With the Mexico Adventure Complete…What’s Next?!

 My time in Mexico was nothing short of miraculous and special.  I learned and grew so much through the great number of both exceptional and ordinary experiences that I had.  My journey was a reality because of the ridiculous amount of support that I was provided.  I am grateful for having the opportunity because through it I gained a deep confidence in my expanding love and insights into the intersection between the kitchen, community, and learning.  I am inspired by this union because it is important to the health and life of every community.

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A holy combination of flavour

By the end of my short 10 month journey in Mexico, I knew that I could travel all around the world and I would find places that food, community and learning come together.  I could continue to explore these ideas by dropping in other peoples communities – but I felt driven to return to the land that I feels roots in and tied to, and offer my learning back. I know that I am not going to find the same relationship to food here in the Great Lakes Region as I did in Mexico, but I do know that there are people everywhere working very hard to create community spaces and projects that respond to food security and health and wellness needs, and often in creative and pioneering ways.  So I have faith that with my deep love and curiosity for the really cool ways that people organize, there are folks that I can collaborate with here. I returned from my journey motivated to participate in the movement that uses food to make awesome spaces that creatively facilitate learning, break the isolation of our imposed social organization, and make the world I want to live in.

I see giving back as the way to honour the lessons and love that were poured into me from so many folks while I tagged along to family functions, sat and met many market Señoras, and enjoyed spontaneous gifts – like the surprise small town wedding that I got invited to.  I feel the responsibility to share it all back out, so that all those great people in Mexico that invested their time and energy inviting me into their spaces, did so for a purpose greater than it just being a cool experience that I had. 

My next journey to Mexico will include some deep investigations into the magic of Mexico’s artisanal cheese industry

I have learned through my foundational experiences of participating in community spaces, that the success of a community project is connected to how much it really is a collective experience, something that wells up and springs from the expression and dreams of a community.  Horizontal and rooted in relationship, successful projects are not something that an expert (self-appointed or otherwise) flies in and imposes, or does, or creates for other people.  If you want to do good work – live it, don’t do it, especially to other people.

I am inspired by the possibility of how we can build health and healthy community through focusing on ways that we feed each other, eat together, and learn from each other.  I know that we can flourish when we connect with the land, cultivate our sustenance, and decolonize our diets.  Decolonizing is something that many of us are working to do in many aspects of our lives, and food is a foundational part of that work. When I refer to decolonizing I understand this concept to refer to the work of extracting our lives and those of our communities, from being designed by colonial and capitalist values.  Values that organize us so that we are each meeting our needs for life in repetitively isolated ways.

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There is some really cool reflective pieces out there considering the role of the market as it is organized for example in Mexico in promoting community relationships and the consumption of healthy (unprocessed) food that is predominantly local and seasonl

My interest in community food justice and food freedom is also formed by my interest in alternatives to education. I understand education as a socially constructed institution, and in a similar way to the organization of our systems for food production, I am interested in exploring critiques of the traditional colonial and capitalist systems of education and visions of what is possible.  The challenge is to design our lives and the possibilities in our communities that bring us into collaboration and harmony. I like to do that through education and food.

I think that doing good work necessitates us doing our our personal work, but real change – revolution- must be collectively driven. Social transformation and peace will not be realized by the altered circumstances of individuals.  I am not interested in finding an oasis, I’m interested in the ocean. 

I have very few answers but I have a lot of inspiration and a lot of questions.  The dedication that I feel is a result of nourishing my unique soul and viewpoint, and the faith that I have that learning and creating the world we want to live in can be the actual contribution that we make.  My journey was my way of further exploring the ways that we can learn in community.  I think that we can ask experts rather than professionals to support us, and learn through hands on engagement.  That is what I sought to do.  Learning because we are curious is one place to start, but so much more is possible if the values that govern the world we want to live in, inform the methods and organization of our daily life – and that includes what and how we learn. 

So what’s next…well a whole lot of interesting things!  Stay tuned.

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Cheers!

