Episode 2 December 31, 2018

Tok-Sel Lima Beans with Bruce Ucán

Lima beans sometimes get a bad rap, but in the hands of Bruce Ucán, chef and owner of Mayan Cafe in Louisville, KY, these legumes are legendary. He shows us how he makes his zesty, crunchy tok-sel lima beans that reinvigorate this misunderstood vegetable. After we eat, Bruce talks about growing up in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula and his Mayan heritage. Then he takes us back to a New Year’s Eve that he says saved his life.

Mayan Café is an “indigenously-inspired farm-to-table restaurant” in Louisville, KY. Chef Ucán fuses traditional Mayan flavors, ingredients, and cooking techniques with local, sustainably-farmed ingredients.

Music by Podington Bear and Ketsa.


[00:00:07] [cooking sounds]

Jen Nathan Orris: [00:00:07] This is Skillet, the podcast where we cook together and listen to each other. I’m Jen Nathan Orris.

Cass Herrington: [00:00:12] And I’m Cass Harrington.

Jen Nathan Orris: [00:00:14] Here on Skillet, we spend an afternoon cooking and talking with everyday people: grandmas, farmers, activists, and sometimes chefs.

Cass Herrington: [00:00:22] Today you’ll meet Bruce Ucan, the chef and owner of Mayan Cafe. His lima beans are legendary in Louisville, Kentucky.

Jen Nathan Orris: [00:00:30] He’s introduced traditional Mayan food to an upscale crowd by embracing a classic Southern ingredient — lima beans.

Cass Herrington: [00:00:36] But they’re not the soggy, margarine-laden lima beans you’d find on a cafeteria tray. (No offense elementary school.) They’re roasted until golden brown, brightened with a splash of lime juice, and topped with toasted pumpkin seeds.

Jen Nathan Orris: [00:00:52] Bruce has changed the minds of many lima bean haters.

Cass Herrington: [00:00:55] We went over to his house in Louisville to see how he makes his famous dish. While we cooked, he talked about traditional Mayan cooking and his memories of growing up in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.

Jen Nathan Orris: [00:01:07] After we ate, he shared one of the hardest days of his life — a New Year’s Eve he says he feels lucky to have survived.

Cass Herrington: [00:01:14] We also talk about his desire to make his own destiny in the U.S. and how he teaches his own daughters about their Mayan heritage.

Jen Nathan Orris: [00:01:22] But first it’s time to get cooking.

Cass Herrington: [00:01:26] Adelante, Bruce.

Bruce Ucán: [00:01:26] My name is Bruce. I go by Bruce, but my name is Herberto and I’m from the Yucatan Peninsula, which is a village called Kantunil. Today we’ll do a version of tok-sel, kind of like peasant’s food for lima beans roasted in pumpkin seeds. It’s typically made with white beans, you might call them Great Northern beans. They are fresh or dried there. My take on this is kind of like a little twist with lima beans.

Cass Herrington: [00:02:01] Well, let’s get cooking. You’ve got all your ingredients laid out. What next?

Bruce Ucán: [00:02:04] So now typically, back home, this is made because we don’t have the fancy stove like we have here. Typically they use utensils like comal; that’s what they make tortillas with. So typically, once they cook, they blanch the beans, from that area white beans, then they throw right on top of off the comal, which is like griddle, with a with a little lard. So basically, just roast the lima beans. And guess what? The rocks under the fire is taken and put on top, so the pressure on the rock would push down the all the ingredients, mixed together with the pumpkin seeds the green onions, the parsley and that’s it. And they go around and sell it in little bags like like for 10 pesos for a quarter of a pound.

Bruce Ucán: [00:02:55] So the way we’re gonna do it, the way we do the restaurant, is we let it sear a little bit before we transfer it to another pan. So lima beans goes right the pan with nothing on it. That’s what I’m going to, just do that. Add a tablespoon of regular oil, canola oil, and then same thing with sesame oil. So it’s a reall quick process.

Cass Herrington: [00:03:35] I love how burning something isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Bruce Ucán: [00:03:37] Yes correct.

Cass Herrington: [00:03:38] That’s where the flavor comes out.

Bruce Ucán: [00:03:39] So what I’m looking for, see that little searing here? So typically that’s what we’re looking for.

