Arepa Cycling Magic, Part 2
Disappointment. I expected that as soon as I pried open the bag of P.A.N. it would feel like I had broken through the casing and into the center of a giant corn kernel. Instead I had to lower my nose into the bag of white corn meal, a.k.a. arepa flour, to detect the subtlest corn aroma. The consistency of this main arepa ingredient, however, delivered immense sensory joy.
White corn meal’s texture differs from wheat flour. It is bulkier. Whereas wheat flour is powdery, white corn meal seems less refined; each buttery-yellow speck resembles a bit of grain. White corn meal feels like silt, the silt resting at the bottom of a river or lake that shifts into wavy patterns that bring to mind corduroy when you step on them.
Maize, while it is not Colombia’s largest agricultural product, has long been a staple of the people of the Colombian Department of Antioquia. In Kings of the Mountains, How Colombia’s Cycling Heroes Changed their Nation’s History, the author Matt Rendell writes that the appetite of cyclists from the Antioquian city Medellin for maize-based foods like the arepa secured for them the nickname “maize-men.” I am tempted to call the arepa a food of the people, but this would have to encompass people of all classes, if statements from a video* made in 1992 about arepas still hold: “Arepas are an integrator. Everyone regardless of social class eats arepas.”
It’s hard to ignore a sequence of connections that flow from the word corn, even more so from the word maize (from Spanish: maíz): Native American, earthy, natural, tribe, staple, thanksgiving (OK, I’m American). Reflections on the meaning of the opposite of the word refined result in words like coarse, homespun. Humble beginnings.
The arepa may not figure as a staple of only those with humble beginnings, but historically many bike racers were born to humble beginnings.
Fausto Coppi left school at age 13 to work in a butcher’s shop. Jacques Anquetil grew up on a strawberry farm. Raymond Poulidor’s parents worked as small farmers. Poulidor recalled, “The soil was poor and we had to work hard; farming incomes were poor.” More recently we have the example of Timmy Duggan; he worked nights delivering pizzas. Rigoberto Urán became the head of his household at age 14 after his father was murdered. He sold lottery tickets in the street while he continued school, training, and racing. When you start with humble beginnings somehow you grow up believing you must work harder than anyone else to succeed. Arepas are a good choice to fuel extraordinary effort.
Making arepa de choclo
I made these on a Sunday and served them with roasted chicken and broccoli for dinner.
Preparation is simple with a small number of ingredients.
The arepa fruits of my labor turned out a bit ragged at the edges, unlike the perfect circles in the video referenced earlier, and about half an inch thick. After they are cooked in butter or oil the arepas turned out crispy on the outside, soft inside. This recipe yields a concoction almost sweet enough to eat for dessert.
From the video I learned that a favorite way to take arepas for breakfast is to enjoy them with hot chocolate. As one who craves Mexican spiced chocolate in my coffee for breakfast, I appreciate this combination. And now I realize that I must have lived in Colombia in another life, somewhere rural, where my mother fed me arepas and hot chocolate for breakfast.
I cooked the first batch in butter and sprinkled mozzarella cheese on top as a substitute for the Colombian farmer’s cheese. The cheese toned down the corn cake’s sweetness, but the two flavors didn’t combine well for me. I preferred this arepa naked. With the butter-fried version a milky taste mingled with flavors of corn, brown sugar, and butter. My thoughts as I chewed through this arepa: weighty, substantial, filling. A good food for a hard day’s work.
The second batch fried in a little olive oil. These finished crispier than the butter sautéed version, with a more singular flavor of pure corn – a savory maize delight.
By the way, for readers of Part 1, arepa magic continued to the day after purchasing the arepa flour. I rode my bike for the first time in two weeks. A tailwind pushed me on Rooney road; normally the wind on that road batters your face or leans your bicycle over to one side.
*If you watch any of this video, be sure to see the vignette about the woman “arepera” from about 12:50 to minute 15. She comes back at 15:30 and at 22:40. The first half of the video is about the arepa.