800 TAMALES A WEEK!

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Standing at attention, these tamales were waiting to be steamed

If you have never had a tamale before you might not know that they are literally one of the tastiest, economical, and healthy breakfast, lunch, or late night snacks that is out there.  One of the things that I love about Mexico is that the “fast food” is in the hands of the community.  Easily obtained from markets stalls, roadside stands, folks that ride mopeds honking through neighbourhoods much like an ice-cream truck, on buses, and of course in every grandmothers kitchen. Tamales are Mexico’s answer to the munchies – though always homemade and created from pure and nutritious ingredients.

Tamales are fragrant and varied, sometimes wrapping the homeny dough in corn husks and while other varieties are wrapped in plantain leaves.  The paste like dough is called masa, and is made from a variety of corn that is dried and ground for the tamale. Some tamales hold sweetened masa and others hold a saucy centre.  Tamales sauces can, for example, be a mole or a green or red sauce with meat…the possibilities and varieties of flavour are really actually endless.

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Tamales with mole sauce in the centre and wrapped in plantain leaves

The family with whom I traveled to the country side in the previous post, live in Oaxaca City, and like many hardworking folks they have multiple ways of cobbling together a living, which for them includes their very own tamale business.  Every week this family dedicates Thursday evening to Saturday morning making 800 tamales that they go and sell every Saturday afternoon and Sunday.  From a simple cement building attached to their home this family begins the process of soaking, cooking, and preparing the corn masa that makes the base for the tamales every Thursday evening at about 5pm.  Earlier that day, the fillings for the 8 different varieties that they produce have already been started so that they are cooled and ready to use when the assembly begins.  At 2am (yes – 2am) this family meets and begins making these tiny packages of love, a job that continues through until early evening.  Like a well oiled machine, each member of this tamale team has a special job, with the expertise of the entire enterprise resting on the matriarch of the home. 

What I learned…tamales are all about technique, and controlling a mountain of variables including how warm the masa is when spreading it on the leaves or husks; real tamales are made from scratch – the spices are dry roasted before being ground and added, the dry corn is soaked and cooked and milled immediately before use – in short there are no short cuts and the difference is felt and tasted; I learned to imagine a world in which grabbing a quick bite could be another way to engage in the traditions of the community and support the survival of its members.  There is no reason that we need to hand over the solutions for the very basic of human needs of sustenance to large for profit corporations.  There are as many models as there is imagination for how we can meet our needs for food, whether it is a quick bite or a formal meal, and in the process of satiating hunger, support the economic livelihoods of the members of a community, eat healthy traditional food, and live low to the ground and in harmony with the land. 

I don’t have any recipes to offer this week.  If you want to learn how to make a tamale I recommend going to Mexico, and if you have never tried one and your not in Mexico I recommend going to the local flea market or just the part of town that there are latin stores and asking around.  You will be hard pressed to find someone making the masa from scratch instead of the maseca version that requires on to add water to a pre-made mix, but start there!

The Tamale Making Process 

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Tamales are all about the corn. It is from this variety, known as hominy that the masa is made
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First the dried hominy is soaked in water (much like dried beans are). Then it is cleaned through rinsing and straining it several times.
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Lime is added to the cooking corn so that our bodies can digest it. It was this small detail (or lack of knowledge of it) that killed so many of the earlier colonizers.
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After it is finished cooking the hominy corn is ground. In addition to a small amount of salt, pig lard is added to the masa to bring lightness and flavour to it.
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All 7 of the different sauces that filled the tamales was made from scratch. The bean filling was made rich and velvety from cooking with avocado leaves among other spices.
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The chiles and jalapeño sauce being prepared in a traditional clay cooking pot, the cazuela
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The masa is spread lightly on the pre-soaked corn husks   
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The saucy fillings are added, and the tamale is folded up, ready to be steamed
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My favourite…the chicken mole tamale
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800 tamales is a lot of tamales
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The assembly line of tamale love
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Tamales are cooked by steaming them…seriously healthy good stuff here folks

THE HEART OF A OAXACAN CELEBRATION IS THE COMMUNITY

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Santa has arrived! And is seen here arranging the fall-off-the-bone goat meat roasted in an underground over

The alarm clock, which was the mama of the house knocking on all the doors, came at 4am. A little early considering the quantity of mezcal that had been shared between myself and the dearest and eldest member of the family the evening before.  But little did I know that that was just a warm up to the festivities that were about the unfold. Seriously, after 4 days with this family, I was ready to check into rehab.