Cass Herrington: [00:03:45] So the lima beans are getting a nice brown color.

Bruce Ucán: [00:03:48] Yes that’s what we’re looking. Turn this down a little bit and before we start.

Cass Herrington: [00:03:53] It imparts a little bit of smokiness from the fire.

Bruce Ucán: [00:03:56] Yes. And they roasted chilies, they buried their tomatoes under the plain fire and wood and then take them out. It’s like really cooking. And they’re not doing it because they want to do it. I think it was necessity. There’s no choice, you know, like the reason why they use banana leaves to make tamales, because they don’t have a aluminum foild.

Cass Herrington: [00:04:18] So method has a lot to do with what’s accessible.

Bruce Ucán: [00:04:20] Exactly. So this is almost there. Just what we’re looking for.

Cass Herrington: [00:04:25] I can smell it. It’s almost got like a nuttiness to it.

Bruce Ucán: [00:04:28] Right. So in the villages they control more of the cooking of the beans, so they can make a softer because they control that. This is already semi-flash frozen. So what we want to do is put this back. Once we roast this, everything is fast.

Bruce Ucán: [00:04:47] My mom cook always and I’m always thankful for that because we never eat fast food, never. She cooked basic stuff, like beans, tortillasm tomatoes — things that they were growing in the village or people trade corn for beans or beans with tomatoes or vice versa. Kind of like a money exchange thing. So that’s what we eat every day. And one chicken, that will be enough for all of us, lunch and dinner. Here you go to eat at Kentucky Fried Chicken, you eat the half of the chicken, right? Half a chicken. When I was growing up, one chicken is enough for maybe three or four of us, for lunch and dinner. Maybe leftover for shredded to make panuchos or salbutes or whatever that she might make.

Jen Nathan Orris: [00:05:35] What do you remember about your mom? What was she like?

Bruce Ucán: [00:05:39] Hard worker. I don’t know how she did it when there is no machines, no washing machines, no dryer, no fancy stove, nothing. She just did it by hand, tortillas, she made the tortillas daily. Cook the corn, take it to be ground, bring it back, make the tortillas, wash the clothes. I mean, I don’t remember her ever helping us to do homework, one of the things that I really miss that she never had time. It was just impossible. But they were happy doing it and they was smiling. And when I go, actually, I’m going home in a week, when I see here and I remind her, she laughs and she walks away. Like, wow.

Bruce Ucán: [00:06:22] So we got some limes here. It’s ready to go.

[00:06:38] [sizzle of lima beans in pan].

Bruce Ucán: [00:06:38] Saute, just toss it. And then we drizzle a little salt on top. And then you add parsley. If you don’t have any parsley, the recipe asks for parsley, use something like a rustic kale, chard, anything rustic. I think it looks beautiful. Parsley is just an idea, a recipe.

Bruce Ucán: [00:07:07] And then we have green onions.

[00:07:16] [sizzle of green onions in pan].

Bruce Ucán: [00:07:18] The pumpkin seeds are last.The reason why because I don’t want it to burn because it’s already roasting and brown, so I don’t want to do double roasting. Let it do its thing, just roasting a little bit and then we drizzle a little olive oil on top.

[00:07:38] [sizzle].

Bruce Ucán: [00:07:38] And we’re done.

Jen Nathan Orris: [00:07:38] That was so fast!

Bruce Ucán: [00:07:39] Yeah that’s it.

Cass Herrington: [00:07:41] And it’s beautiful.

Bruce Ucán: [00:07:42] Now you can try it.

Cass Herrington: [00:07:42] It is so good, like it’s comfort food. You’ve got beans, something that’s really familiar.

Bruce Ucán: [00:07:51] Yes.

Cass Herrington: [00:07:52] And then just the simplicity of good quality ingredients. The sesame oil and the lime brightens it, and the pumpkin seed adds that texture and crunch.

Bruce Ucán: [00:08:00] Yes.

Cass Herrington: [00:08:01] I love it.

Bruce Ucán: [00:08:02] Rice, just rice with that would be great, basmati rice or brown rice. Anything just comfort food and maybe some chicken, but that’s a choice.

