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Eatymology: Atole de Arroz

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Eatymology: Atole de Arroz
Written by Emily Storrow | Photos by Kathryn McCrary

Atole de Arroz

[ə-tō-lā dā ä-ros]
n: A rice porridge rooted in the diet of Mexican laborers that provides a taste of home for many Latinx today

Growing up in rural Dalton, Georgia, Maricela Vega remembers begging her Mexican mother to celebrate Thanksgiving. She and her siblings were fascinated with the American holiday of sweet potatoes and cranberry sauce. “My mom wanted to cook her turkey in mole,” Vega laughs. And as their only exposure to “American food” was school lunches, the kids decided canned green beans just had to be on the table—much to her mom’s chagrin. The meal that followed, that year and thereafter, was an amalgamation of cultures, but still one very much rooted in her family’s Mexican heritage. It included atole de arroz, a porridge-like rice dish that field hands in Mexico have traditionally eaten in place of a large supper. When workers retired around 7 pm, they’d have an atole of some sort—the nourishing meal is also made with corn, beans, and cereals—Vega explains. “It sustained you for the rest of the evening until you went to sleep.”

Also a staple in her upbringing, it’s one of the many dishes the Atlanta chef champions in her efforts to decolonize Mexican cooking, both as the executive chef of 8ARM and through her tamale-centric popup, Chicomecóatl, named for the Aztec goddess of corn. Like the Thanksgiving holiday, much of Vega’s culinary identity is steeped in family. Each summer of her childhood, her family would pile into a van to visit her grandparents who lived and grew corn in Guanajuato, Mexico. (Flying was out of the question; they needed to bring back all the good stuff they couldn’t get in Dalton.) Years later, she carries the torch of that agricultural legacy. “To this day, I know that’s why I’m so focused on vegetables and farmers and knowing directly where my food is coming from,” she says. “It’s been instilled in me forever.”

Maricela Vega’s Atole de Arroz