Tag Archives: education

Locavores in Oaxaca: Eat Local and Who Makes Our Food

People in the Oaxaca valley have eaten locally grown corn, beans, squash, tomatoes, poultry and fruit for centuries, long before the term locavore came into existence. The farm-to-table movement in the United States is one example of eating fresh food produced within 100 miles.

Weighing beans, Teotitlan del Valle Market

Weighing beans, Teotitlan del Valle Market

During the years I lived on an organic farm in Pittsboro, North Carolina, and shopped at farmer’s markets (a habit I formed early in my adulthood), we learned to eat around the seasons. I read somewhere that this is one of the healthiest things we can do for our bodies.

One by-product of the CNTE Section 22 Teacher’s Union strike in Oaxaca is the intended or unintended consequences of returning to locally grown food. The blockades are preventing the big box, semi-trailers filled with imported goods from entering Oaxaca to deliver their loads to Walmart, Soriana and other giant retailers like Coca-Cola.

Magdalena with corn husks to prepare tamales

Magdalena with corn husks to prepare tamales

I’m reminded of the signs in Pittsboro, NC when I visit: Shop Local.  I’m sure you see this where you live, too.

In conversations around town, I’m hearing a mixed bag of blessings and complaints. Everyone loves Walmart, yes?, because of low prices. Others say local Oaxaca city markets like Benito Juarez, Abastos, Sanchez Pascuas, Merced stock everything they need and it’s important to support local merchants so they stay in business.

Organic corn, dried on the cob, ready for planting

Organic corn, dried on the cob, ready for planting

Yet others are inconvenienced because they can’t get a particular variety of yam, brand of toilet paper, or giant coca-cola bottles for less.

There has been a strong movement here against genetically modified corn promoted by Monsanto. I have wondered whether the blockades of the big retail semi-trailers aren’t just an extension of that.

Quesadillas with fresh corn tortillas hot off the comal

Quesadillas with fresh corn tortillas hot off the comal

I hear that by privatizing education, doors will open to international conglomerates to sell, at a profit, sugary drinks and snacks to school children, whose families are already at risk for diabetes and diet-influenced diseases.

Here in Teotitlan del Valle, I do all my food shopping locally at the daily market. Then, fill in what I need at the Sunday Tlacolula market. Yes, they sell toilet paper and paper towels there, along with all the cleaning supplies one needs.

I wonder if this blockade isn’t a good thing to help us raise our awareness for how much and what we need in comparison to who provides it for us. What we eat is important. We have asked the question: Who makes our clothes?

Now, it’s time to ask again here in Oaxaca: Who makes our food?

Yesterday, the fields next to me were plowed and planted with corn. Native indigenous corn, not genetically modified. I know that’s good.

Plowing the milpas to plant corn, squash, beans

Plowing the milpas to plant corn, squash, beans

Oaxaca, Mexico: Source for Natural Dye Textiles

It’s an ongoing discovery. Finding the weavers who work with natural dyes. They live and work in humble homes or grander casas, on back alleys, dirt streets, cobbled avenues, main highways, hillsides and flat-lands. Their studios are filled with the aroma and sights of natural materials — stinky indigo dye vats, wood burning fires, prickly pear nopal cactus studded with insects that yield intense red.

All photos © Norma Schafer, Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC

JuanaGutierrez TreeMoss

In this photo, above left, dyer/weaver Juana prepares ground cochineal on the traditional metate, grinding the dried insect by hand until it is a fine powder, ready to make a dye bath for wool that will be used for rugs. Above right, tree moss waits for the dye pot.

That’s why I’ve organized one-day natural dye textile study tours to explore this artisanal process.

ArturoRebozo2 CochinealIndigoYarn

Above left, ikat rebozo with natural dyes of wild marigold, cochineal and indigo from San Pablo Villa de Mitla. Right, wool on the loom.

Cleaning a rug woven with naturally dyed wool

Cleaning a rug woven with naturally dyed wool

You know how committed I am to the artisans who work with natural dyes. It is a laborious and vertical process — winding the yarn, preparing the dye baths, dyeing the yarn, then weaving it. To create textiles using natural dyes takes time and is a many-step process. I believe the people who work this way deserve special attention and support.

