Imelda Campos Sebastián

Doña Mela Is a Cook, Gardener, and Guardian of Mexico's Indigenous Culinary Culture

From her kitchen in Michoacán, Imelda Campos Sebastián propagates the cuisine of the indigenous Purhépecha community—and makes some of the most delicious food in Mexico.

Every week, Imelda Campos Sebastián walks a mile from her pine cabin on the rocky northern slope of the Cerro San Marcos and down into the center of Cherán, an Indigenous Purhépecha community in the west-central state of Michoacán in Mexico, to broadcast her radio show "El arte del bienvivir"—The Art of Living Well. For an hour, she shares her generational knowledge of traditional medicine and foodways over the airwaves of Radio Fogata, 101.7 FM: the utility of sorrel for detoxifying the liver, how fava beans can strengthen the joints, the lujo (luxury, a favorite word, usually uttered with a smile that reads as a wink) of a simple soup jeweled with chard and carrots, a pale green chile güero as its solitaire.

Barely five feet tall with long, gray- streaked plaits and fingers gnarled from decades grinding masa on her century-old metate, doña Mela, as everyone in Cherán calls Sebastián, moves through town with a hunched yet regal bearing. The unofficial guardian of her community's culinary and cultural traditions— practices that, until a decade ago, were on the verge of annihilation—she presides from her wooden cabin on the Cerro San Marcos, where I've eaten some of the finest food I've encountered in five years living in Mexico.

"I wouldn't call myself important," she told me on a chill autumn morn- ing last November as she ground sesame seeds, peanuts, and pepitas for the pipián that we would eat that day for lunch, warm and soothing as embers. She cocked her head back and squinted up her nose, a habitual look of authority and wit, somehow both affectionate and remote, that undermined completely the words she'd just spoken. "I would say I'm original. I own my roots."

Since 2011, Cherán has been famous throughout Mexico for defending those roots. In April of that year, after years of violent incursions by illegal loggers armed by drug cartels that hoped to clear the native forests for lucrative avocado plantations, the people of Cherán mounted an uprising. In the course of a single day, the community, led by a group of older women, drove the loggers and criminal informants—and the politicians and police who had aided and abetted them—out of their community. Immediately after, they lit 189 bonfires, one for nearly every corner in town. At first, the bonfires (the fogatas that gave the community radio station its name) served as protection against possible retaliation. Over the next nine months, they became spaces where people gathered to share stories and food and their vision for the future.

Rebecca Cucue Campos
Credit: Photo by Felipe Luna

Doña Mela spent those months circulating among the bonfires, sharing recipes that many of her peers hadn't eaten since childhood and many young people had never tried at all. Smaller communities in the surrounding countryside had preserved their ancestral language and foodways, culinary and linguistic traditions with roots in an Indigenous empire that had resisted domination by the neighboring Aztecs for centuries before nearly being wiped out by Spanish invaders in the 16th century. Yet in Cherán, centuries of federal policies designed to assimilate or destroy Indigenous identity, combined with large-scale migration to the north (there are as many people from Cherán living in the United States as there are in the community itself), had opened a chasm between young people and their history. At the fogatas, doña Mela helped to bridge that gap with dishes from a nearly lost repertoire: atapakuas, rich, masa-thickened stews of wild mushrooms stained red with guajillo chiles; of fava beans, onions, tomatillo, and cilantro; or of ground seeds and legumes, similar to the pipianes found around Mexico, but brightened, on the day we ate together in November, with wilted sorrel from her kitchen garden (recipe follows). "People would ask, 'Doña Mela, when will you come and cook for us?'" she recalls. "'God must have blessed your hands.'" She accepts this notion as reasonable, if not demonstrably true. "People have always seen something special in me."

That sense of pride, unyielding as the water from the nixtamal—the ancient process of cooking corn kernels in lime to break down their outer membranes— that she uses to slick her hair back over her scalp. ("Natural hair gel," she calls it.) At the age of 8, she cooked her first meal for people outside her home: a simple pot of rice toasted gold, stewed with tomatoes, onions, and garlic—such a triumph, doña Mela says, that the nuns she'd cooked for made a point of congratulating her after the meal.

Kitchen garden
Credit: Photo by Felipe Luna

Throughout her youth, doña Mela honed a set of skills (embroidery, sew- ing, styling her classmates' hair) that she would later use to supplement the income her husband, don Fidel, earned as a farmer. For the first 11 years of her marriage, doña Mela lived with her husband's family in town—his grand- mother, who taught her much of what she knows of traditional medicine, his parents, and his three sisters, along with their families. While Fidel tilled the land on the Cerro San Marcos where they now live, doña Mela prepared three meals per day for at least 10 people. The softball-size lipoma that she carries on her right shoulder, says her eldest daughter, Rebeca, is the result of "11 years as a slave to my father's family." Doña Mela, ever triumphant (and still carrying the mindset of her generation), describes those years differently. "It's good to live with people who are demanding. There's always a 'but,'" she told me before adding her own: "but I learned a lot from them."

In 1988, don Fidel finally convinced his boss to sell him the land on the hill, which, though fertile, was also steep and rocky and therefore unattractive to farmers increasingly dependent on tractors and labor-saving technologies. That year, don Fidel and a pregnant doña Mela moved with their six young children to the Cerro. There, she built her first kitchen—a three-walled wooden shack, its southern side facing out over the village below, surrounded by its phalanx of hills—and planted her kitchen garden, wild with the herbs she uses to make ointments and tinctures.

