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Honoring ancestors at cenote dinner party under the stars

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Lee Steele
Lee Steele
Lee Steele is the founding director of Roof Cat Media and has published Yucatán Magazine and other titles since 2012. Sign up for our weekly newsletters, so our best stories will appear in your inbox every Monday.
A waiter plates one course at a cenote dinner at Yaxbacaltún. Photo: Lee Steele

Homún, Yucatán — Yucatecan writer Will Rodriguez, author of the Gran Libro de la Cocina Yucateca revived ancient dishes in an elegant subterranean dinner party for 12.

The evening, called “La Noche de los Mayas,” was an elegant affair in a rustic cenote.

His guests were bused an hour outside Mérida, down highways, village thoroughfares, and finally, along a bumpy, unlit path at the remote ecotourism lodge and the Yaxbacaltún cenote.

A dozen guests gather around the table at cenote Yaxbacaltún. Photo: Will Rodriguez

Under a clear night sky filled with stars not visible in the city, we descended a long staircase, reaching a platform, surrounded by clear, black water and the cenote’s romantically lit walls. The temperature dropped at least 15 degrees. This is clearly a sacred space.

A couple of guests dipped in the water, but most of us remained on the platform, marveling at the makeshift kitchen under the stairs and the sight of a small squadron of formal waiters — actually, culinary students from La Escuela Internacional de Chefs in Mérida – surrounding a dining table.

The Yaxbacaltún cenote stairs in daytime, when the platform is used for recreation. We descended two people at a time at night for an elegant dinner party. Photo: Facebook

The menu was strictly Mayan, not Mestizo, so that meant no sour orange, onion, garlic, cilantro or any other ingredients that were introduced by Europeans.

After a brief, solemn ceremony in which a woman named Meche asked a Mayan deity permission to dine here, Mary in the cooking area let the courses roll out, each with an introduction in Spanish and English by our host.

The menu consisted of Ts’ootobilchaay yéetel u je ‘beech’, xpéelonil táamali ‘yéetel u’ ‘ma’ak’ulan (small tamales with quail eggs and new beans with hoja santa herbs); U bak ‘the box kay and jejeláas janabe’en ich che’ob  (black fish fillet with fresh vegetable salad); Óonsikli kéej (farm deer with pumpkinseed sauce) with hand-made tortillas; and Ch’ujkil ts’íim, ta’uch yéetel iswaaj (sweet cassava and black zapote on fine corn cracker).

Our host, Will Rodriguez, explains each dinner course. Photo: Lee Steele

Each course was thoughtfully prepared and packed with savory flavors not to be found in the Centro Histórico or any other tourist centers. Our dinner companions clearly enjoyed their meals as well.

Days later, we asked Will some questions about the evening.

How was the idea ​​of this dinner born?

The idea of thematic dinners arises from the desire to offer the public gastronomic experiences based on history, literature and cinematography, in such a way that special dishes can be enjoyed in certain environments.

Tell us a little more about pre-Hispanic cuisine.

Pre-Hispanic gastronomy is wide and varied. Although we don’t have a detailed anthropological record focused on pre-Columbian food, much of what we know or interpret from that period is thanks to the traditions and culinary customs of the Mayans today.

Dante published Will Rodriguez’ book on Yucatecan cuisine in 2015.

Also tell me a little about the cenote and how the idea of ​​dinners in that magical place originated.

The idea of ​​pre-Hispanic dinners arose from a visit I made to the Yaxbacaltún cenote, which I had visited several times. Until then it had not occurred to me to relate it to a gastronomic project, but in recent months I have dedicated myself to developing thematic concepts. When I look at the interior terrace at this cenote I knew it would be the ideal place to offer Mayan dinners. That’s why I titled the project “La Noche de los Mayas,” in honor of the flavors of our ancestors.

How can anyone request a dinner or themed event like this?

Information about these events is available in my blog.

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