Nopal Cactus and Indigo, copyright 2016 Norma Schafer, Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC

Nopal Cactus and Indigo, copyright 2016 Norma Schafer, Oaxaca Cultural Navigator

They start with the natural wool that comes from the mountains surrounding the Oaxaca valley. The best wool is hand-spun for strength and has no additives, like nylon or polyester, to lower cost.

IMG_6963 IndigoDyePot

Then, indigo and cochineal is bought from local Oaxaca sources. Both are expensive, now about 1,800 MXN pesos per kilo. Synthetic dyes are a fraction of this cost and only requires one-step to produce colored yarn.

DryPomegranates FedericoNuez

Other dye sources are wild marigold, pecan leaves and shells, pomegranate fruit, tree moss, eucalyptus bark, black zapote fruit and much more.  The wool needs to be washed of lanolin and mordanted to absorb and fix the natural dye so it will not fade. To get a full range of color, local weavers and dyers use over dyes, too.

IndigoPericoneOverdye Yellow2Green

When the yarns are colored they are then ready to weave. Depending on size and material density, a piece can take from one week to several months.

CochinealHands2 ArturoRebozo1

It takes a special person who understands quality of materials and finished product to work this way. The process is organic, sustainable and environmentally sound.

CochinealHand SteamyDyePot

Agave Beverage of Choice? Aguamiel, Pulque and Mezcal

Here we are in Oaxaca, Mexico, center of the universe for the cultivation, production, distilling and bottling of agave nectar we call mezcal.  Mezcal is hot. A hot commodity, that is.

I stand corrected! Agave is not a cactus. It is a succulent. Thanks to reader Andrew for bringing this to my attention. I’ve changed the post title.

A local friend told me his uncle sold his espadin agave field for 40,000 pesos when it reached maturity after seven years. It takes a long time to make $2,200 USD equivalent here, even at today’s exchange rate. But, that’s a lot of lana (money) and a farmer is happy to hold this crop for a while. The price of agave piña has risen exponentially, 15 times greater than it was seven years ago, according to Alvin Starkman, operator of Mezcal Educational Excursions.

For the last week, I’ve been drinking a cup of aguamiel in the morning. Zapotecs in the know say that aguamiel has curative, medicinal powers and aids in daily digestion. I’m a believer.


Aguamiel is the sap that comes from the heart of the agave when you cut the top off.  Honey water. That’s what they call it, and it tastes like it. After one day unrefrigerated, it begins to ferment and after a few days will become pulque. An acquired taste. After four days of fermentation, you are drinking pure bubbling alcohol that goes from clear to cloudy. Some flavor it with fruit or oatmeal to sweeten the taste.

Last week, I tasted tepache in the Tlacolula market. (Find the stand next to the row of ice cream vendors on the rug sellers street.) This is pulque with fermented fresh pineapple. A half a cup before lunch and I needed the arm of a friend to steady me. But, it sure was tasty. In the U.S. with the absence of pulque, some tepache recipes call for beer and pineapple!


Which brings me to mezcal, the epitome of distilled beverage in these parts.


I am not even close to being knowledgeable, but I now have about 14 bottles of locally produced mezcal in my collection. I added the last six — plastic bottles, mostly with the Coke label, filled at the source — during a day-long mezcal education tour with Alvin Starkman. (Plenty of tasting, too.) Nine family members and friends joined me. Those who flew away, left with officially bottled and sealed beverages, thanks to Alvin.

It takes an education and time to understand mezcal and one-day is just the beginning. So is a collection of 14 bottles. Hardly enough to matter to the serious collector.

On the trip with Alvin, I learned that I like tepeztate and clay distilled espadin. Clay gives the mezcal the flavor of loam and fire. I used to really like añejo and reposado, and these are very smooth. Now, however, what tickles my nose and throat are the nuances of the herbs and earthiness of the wild agaves.


Stick your nose in the glass. Inhale. Get that full smokey aroma from the roasted-over-wood agave heart (called piña or pineapple) into your lungs. Then sip. Just a little bit. Second sip, take a little more. You’ll see that what might have felt harsh to your throat at first is now subtle and delightful.


Each type of cactus will make a different type of mezcal. Maybe it’s an espadin distilled with a turkey breast (pechuga de pavo) hanging over the copper pot. Now, there’s a flavor worth trying. Is it fermented in oak, pine, a bull skin, plastic or stainless steel, and for how long? This impacts the flavor. Is it made from a tobala, Karwinskii or madrecuixe agave. Are fruits or poleo (wild mint) added for flavor? And what about that worm?


