Jul/Aug 2009 Issue
Remember when popsicles came in four flavors, turned your tongue blue or red and sat in the freezer next to ice cube trays and frozen fish sticks? Well, this childhood treat has taken on a Spanish accent and is becoming the hottest, most popular picture in Nashville’s culinary yearbook.
"In Mexico, paletas, made on site from fresh ingredients, are part of the daily diet, part of the culture. You stop by a paleteria after school, before Mass, again after Mass. You have a paleta every day," says Irma Paz-Bernstein, who grew up in Guadalajara with five sisters. Older sister, Norma Paz-Curtis, her partner, shares blending, squeezing, chopping and pureeing duties.
At Las Paletas, a chalkboard listing two dozen flavors available for the day hangs over a freezer case. Choose from the almost prosaic (mango, coffee, banana-nut, or chocolate almond) to the exotic (pineapple chili, chocolate wasabi, cucumber-jalapeño, rose petal, or prune).
Although the Paz sisters have defied and rewritten marketing playbooks (they never advertise, there’s no sign and the shop closes at 7 p.m. when A-list consumers typically come out to play), the daily paleta custom has caught on in Music City. Paleta zealots line up at noon when the tiny paleteria opens, eager to see which of the more than 100 flavors the sisters have concocted will be available for that day.
“In Mexico, people take great pride in their food. It's all made from the heart. Mothers wouldn't dream of feeding their kids by opening cans or using microwaves,” Irma says. “That's how we make paletas here. They're all made fresh on location. We go to the farmer's market or to the grocery store to see what's in season. We use only the best that Mother Nature provides.”
Unless, they happen to be doing a custom-order.
“One little boy came in with his mother and didn't order anything," Irma says. "I had to ask, ‘What is wrong? No paleta?’ His mother explained that he was holding out for peanut butter ice cream. So I asked him-do you like crunchy or smooth peanut butter?"
Three days later, she called to tell the little boy that peanut butter paletas were now on the blackboard.
When the Paz sisters decided to open the paleteria in Nashville, they had one problem: They didn't know how to make the tasty delights.
“Turns out, paleta making is a carefully guarded secret. Paleta makers pass the recipes and techniques down to their children. It stays in the family,” Irma explained. “I made calls. I offered money. I was rejected again and again and became even more intrigued about this whole subculture of popsicle shops.”
Finally, a friend's father recommended a paleta maker from a small village outside Guadalajara who was willing to take on an apprentice.
He must have taught her well judging by the lines of waiting customers at Las Paletas.
“The lines of people, of course, are a good thing. But what makes us feel like a success are the people who come in here and say that paletas make them happy," Irma says. "We've had husbands run in while wives in labor wait in the car. We've had brides request paletas for a layer in their wedding cake.”
Celebrity chef Bobby Flay even caught wind of the Paz sisters and challenged them to a throwdown that aired last summer on the Food Network.
“We use a special secret ingredient,” Irma claims. “Our paletas are made with passion, imbued with love.”
Bobby Flay didn't stand a chance.
Las Paletas’ hours are noon to 7 p.m. Tuesday–Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. The shop is closed Monday. Paletas are $2.50 each
Pam Grout is a contributor from Lawrence, Kan.
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