Cass Herrington: [00:08:12] Un aplauso para el maestro.

Jen Nathan Orris: [00:08:18] [clap].

Jen Nathan Orris: [00:08:18] These tok-sel lima beans are one of the most popular things on the menu at Bruce Ucan’s restaurant, Mayan Cafe. He’s a leader in the local food movement in Louisville. He’s formed tight bonds with countless farmers and inspired other high-profile restaurants to source locally.

Cass Herrington: [00:08:33] We should mention the lima beans in this dish aren’t local. Bruce says sometimes he feels guilty about that, especially because he features local vegetables in most other dishes. But he says the short growing season as well as the high demand make it nearly impossible to source local lima beans year-round.

Jen Nathan Orris: [00:08:51] The restaurant goes through about 200 pounds a week!

Cass Herrington: [00:08:54] The combination of fresh, local ingredients and traditional Mayan recipes strikes a nerve in his part of Kentucky. In many ways, Bruce is connecting people with foodways they might not experience in their daily lives.

Cass Herrington: [00:09:07] Growing up in Mexico on the Yucatan Peninsula, Bruce was immersed in Mayan culture, both the food and the resiliency of his community.

Jen Nathan Orris: [00:09:14] For those who aren’t familiar the Mayan civilization flourished thousands of years before Europeans invaded North America. We still use many Mayan advancements today, like astronomy and the cyclical calendar.

Cass Herrington: [00:09:27] We also have them to thank for my favorite food — chocolate.

Jen Nathan Orris: [00:09:32] Mayan communities still thrive in parts of Mexico and Central America, speaking their ancient languages and maintaining their cooking traditions. But today, Mayan people sometimes face discrimination. That’s where we pick up our conversation.

Cass Herrington: [00:09:45] The recipe, tok-sel lima beans, it’s reflective of the Mayan traditional way of cooking and how you grew up understanding the Mayan language. Do you self-identify as Mayan?

Bruce Ucán: [00:10:01] Oh no doubt, yes, more than anything. I think the more I stay longer here, the more I understand, yeah, this is who and there’s no changing, you know?

Cass Herrington: [00:10:10] Did you face discrimination as an indigenous Mayan in Mexico? Was there racism there?

Bruce Ucán: [00:10:15] I felt more there than here.

Cass Herrington: [00:10:17] Wow.

Bruce Ucán: [00:10:18] Totally. All my life, there is mostly like the indigenous would look differently than the Spanish. If you have an Espada last name like Sanchez, they’re looking like okay you Spaniard or something and how physical you are. But if you have a last name like Ucan or Coho or a Pooat is like an indigenous last name, I think they will look at you okay, you know, I think that’s a way I would describe like high class and low class.

Cass Herrington: [00:10:48] Like drops of Europeanism works your way up the totem pole, so to speak.

Bruce Ucán: [00:10:54] I think not being able to, they underestimate you about, like you’re not up for that job, which is really like being a server, or you can’t, you’re not allowed to talk to the public class because you don’t have the ability to talk to people this way. You have no class. All the stuff, you know, like basic, basic stuff.

Cass Herrington: [00:11:11] So undermined as just inferior.

Bruce Ucán: [00:11:14] Yeah. That’s the word. Inferrior.

Jen Nathan Orris: [00:11:16] Bruce experienced this most intensely when he was working at resorts in Cancun. He says he was often stuck in the back of the kitchen and held back from moving up in the ranks.

Cass Herrington: [00:11:26] A few years later he met an American woman from Kentucky who asked him to come to the States with her on a marriage visa.

Jen Nathan Orris: [00:11:34] The moment I stepped my foot in this country, I say, I need to make my own destiny. Maybe this is the thing I was looking for all my life.

Jen Nathan Orris: [00:11:40] Bruce arrived in Louisville in 1987 and worked at some high-end restaurants in the city.

Cass Herrington: [00:11:45] But he kept thinking about his family in Mexico, especially his mother.

Jen Nathan Orris: [00:11:49] What does she think about you being in the United States? Was it hard for her to see you go?

