I’m leaving for the USA on July 10 and as is my custom before I go back, I loop through my collection and offer a few pieces for sale. I’m now a size small-petite and these beautiful clothes are large-extra large. They are never worn or gently worn, perhaps a couple of times.
How to Buy: I have numbered each garment with price. Please send me an email firstname.lastname@example.org and tell me which piece you want by number. Include your mailing address. I will send you an invoice and then bring the piece with me to mail to you after July 11. Mailing cost of $8 USD per package will be added. For Canada shipments, add $30 USD.
My friend Debbie has been here for a week with her granddaughter in a Spanish immersion class. She’s a medical doctor. I discovered (in addition to curing me of my intestinal ailments) she knows all the Latin botanical names for mushrooms, since she likes to hunt them in the forests near her North Carolina home. So, I decided we needed a trip to the wild mushroom village of San Antonio Cuajimoloyas, up the mountain from Teotitlan del Valle in the Sierra Juarez.
I’m going to miss the Wild Mushroom Festival there this year, but wanted to cook and eat hongos silvestres before I leave Oaxaca for a while on July 10. Debbie, who has been eating out all week and is a great cook, jumped at my offer to take us to the mushroom village and offered to prepare any mushrooms we found for dinner. Granddaughter likes pizza and pasta. Dinner would be spaghetti topped with sauteed mushrooms and garnished with hard cheese. Hold the mushrooms for the pre-teen.
(Note: Hongos are different than champiñones, the common button mushroom that we find in all our USA supermarkets. Hongos are truly wild, uncultivated, and you have to know what you are doing to pick and eat them.)
It’s about a 40-minute drive up the mountain from Tlacolula to an altitude of 3,200 meters. That’s 10,400 feet, about 4,000+ feet higher than the Tlacolula Valley. We drive through Teotitlan del Valle and San Miguel del Valle community lands. At a mirador, we stop to see Teotitlan del Valle just below us.
When we arrive about 10:45 a.m. it’s chilly. Er, actually, it’s COLD. I was in three layers of lightweight cotton and could have used a warm wool sweater and a hat. Mittens might have been in order. A breeze made it even chillier.
I decided to stop at the ecotourism center. We joked about doing a Zip Line and then bailed on the idea, opting for a walk through the forest instead. Rather than doing it on our own, we arranged guide services, which cost 200 pesos for two- to three- hours and definitely worth it. It supports the town’s ecotourism and the people who are committed to preserving the natural environment.
Meet Manuel, who’s mom owns a tiny convenience store and comedor at the entrance to town. He was our leader, equipped with a walkie-talkie and knowledge of local vegetation. Manuel took us into areas I had never been before, up and over barbed wire fencing, through wildflower meadows and fields of grazing goats.
As we walked, we warmed up. Now, closer to noon, the clouds had moved away and while it was still chilly, it was comfortable since the first hour of the walk was horizontal or downhill. I noted that what goes down must come up. And the last 45-minutes to hike out of the community-owned forest was a struggle for me at this altitude, even though I’m now a seasoned walker!
I pulled the soy grande card and asked Manuel if he would rescue us from the remaining 30- minute grand finale stretch laid out before us at a 90-degree incline. I handed him my car keys. By then, we were on the road between Cuajimoloyas and Llano Grande. I had to stop every five minutes to catch my breath. I’m reconsidering going to Peru!
However, the walk is glorious and the upcoming Feria de Hongos promises to be even more than it was when I attended last year.
We finished the day eating a comida of tasajo and quesadillas at the comedor, completely satisfied with the adventure, and left town with a big bag of wild mushrooms, and locally grown organic potatoes, apples and peaches.
What is a Shrub? you may ask. It is a drinking vinegar, usually a fruit concentrate that is added to sparkling water, tablespoon by tablespoon depending on your strength preference, to give it a zesty flavor. Since it’s non-alcoholic and slightly fermented, it is a perfect drink over ice for those who don’t want an alcoholic beverage.
It’s also good to add to sparkling white wine or for in the mixed drink fixin’s.
I came across a ginger shrub at a health food grocery in downtown Oaxaca. It was 50 pesos for about 2 ounces. That’s about $2.65 USD. Give it a try, I thought. And, wow, was it delicious added to club soda. I’m going to make some.
