The wind was roaring, and the snow was blowing white vortices against the pitch black.
We lived about 30 miles East of Buffalo, Wyoming, but that winter night it felt like an arctic outpost. I was standing just inside the door of the front porch, and wishing I had had the sense to get the coal while there was at least some light outside.
"Don't get blown away!" My dad called unhelpfully from the kitchen, "you might tie a lifeline to the door, so you don’t get lost!"
I sighed. The coal pile was just 20 feet from the front door, at the end of a sidewalk we’d built, but all I could see through the window was darkness. I half-wished we lived in town, where we could hide from the cold without needing the help of a coal stove. But we didn’t, so I finally braved the night and stepped outside. The wind cut through my wool coat like butter, and my lungs burned with the cold, dry air.
Ten feet from the door, I turned to look at the house. The light of the porch shown dimly through the gale, and I could just make out the shape of the house. It was an old stone house that was built in the early 1900's as a stage stop, sturdy, but poorly insulated. I wondered how many travelers they had received in those winters a hundred years ago, and imagined the relief they must have felt seeing a dim light through the dark.
They would have had coal and wood only back then. We had the luxury of helping the stove’s work with an array of gas wall-heaters. I shivered and finished the way to the coal pile; a mass formed unceremoniously at the end of the sidewalk and covered with a big blue tarp.
It was my chore to stock the coal. Not a terrible chore, as far as country chores go. We'd buy coal in bulk, usually blocks 12-15 inches in diameter, and then we'd break them with a sledgehammer to the more manageable 2–5 inch pieces. Therapeutic on nice days, but horrid when it’s below zero plus windchill.
The chore only took me ten minutes, but I felt cold inside and out by time I made it back inside with the bucket of coal. I shivered on the porch while I kicked off my boots and snowy coat, then lugged the coal bucket to the living room where the old stove stood emanating its fierce heat.
I set the coal bucket down, then stood with my back to the stove as I thawed out.
My dad came from the kitchen and held out a cup of brownish liquid with blue specks.
"What's that?" I asked,
" Atole,” He said, “It'll warm you right up."
"Okay, but what is it?"
"It’s a corn-meal drink. My grandpa used to make it, but he'd eat it plain. I add cocoa to make it better."
It was a strange at first, like a dense, bitter, hot chocolate, but it did, as dad said, 'warm me right up'.
His preparation was simple:
He'd gather the ingredients: Blue corn masa, Water, Cocoa powder, and sugar if he felt indulgent.
Then he'd combine them in a sauce pot, stirring them together while bringing the liquid to a simmer. I don't remember him measuring much of anything, rather he'd prepare the drink by color and liquidity.
Rather unhelpfully, I’ve been known to do much the same- but for your sake, dear reader, I’ve made a simple rendition for a single serve:
1/4 cup blue corn masa
1 cup water
1 cup milk (or milk substitute
3 TSP Cocoa Powder
4 TSP Brown Sugar
To prepare the drink, combine the water, masa, and cocoa powder in a sauce pan and whisk together.
Place over medium heat, whisking as it warms for about two minutes. The mixture will start to thicken, add milk to thin it out. Then whisk in cinnamon and brown sugar. Bring back to a near-simmer, then pour into a mug.
It's a simple drink, with as many variations as there are cooks. My dad would usually do it with just the masa, cocoa, and water (as far as I remember), but I wanted to share something with a little more fall pizzaz. In terms of brands, find what you can. I used Maseca Azul because it’s what I’ve been able to find, and Hershey’s cocoa powder because that’s what dad used. When I was in college, I made a variation using a cheap, yellow corn meal when I needed a break from ramen; it was not nearly as good, but quite filling for a broke student.
Atole is an unassuming drink, and I think that’s what makes it so delicious- because it's a reminder that these small, simple things in life have a way of warming us up most thoroughly even when the world has chilled us through.
About the Creator
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