Famed Mexican chef Enrique Olvera, whose much-anticipated New York City restaurant, Cosme, is scheduled to open in early September, offered a single tantalizing sample of his food at Masafest on Saturday, August 9 — but his was only part of the menu.
The low-key event — notably lacking the scrum of taco-scarfing, authenticity-assessing hipsters one might have expected, considering the current enthusiasm in hipster circles for food of this provenance — took over a portion of the outdoor space around the pavilion at the 97th Street Boardwalk in Rockaway Beach, Queens. It was a perfect summer day, clear and sunny and faintly breezy. Beach regulars mixed with a scattering of corn-lovers who'd made the trek especially for the occasion, standing in mostly minimal lines to buy tastes of unfailingly satisfying food.
Brooklyn's Taco Santo was serving elotes, grilling ears of farmers market corn in their husks, then stripping them and slathering them with chile-flavored aîoli and dusting them with cotija cheese and chile powder — delicious. Caracas Arepas Bar (which has locations on Manhattan's Lower East Side and in Brooklyn and Rockaway) served moist hallaquitas, Venezuelan tamales, filled with barbecued pork or with coconut and herbs, both tasting intensely of corn. The celebrated Rockaway Taco, whose permanent location is a block or so from the boardwalk, was barely able to keep up with the demand for its famous fish tacos — not as simple and perfect as the originals in Baja California, perhaps, but worth the wait nonetheless. The Harlem-based bakery, baking school, and small-business incubator Hot Bread Kitchen was on hand selling packaged tortillas in blue, white, and yellow corn varieties, as well as improvised quesadillas with corn salsa, and demonstrating the art of making tortillas from fresh masa.
Masa, as you may know, is dough made from hominy, dried corn that has been soaked and cooked in a solution of mineral lime (calcium hydroxide); the process, developed in Mesoamerica as long ago as 1500 B.C.E., is called nixtamalization, and it both puffs up the corn and increases its nutritional value. Masa is the basis for corn tortillas, tamales, and all the other specialties of what might be called the “corn kitchen.” It is as essential to Mexican and Latin American cooking as wheat flour is to that of Northern Europe — more so, really, because corn can be used in more forms than wheat.
The idea of celebrating masa — and corn in general — was hatched "over a beer" by Kate Barney and Jorge Gaviria of Masienda, which imports dried landrace corn (heirloom corn adapted by traditional methods to its growing area) from independent farmers in Mexico, and Andrew Field of Rockaway Taco, a block or so from the beach. They joined up with the Heritage Radio Network and GrowNYC, a nonprofit that runs the city's greenmarkets and community gardens, among other things.
"The basic idea of the event," says Barney, "was really just to have a beachside celebration of corn. In the belief that corn is the new coffee or chocolate in terms of eaters focusing on the quality of their ingredients, we wanted to have an event that celebrated its diversity. When we sat down in one of our first visioning sessions, we made a goal to never forget the reason that brought us there: flavor. The best corns taste the best. The best tastes are a great joy and pleasure, so celebrating corn is something we should do. That goal and conversation, along with our friendship with Rockaway Taco and desire to collaborate with them, brought us to Masafest."
As for Enrique Olvera, as one of the most famous chefs in Mexico, he might well have been the star of the show, but he was a modest star, garbed in a t-shirt and shorts, working his stand (branded as Cosme only with the name scrawled on his tabletop), helping to serve waxed paper boats full of tender octopus with purple and yellow hominy (posole in Spanish) mixed with wisps of red onion and serrano chile and garnished with crescents of avocado. Immediately next door were the folks from La Newyorkina, who sell paletas (Mexican ice pops) and other sweets in various locations in Brooklyn and Manhattan; their offering was ice cream made from purple hominy and cacao, very creamy and chocolaty, slightly grainy, and very good.