Mmm-mmm Mole

Mole and Mariachis Festival, Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks, Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park, Mojiganga dancers

Oct. 7, 2013—It surpassed expectations on all sides. Saturday's Mole & Mariachis Festival, a Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks fundraiser for the Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park, drew throngs of people to the historic plaza overlooking downtown for five hours of mole-sampling, mariachi music and dance performances on a gloriously warm autumn day, prompting one gobsmacked Friends employee to marvel, "I have never seen this many people on this plaza. Ever."

Organizers peg attendance at somewhere between 1,000 and 1,200; revenue "exceeded expectations." And in an unexpected turn for the awesome, it was a truly bicultural affair, with hundreds of folks from Watsonville and Salinas mingling with the North County crowd to cheer on the dancers, ponder the nuances of the different moles and shepherd their kids toward the activities. Festival organizers say they heard Latinos and Anglos alike commenting positively on the cultural mix of the crowd.

Speaking of the crowd, as for us mole-samplers and blue ticketholders, we head-bobbers and iPhone videographers gathered under the huge trees to watch the dancers and hear the music, the event was a sensory revelation.

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Mole in its various forms is infinitely variable: piquant, sweet, thick, thin, redolent of cumin or fragrant with the holiday spices. The winner of the judges' tasting, the poblano mole from Manuel's, was warm and rich, not too thick, with a hint of heat to it. It had a more astringent profile than either of Manuel's other two offerings, the nicely balanced and chocolatey traditional mole and the life-changing (for our friend Carl, anyway) dulce mole. Sweet, as the name suggests, with hints of orange and clove, this mole inspired grand culinary schemes by our little party after Carl shamelessly ladled some of it onto a plate of pumpkin pie for dipping. (Someone had to do it.) We are now happily aware that Manuel's serves mole on Sundays and Mondays and will be using this intelligence to further our studies.

All the moles were good. By the time we'd arrived at 2pm, the crowd had wiped out El Jardin's supply entirely—but in the process bestowed on the restaurant the People's Choice award by dropping beans in the El Jardin bag at the voting booth. The mole from Tortilla Flat was hearty and appealing, mixed with carnitas. El Cabana's mole was thick and mild—a comforting sauce and a great choice for those without much tolerance for heat. El Chipotle's mole worked the cumin angle nicely, and it wasn't too thick. Probably the biggest winner of the day was My Mom's Mole. Made with 23 ingredients and seven chiles, it was extremely well balanced and nuanced, and it had People Talking. (It's not affiliated with a restaurant, but keep an eye out for this product in local grocery stores, where proprietor Cesario Ruiz hopes to be selling it soon.)

The music and dancing were predictably bright, folksy and fun, but nothing suggested we'd be treated to 9-foot-tall dancing puppets called Mojigangas, each operated by a single person. Brightly painted and festooned with beads and real fabric, these puppets, reportedly introduced to Mexico by the Spaniards in the 1600s to bring some levity to religious processions, twirled and bounced on the dance floor, visible from the entire plaza. Later, as they waited off the dance area before one final promenade, little kids surrounded them, trying to taunt and intimidate the mute giants. Around the edges of this scene, people sat and talked, sampled dense bread freshly baked in the Indian oven onsite and sipped aguas frescas. Kids obsessed over the handfuls of candy they'd seized when the pinata broke.

Awesome day. Should this be an annual event? We're dropping our voting beans in the "Yes" bag.