The Legend of San Pascual Bailon

Way back, in the 17th century, in a monastery in the colonial city, Puebla de Los Angeles (City of the Angels), young brother Pascual worked in the kitchen. Being the youngest, he was assigned the lowliest duties, washing and chopping and fetching. And they kept him hopping!

Not that he minded; he was a cheerful, bouncy boy, and hopping was to his taste. So much so that they called him El Bailón, the Dancer.

One day the whole monastery was in an uproar; the Archbishop was coming to the city and would be visiting the monastery. The brothers were cleaning and polishing, airing rooms and practicing their music. In the kitchen, all hands were busy, peeling, chopping, grinding, tasting, stuffing, frying. Pascual was appointed the task of seeing to the wide cazuela, as wide as his arm was long, where a couple of turkeys simmered in a delicately-flavoured broth. His job was to fan the charcoal flames under the pot and occasionally to give the broth a stir. He felt deeply honoured by this; elated, too. He sang as he worked, and danced with the rhythm of his fanning.

Alas! He was too excited; in one of his triumphant waves of the long wooden spoon over the pot, he hit a rickety shelf on the wall above the stove. It tipped and shook.

And all the spices, the ground chiles, the chocolate for the archbishop’s evening drink, the chopped nuts and seeds, the stale bread cubes and the sugar pilones that were kept on that shelf, slipped, slid, and tumbled into the pot. Disaster!

He did his best to fish the biggest pieces out, but the pot was so big, so wide, the broth so hot, the portions of turkey so much in the way, that all he could find were bits of chile stem and a few nuts. When the head cook looked his way, he was lost. He was banned from the kitchen, sent to scrub tiles in the back patio while the cooks tried to rescue the meat.

Impossible. The archbishop was at the gates. They did the next best thing, strained the new sauce and presented it with a flourish and desperate hopes.

And the archbishop was enchanted; he pronounced this “mole”* the best dish he had ever tasted!

So Pascual, all these years hence, is now called upon by every Mexican cook as she starts her grinding and toasting for the Christmas meal; “San Pascual Bailón, fan my fire!**”

* Mole Poblano. Recipe.
** “Atiza mi fogón!”

Stories of Mexico
© Susannah Anderson, 2007

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