French Fritos

Several years ago the Coronado Homeowners Association commissioned a mural as an effort to promote and clean up the historic Coronado neighborhood. Located on 16th Street just south of Thomas, the mural today forms a backdrop for one of the dirtiest bus stops in Phoenix. Its scenes move from downright depressing to progressively more hopeful as you look from left to right, offering a positive message to a neighborhood that's had its shares of challenges. Looking at the mural, painted by former Valley artist Rose Johnson, I noticed that Johnson had included a famous quote by one of Mexico's most beloved presidents, Benito Juárez: "Between men and nations, respect for the rights of others is peace."

Great quote. But Juárez didn't always get respect from other nations. Under his rule, Mexico was invaded by the French in 1862 and the country had to put up with foreign occupation for five years. The good news is that today, that brief conquest left us with a lot of good food. The French left their mark in the elegant foods and pastries now fused into Mexico's epicurean fare.

La Purisima Bakery in Glendale is a fine example of the French influence. The owners hail from Mexico City, where French puppet emperor Maximilian and his wife Carlotta tried to build their empire. You'll find pastries and breads there such as orejas (puff pastry brushed with butter, sugar and cinnamon - also known as Palmier in French), pericos (an egg bread stuffed with a cream-based filling then dusted with powdered sugar) and the ever popular pan blanco or pan frances - a petite roll similar to French bread.

The use of creams and butters in Mexico's foods is also evidence that the French once lived there. Locally, you can find Mexico City fare at La Parilla Suiza where you can delight in enchiladas suizas topped with a rich cream and tomatillo sauce.

I have a few heroes, and Juárez is one of those on top of my list. Born in the humble state of Oaxaca on March 21, 1806, this Zapotec Indian spent his early years training for the priesthood but later abandoned a clerical life to work as a lawyer for poor villagers. As president, his reform laws helped provide primary education for all.

In today's troubled and uncertain times - and with plenty of moronic France-bashing going on - perhaps we need to heed Benito's words of wisdom. Live and let live, and remember that respect for rights is the essence of peace. So grab a cold cerveza and enjoy a plate of spinach-filled enchiladas covered in the Mexi-French style chorizo cream sauce and celebrate Dia de Benito Juárez on March 21st.

The author is a local chef and restaurant owner.

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Silvana Salcido Esparza