Food for a community

A message from Life co-author, Helen Stephenson

One of the best things about travelling is trying different food. But just as interesting as the food itself is the experience of sharing the meal with other people. I’ve been very lucky to have shared some fantastic home-made food with friends and acquaintances in a number of countries. One of my fondest memories is of family beach picnics on 1st January, somewhere quite near to the equator – a memorable start to each new year.

Every year for many years the people of Milpa Alta, Mexico, have prepared a feast in the week before Christmas. Sixty thousand tamales and 15,000 litres of hot chocolate are made in less than a week, not too much and not too little for the thousands of people who show up for the feast. The feast is called La Rejunta and is made for pilgrims preparing for the long walk to the holy cave of El Señor de Chalma on January 3rd. The people responsible for organising La Rejunta are called the majordomos. It’s an honour to be chosen and so many people want to do it that the waiting list is full until 2046.

The stages in the organisation of La Rejunta are the same every year. Tradition is important to the Milpa Alta people. Corn has been grown here for hundreds of years and the name of the region means ‘high cornfield’. Local farmers grow most of the corn, meat, and vegetables needed as ingredients for the meal. And a year before the event, the men go to the forest and collect wood that they pile up high near the home of the majordomo so that it will be properly dried before it’s used for open-air cooking. This year’s majordomos are Virginia Meza Torres and her husband Fermín Lara Jiménez. ‘There is an infinity of things to do,’ Virginia Meza Torres says firmly, as if to indicate there is no time to talk. Virginia is heading to the local offices to get the necessary permits and Fermín sets off into the countryside in search of more ingredients. They leave their daughter Montserrat Lara Meza in charge. She is a 24-year-old graduate student who’s come home to help her parents for the week. Volunteers are starting to arrive and Montserrat wanders down the hill to a shed to see how the toasting of the corn is going. Everything is made from the basics – no instant mixes or other culinary shortcuts are allowed.

Such traditional approaches are part of everyday life here. Eating together is perhaps the most important example. ‘In my experience, there is a glue, a bonding, that comes from the time together at the table,’ says Josefina García Jiménez. She often cooks for her nieces and nephews and says, ‘It feels like I am passing down a tradition, and when it comes to their turn to be adults, they will remember what I have done. Here we have time to cook, time to think just what ingredients are needed, time to show our kids through cooking that we love them.’

When the day of La Rejunta arrives, the volunteers have been up all night, though no one admits to feeling tired. Fermin has made sure there are enough tamales for everyone, and the head cook has been stirring the atole (chocolate drink) all night. After a 14-year wait, and a full year of preparation, it’s almost time for Fermin and Virginia to hand over responsibility to the next majordomos. But first, there are thousands of cups of atole to serve.

culinary (adj) related to cooking
tamales (n) a type of food made from corn with a variety of fillings
pilgrim (n) a person who travels to a holy place
shortcut (n) a quick route to somewhere or a quick way of doing something


glue (n) a sticky substance used to stick things together
hand over (phr-v) to give something to someone
head (v) to start to go in a particular direction
holy (adj) associated with a religion or religions
instant (adj) made quickly by adding hot water
permit (n) an official document that proves that you have permission to do something
pile up (phr-v) to arrange a lot of things one on top of another
shed (n) a small building for storing things, usually made of wood and located in a garden
wander (v) to walk slowly and in a relaxed way

Listen to a recording of the text: 

Reading comprehension: 

Read the article and choose the correct option.

1. The article is an account of ...
day-to-day life of farmers in Mexico.
key features of a Mexican community.
what Mexican people eat at Christmas.

2. La Rejunta is ...
a meal where all the guests bring some dishes.
just one example of Milpa Alta traditions.
started as a way of using up extra corn in Milpa Alta.

3. La Rejunta feast ...
is held once a week.
lasts a week.
takes a week to get ready.

4. Pilgrims to the holy cave ...
take Rejunta food to eat on their journey.
make their trip after Christmas.
are called majordomos.

5. Which statement is true?
It’s hard to find people who want to organise the feast.
It’s difficult to get selected to organise the feast.
The next feast is in about thirty years’ time.

6. Which statement is NOT true, according to the second paragraph?
Preparations for the feast start a year in advance.
Everything required for the meal comes from the local area.
Only vegetarian food is served at the meal.

7. Virginia and Fermin ...
have lots of experience organising these meals.
make all the preparation themselves.
are too busy to spend much time with the author.

8. In Milpa Alta, people pay attention to traditions ...
all the time.
only at certain times of the year.
when they eat.

9. According to Josefina García Jiménez, ...
cooking for your family is an act of love.
people no longer remember cooking traditions.
traditional cooking takes up too much time.

10. According to the final paragraph, which statement is true?
The volunteers eat tamales during the night.
Last-minute preparations take place the night before the feast.
Fermin and Virginia have to choose the next majordomos.