1930’s, was mostly made from artificially flavored juices. In Mexico and other Latin American countries, because of the abundance of fruits, the paleta is made from fresh fruit, some with chunks of fruit in them, as well. These paletas became very popular, but the vendors making and selling them still were only eking out a living.

Let’s go to a struggling small town in Michoacan: Tocumbo. It is considered the town that made the paletas famous in a unique way.

Despite the backbreaking labor, the sugarcane field surrounding the town allowed most of the inhabitants to make wages, yet they could barely survive. There was tradition of making paletas, but again, it did not yield more of an income than working in the sugarcane fields.

One day, two brothers, Ignacio and Luis Alcázar, and their friend, Agustin Andrade, headed for Mexico City to seek a better life. They knew how to make paletas and opened a paleteria they named La Michoacana. Daily, they made paletas from fresh fruits and became a huge success. These three men were illiterate, but they knew their trade. Soon they passed on their skills to other family members, who in turn, opened up more La Michoacanas. Those family members passed on the business, and so on.

Today, there are about 15,000 La Michoacanas in Mexico. All of these “franchises” are passed on with a handshake, and, financing is from person to person, without a bank. Only the Pemex gasoline stations of Mexico have been able to penetrate Mexico as much as La Michoacana.

As ideal as this sounds, there are severe international copyright issues as La Michoacana has moved northward to the US and Canada and there are plans for global expansion.

Today, Tocumbo is one of the most affluent communities in Mexico. The town has erected a spectacular monument to the paleta, which freed them from the hardship of toiling in the sugarcane fields. Opulent homes were built, the streets of the town are paved, the new church was designed by the famous Mexican architect, Pedro Ramirez Vasques, who designed the basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico City.

Interestingly, many of the very comfortable homes in Tocumbo are not occupied for eleven months of the year. In December, when the paleta business is slow, the families of Tocumbo, from wherever they have their franchises, return to their homes to celebrate Christmas and family fiestas, such as weddings, baptisms, quinceañeras, special birthdays, the passing of beloved ones, and, to participate in the annual paleta festival.

This is as near to an utopian success story as we can get in our corporate business structure of today. ¡Viva las paletas!

Even though you can get paletas nearly on every street corner here in Mexico, maybe you would like to try making your own? The following is a recipe by Fany Gerson; a Mexican pastry chef living in New York that started her own paleta business called “La Newyorkina.”

Paletas de Fresas - Strawberry Pops

4 cups fresh strawberries, hulled and cut into quarters

¾ cup sugar

½ cup water

2 tablespoons lime or lemon juice,

freshly squeezed

Combine the strawberries and sugar in a bowl. Let sit until the strawberries start releasing their natural juices, about 20 to 30 minutes. Place the mixture in a saucepan over medium heat and simmer until the strawberries a slightly softened, about 5 minutes. Let cool to room temperature.

Transfer the mixture to a blender or a food processor; add the lemon or lime juice and purée until smooth. Alternatively, you could leave some chunks in, if you like.

Using conventional molds, divide the mixture among the molds, snap on the lid, and freeze until solid for about 5 hours. If using glass or other unconventional molds, freeze until the pops are beginning to set (1½ to 2 hours), then insert the sticks and freeze until solid, about 4 to 5 hours. If using an instant ice pop maker follow the manufacturer's instructions.

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