An “epic meal” just got a whole new meaning.
Popol Vuh, the hearth-cooking Mexican restaurant in northeast Minneapolis, is hosting a dinner next week that will be built around passages from the same Mayan creation myth that gave it its name.
In a coincidence that easily could have been from a tale of its own, a local teacher spent 11 years translating “Popol Vuh,” a 16th-century poem in the K’iche’ language that tells the story (dating back orally as far as 200 B.C.) of the origin of humanity. English teacher and poet Michael Bazzett, who labored over the translation so he could teach the story to his mythology class at the Blake School, completed the project last year.
That translation can now be found in a book of the same name by Bazzett, published by Milkweed, which came out about the same time chef José Alarcon was opening his restaurant, also called Popol Vuh (1414 NE. Quincy St., Mpls., 612-345-5527, popolvuh.com).
“It was just in the zeitgeist,” Bazzett said about the convergence of both projects. “I was very intrigued and thought there could perhaps be some synergy.”
That synergy will be realized on Monday at 7 p.m., when Bazzett and Alarcon collaborate on a dinner inspired by the poem. A five-course meal, for $128, will include readings and discussion of the story, along with dishes that represent passages Bazzett has selected. (Tickets are at popolvuhmpls.com/product/story-event/.)
Alarcon, who grew up in the Mexican state of Morelos, read the Spanish translation of the “Popol Vuh” as a schoolchild. It left an impression.
“I grew up in a very religious Catholic family, and reading about something doesn’t have to do with religion, but a different perception about the start of human beings, it always stuck in my head,” Alarcon said.
“And when I started getting into cooking Mexican cuisine, the name ‘Popol Vuh’ would appear in cookbooks,” he added.
That’s because the gods in the story attempt human creation multiple times; it finally works when they form humans out of maize, or corn, one of Mexico’s staple ingredients.
There are also hero twins, one of whom loses his head in challenge in the underworld.
“It’s kind of like Genesis and the Odyssey rolled into one,” Bazzett said. “It’s a creation story that has an epic embedded into the middle of it.”
Corn, of course, made its way onto Alarcon’s menu, as did the chilacayota squash that stood in for the twin’s missing head in the story. “It’s the world’s first jack-o’-lantern,” Bazzett said.
Alarcon is interpreting a passage dubbed “The Beginning” as a dish that evokes spring in Mexico. For that, he’s making tlayuga, a crisp corn tortilla with mushrooms, huitlacoche and microgreens.
While he’s invented dishes based on memories, Alarcon had never used a poem to guide him in the kitchen. It surprised him how fun it could be to merge food and literature.
“As a cook, I’m always thinking how does it taste? How does it smell? What can we do to add a different texture to the dish? But in this case, having this book next to me, it’s another influence,” he said. “For me, it’s waking up another sense and another feeling.”