I was back in Oaxaca City, and there in the valley the mornings in late December are cold.  Dessert cold. I lay in my sleeping bag listening to the sounds of this family rising and feeling deep excitement for what was to come that day – my anticipation was the perfect medicine to shake me out of the warmth of my cocoon and dive into the sharp cold of the morning. I had come to this home at the invitation of a new friend, Ita. I was tagging along with her and her family as they travelled to the Oaxacan countryside, to a village that was the birthplace of her father, and the community of their extended family.  Her cousins whose home myself and the rest of the gathering family had been hosted at in Oaxaca City, are the godparents of a young woman who was celebrating her quince años, and it was for this celebration that they were making a great effort. 

Within Mexican cultures, a girls 15th birthday (quince años) is a very important celebration – perhaps even more important that her wedding, but definitely characterized by all the same refinement, tradition, and glamour.  Serious glam!  The quince años celebration we were on our way to also conveniently fell on the birthday of a grandson, and was smack dab in the midst of Christmas and New Years, all to say that this family had lots of reasons to celebrate, and it was clear that they were so dame happy to take advantage of all of them. So at 5am when all 17 of us and an undeniably large amount of luggage (thank goodness that for once I didn’t live up to the white girl stereotype of being an overpacker), had been stuffed into a covered pickup truck complete with airbrushed designs that dripped of dessert sensuality, the mood was festive and alive.  Our 5 hour journey deep into the hills and valleys of Oaxaca brought us to a tiny village where the people who live at least a kilometre apart call each other neighbours.

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The pick-up truck that defied the laws of space and fit 17 of us and way way too much luggage.

 

We were greeted by the family whom we would be visiting and celebrating with, and after the initial greetings and exchanges the real welcoming began with the unearthing of 4 goats that had been buried deep underground to cook within a traditional oven.  The poor dogs also tried to greet us but they had been chained up after doing their best to get at this brewing delicacy for the past 2 evenings…torture of the worst kind I imagine!  Every member of the family, which included myself as an honorary member, took a turn at unearthing this gift.  The carefully created and layered underground oven revealed the skewered goats that had been dressed with leaves of fragrant trees including avocado and cactus, and underneath their cooking meet were 4 large stewing pots filled with homeny (a variety of dried corn) chiles and spices, and they overflowed with the juices caught from the cooking goats.  These goats came from the families herd, and represented much more than the effort of providing a meal, we were eating the love and labour of this family and of this arid spectacular land.  It is no lie that you can taste love, and between the unbelievable meal that we shared at 10am and the obscene amount of aguardiente (homemade moonshine) that I was invited to drink – by noon I was really feeling the love.

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In front of the truck you can see what you can’t smell…the top layer of the underground oven.
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The family’s goat herd minus 4.
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I’m sure I wasn’t any help, but I’m always happy to provide the free entertainment!
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Unearthing the precious goods.

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The falling off the bone goat meat is removed.
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The 4 precious pots that caught all the juices.
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Melt in your mouth goat meat
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One of the four soups that came from the ground, each one distinct but always dressed with onion, cilantro, and lime.

We left by foot under the land-breaking heat of the early afternoon to visit the family who would be hosting the quinceañera the following day.  By extension this visit also included a visit with every single neighbour within a 10 mile radius since they were all there, pitching in with the preparations.  In the backyard under the welcome shade of a few trees there stood a table with a mountain of dead chickens and a group of young men, young women, and the women of the community all working to prepare the food for the celebration.  On this community train of labour, the chickens were plucked and pieced, but more than that that was happening.  I noticed right away after my conspicuous entrance (as you can imagine it would be) that the magic where kitchen, learning, community intersect, was alive.  These young men and women were the friends and comrades of the woman for whom this celebration was in honour (she was also plucking chicken feathers with us incase your wondering), and the women were their aunties, mothers, grandmothers.  The conversation that I eavesdropped into soon returned to discussing the coming of age transition that they were experiencing.  It wasn’t a condescending lecture of, “you should learn to do this because your this age”,  or “kids these days have no respect”, but rather it was characterized by laughter, sharing, memories, history, and wonder at the differences and similarities between the generations.  It included tales of the heartbreaking realities and impacts of migration and oppression, dreams for the future, joking and poking.  It was beautiful.

