The Tlacolula Valley is filled with villages filled with treasures, people, archeology and, of course, mezcal. The last village at the valley terminus of the Carretera Nacional MEX 190 is San Pablo Villa de Mitla. It’s only about 20 minutes down the road from where I live in Teotitlan del Valle.
I go there a lot. Mostly to visit Arturo Hernandez and his weaving studio Bia Be Guug, a Zapotec word I don’t know the translation for. Last week, I went with my friend Carina. Recently, Arturo’s son Martin returned from full-time accounting work in Mexico City to join the workshop. He is innovating textiles using natural dyes with an ikat technique.
There is also a hidden-away antique dealer who I drop in on (well, not actually, I always call in advance to make sure he is home) to see what vintage pieces have come in from far-flung mountainous pueblos.
I’m in love with native Oaxaca corn. I’m especially in love with local, organic, non-GMO corn now that I’m on the low FODMAP diet and live gluten-free for my digestive health. I went to a birthday party this week for one of my Zapotec friends. I no longer eat birthday cake. What to do for dessert?
I asked my friend Ernestina to make me traditional Oaxaca nicuatole, a pre-Hispanic corn pudding flavored with cinnamon stick and a little sugar, all water, no milk. I brought the dish to share. It was delicious and none was left.
Ernestina uses gelatin to set the pudding so it can be cut into squares. She uses white corn. Local Zapotec woman can also use stone-ground yellow corn that they buy at the corner molino and don’t add gelatin.
They cook the corn and the liquid down to a thick paste, thick enough to set when chilled. Thick like the consistency of heavy Cream of Wheat cereal. So thick, that when you run a wooden spoon across the bottom of the pan, you see the stainless steel.
The way to serve it is to cut it into small squares and eat with a spoon. It can be served with fresh fruit, too.
I thought I’d give it a try and researched some recipes this morning. This would give me another option to my corn-based repertoire of Pan de Elote (corn bread) that has become a staple in my kitchen. The important thing for me, too, is no milk, no cream. In other words, lactose free.
All the recipes use cow milk, except for the one by Chef Pilar. So, I decided to adapt and make my own.
First, I buy the cornmeal at my neighborhood molino on Francisco I. Madero at the corner of Independencia in Teotitlan del Valle. They grind the finest meal in the village, I think! You can use commercial brands, but the preferred would be Bob’s Red Mill or other organic meal, such as Arrowhead Mills. I didn’t have stick cinnamon (the village tradition) in the house, so I used ground cinnamon. For the sugar, I use a combo of natural cane and Mascabado sugar — half-and-half.
Norma’s Nicuatole — Lactose and Gluten-Free Oaxaca Corn Pudding
2 cups of fine ground organic yellow or white corn meal
1/2 to 3/4 cup sugar or more to taste
1 tsp. vanilla
cinnamon, 5 small sticks or 1 tsp. ground
3 cups almond milk (you can also use oat milk or coconut milk)
2 cups water
2 Tbs. sugar for topping (can be mixed with cochineal for traditional red coloring)
Utensils Needed: A heavy 4 to 6 qt. stainless steel sauce pan and a heat diffuser to cook the pudding and a wooden spatula to scrape the corners of the pan while you are stirring, plus a wire whisk to disperse the corn particles into the liquid so there are no lumps.
Combine the milk, water and cornmeal in the saucepan. Whisk until particles are disbursed.
Put heat diffuser on top of burner and turn on to medium heat. Place saucepan on heat diffuser. Stir with whisk every 2-3 minutes for about 10 minutes until liquid starts to heat and thicken. It will be the consistency of soup stock.
With a flat-ended wooden spoon, stir mixture as it thickens.
Turn the heat on the burner down to low.
Continue to stir, making sure you scrape the corners where the sides meet the bottom, and across the bottom of the pan.
You will begin to feel the mixture thicken to the consistency of gravy.
After about 25-30 minutes, you will see air pockets in the mixture where the steam will escape. The mixture is now the consistency of thick Cream of Wheat.
Keep stirring until you can scrape the wood spoon/spatula across the bottom of the pan and you can actually see the stainless steel.