So, I researched recipes online. There was none for mango and none for mango combined with ginger. I had two very large and very ripe mangoes in the refrigerator. I’ll use them for this experiment.
Mangoes are plentiful here this time of year. They grow on the coast of Oaxaca and most of them are the size of a large man’s fist. They cost about 5 pesos each.
My Mango-Ginger Shrub Recipe:
Peel and dice the mango, separating fruit from pit. Put in a medium size mixing bowl. Total should yield 2 cups of fruit. Mash fruit until you get a pulp.
Dice 5 cubes of candied ginger. Add to mixing bowl. I buy the candied ginger here in Oaxaca at the health food store.
Add 1-1/2 C. apple cider vinegar and 1/2 C. balsamic vinegar to the bowl.
Add 2 C. Mexican cane sugar to the bowl.
Stir well. Cover bowl with clean dish cloth. Set a plate on top and put aside so as not to disturb. Let sit for 48 hours, stirring once every 24 hours.
Drain liquid from pulp. Pour liquid into glass jar or clean container and refrigerate. Will keep up to 3 weeks. To use, put 1-2 T. into a drinking glass. Add ice cube and seltzer water. Stir and drink.
Because this drink is slightly fermented and has a vinegar sweet sour flavor, I suspect it is also an excellent pro-biotic and belly soother.
Yield: About 8 fluid ounces.
All the recipes I read recommended that you discard the fruit after extracting the liquid. I say NO. Use it to top crackers with cheese and avocado. Delicious. Muy rico!
Birthdays in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, are celebrated BIG TIME starting at the youngest, most tenderest age. They become grand celebrations when the honoree hits a milestone, like age 50 or 60 or 70. Depending on the number of extended family and economic wherewithal, a birthday party can include 200 or 300 invitees, mostly relatives, and go on for hours, even days.
Fortunately for me, I literally ran into Juana Gutierrez Contreras and her husband Antonio Lazo Hernandez at the village market the day before the celebration. A minute later and I would have missed them! Juana gave me a big hug. They said they were trying to reach me but didn’t have my phone number, and invited me to the party with warmth and sincerity.
First, let me say I’m in awe of her talent and that of Antonio. I’ve known them for years and they are included on my Self-Guided Tour Map of Teotitlan del Valle. She is a master dyer using only native plants and cochineal. He is among the most talented weavers who live here. So, this was a very special invitation for me.
This was Juana’s 50th birthday and it was an important celebration, not only to honor her age but her achievements.
There is an etiquette to village birthdays. We arrive with a bottle of mezcal and/or a big handmade basket of fruit and/or a huge bouquet of flowers and/or a box of 24 Coronitas and/or a beautifully wrapped gift and/or lots of bread, candles, homemade chocolate for making mole or hot chocolate. Take your choice: Any or all of the above.
First, we arrive around 3 p.m., step into the Altar Room* to greet the honoree and present the gifts. This is ceremonial. The gifts are accepted, kissed, and placed on the altar, symbols of blessings and abundance. We embrace, kiss, shake hands, stand for photos. There are others in line behind us, ready to give tribute.
We take our place at one of about 30 tables that seats 10 people. The waiters serve beer and mezcal, piña coladas with chamoya candy stirrers, fresh fruit waters. There are snacks. The village mariachi band, an extraordinary group, serenades Juana, Antonio and their parents who sit at the head table. Respecting family is an essential cultural tradition here.
A battalion of women are working in the area that is usually Juana’s dye kitchen. Today, it is a food kitchen. They are preparing the meal, tending the hot cauldrons fueled with wood. We are served barbacoa, in this case a beef stew with spicy red chile broth, along with fresh tortillas, tlayudas, and platters of grated cabbage, cilantro, chopped onion and cut limes to add to the soup.
In the late afternoon, not much before dusk, the mariachi band packs up and another village band, famous for playing the jarabe, arrives in full fanfare. The tables are cleared. The chairs reset in a big oval and a dance space materializes. It will be hours before the cake gets cut.
Back in the kitchen, women kneel over huge aluminum vats of chipil and masa paste, stuffing them into corn husks for tortillas. These will be served around midnight.
