Oaxaca Cooking: Flavors of the Grandmothers

Quesadillas with quesillo, huitlacoche, corn, chiles poblanos, salsa fresca

Written recipes for traditional Oaxaca cuisine are a recent phenomena.  As with most cultures that create art through food, the way of cooking is passed through the hearts, hands, and soul of women, generation to generation, a folk-tale. Everything is by hand and by memory, intuited.  Measurements are imprecise, to taste and to touch.  Add a dash of this, a handful of that, stir, taste again, “correct the seasoning.”   The the preparation of mole, salsas, tortillas, the growing of the food that ends up on the table, is not easy because everything is prepared fresh.  Yet, this is satisfying for those who cook because it is a blessing of the sisterhood and creativity.  And, for those who eat the food, it is a blessing of sustenance, flavors, aromas, and appreciation for what has gone before us.

Quesadillas in the making on the comal

Oaxaca chef Pilar Cabrera Arroyo says that you need to have a passion for the food to create authentic cuisine.  The outcome of a meal depends on the cook’s state of mind, the “estado de animo.”  If things are not going well in life, that is reflected in the taste of what is prepared that day.  I can believe it!

Chef Pilar Cabrera Arroyo with cooking class student

Years ago, when I led a group of people on a culinary tour of southern France, starting in Lyon and fanning out through the Loire valley, we visited some of the great chefs of the time:  Paul Bocuse, Georges Blanc and Alain Chapel. Their auberges (country inns and dining rooms) were on the lands of their parentage.

These were the first generation of men who sat at their mothers’ and grandmother’s knees in the kitchen and popularized French cooking (to say nothing of Julia Child).  They learned the mother cuisine, translating it into 4-star and 5-star brilliance for the world to know and enjoy. Gourmet French cooking has its roots in Lyon in the kitchens of the grandmothers, just as Oaxaca cuisine has its roots in La Cocina de la Casa at the comal and in the fields.  Fresh ingredients, organically grown without pesticides, harvested by the men, prepared by the women.  This great tradition has been translated by Rick Bayless, Diana Kennedy and Susanna Trilling through their books and restaurants.

Pilar Cabrera learned at her grandmother’s knees and offers us the experience of authentic Oaxaca cocina de las mujeres through her cooking classes.  For that, I am grateful.

A Su Salud--To Your Health. A shot of mescal at the end of the cooking class and before we sit down to eat lunch.

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