Now, it’s done. This takes about 40-42 minutes in total prep time.
Pour very thick mixture into an 8″x8″ glass baking pan. Drizzle with about 2 Tbs. of sugar. Refrigerate until chilled and set. Cut into squares. Yields 8-12 servings. Serve with fresh fruit such as strawberries, bananas, star fruit, guava. Muy rico!
Years ago, several lifetimes ago, I owned a gourmet cookware shop and cooking school, where I taught classes and brought international chefs and cooking teachers to demonstrate their craft. Now, I do this for fun!
In Oaxaca, I buy cooking and baking utensils at Liverpool department store. They have a well-equipped kitchen department where we can find just about everything we need/want for culinary creativity. Liverpool is all over Mexico, too. The All-Clad cookware I transported in my luggage, one piece at a time over several years. A good investment of time and weight!
This is a testimony to the artistry and skill of Mexican artisans.
This is the first time the textiles will be exhibited in Mexico City. If you are visiting or live nearby, please see the exhibition at the Museo Nacional de Culturas Populares in Coyoacan (near Casa Azul). The exhibition opens December 4, 2019, and is spectacular and memorable.
It’s Wednesday, November 27, a day before Thanksgiving — Dia de Accion de Gracias — is celebrated in the United States of America. How do we celebrate (if we do) living here in Oaxaca, Mexico — or anywhere else in Mexico for that matter? We get together with friends. Extranjeros united for Turkey Day. But here, it’s called a guajolote, the wild, indigenous turkey that has been domesticated for tenderness, usually topped with mole.
Where will friends be? At potlucks in each other’s homes. In restaurants eating the menu del dia (the daily special). At the sold-out, 60-person bash put on by the Oaxaca Lending Library at a restaurant in the El Rosario neighborhood of Oaxaca. While most of us here, now, don’t celebrate Thanksgiving with family, we find an opportunity to eat turkey and acknowledge the blessings of our lives.
Which brings me to my friends, Chris Clark and Ben Dyer, who moved to Ajijic on the shores of Lake Chapala last year from Hillsborough, North Carolina. They lived just a few miles from me over there. Today marks their one-year anniversary living full-time in Mexico. Chris writes a blog, Color in the Streets, about moving to and living in Mexico from a very person point-of-view.
Chris’ most recent blog post,Un Año en Mexico, touched me. It is heartwarming, honest and clear writing that marks the milestone that one year brings of living here. I’ve been here for almost 14 years, and I take a lot for granted. Fresh eyes always help explain why we are here!
So, in the spirit of getting ready for Giving Thanks, I hope you enjoy reading what Chris writes. Happy Thanksgiving! And, oh, let’s give thanks for each and every day. We wake up each morning, and life starts again, refreshed, another opportunity to be all that we hoped to become in the world. (Not about waiting for Black Friday!)
And, the indigenous, Native American experience HERE — National Day of Mourning. Thanksgiving is a celebration of the conquerors! Let’s remember that.
You might call it a coming out party or a debut to society if you lived in the United States of America thirty years ago. Some of my southern women friends participated in debutante balls just before women’s liberation took hold. For me, growing up in the wild west San Fernando Valley, Los Angeles, California, I went to Sweet Sixteen parties given for my more affluent friends — though I never had one myself.
Here in Teotitlan del Valle, the tradition of moving from girlhood to becoming a young woman is likely steeped village tradition as a rite of passage to marriage and motherhood. It was once celebrated quietly in homes with hot chocolate, bread or tortillas, a cup of mezcal, a parental blessing.
Fifteen years ago, there may have been a gathering of extended family members numbering fewer than 100 people who came together to recognize this coming of age. There was probably a mass at the church followed by a late afternoon dinner, followed by a traditional ritual village dance called the Jarabe del Valle.
Then the quinceañera would take to the dance floor to perform a selection to music of her choosing, creating the choreography, accompanied by a group of young men called chambelanes, dance escorts symbolically representing potential suitors.