Bruce Ucán: [00:11:55] I left home I was 11 and I was living around in a lot of places and she always came looking for me because I will be gone for months and nothing has been said for me or somebody might say something to her, hey, you do your kid is fine. She’ll go looking for me. I think when I was living in Mexico before I came here she always went looking for me and she find me. I don’t know how she did, but she find me. I got used to gone all the time. So to her, it wasn’t like drastically a thing but when I when I told I was leaving Mexico she says, “Well, okay.” Also, I was the older one, so I did pretty much what I wanted to. Actually I never have a teenager life. It’s like from 11 to work and mostly time working with a lot of the older people. So for all the transition of leaving and she knew all this time coming, she’s like, she grows stronger. I guess she never really have time to be very affectionate. One of those things, it’s kind of like, I know she loves me. But today, she’s happy for me and I go see her, and yeah, she’s great.

Jen Nathan Orris: [00:13:05] So why did you leave home at 11?

[00:13:08] Because, good question, the reason why I left there because I was doing great in school, my grades were really great. I was a kid that just stays there and watch and I did my own work and that’s all. I went home and did my homework and I was doing great because it was easy for me to memorize, so sure. But middle school was the next village down, so we had to take the bus, and you need money to do that, but my parents couldn’t afford it. And we were four kids. So I said well I’m going to go work for the summer and saving money and I would do anything. I would cut the wood to take to the bakeries because the bakeries there buy green wood to to bake bread. Sometimes all the kids in the summer would do the same thing, so I went to the next town to do construction and save a little money. Next thing I know, so I see the money, and say, well, this is great. So I’d rather work. That’s how it started.

Jen Nathan Orris: [00:14:05] So did you ever return to school?

Bruce Ucán: [00:14:07] No wanted to, one of those things. And then you meet bad friends sometimes and say, “Hey, let’s drink.” I’m actually, I’m lucky I’m alive because I could have died many times.

Cass Herrington: [00:14:18] You heard that right. He said I could have died many times.

Jen Nathan Orris: [00:14:22] Bruce shares that story after the break.

Cass Herrington: [00:14:25] Stay with us.

Jen Nathan Orris: [00:14:31] Skillet it is brought to you by… all of you!

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Jen Nathan Orris: [00:14:53] If you go there, you’ll see bonus photos from episode 1 and some behind the scenes fun in our Instagram Stories.

Cass Herrington: [00:14:59] You can also direct message us to nominate your favorite cook for an upcoming episode. We’re searching for storytellers for season two and we’d love to know about more people using food to share their culture. So send us a direct message or drop us an email through our web site, www.skilletpodcast.com.

Jen Nathan Orris: [00:15:15] We’ll be right back with the rest of episode two.

Jen Nathan Orris: [00:15:27] You know, one of the things that surprised me most about making Skillet was how open people are with their emotions. I’d kind of imagined the podcast as a happy-go-lucky cooking show. But even during our first interview I realized that making food — the touch, the smell — allows people to enter into a tender space. Nearly every one of our storytellers brought up some of the hardest times in their lives.

Cass Herrington: [00:15:49] So after we cooked together and shared a plate of lima beans, Bruce started to talk about a day that changed his life.

Bruce Ucán: [00:15:57] It was Christmas and I was drinking all through Christmas and into New Year’s Eve. And I was hung over. I drink for days. I don’t drink just have one beer. I mean, I was gone for a week, I don’t care. So I was walking in one of the avenues in Cancún. Back then it was just jungle he wasn’t moving growing yet. And I’m thinking, after the hangover, I just fought with my girlfriend and she kicked me out. I’m walking and I went to see my cousin and I said, “Man, I can’t stop drinking. And he says just don’t stop. Keep drinking. And I was just crying, I’m thinking, “Man, I need to stop it. I can’t stop.” I tried to do it, but I just couldn’t do it by myself. So I’m thinking you know what I’m gonna buy another six pack and I’m going to drink. That will be the last one. And I was just crying like oh my god, and I went in to buy the six pack to sit there in the alley and I’m thinking, “This will probably be the last six pack I’m going to drink. But I start crying. How can I stop drinking if my other friends and my family, I can’t do this. I just get on my knees, I literally did it, and I was like please, I was just crying and I need to stop drinking. Please help me just stop drinking. I don’t want to do it, but I can’t. So I finish that beer, I think I stay for hours, it’s getting dark, it’s about six o’clock. I was just lying in a corner and dumpster and dogs everywhere and I feel so comfortable this is this is like home, you know. So I finished my my beer and six pack and the alcohol didn’t even make me affects anymore because I was pure alcohol. After you drink, alcohol doesn’t bother you anymore. So I start walking with no shoes, no shirt, walking towards my girlfriend’s apartment. So I went back, and to my girlfriend said, “I’m really tired.” She says why? I just don’t want to drink anymore.

