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In her kitchen in North Salt Lake, chef Wendy Juarez is getting ready to cut up a pumpkin — and even though it’s close to Halloween, she’s not carving a jack-o’-lantern.
Pumpkins are a fundamental ingredient in traditional Mexican cooking — along with corn and beans — and Juarez said she sometimes feels sad in late October, watching so many pumpkins getting tossed out after one night’s use on somebody’s front porch.
In Mexico, Juarez said, “if we have leftovers, we make a new dish. … We hate to throw away anything that can be useful. Not only because we don’t want to spend more money, but because we want to help our Mother Earth, and to lessen the impact.”
So, on this day, the pumpkin is an ingredient for dulce de calabaza, a dessert that also includes guava and tejocote fruit, based on a recipe handed down from Juarez’s great-grandmother.
It’s the kind of dish Juarez makes for Prime Corn, a ghost kitchen she started last December, specializing in vegan and vegetarian dishes using ingredients from pre-Hispanic Mexico. Juarez, a native of Estada, Mexico, learned to cook from her mother.
Her mother was from Veracruz, Juarez said, “so most of my recipes are from Veracruz.”
The dulce de calabaza is one of the dish Juarez will prepare Friday, Nov. 5, at Wasatch Community Gardens, 629 E. 800 South, Salt Lake City — for a Dia de los Muertos cooking class.
Juarez organized the class, which is sold out, with dietician Madeline French of the University of Utah Center for Community Nutrition through the center’s Journey to Health outreach program. During the class, presented in Spanish with English translation, attendees will make dulce de calabaza, along with their own customized tamales and vegan pozole — while drinking a Mexican chocolate drink called atole.
The women began collaborating when French reached out to Juarez to cater some events.
“Wendy clearly has a vision,” French said. “She is interested in educating people about pre-Hispanic Mexican cuisine that’s vegetarian, because I think sometimes people think of Mexican food as being really meat-heavy, with lots of cheese. So that was the impetus for us creating this class. … People had been asking for more hands-on stuff. They were like ‘We want cooking classes.’”
The education component fulfills part of Juarez’s mission with Prime Corn, which she started working on several years ago with her mother. They were still getting permits in place, Juarez said, when her mother died — leaving Juarez sad, but determined to move the business forward and preserving that intergenerational Mexican food knowledge.
“I started out a long time ago with the idea of teaching young kids or the new generation about our culture,” Juarez said, noting that kids who move to the United States adapt to the culture here that they forget their own.
“They don’t even know who we are,” Juarez said. “What are our core values? Like family is one of them, and how to cook affordable meals. Any woman in Mexico can cook a meal for four to six people with $5.”
Juarez’s commitment to vegetarian cooking was also inspired by her daughter, who at the age of 4 asked if the tamales they were making had meat in them.
“I said yes,” Juarez said. “She said, ‘Is it pork?’ And I said yes…and she refused to eat any meat. She said, ‘You are part of the problem. If you don’t buy meat, they don’t keep killing them.’ So, I felt very bad and guilty, but I was afraid she wouldn’t have enough protein to grow up healthy. So I tricked her, and I said, ‘This is not meat!’”
Juarez then talked to her mother about the conversation, and her mother reminded Juarez that the family didn’t eat much meat in Mexico — because they couldn’t afford it. “And we grew up very, very, very healthy,” she said.
They never cooked with large animals, Juarez said, but stuck with fish and chicken. “But we wouldn’t kill and eat a chicken every day,” she said. “Maybe that would happen twice a month.”
Instead, every day, she said, Juarez’s mother harvested the beans, tomatoes, chiles and herbs growing in ports in the backyard. Juarez still makes a simple dish her mother made regularly: green beans cooked with onions, tomatoes and cilantro.
The biggest staple in her mother’s kitchen, Juarez said, was corn. In Mexico, she said, “we have thousands of dishes made out of corn. We use corn in everything.”
Even the atole, the chocolate drink that Juarez will serve in her Dia de los Muertos class, is thickened with blue corn masa — though any kind of masa would work, she said. “There are so many varieties of atole, and this is one of them. Pretty much it can be any flavor. My favorite ones are pecans, prunes and figs.”
The lack of large-scale hoofed animals in the Juarez family’s diet has its historic roots. According to Prime Corn’s website, people in Mesoamerica didn’t eat cows or sheep before the arrival of Spanish colonizers.
The Mesoamerica people did find myriad ways to prepare corn. In one method, called nixtamalization, the corn is soaked in an alkaline solution (often limewater), making the nutrients more bioavailable — while also killing toxic molds. Combine the corn with beans, another Mexican kitchen staple, and it provides complete protein.
Prime Corn’s basic menu — which changes seasonally, and doesn’t count the dishes Juarez can prepare on request — features tamales, smothered in green or red mole, and a la carte tacos. It also includes: tesmole (chile-tomato soup with mushrooms, chayote, green beans, potatoes, cazuelitas made with corn masa); ensalada Alegria (apples, pears and shaved jicama served over greens dressed with hibiscus vinaigrette and garnished with amaranth and curd); and chile atole (a “thick and less than medium spicy soup,” prepared with epazote, corn kernels, jalapenos and tomatillos, thickened with corn masa).
Though she started Prime Corn because she loves and appreciates the cuisine of Mexico, Juarez regularly finds ways to get involved in the Salt Lake community, which is why she was so happy to connect with French. She’s also participated in several community-facing events since launching her business nearly a year ago, including Spice Kitchen’s Spice To Go for Cinco de Mayo, the Utah Natural History Museum’s STEM Rooted in Culture Spring 2022 Series, and Conferencia Del Exito! 2022.
“I’m committed to it because, yes, I want a very successful business.” Juarez said. “But I also want to make a bridge between people, the new generation, the vegans and vegetarians, omnivores, the Americans, the Mexicans, and all of us, through food. And I’m finding that Prime Corn is a good way to connect us and our needs and to share our stories.”
Prime Corn operates out of Square Kitchen, 751 W. 800 South, Salt Lake City, Monday through Saturday, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The business also accepts catering orders of $400 or more.