Cherán
Credit: Photo by Felipe Luna

I've been fortunate enough to spend several days in that kitchen since my first trip to Cherán in August 2019. On that first visit, I squinted through white plumes of smoke as doña Mela slipped a neat corn-husk pouch filled with huitlacoche, mint, tomato, and onion into the blinking red coals and watched her hands flit over the screaming-hot surface of a clay comal, flipping tomatillos, onion, and tender fava beans picked just moments earlier—the spartan list of ingredients for a crushed salsa as sweet and bright as spring grass. When I returned in October 2020 to see if she might be willing to work on this story with me, she handed over the last fresh corn of the harvest, its kernels the color of pomegranate seeds. A month after that, I came for a long weekend, during which we spent hours around the hearth coating starchy medallions of chayote root in a thin batter of egg white and flour and molding meatballs from ground beef, mint, tomatillo, and masa (though doña Mela's cooking highlights plants, meat is also an important part of the local diet), which we boiled in a rust-red broth of puya chiles that coated my lips with a sticky-hot balm of fat.

While we cooked, doña Mela recounted the many kinds of work she'd done to ensure that, as she put it, "there was never misery in my house"—the years selling food at Cherán's weekly market, running a corner shop, farming, and, in recent years, traveling around Michoacán to give classes on the inseparable practices of traditional medicine and cookery.

Plant nursery
Credit: Photo by Felipe Luna

In the coming years, she'd like to visit the three of her seven children who live in the United States, especially her eldest, whom she hasn't seen in over 25 years. She dreams of building a traditional wooden cabin called a troje and filling it with artifacts from her community's day-to-day life: cooking utensils and farming implements, bits of pottery, and embroidered blouses, a museum memorializing the same traditions she helped save from extinction.

On our last afternoon together, as we cleared away the debris from that day's feast, stashing leftovers in a rickety wooden cabinet, I asked, half joking, if there was anything else she'd done that she'd forgotten to tell me about. "What haven't I done?" she asked, head tipped back, eyes narrowed—her habitual gesture of pride, amusement, and love. "Or better: What's left for me to do?"

A small hut
Credit: Photo by Felipe Luna

Homegrown Flavor

The ingredients at the core of doña Mela's cooking are simple and few. Most of her food begins with the milpa— the pre-Hispanic system of agriculture based in corn, beans, and squash growing together symbiotically. Tomatoes and tomatillos, alliums, and herbs (principally wild cilantro and fragrant yerba buena) are her seasonings of choice, while fresh masa, loosened with water, is her preferred thickening agent; she uses it to turn simple soups into lush, glossy stews or as a binding agent for meatballs, or albóndigas, seasoned with mint and ground tomatillo and boiled quickly in a chile-stained stock. Doña Mela grows most of her ingredients on her own land, along with vegetables like chard, fava beans, and wild sorrel. Dried chiles and grains, like garbanzos and wheat berries, cooked along with dried fava beans and corn into a rich and nourishing four- grain posole, as well as the beef and pork that she uses more as a source of flavor than as the centerpiece for any given meal, come from town. Rarely will a dish from doña Mela's kitchen require more than a half-dozen ingredients. It's that transparency of flavor and density of nutrients that, as she likes to put it, da lujo, or give luxury, to her food.

Beans

Grown in doña Mela's milpa, beans are a protein-rich staple for a vegetable- forward cuisine.

Chayote Root

This tuber is ground and mixed with cheese, rice, onion, tomato, and egg and then fried and simmered in soup.

Fava Beans

Fresh, they're cooked into a stew thickened with masa. Dried, they make a base for nourishing soups.

Chile Güero

This mild chile flavors a soup served at breakfast.

Huitlacoche

In much of Mexico, huitlacoche spores are planted in corn, but in doña Mela's milpa, the corn fungus occurs naturally. In one preparation, she mixes it with tomato, onion, cilantro, and yerba buena, wraps the mixture in a corn husk, and throws it in live coals.

Wild Sorrel

Called lengua de vaca—cow's tongue—after its shape, sturdy, acidic sorrel livens any number of stews and gets cooked in a rich peanut and sesame seed sauce (see recipe below) to serve with tortillas.

Xeni Atapakua (Three-Seed Pipián with Sorrel)

Xeni Atapakua
Credit: Photo by Felipe Luna

Atapakua is a Purhépecha term that refers to a whole range of stew-like dishes thickened with masa. In this atapakua from Imelda Campos Sebastián (also known as doña Mela) of Michoacán, Mexico, sorrel adds bright acidity to a masa- thickened sauce made of a blend of seeds and vegetables. Greens like mature arugula, mustard greens, or Swiss chard can stand in for sorrel in this dish but will lack its punchy flavor. (If substituting heartier Swiss chard or mustard greens for sorrel, remove the stems before using.) Doña Mela doesn't serve this dish with lemon, but if sorrel is unavailable, squeeze in a few drops of lemon juice before serving. Yerba buena, similar to orange mint, has a citrusy, minty flavor with notes of pine; look for it or orange mint at Mexican grocery stores or at plant nurseries.