Thursday, January 10, 2008

Paleta paleta paleta

we've been lucky enough to have friends and family join us along the way on the chile chase this year and we've asked a few to write about thier own culinary adventures in Mexico! the following is by our friend and guest blogger, Cathy Wirth.
As readers of this blog know, the search for the origins of the chile pepper have brought Kraig and Heather to Mexico, which sports an amazing natural diversity of chiles in more shapes, sizes, and flavors than I ever imagined possible. However, Mexico is not only the likely homeland of the chile. It is, in fact, a veritable birthing center of many culinary delights. Preliminary research conducted during my recent visit with Kraig and Heather in Mexico indicates that Mexico may also be a center of origin for an understudied but internationally recognized food, the paleta (or popsicle, as it is called in many parts of the U.S.).

The incredible diversity of paletas - flavor, size, texture, color - is a clue to it's likely origins in the region.

The Mexican paleta (pah-lei-ta) comes in a truly stunning variety of flavors, colors and textures. While the paleta is often classified into two main subcategories—those made with agua (water) or leche (mik)—it seems that these are fairly superficial distinctions and that there is only one real species of paleta (see the literature on race as a social as opposed to genetic construct for a parallel analysis). The paleta is ubiquitous in Mexico, with even the smallest towns having a paleta vendor, stand or store on every other street . In the U.S., the likely descendent of the paleta, the popsicle, is generally confined to distribution through retail outlets such as major supermarket chains, corner stores, and gas stations, whose main focus is not popsicle sales. In addition, the popsicle has clearly been bred for storage and conformity, at the expense of the variety and general tastiness still found in the Mexican paleta. However, despite the overall importance of the paleta as a cultural, social and dietary influence in Mexico, the Americas, and many other parts of the world, where exactly the paleta originated and what the original paleta looked like are questions that remain unanswered.[1]

Given the constraints of my time in Mexico (10 days), the many other activities on the agenda (great company, eating Kraig’s cooking, surfing, etc.), the level of funding from outside sources received for the trip ($0), and the general level of discourse (see upcoming post “Dude, What Eats that Fish?,” by guest blogger Todd Rosenstock), it did not seem prudent to undertake a full scientific study of the origins of the paleta during this trip. However, a preliminary “social science” study was conducted, tentatively entitled “Which Paleta Flavor is the Best?”

For the purposes of this study, I personally sampled as many paletas as possible during the course of our travels in Mexico. I also employed the help of Heather, Kraig and Todd to add to the paleta taste test sample size. In total, over 50 paletas were sampled.

There was some debate over whether it was more appropriate to try as many different flavors as possible, or to try some paletas until a few favorites were found and focus further study on those favorites while avoiding potentially gross flavors (see Figure 1 below).

Figure 1. Number of paletas sampled as compared to diversity of paleta flavors sampled per participant in the study.

To answer the original study question “Which Paleta Flavor is the Best?” a complex algorithm was developed, which assigned each paleta an Overall Paleta Score (OPS)[2]. The best paleta flavors were those that consistently received the highest OPS scores. As can be seen in the figure below, a clear pattern with regard to the best flavors emerged.

Figure 2. Paleta flavors that received the highest Overall Paleta Score (OPS)

In conclusion: Happy paleta tasting for those of you visiting Kraig and Heather in the coming months! Provecho…

[1] As a side note, the paleta retail space is an archetype that has persisted in the Pan-American psyche for generations, giving rise to the expression popularly utilized among disaffected hipsters throughout the U.S. today—“let’s blow this popsicle stand.”
[2] While it is not crucial for the lay paleta consumer to understand the details of the algorithm in order to appreciate the results of this study, in the interest of promoting future study on the subject, the algorithm is as follows: Overall Paleta Score (OPS) = 15 (source of flavor) + 8 (seasonality of flavor) + 6 (consistency) + 200 (Cathy’s favorite flavors)