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

Día de los Muertos: Food and Mutual Aid

Some of the wall murals in Zaachila.
Some of the wall murals in Zaachila.

Please understand that I am new to Mexico, and this post is really truly just a reflection, made from my inadequate understanding of a celebration with many layers of significance and ritual. I am including a post about it because I was struck by how deeply preparing food and eating communally is woven into the fabric of celebration within the many cultures here in Mexico.  

Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is a celebration and communion with ones ancestors and loved ones that have left this world.  It seems designed to bring colour and light to the shadows of soul as well as buildings homes and graveyards, in the most artistic and dramatic manner.  Oh, and did I mention that food is at the centre of all this too?!  The smell of sweet breads and mole was everywhere.  Alters constructed both publicly and privately to honour the dead, are adorned with oranges, beer, mezcal, bread encrusted with candy skulls, tamales, and chocolate…oh the chocolate…and flowers.  Mountains of flowers.  There is a soft mix of smells everywhere. This is both a very private celebration within churches, homes, and kitchens, but it is also very public and shared within streets and cemeteries.

A blockade expressing anger for the 43 disappeared students.
A blockade expressing anger for the 43 disappeared students.

Characteristically a joyful acceptance of the cycles of life, this years celebration also included expressions of palpable rage that threw light onto the shadow of the 43 students that disappeared at the hands of state forces in September.   These students were remembered very publicly.  Not declared dead and therefore not to be mourned in the way of the dead, but the pain of their loss brought clearly into the actions of everyone and everything passing.

On the eve of the Day of the Dead I arrived in Oaxaca City, which is renowned for many things including its celebration of this festival. I tagged along with a group of university students, one of whom had invited us to experience and engage in this beautiful celebration on the land of his childhood home.  Now vacant, this house became our communal space of rest, conversation, laughter, and of course cooking. I was honoured to be invited into the public and private spaces of this celebration by people proud to share their culture. 

Wall murals in Zaachila.
Wall murals in Zaachila.

On the Day of the Dead our group travelled to a neighbouring village, Zaachila, known for its veneration of their ancestors through celebration and art.  Annually, the walls of the town are converted into murals…folding into one another, there is no space that isn’t included in the elaborate and magnificent shades of death and mourning depicted on the walls.  There was also a children’s art show, live music, a carnival, a parade, and of course food everywhere.  As we meandered through the streets we stopped at one of the many stations that were serving hot chocolate, tamales and sweet bread.  These stations clearly powered by the community itself, a mix of women and families, young children running to a fro in total jubilation to be of service.  And it is all free.

Eating together at one of the many free food stations.  Everyone eating keeps the dead happy!
Eating together at one of the many free food stations. Everyone eating keeps the dead happy!

One can only imagine the time and energy that goes into preparing the food for such large scale festivals, and as I was to come to understand soon, it is only because of the highly practiced skills of mutual aid amongst community members that any of it is possible.

Lessons on Sazón At The Road Side Kitchen

Isla Mujeres at its most southern point.  So pretty.
Isla Mujeres at its most southern point. So pretty.

I have noticed that the best way to wiggle my way into Mexican kitchens, is to wear my hunger for knowledge on my sleeve.  That is how I met Abuelita (Grandma) on Isla Mujeres, where she runs a small roadside kitchen.  She had one main dish everyday, and then the usual selection of tamales, tacos, and quesadillas.  This woman was truly inspirational in her simplicity, flavour, and refusal to cater to the list of desires that the extrañeros (tourists) carried.  She never lacked respect but her exasperation and clear boundaries were often evident. Her two most notable dishes included an adobo of guajillo and ancho chile in which the chicken pieces were cooked.  More on this simple and extraordinary dish to come.  The other was a simple whole fish fry, covered in oil, filled with a tomato based sauce -influenced by the tradition of the Veracruz sauce, wrapped in tinfoil and cooked over the comal.

A señora at her comal.
A señora at her comal. A comal is a traditional cooking surface. It is metal and covered with lime (to prevent sticking, and heated by fire underneath.

Unfortunately, this experience happened before I felt comfortable enough to pull out the camera.  But I have a million pictures in my head of this joyful, firm, half-toothed woman, which are given colour and texture by the memories of our long and slow – in the heat of the day conversations.  Over a tall glass of cool jamaica water,  she explained cooking processes, chile combinations, and the definition and sensation of cooking with sazón.  Sazón is something that folks refer to and talk about in the tones of remembering the kitchen of ones grandma or mama.  Sazón is not something that you learn, you feel it, it is revealed in you.  It feels you, speaks through you.  It is the art, and bears the signature of its creator.  It is what there is no recipe book for.  It is love, and you can taste it.