Bruce Ucán: [00:18:09] [soft crying].

Jen Nathan Orris: [00:18:09] Take your time.

Jen Nathan Orris: [00:18:17] Thank you for sharing this story. We really appreciate it.

Bruce Ucán: [00:18:21] And there’s a reason I told it. I don’t know, I just wanted to change. I was having a lot of stress in nighttime, I couldn’t sleep. Instead of drinking, because that’s what I think, instead, I come from work at night and start painting. I went crazy in the middle of the night, and get up, and go in the basement, just with my paintings and a brush, painting paintings. See, that’s mine right there.

Cass Herrington: [00:18:45] Wow, beautiful.

Bruce Ucán: [00:18:45] I would just paint stuff and I’m like, I will do three o’clock in the morning. Just something basic like Mayan hieroglyphics, just to get it out of myself. And then I made like 40 of those. The spiritual awakening, it happens to me.

Jen Nathan Orris: [00:19:01] We didn’t know quite where to go with the interview after this moment. So we looked around Bruce’s living room to guide the rest of the conversation.

Cass Herrington: [00:19:09] I’m looking around and seeing your kids artwork. So tell us about your your kids.

Bruce Ucán: [00:19:17] Ah, this one is Liliana. Then the next one is Elena. They are seven and five. Elena, the one in the middle, she is spirit crazy. She plays a lot. She can spend hours playing by herself. Liliana is very very persistent. When you say no, she pushes over and over. Just like me.

Cass Herrington: [00:19:39] But Bruce had no idea he was destined to become a father.

Jen Nathan Orris: [00:19:42] After he and his first wife got divorced, Bruce met a woman named Christina. They were living in Kentucky when Bruce went back to Mexico to visit his family.

Bruce Ucán: [00:19:52] I never thought of having kids ever. Actually, I need to share this with you. You know about, have you seen people that read cards? Like fortune teller? I don’t believe it, but it happens to me. The ones over there are not like here who do it for money. Over there it’s like, okay, I tell you the truth.

Cass Herrington: [00:20:15] Like Santaria?

Bruce Ucán: [00:20:17] Yes. Yeah. So I went, tell my mom, I really want to read my cards. After all that’s happened I want to see at least what’s there. Maybe for one year, tell me what’s going to happen. Okay I know this lady, she knows something. In Mexico they pick those weird names, like boogers, toad. I mean is crazy, Latin nicknames. I went over there and they say, “Epi!” They call me Epi in their village. Can you read my cards,” I ask. “Oh sure. So what do you want to know?” I I don’t know, just read my cards. So she gets a little candle and rocks, bones, I don’t remember. She shakes them and starts praying and saying words in Maya. And then just throws his bones or rocks and she says, “You just finished a relationship.” I say, yeah, it wasn’t very nice but it’s kind of over.” She says, “Yeah I can see this. You’re stressing all the time. You need to come more often here, spend time with your mom because she knows our mom was gone and she says you it looks like you OK healthy wise and also you just met somebody, yeah?” “Yeah, just a friend, just a friend.” Okay. “And how you feeling?” You know, great, just life. Okay. And then she throws the bones and say, “Hey, I see two little girls here.” No it’s not mine!

Bruce Ucán: [00:21:57] [laugh / cry].

Cass Herrington: [00:21:57] You said, “It’s not mine.”

Bruce Ucán: [00:22:07] I said, “That’s not mine. I’m not even married.” She said, “No, no I see two girls.” “No, it’s my brother, he has two little girls. She said, “No no no no no. It’s you.” I said, “No, it’s impossible.” I just got divorced, I cant.

[00:22:27] [pause].