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The mountain of chicken and some of the folks working on it
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Meanwhile indoors, corn masa was being ground for the mountain of tortillas that would be prepared

When we left that afternoon I knew 3 things.  The meal that we would eat the following day would be perhaps one of the best of my life (and it was); that all the learning that I needed to do in the world was rooted in community – if I didn’t see how I could learn what I needed in a community I just needed to look for the right community; and finally,  that I needed to start thinking about how I was going to pay forward (in concrete terms) all the time and love and inclusion that had been extended to me. 

Early early early the next morning I awoke in the living room, still within the military like designated sleeping spot I had been appointed, somewhere within the 2 rows of 20 people that occupied our hosts living room (forever putting to shame for me the idea that there isn’t enough room to house people if you don’t have a bed for everyone).  We woke and started the long preparations that finally had us arrive at the community church at 9am for the kickoff to the celebrations.  From there we formed a walking parade that arrived at the young woman’s home where we were greeted by a 2 story sound system under the tent that now hosted a minimum of 50 picnic tables.  How it all got there and where it came from is a question that I never did sort out. 

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The young woman at the centre of it all
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The parade of guests on our way to get down!
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The tent
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Pollo coloradita…impossible flavour

And so, with the party officially starting at the ripe hour of 10am the drinks and food began to flow.  My only mistaken preconception of the day (my expectation was for the best meal of my life and an off the hook party) was that the day included 2 of the best meals of my life and far more interesting conversation and laughter than is possible for one to hope for.  That day I met a dizzying number of folks with whom I engaged in conversations that covered topics as diverse as women’s rights; foraging and agricultural practices; the impact of global climate change on the living habits and survival of the community; how special needs are worked with and incorporated into daily community life; the challenges presented by tradition and machismo (by the way I had that conversation with both men and women); the pain of addiction; the struggle for better lives, for technology, for preserving tradition and the discomfort and work to change tradition.  And at the heart of all these conversations and learning (for me) was food…I engaged a lot in talking about what I don’t yet know how to live, which at its foundation was the practice of living and creating community and learning through food, designing the way a community lives based on shared values, and the intentional work to decolonize through deciding how the community is fed.  I learned from experts that deserve to be honoured as experts.

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Grateful

CASA OLINKA: AN OSIS IN PUEBLA CITY

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Casa Olinka features plants in every possible combination of repurposed materials that you could imagine.

 

This is one of those projects that is just plain old inspiring and fun!  Located close to the local autonomous university of Puebla, Casa Olinka is a house converted to oasis, and is carving out a space for learning and community building.  Casa Olinka is filled with teeming gardens and projects in process, and is born from creativity and a commitment to living low to the ground, even in a big city.  By cultivating a space that prioritizes the use of repurposed materials (for example the vertical gardens are built from repurposed wooden skids), utilizes water catchment systems, and has a focus on cultivating culinary plants, they hope to lead by example and create a space for their community to meet, learn together, and implement changes that work towards protecting the environment.  The space offers workshops that share the skills being learned and put to use in this project; it features a Vegetarian kitchen that of course incorporates the gifts of their gardens as well as local and seasonal produce (and when in Mexico this happens to be varied yet always bountiful); and a gallery that hosts photographs from one of the proprietors as well as art from visiting artists – and has hopes to further build events and opportunities. And who is behind this project?  None other than the powerful mom and son duo of Alfredo (Alfo) and Señora Luz María Juarez.

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Vertical herb gardens made from a repurposed skid.
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With a focus on edible plants there are some real gems in this garden.

I was very fortunate to be invited to visit the project and to attend a great variety of workshops ans events during my stay in Puebla.  Visiting a project like this is the inspirational juice that makes life….well… hopeful, fun, and rich.

For more information or to connect with them yourself visit their Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/casa.olinka?fref=ts

One of my visits included a spectacular and simple meal, featuring stuffed portabello mushrooms, rice, and a salad that was dressed in a perfect melody of  tangy and fresh, bringing balance and light to the whole experience.  The real secret to what brought the meal to the next level though was the amazing people I shared it with and the hot sauce.  I’ve decided that these two ingredients are the secret to why everything tastes better in Mexico.

