Tag Archives: food

Taking Big Leaps–Dance of the Feather, Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca

Wednesday, July 10, 2019–This group of new dancers start their three-year commitment to church, community and family this year. The most touching moment for me was to be in the home of the Moctezuma, the lead character in the Danza de la Pluma just before they set out to the church plaza to dance for three hours until sunset on July 9.

Grandma raises her hand to make the sign of the cross in blessing

Here I witnessed loved ones bestow their blessings on him. It was like anointing their son and grandson with the benediction of all the generations who came before, offering God’s favor and protection. It was as if all the young men over decades who participated in this sacred dance were present, too. It is an honor and a commitment to perform this service. I am told it is life-changing.

The ritual is repeated year after year, but the first year is a special test for a new group of dancers for their faith, endurance, strength, passion, dedication, coordination and precision. It is also an important exercise in mutual support. Dancers are not individuals. They are part of a team, and it is their team effort that underlies the essence of how this Usos y Costumbres community self-governs.

The Dance of the Feather, which tells the story of the Spanish Conquest from the indigenous point-of-view, is meticulously choreographed. The village symphony orchestra/band knows exactly what to play as the story unfolds. As each step is taken down the cobbled streets to the church, there is a cadence that is repeated in the retelling.

Parents of La Malinche help her prepare

In the altar room at the Moctezuma’s home, family members help each member of the group dress in their costume. This takes time since each element of the dress is an elaborate undertaking.

Dad attaches silk scarves that will fly like wings
Doña Marina, age six, fortifies herself to prepare for three hours of dancing
Grandmothers peel onions and garlic for the barbecue stew

Behind the scenes, another type of choreography takes place. It is the work men, women and girls and boys who do the food preparation and service. Every bit is made by hand. The chickens are slaughtered, boiled and the meat is shredded for tamales.

Each made by hand memela is the blessing of a woman’s hand
Drinking tejate — muy rico — a pre-Hispanic tradition

The toro (bull) is slaughtered and prepared for barbacoa de res. The tejate is stone ground by hand, with home roasted cacao beans. Can I talk about the memelas? I’ve never tasted anything so good — comal toasted corn patties, slathered with bean paste, fresh salsa, shredded Oaxaca cheese, a drizzle of shredded lettuce.

Natividad serves memelas to a guest

We feed each other because we take care of each other. Our survival and continuity depends on it.

This is a hallmark for Teotitlan del Valle and other Usos y Costumbres communities in Mexico. They function so well because of this bond. Mutual support is about respect for heritage and relationships. You do it because it is a value to the self, the other and makes the whole stronger.

Moctezuma flanked by La Malinche (L) and Doña Marina (R)

The dancers who participate in the Dance of the Feather embody these values, embrace them, practice them and model them for others.

Taking big leaps — the strength and prowess of the dancers

The dancing will resume again in the church courtyard on Friday, July 12, at 5:00 PM. Check Oaxaca Events for schedule and other festivities around town.

Village officials and guests offer support — feather crowns on the patio during a rest

As I said goodbye to family members of the dance group, they asked me to tell you how important their culture is to them, how they want to communicate the beauty and friendship of Mexico, and how strongly they are committed to preserving traditions, and extend an invitation to visit.

Church is symbol of faith — but the commitment comes from the heart
Clowning around with the Clown character — symbol of Aztec spy

There are two clown figures included in the Dance of the Feather. They serve multiple functions. Primarily they are the dancers’ helpers, holding crowns when a scarf needs to be retied, bringing water and rehydration drinks, communicating with the officials when a bio-break is needed. They also are jesters that provide fun, frivolity and antics to the story — a diversion of sorts.

They will tease and cajole audience members, like me. Jajajajaja. In the original story, they are the Aztec spies who disguised themselves to get close to the Spanish conquistadores and bring information back to the Aztec generals. There were two battles with the Spanish. The Aztecs won the first.

The Dance of the Feather Begins in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca

Today is the official start of Teotitlan del Valle’s Dance of the Feather, or Danza de la Pluma. It is a perfect example of how our village celebrates community with a promise and commitment by young people to their people, their church, their history and their culture.

The celebration honors the 16th century church, Templo de la Preciosa de Sangre de Cristo and its central part of village life.

16th Church rises above Zapotec temple base. Stones used for church walls.
Sacred mountain Picacho seen from church steeple
A beautiful day from the top of the Teotitlan del Valle church

5 PM on Monday there was a convite (procession) that began at the home of the Moctezuma and went to the church courtyard. It then processed through all five sections of the village and returned to the church. Highlights included young women dressed in traditional traje (garments) holding canastas (baskets) on their heads adorned with religious images.

Corona (crown) of the Moctezuma with turkey feathers, representing Quetzalcoatl

The young men and two girls who form this new Dance of the Feather group are dressed in their plumed headdresses, carry rattles, and wear clothing that suggests the syncretism of Mexico, the mix of indigenous, Aztec and Spanish conquerors. The dance itself is a representation of the conquest from the indigenous point-of-view.

A procession around the church courtyard before entering the church for blessings.

On Tuesday (today, July 9) at around 4:00 p.m. or 5:00 p.m. (I’m told), the dancers will begin in the church courtyard. On Wednesday, they will start around noon and continue until about 8:00 p.m.. Festivities continue throughout the week with a carnival fair surrounding the market.