And what about the microclimates and soil types? Yes, the same agave will produce a different taste with a variation in soil temperature, altitude, and whether the field is shared with weeds or with squash and beans, and when it was last plowed.


Whether you live here or are visiting, mezcal is worth knowing about. It is an ancient artisanal craft on par with rug weaving, natural dyeing, clay making and more recently wood carving. Getting out to the palenques on country back roads is a unique experience.


Meeting the men and women who grow the agave and distill it is even more amazing. Many live very simple, humble lives and their production is small. They may not be certified but what they make can be every bit as delicious.


When you go to the source, you are able to buy, too, at a fraction of what you would pay for a bottle in the city. But, it’s not really about price, it’s about the adventure!

Mezcal Factoids, thanks to Alvin Starkman:

  • No 2 batches of mezcal is the same
  • Mezcal improves with age
  • 95% of tequila is made from blue agave in Jalisco, Mexico
  • In the State of Oaxaca there are about 8 species of agave used to make mezcal
  • Each of these species has as many as 20 sub-species resulting in many flavor profiles from just the varietal of the plant
  • On the other hand, while tequila has different flavors resulting from different influences, only blue agave can be used to achieve them
  • While most tequila is made with 100% agave, it can be made with as little as 51% agave bsed sugars. Read the label carefully, especially the more popular commercial brands made in the most industrialized way.


  • True artesanal mezcal uses natural yeast in the environment
  • Gusano worm in a bottle of mezcal changes the flavor of the spirit significantly, while some stil use it as a marketing tool
  • Most artisanal agave grows without irrigation
  • The most accepted theory is that the Moors brought the distillation process to Spain, and the Spanish brought it to the New World where they found agave


A Few Mezcal Resources:

  • Mezcal Educational Tours
  • La Mezcaleria — a new favorite, where to taste/buy aguamiel, pulque and artisanal mezcal — on the Macedonio Alcala walking street in the first block beyond Santo Domingo Church on the right
  • Las Mezcalistas — Susan Coss and Max Garrone, consultants and aficionados, talk about all things mezcal on their blog



Note: Most of these photos were taken on the trip with Alvin Starkman. Others were shot during an independent adventure I took with my son, sister and brother-in-law to San Juan del Rio the week before.


A Day of Clay: Visiting Santa Maria Atzompa with Innovando la Tradicion

In their own words, Innovando la Tradicion is a creative platform where artisans, designers and artists share skills, knowledge and stories to rethink and honor the ceramic traditions of Oaxaca.  The group helps potters and pottery communities in Oaxaca with support to develop their trade.

Francisco finishing the clay comal (griddle)

Francisca finishing the clay comal (griddle)

Before the new year, my sister and I joined a one-day excursion to Santa Maria Atzompa sponsored by Innovando la Tradicion and hosted by Gregorio Desgarennes Garzón who everyone calls Goyo. The idea was to spend time with a local family, part of the Innovando la Tradicion collective, and learn how they work with clay to make functional and decorative pieces.


This was not a shopping trip. It was a meaningful educational and cultural experience to go deeper into Oaxaca’s indigenous traditions. In Atzompa, craftsmen have worked in clay for centuries. They shaped religious articles, storage and cooking vessels for the Monte Alban ruling class, long before the Spanish conquest.


These same traditions continue today with some modification of the ancient technologies.  In addition to firing the wood kiln, there is also a modern propane oven for cooking clay at higher temperatures. Traditional shapes take form alongside innovative contemporary sculpture.


Our multi-national group spent the day with Francisca, her husband Guillermo and their three daughters Karina, Vianney and Maité. Clay has always been in my family, say the couple. We added our impressions: It is the material of possibility, the smell of the earth, it evokes chocolate, bread, eating, family and nature.

Guillermo took us into the yard first to demonstrate how the large clay chunks are broken up with a mallet made from a hardwood tree limb. He digs the clay himself from a pit not far from the village center. Some of us volunteered to give it a try and didn’t last too long.


After the clay is pulverized to a fine powder and put through a sieve, it is mixed with black clay that comes from the bottom of a nearby lake. This gives it strength and elasticity. It is Guillermo who does all the heavy prep work.

