Fresh-baked bread is an essential part of the daily culinary routine in Mexico, where neighborhoods have their own bakeries and neighbors know when bread comes out of the oven each day. The smells of freshly baked bolillos (French rolls) and pan dulce (sweet bread) spill into the street inviting passers-by to peruse the bakery racks. The shelf life of this bread is short, as Mexican bakeries traditionally shy away from preservatives, so people tend to come early and often.
The methods of Mexican bread-making date back to the French occupation in the country during the 1800s. The French had been sparring on Mexican soil for decades. During this tense era, one incident, aptly named the “Pastry War,” broke out after a French pastry chef accused Mexicans of invading his shop and looting his goods. The French army was finally ousted in 1866, however, their culinary legacy remained. Mexicans had grown fond of crispy baguettes and sugared pastries. The Mexican baking tradition has grown quite inventive in years since, with thousands of varieties of breads available in today’s panaderias.
In Mississippi, small Mexican bakeries have started popping up in recent years to serve the increasing population of Mexican residents across the state. Jose Flores left his home and bakery in Monterrey, Mexico, for a job in the sprawling sweet potato fields in Vardaman, Mississippi. He laughs recalling his short stint picking potatoes: “It was so dusty out there many days and then after a rain, it would be too wet to work.” Flores quickly left the field to take up his previous trade baking bread. Helped by a financial partnership with the owner of the sweet potato farm, Flores and his brother opened Panaderia Nuevo Leon on Vardaman’s Main Street. Relying on the recipes he knew by heart from his old Mexican bakery, Flores quickly began catering to north Mississippi’s large Latino population by making more than a dozen varieties of bread each day. Today Flores carries his bread each week to Mexican restaurants and stores in New Albany, Oxford, Tupelo, and numerous other towns in North Mississippi.
While Flores provides Mexican bread to the north portion of the state, Jaime and Nancy Rodriguez cover a vast section of central Mississippi. Jaime’s brother owns a Mexican restaurant in Jackson for which he was having bread shipped in three times each week from Houston. When he suggested that Jaime quit his bakery job in New York City to open a Mexican bakery to cater to local restaurants in Mississippi, Jaime agreed it was a great opportunity to move south and be closer to his family. In 2003, Jaime and his wife Nancy opened Omonia Bakery in Pearl, Mississippi. Jaime had been baking since the age of ten when he apprenticed at his father’s bakery in Mexico City. His father’s bakery had been in the family for several generations until it folded recently due to pressure from an increasing presence of stores like Wal-Mart in Mexico that serve cheap varieties of Mexican-style bread. However, in the United States there remains an increasingly large market for Mexican bread.
While the bulk of customers in his Vardaman bakery have Mexican roots, Flores says more and more often he has passers-by stop into his Main Street shop, lured in by the smell of fresh bread just out of the oven, and curious about Mexican baking. Jose Flores, and Jaime and Nancy Rodriguez are sure to be only the first of many ambassadors of Mexican culinary traditions to the people of Mississippi.