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The Running People

“They seemed to move with the ground,” said one awestruck spectator.  “Kind of like a cloud, or a fog moving across the mountains.”

This time, the Tarahumara weren’t two lonely tribesmen adrift in a sea of Olympians…they were locked in formation they’d practiced since childhood, with wily old vets up front and eager young buck pushing from behind.  They were sure-footed and sure of themselves.  They were the Running People.

-Christopher McDougall, Born to Run

If anyone has read Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run, they know what it’s like to have images of Mexico’s Tarahumara racing through their minds.  A story about “a hidden tribe, superathletes, and the greatest race the world has never seen,” it’s really about all of us and none of us.  A story of our evolution and ability as runners that may be largely lost, except to a few who never forgot how.

My sister read it first and couldn’t stop talking about it, recommending it to anyone and everyone.  It took me a few weeks to get to it until she lured me with tidbits about the super food the Tarahumara use to fuel ultra marathons through treacherous canyons, some times for days at a time. Throughout the book, McDougall mentions pinole, a kind of corn gruel the Tarahumura drink down or carry dried in little bags while they run.  A few Google searches showed that it was a fairly common breakfast in Mexico, similar to the champurrada or atole corn drinks.  The pinole itself, toasted corn that’s ground with canela and panela, is eaten dry as candy, like pixie dust, or boiled with milk and served as porridge.  Unfortunately, it was so common that it was difficult to find a definitive recipe, though I did come across several refranes or proverbs (El que tiene más saliva, traga más pinole/Whoever has the most saliva, swallows the most pinole, No se puede chiflar y comer pinole/You can’t whistle and eat pinole at the same time, etc.).

Setting out for Sunset Park’s Mexican grocery stores, I was determined to track down pinole powder but was met with mostly blank looks.  I might as well have been looking for actual pixie dust.  Though it’s available online, it isn’t widely carried in the States.  Most people weren’t sure how it was made since it was typically made for them as children.  Clearly, I needed to find a Mexican mother.  Tired and rushed, I found salvation at Guadalupita II , naturally.  There behind the counter was an older woman stirring a pot on a portable burner.  Within a few moments, I had everything I needed – a pound of corn kernels to toast, spices, and directions on how to go about it.

I don’t believe for a moment that I can come close to approximate a genuine Tarahumara experience in the heart of gentrified Brooklyn.  Nor is their anything particularly exotic about pinole, essentially sweetened polenta sold in candy stores or as instant mixes.  Other Tarahumara delicacies, barbecued mouse or lechuguilla, the homemade tequila they make of rattlesnake corpses and cactus sap to fuel their Dionysian pre-race festivals, were unequivocally out of consideration.  I’m hungry not crazy, though if I found myself in Tarahumara home I wouldn’t be rude.  I’m not sure why I was so determined, maybe because it was something that should be easy but wasn’t, should be obvious but was stubbornly elusive. It was just an idea that if I could come close, eat a little of what they eat,  I could run with the same heart, a borrowed Madeleine.

Directions for making Pinole

2 cups dried whole corn kernels, white or blue
1/4 cup grated panela or dark brown sugar
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
Additional panel, cinnamon, honey or warm milk to taste.

In a dry skillet, saute the dried kernels over low heat until deeply golden.  Remove from heat.  Using a blender or processor, grind with panela and cinnamon to a fine powder.  Sift and set aside.  Bring two cups of water or milk to a boil.  Gradually whisk in one cup of pinole, stirring constantly till smooth.  Cook over low heat, stirring constantly to desired consistency.  Add ground panela, cinnamon, honey, and milk to taste.

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