The family is waiting for Juana’s brother Porfirio Gutierrez to arrive from California. Expected later that evening, he has been key to bringing international attention to their work. In July, Juana will make her first visit to the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market, where they have been participated for the last three years. Keith Reckers, IFAM’s creative director, has featured her photo on the cover of his new book, True Colors.
This recognition is important because it draws attention to the few Teotitlan del Valle weavers who work with, rescue and are dedicated to creating natural dye textiles. There are only about a dozen of them among the hundreds of village artisans. Raising the quality bar and talking about it is essential to survival of this ancient craft. Plus the results are beautiful!
This type of celebration is more usual than not. Behind the high walls and formidable patio gates there exists a world of community, continuity, cooperation and amazing celebrations. I was so happy to be included in this one.
Feliz Cumpleaños, Juana Gutierrez Contreras. May you thrive for another 50 years! Felicidades.
*The Altar Room is the most important place in every village home, however humble or grand. It is the hub of family, religious and cultural life — even more important than the church. It is the locus of celebration for funerals, weddings, birthdays, baptisms, engagements, confirmations, Day of the Dead and Navidad. Everything important happens here.
Those of us who live here are witness to the growing worldwide interest in Oaxaca food. Food festivals are everywhere any time of year. Take your pick from mole to salsa to tacos and tamales, and of course chocolate. We have fusion, small plates, tapas and schnitzel. We even have food trucks — something I was used to seeing more of in Durham, North Carolina, than Oaxaca, Mexico.
Innovation is everywhere and we want to try everything. Well, maybe just a taste of salsa de chicatana (or not) and a sprinkle of chapulines on top of a hot, Oaxaca cheesy molote.
If you come to Oaxaca for the annual July Guelaguetza you can go off to explore the Sierra Norte and the Feria del Hongos to be held July 19-20 in Cuajimoloyas. Its an easy day trip from the city if you start early enough. Here you can sample all the wild mushrooms that the rainy season gives forth. They are stuffed into empanadas. Sautéd for enchiladas. Steamed for soup. Ready to take home in their natural state to prepare any way you like them, perhaps tossed into a delicious pasta prepared with butter and garlic. Recently on an upscale restaurant menu, I saw carpaccio de hongos — a deviation from thinly sliced beef or prosciutto, served with squash and a blossom.
Let’s get to the guts of it: Gastronomy and gastroenterology.
There is an underbelly to all this. Delicious food that doesn’t quite settle in the digestive system. This is not isolated to visitors. It happens to long-time residents, too. It happens to locals — people born and raised here! But no one talks about it. We suffer. We run to the bathroom. Our gut gurgles. We emit noxious odors or sounds we try to hide with a cough timed just right. We endure.
We keep eating because being here is all about the food. It’s a subject for discourse, comparison, and enjoyment. Yet, the symptoms of digestive malfunction persist. We may resist taking azythromyacin and opt for acupuncture or aguamiel or a tincture. Anyone have an antacid?
Maybe after a while, in between the pollo con mole negro and the sopa de garbanzo and spicy chileajo con puerco, we can endure no more and seek the advice of a gastroenterologist who sends us to a lab with container in hand. You might not like the results. You may be asked to eliminate all dairy, all beans (gad, how can you live in Oaxaca and not eat beans, for god sake?), all mole, and anything fried. You need to rebalance your microbiota aka your gut bacteria, you are told.
Then, after months of this regimen, life doesn’t change.
Meanwhile, back in the USA, the infectious disease clinic needs a three- to six-month lead time to schedule an appointment. They have little or no interest in responding to the urgency of a Mexican-inspired intestine.
So, you go to another Oaxaca gastroenterologist who says take this pill for two weeks, eat whatever you want and read The Schopenhauer Cure. Your sister, who has experience with digestion, says Drink aguamiel morning and night for two weeks. You do both. There is major improvement. To what do you attribute this? Modern medicine or pre-Hispanic Zapotec folk cure?
Zayzelle: Dress Simply is our new clothing line, one dress, one-of-a-kind, one size fits many, imaginative cloth. Plus, jewelry and an easy-to-wear pullover scarf. Keep checking back for What’s New.
Norma Writes for Selvedge Latin Issue
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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