How do you know when it’s ready? someone in the group asks. We can tell by touching it, was the answer. There is no written recipe.

My sister and I loved watching all this because our dad was a potter in Los Angeles and the entire process reminded us of our growing up years, watching dad knead the clay, then work it on the wheel into functional and whimsical objects of beauty.


Just as we did, the children here play with clay when they are young, forming simple shapes made with the coil or pinch pot method.

Each day, Guillermo prepares a batch of clay that Francisca will make into comals for sale to clients or at the local market. They make only enough for that day. Francisca is known for her fine clay comals. Her mold is a 12-year old comal that is the correct diameter and thickness. She will make about eight comals in a day. Each one, used for making tortillas or their variation, may last for about two months.


Her tools are trees and gourds. She uses her fingers to feel the thickness of the clay, testing it, determining if she needs to add more to the center for strength.

Her children know how to do this, too, now. But she dreams that her children will go to university and have a profession. Yet, she also wants them to make ceramics.

As Francisca pulls and shapes the clay, we watch mesmerized as she forms a beautifully round, perfect comal with lip that is desired by all who work with corn, another artisan craft.

The comals will sell for 55 to 70 pesos each. It takes about an hour to make a large one.  In the currency exchange rate of pesos to dollars, that’s about $3 to $4.50 each. At the rate of eight per day, the gross is $24 to $36 USD per day including labor and materials.


When the comal is finished, Guillermo carries it to the sun to dry. Francisca and Guillermo can fit about 36 comales into the adobe kiln, stacked vertically. The kiln is covered and fueled with wood. After about two hours the temperature reaches a low-fire 900 degrees Fahrenheit. The fire burns out and the clay contents cool, then are removed and prepared to transport to market.

After the demonstration, we took a lump of clay and began to form our own pieces. Some of us used a small wheel the size of a plate, balanced on a rock, to turn our work. Others shaped the clay using forefinger and thumb or rolling coils and stacking them. The pieces were primitive and imaginative. It was like being a child again! Totally freeform.

Then, the tables were made ready and Francisca served us a wonderful lunch of sopa de guias, tlayudas and horchata water that she prepared. The family joined us in celebrating the end of a very satisfying day.

A special thanks to Goyo for translating everything from Spanish to English and giving us great insights into the clay making process.

Contact Innovando la Tradicion at the little clay shop 1050 Grados, Rufino Tamayo 800, Oaxaca Centro, phone 951-132-6158 to find out when their next clay tour is scheduled. It’s a wonderful experience. Don’t miss it.





Frida Kahlo Mania: See Her in the USA

Our iconic Frida Kahlo, her life, art, clothing, jewelry, pain, sorrow, tragedies, affairs and everything else worth examining about her is featured in 2015 exhibitions around the United States of America.

Frida Kahlo: Art, Garden, Life is an exhibition at the New York Botanical Garden featuring the plants that Frida loved to wear and had in her Mexico City gardens.

p0080 self-portrait-with-necklace-of-thorns

Several famous paintings shown include one of Luther Burbank who she and Rivera admired, and “Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird” (1940), a parting gift to Nicholas Muray, Hungarian photographer and lover.

The Burbank portrait, which I have seen many times as part of our Looking for Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera in Mexico City: Art History Tour, is on loan from the Dolores Olmedo Museum.

The blockbuster Detroit Institute of Arts exhibition featuring Kahlo and Rivera will run until July 12, 2015. I know many who have bought plane tickets to go see it.

The New Yorker magazine says, “The exhibition is nothing if not an event, which is fitting, given how much of a moment Kahlo is having this year (see The Striking Absence in the Detroit Intitute of Arts’s Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo Blockbuster and Frida Kahlo Love Letters Sell For $137,000—That’s Over $1,000 Per Page!).

For about the same price to travel to Detroit or New York, why not come to Mexico City for our art history tour that will take you to Frida’s paintings, Diego’s murals, Casa Azul and the Dolores Olmedo Museum where you can see it all (except those pieces out on loan!)

We have offered Looking for Frida Kahlo + Diego Rivera in Mexico City: Art History Tour multiple times a year since early 2014 to rave reviews.

Plus, you will see the amazing gardens and the endangered xoloitzcuintle, too.