Bruce Ucán: [00:22:27] Two. It’s kind of like a joke, one of those things you don’t believe everything right? “Ok. I see health, good, you’re going to live long, you’re gonna die old.” Oh that’s great. That’s great. It’s good news. And I stuck that thing in my suitcase. Big deal. I came back here, we got married. One day I brought this issue up. “Hey, I’m 42 you’re younger. Kids?” “I don’t know, I really want to do something with my life,” she says. Okay, it’s cool. No no no pushing the buttons, leavve it there.

[00:23:02] [pause].

Bruce Ucán: [00:23:02] She gets pregnant. A girl! And then I get thinking, hmm. What happens? I told her that, that story. Like eh, it’s not very obvious. I don’t know, let’s see what happened. OK. And then we have Lily, and then after that we we we decided to have another one because to be fair, to play with. Gets pregnant and then,

Bruce Ucán: [00:23:29] [clap].

Bruce Ucán: [00:23:29] Another girl. Now do you tell me. He taught me. I said, coincidence? I have no idea. I can’t tell you that. So now I’m afraid to go back.

Cass Herrington: [00:23:37] You’re afraid to go back.

Bruce Ucán: [00:23:38] Yeah! Not any more, but anyway.

Cass Herrington: [00:23:45] What an incredible story.

Bruce Ucán: [00:23:45] Right? But now there’s two girls here and these are their stories.

Jen Nathan Orris: [00:23:51] Do you have any hopes for your daughters as first generation Americans?

Bruce Ucán: [00:23:55] We take him every year to Mexico like every year they go. They go at least once a year for a week. I wish I can take him more often. We’re trying to figure out how to take him twice a year so they can really understand where I’m coming from. But the most important thing that they see, they go, they smell, they touch the things where I grew up and they listen to their little cousins, others speak and they eat and when they were little they still played just with dirt, just like I grew up. We don’t have no phones and they go and play with the cousins. They make things up. And I wanted to do that, experience that. You know, that it’s not only here where, you know, everything so easy. And then they know the cousin there. It’s hard to get one thing they appreciate things you know. My fear on them is not to fall, because I have it, in drugs or alcoholism. I think that’s my fear that always been. And I don’t know I just I’m traumatized for that and then that’s my problem. So I don’t know how to, I know how to tell them, but it doesn’t guarantee that they aren’t going to do it. You know. But if they’re happy, they can do whatever they want. I think they can do whatever you want. So we want to teach our kids to be be kind to each other.

Jen Nathan Orris: [00:25:16] Well Bruce, thank you so much for talking with us and sharing your stories. We really appreciate it.

Cass Herrington: [00:25:21] Thanks Bruce.

Bruce Ucán: [00:25:22] You’re welcome. De nada.

[00:25:27] [music].

Jen Nathan Orris: [00:25:27] Wow, Bruce’s story really floored me.

Cass Herrington: [00:25:29] Yeah I didn’t see that coming. That was intense.

Jen Nathan Orris: [00:25:32] We recorded this weeks ago, but I still feel really connected to Bruce and his kitchen.

Cass Herrington: [00:25:36] You can see photos of Bruce, his lima beans, and his incredible paintings at skilletpodcastdot.com.

Jen Nathan Orris: [00:25:46] We have a few folks to thank for making this episode possible. First, thanks to Bruce for opening up his heart and his home.

Cass Herrington: [00:25:53] And thanks to Anne Shadle, Bruce’s business partner at Mayan Cafe who helped us connect with Bruce.

Jen Nathan Orris: [00:25:59] A shout out to our digital producer Rich Orris.

Cass Herrington: [00:26:02] And to my parents for putting us up during our Kentucky reporting trip. Thanks mom!

Jen Nathan Orris: [00:26:09] Check us out on social media. We’re Skillet Podcast on Instagram and Facebook. Subscribe an Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

[00:26:20] [music].

Jen Nathan Orris: [00:26:21] Coming up on the next epsidoe of Skillet, there’s nothing quite like grandma’s cooking.

Robin Reeves: [00:26:25] She was an amazing cook. When my mother was pregnant with me, whe craved raccoon. So Grandma fixed her raccoon. [laugh]

Jen Nathan Orris: [00:26:34] Rest assured, we won’t be making raccoon with this farmer. But we will cook another one of her family’s favorite meals on the next episode of Skillet.