STUFFED PORTABELLO MUSHROOMS

First, start with making Salsa Mexican.

  • 6   roma tomatoes toasted/charred
  • 4  garlic cloves toasted/charred
  • 1  onion toasted/charred
  • 1/2 bunches cilantro
  • 25 ml lime juice

Process

  1. Charr the tomatoes, garlic, onion
  2. Use a blender to liquify all the ingredients.  Your goal is to leave texture and not turn it into soup. Add a little honey if it needs a little sweet.

Next, assemble the stuffed mushrooms….

  1. Clean and remove the stem from the mushrooms.  Grill them slightly.
  2. Fill them with the salsa.  Cook for 15 minutes in an oven at 350 F until the mushrooms are fully cooked
  3. Top with Oaxacan cheese or mozzarella if you can’t locate the good stuff (or really any cheese of your liking) and return to oven until it is melted. Turn on your broiler if you want to melt it quick and perhaps even brown it a little.

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THE HOTTEST MOST AMAZING SALSA DE CHILE ARBOL 

Chile arbol is really hot and has the possibility of really deep flavour.

  • 1 cup of peanuts no salt and untoasted.
  • 1 cup of chile arbol with the stems removed.
  • 3/4 cup olive oil (or more if you like)
  • salt to taste

Process

  1. Put peanuts in a dry frying pan and toast. 
  2. Wrap chiles in tinfoil and toast on a flat top, bbq, or in a cast iron fry pan (make sure heat is low to control the rate of toasting.  Turn once to toast both sides.  They are done when they are browning NOT black, and when you open the tinfoil and the fumes make you chock with their fiery heat. 
  3. Grind together in a molcajete or in a food processor if you don’t have/can’t work the molcajete….but with salsa’s it is traditionally known, and true that a salsa from the molcajete tastes better, always.
  4. Once ground in a chunky textured paste, stir in the olive oil and salt to taste (about a teaspoon)

 

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The meal!
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Spiral herb gardens are just one of the wonders that you can expect to greet you at Casa Olinka.

 

MAKING FRIENDS AT THE MARKET

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In making my plan to spend time n Mexico learning technique, flavour, tradition, and the intersection of community, learning, and justice in the kitchen, I hoped that I would spend time meeting Señoras in the marketplace with the intention to learn from them.  In all reality I just spent a lot of time in markets, and did my best to make friends.  My time with these women who were experts in all areas of my interest, were the moments that brought some of my richest learning and hilarity.

At the outer edges of a small local market in Puebla, I met Señora Edith.  A beautiful woman that rounded in at about 4 feet tall, wore a toothless grin that always managed to come off as mischievous, and with whom I often sat down beside and waited while she enjoyed one of her many daily naps. She indulged me in entire afternoons sharing her life history and secrets of the kitchen. Señora Edith, at her small market stand filled with overripe fruit and vegetables, offered me a lifetimes worth of advice – some of which pertained to the kitchen.  She also sold the most amazing sweet and fiery hot accompaniment for – well anything that calls for such a dressing, but my favourite occasion is plain roasted meat, or using my altered version, spreading it on a cracker topped with cheese. The mild fresh cheeses of Mexico made the most beautiful and smooth combination for my palate. It is no joke that on Saturday afternoons Poblano folks traveled from near and far to this tiny market for her magic chile love.

SEÑORA EDITH’S SWEET FIERY LOVE

  • 15 dried chipotle or modita chiles.  They should have a smokey smell and be of the dark variety.
  • 2.5 – 3 cups olive oil (the oil should land a good inch above all the ingredients once inside the pot)
  • 2 heads of garlic, cloves peeled and rough ends chopped off.
  • 1 cup of brown sugar or more to taste.  Remember sweet and fiery is the point.

Process

  1. Remove the stems from the chiles (you can take the seeds out as well if you want to tone it down a notch).
  2. Put the olive oil in a smallish pot and add the chilies and the skin and ends removed garlic cloves.
  3. Turn on low and let warm for an hour (chiles and garlic should be good and soft.
  4. Add sugar until disolves
  5. Salt to taste
  6. Señor Edith sold it as is, but I like to blend and strain it through a fine sieve so that it has the consistency of jam.

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