My conversations with this Abuelita taught me a lot about how to enter respectfully into a conversation with an elder willing to teach you.  Through our conversations about technique and ingredients she wove the tapestry of community, culture, and history.  Her pain for the suffering land evident as she spoke to the multitude of animals and plants that have been lost to the kitchen with the destruction of their habitats. “They can no longer be honoured by becoming food”, she said.  She even offered me an invitation to spend time with her in her kitchen…but due to an unfortunate run in with a ceiling fan I was unable to follow through, but that as they say is another story. 

Getting my feet on the ground…and how to make rice (really)

Please check out the tab at the top labelled “ …The Whole Idea Of This Project” for background information and a general sense of what this blog is all about.
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I arrived in Isla Mujeres, a magical island deeply nestled inside of the cuisine of the Yucatan, but also influenced by the food traditions of Cuba, literally a stones throw away. There, I settled into 2 weeks of reorientation in the most relaxing manner and began to think through this thing I was calling my “learning project”.  I put energy into envisioning how exactly I was going to proceed, and it’s not extraordinary – everything is based on relationship.  So that is where I started.  I was introduced to Huitzi, a resident of Isla Mujeres, through a friend who described her as a healer and amazing cook. Huitzi is one of those superwomen who despite raising 2 children and caregiving several community and family members, teaching, and working – still laughs all the time and glows with love.  She is powerful and beautiful…and yes can she cook.  Huitzi was very happy to share the work of the day by inviting me into her kitchen, or at least change the focus of it.  While Huizi juggled my presence she also gave math lessons and danced around the newest members of the family…a tiny kitten and a rescued turtle.

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Huitzi: superwoman, healer, and cook extraordinaire

Over several days she included me in the creation of some of her standards that featured her own mix of Cuban-Yucatan flavours and local ingredients. Following are my notes from the meal that really rocked my socks in terms of simplicity and pure nutrition. 

Zucchini Squash

In Mexico there are several types of squash that are used in different regions, but zucchini is common everywhere, and is often referred to as “calabacitas”, which look like small round zucchini’s (super cute too).  I imagine that this dish could easily be turned vegan by using cauliflower or nut based cream sauce…but seriously if you can eat the fresh unaltered cream like the cream available at the markets here in Mexico you wouldn’t want to substitute it out.  It would also work well as a main vegan dish with roasted cashews, and served with the rice or another grain.

  • non flavoured oil or butter
  • 1/2 white onion julienned
  • 2 cloves of garlic minced
  • 2 baseball sized zucchini or one large straight one cut into cubes
  • 1 cup of corn
  • 2 roma tomatoes cut into small cubes
  • 1/2 cup sour cream or fresh cream if you can find it
  • salt and pepper

Method:

On a medium high heat, start with the grease in the pan and heat the pepper, add and cook the onions till transparent, add the garlic and cook, stirring for a minute.  Add the zucchini and cook for a short minute.  Add the corn and tomatoes.  You want the zucchini to still be a little crunchy so don’t over cook it.  Add the cream or substitute at the end and heat through.  Salt at the end.

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The meal that knocked my socks off. The banana might seem weird, but the mix of sweetness with the meat was amazing!

Chicharos (dried split peas)

This is basically a stew that we started by making the stock with the pig meat, making sure that the bones and marrow were included – because if you haven’t learned anything about the kitchens of the community is that everything is used that produces nutrients and flavour.

  • 2 cups split peas or any legume of your choice
  • 1 onion in bite sized size
  • cumin
  • a couple of sticks of parsley chopped up
  • meat with bone on it

Method:

cook the split peas until fully cooked and falling apart, very liquidy.  Separately, brown the meat (on high heat and quick).  Next, cook the meat with the onion, parsley, cumin, and enough water to just cover the ingredients.  When the meat is close to being cooked, add the split peas.  Cook down till it is thick.  Season with salt.

Arroz Mexicana (Mexican style rice)

Really good rice I have discovered, is like baking.  You have to be very exact with measurements.  Mexican rice is absolutely amazing, and it has converted me from calling white rice candy, and looking down my nose at it…into a serious fanatic.  Rice is really seen here in Mexico as a dish all on its own, and is served as such.  After much trial and error after Huitizi’s lesson, I’ve learned the major key is to not add too much oil, and include the purred onion and garlic in your water measurement.  And always be hardcore with your measurement of rice and water.

  • 1/4 onion
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • 1 cup rice
  • 1 cup liquid (you can mix stock with water for extra yumm) and include the onion and garlic in this measurement

Method

Rinse the rice till clean and let dry.  Blend the onion and garlic.  Heat the oil and add the rice.  You want the rice to turn transparent like you would with onions (about 10 minutes). Then add the liquid.  Adding a few small cubes of carrots or peas is also common.  Bring to a boil, cover and then turn the flame as low as possible.  Cook for about 20 minutes and then let it rest at least 5 minutes before fluffing.