Today’s quinceanera celebration is a grand affair, with hundreds of well-wishers participating. It’s almost like a wedding, complete with elaborate flower bouquets and gauze garlands adorning the church that are then moved to the home where the after-party will take place.
The quinceaños, as it is currently observed, is recent history here, practiced in grand style for only the past twenty or thirty years, according to a local friend. In recent years, it has become grander and costlier, costing as much as $25,000 USD.
It is not unheard of to start out with a breakfast of fresh-killed and cooked chicken topped with homemade mole castillo and comal cooked tortillas. Out behind the house, the women cook over wood-fired, make-shift stoves and outdoor kitchens.
In the meantime, the 15-year-old honoree is getting ready. She has already been to the beauty salon the day before for the hair and make-up make-over. She puts on her special dress, traditional gold earrings and necklace with a religious symbol. She is ready for the day.
After the church mass, celebrants return to home for the afternoon into evening festivities. The area is cleared to set-up tables and chairs for the multitude. There are two bands (each costing about 10,000 pesos, I’m told), a disc jockey, decorated cakes, a late afternoon lunch we call comida, plenty of mezcal toasts with beer chasers.
The afternoon meal is a special barbecue pork. The two pigs, raised from piglets in the back stable, were slaughtered the day before by a special maestro. Every part is used for the meat and broth.
Of course, in a Usos y Costumbres village like Teotitlan del Valle, this expense is not totally out-of-pocket. Many costs are covered by a host of affiliated supporters, like the Madrina and Padrino, usually a couple of high social and religious stature who provide financial, cultural and religious underpinnings. They will instruct the quinceañera in the values and traditions of the community.
Funding also comes in the form of the guelaguetza system where family and friends repay goods and services that have been given to them over the years, this includes labor, too. This a complex collaboration and accounting system keeps families connected, indebted to each other, and promotes strong community values.
Here, one can always count on a relative or friend to make blessings and offerings. They come with an armful of flowers, roses and lilies, a case of beer, a bottle of mezcal, a beautifully wrapped gift that might be a sweater, a dress, an apron or blouse, a pair of earrings, a purse. They come to the altar room where they are greeted formally by the host family and the quinceañera, giving and receiving thanks.
Guelaguetza, after all, really means giving and receiving, sharing, thanks and blessings, honor and tradition.
In the past, this was a fiesta to recognize that a young woman was ready to become a wife and mother, to become attached to another, to take on the role of helpmate in the household of her husband. These are vestiges. Today, it is party-time.
I asked two young women, now in their thirties, if they had quinceañeras. Yes, they answered. One said her parents gave her the choice of a party or a trip. She chose the party. She still loves to party! The other remembers her dance to the song of her favorite recording artist of the time.
The quince is dream time. The time to imagine, giving up the dolls and baby toys and think about how life will unfold. It is a time to celebrate family, culture, youth, energy. I recall how the DJ master of ceremonies called Lupita la muñeca, la princesa, la reina, la mariposa — the doll, the princess, the queen, the butterfly — as she danced and twirled, transformed. For one day she was all of that and hopefully, this will build upon her self-confidence to become her dreams.
Days after, after the tarp came down, the chairs and tables taken away, the millions of dishes washed, the house almost back to normal, I made a visit to Lupita, her mother and grandmother. Do you want to see my gifts? she asked, still glowing.
Yes, I said, as I took a seat in the altar room next to the family. Everyone was filled with pride. I saw how meaningful this event was for Lupita and her family. The rite of passage was complete.
My own mother was an aspiring feminist who never manifested her own profession but who supported her daughters in our quest for individuation and identity. Education was critical to our family to advance and reach beyond the struggle of immigrant grandparents. Our family spent money cautiously. Grand celebrations and rituals were not part of that experience.
It is important for any of us here in Mexico to understand, accept and appreciate lifestyle and traditions that are different than our own. Teotitlan del Valle is a village of connection and community, where the constant flow of fiesta is a way of life. I see it as a way of celebrating life, and it is a privilege for me to be living here.
Why We Left, Expat Anthology: Norma’s Personal Essay
Norma contributes personal essay, How Oaxaca Became Home
Norma Contributes Two Chapters!
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