Stirring Tradition

 by Les McGehee | Photography by Whitney Martin

Ah, the cool environs of Mi Madre’s restaurant. This first warm day of the year in near East Austin is a little too warm, actually…hello, Texas. But the bricks of the lovely, small, meticulously clean and inviting restaurant, along with the low-wattage string lights, create an easy, dreamy interior—a floating, happy cool.

Just after the breakfast rush, Mando Rayo—local author, social activist and self-proclaimed “Taco Professor”—sits chatting with Mi Madre’s owner, Aurelio Torres. Part of the welcoming chill in the room emanates from the beautiful alabaster glass of agua de horchata on the table, at which Mando keeps smiling, a cinnamon stick visible under the frosty rich goodness like a yum stalk ready to blossom into salivary satisfaction. Aurelio looks comfortably proud. He knows that his handcrafted version of the beloved sweet rice-milk drink is a fresh and robust example of the fluffy down pillow of a beverage that’s been pleasing a multitude of cultures and palates, young and old, all over Austin and points beyond.

Mando hums as he takes his first sip. “For me, horchata is a staple—ever since I was a kid going to the mercado with my family in Mexico City, and later, Juarez. Picture a hot day, the city is bustling as everyone makes trips to el mercado to get stuff they need for their home and work. So it’s hot, busy, and the smells are intense from the market and the puestos [stands] lining the street as you get near the market…from the city, the flautas, the menudo…the butcher stands!” (He accentuates with a scrunchy-face and mini-shudder.) “The best way to quench your thirst and manage the aromas is with an agua de horchata.”

Mando knows what he is talking about. He’s no stranger to answering the frequent pleas to act as Mexifood tour guide and cultural ambassador for visiting groups—even giant food companies—that come to Austin hoping to better understand our mash-up of Mexican, Tejano and South American-derived foods and traditions that are, albeit thoroughly Austin, a more accurate descriptor of our culture and history than most other research materials combined. The requests keep Mando pretty busy. And Aurelio is busy, too—making his rounds from table to table, getting community updates and shaking hands—gently stirring the restaurant’s atmosphere and the diners’ experiences in the same conscientious and purposeful way he stirs horchata. It’s a perfect scene representing the cultural crossroads via food that Mando preaches so well.

Of course, horchata is definitely one of the things preached. He speaks fluently about the known benefits—of both the medicinal and hedonistic varieties—and how versions of the beverage can be found in all Hispanic cultures. The drink can be traced back a thousand years to barley horchata from Valencia, Spain, where it’s now regulated as to which towns may produce which varieties—with pride—as though they were wine regions. Nowadays, the regional Spanish horchata is typically served with fartons. (Shut up. They’re long spongy donuts perfect for horchata dipping.)

Our part of the world loves the drink over ice, while other horchatistas prefer it warm in the wintertime. In Austin, you’ll see it ordered by itself, with a meal, after a meal or even as part of a cocktail. And while Texas and Mexico tend towards an horchata that’s sweet with condensed milk and cinnamon, other Latino cultures have their own spin on the ancient recipes. “Central America uses things like pumpkin seeds,” says Mando, through an horchata moustache. “They create different colors of horchata. It just depends where you grew up and what was available.”

As Mando tips his glass to get every last drop, Aurelio circulates back to our table. “We make horchata the way my mother made it,” he says. “Lots of people nowadays take the easy way with mixes and processed flours. It should be made fresh!” With the help of Aurelio’s daughter-in-law, Christina Torres, who also works at the restaurant, the family puts theirs together the night before. “Everything good takes work!”

Okay, horchata, you win. We love you and your sweet evocation, and we’ll continue to enjoy you as a cool treat, a rich lunch beverage or a stirrer of memories as we see fit. We will give you to our children and then add alcohol to our own, or not. And we promise to gaze lovingly at, and pull often from, the clear beehive jars and captivating spinning machines that cradle your sweet nectar. Today, you’ve made Aurelio Torres immensely proud and sent Mando Rayo back to work with a refreshed demeanor and a warm heart.