The Mexican ram

By luck and serendipity, several events happened before the official celebrations begin. It happened because we set out from my casita Saturday on foot instead of traveling by car. In the church courtyard, a group of musicians were forming. They invited us to join them on the church rooftop for a symphonic concert. We climbed up the narrow, winding carved stone bell-tower where they would play to mark the official start of the celebration.

360 degree views of the Tlacolula Valley and Teotitlan lands
A slice of life from the winding stone church stairwell — escalera de caracol

From the top of the church, one can see and be heard for miles. Everyone knows what these annual rituals mean. It is embedded in life here.

Traditional and ancient Zapotec flute, sounds like a clarinet … sort of

After walking down to Tierra Antigua for lunch, we made a stop at Casa Viviana before heading home. Viviana Alavez is a Grand Master of Oaxaca Folk Art, known for her ornate hand-made beeswax candles. My friend Chris wanted to buy some to take to her new home in Ajijic. The longer, thicker ones weren’t available. They are for the Danzantes celebration, we were told.

Chris and Ben at Casa Viviana candlemakers

As we were leaving, my friend Natividad appeared in the doorway with her baby daughter Esmeralda. I asked her what was going on down the street under the big tented courtyard — always a signal for a fiesta. It’s the home of the Moctezuma, the lead character/dancer for the Dance of the Feather, she said and invited us to come over. Another grand surprise, my comadre Ernestina was there with daughter Lupita, and lo and behold, Viviana was participating in the food preparation, too.

Making masa mixed with cacao for tejate — at it for five hours

We were invited to the Sunday morning mass to bless the dancers at the church and then come back to the house for breakfast. What a surprising and great day!

Breakfast is hot chocolate and sweet bread — dunk in the chocolate for yummies

This is the early part of the celebration, when the family and closest friends come together in private ceremony. The abuelas enter the altar room to offer their special benedictions to the young people — another way to carry-on tradition, handing it from generation-to-generation, in a tribute to succession and respect.

Home altar here is more important than the church for Zapotec ritual of thanksgiving and appreciation. After the church ceremony, the head of household gathers everyone in the altar room for prayer in both Spanish and Zapotec, thanking God for family, community and continuity. This is cultural preservation at its best!

The cooking fires — how food is made in Teotitlan del Valle
Amulets, rattles and feathers on the altar, an offering to God, community and church

We then sit down to a breakfast of homemade everything — in abundance: black beans seasoned with epazote, hot chocolate, bread, fresh from the comal stone-ground tortillas, salsa. Later for lunch at 5 p.m. there will be Seguesa de Pollo, a tasty stew of organic chicken mixed in a seasoned mole amarillo (yellow chile sauce) thickened with toasted and rough ground maize (corn).

It takes a village to cook for the minions, including famous Viviana (right).
Eating Seguesa de Pollo. We use tortillas for spoons here!

Let the festivities begin.

The abuelitas — the little grandmothers, friends for a lifetime
At 4 a.m. men start the toro slaughter, to become barbacoa and consumé on Wednesday
We know where our food comes from — teaching the children (Arnulfo, left, Rodolfo right)

It is an honor and privilege to live here and participate in these rituals. Tomorrow I leave to attend and volunteer at the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market in New Mexico, and meet up with long-time friends. Then, I’ll continue on to California to visit my son, sister and brother. I’ll keep you posted along the way.

Thank you for reading and following! I’ve been writing this blog for 12 years. It’s been an amazing process, always filled with new experiences to share.

Teotitlan del Valle daily market from the church steeple

Tasteful Oaxaca Chocolate 4-Course Pop-Up Dinner

Everyone knows Oaxaca chocolate is sublime. The chocolate at Mama Pacha Chocolate Shop is sublimest. I must use the superlative here for many reasons: Unparalleled quality cacao beans to start with, the chocolate is small batch roasted, tempered for hours, resulting in a smooth as silk finish. Different from the sugary, grainy chocolate we use in the villages for mole and hot chocolate. This is EATING chocolate.

Last night, Chef Mario Ruben Ramirez Lopez treated twelve of us to an over-the-top four-course chocolate dinner hosted by Antonio Michelena, founder of Mama Pacha. This was a Pop-Up. A one-night stand. Over in three hours. From appetizer to dessert, the tastes were sensational. Toño provided the chocolate. Mario provided the culinary adventure.

Mario, me and Toño at Mama Pacha Chocolate Shop

Mario is from Santiago Juxtlahuaca in Oaxaca’s Mixteca region. Cooking is in his blood and honed in Oaxaca city. He is building a name for himself and all accolades are deserved. Keep your eyes open for the next pop-up opportunity to eat what he creates.

This night, our first course was a chocolate tetela. This is a pancake made with masa (corn meal). In our case, the masa was infused with chocolate and the pancake filled with minced beef. The topping was startling: a blood-red beet and white chocolate molé, the beets and chocolate puréed into a flavorful paste that could stand on its own. The dish was adorned with arugula and broccoli flowers.

Mario told us he named this dish Yalitza after the Mixtec actress who starred in the film Roma. The color of the molé is like Hollywood, but it tastes like the Mixtec people, he said.

Okay. What’s next? A soup course poured from a jicara bowl — Chile Atolé Con Chocolate. Traditional atolé is a pre-Hispanic beverage of toasted corn meal and cacao, and sweetened. Mario adapted this to become a savory broth, adding chile pasilla and pouring it steaming hot over a nest of pickled red cabbage and organic corn kernels. Yummy. It had started to rain by then, that early evening Oaxaca summer downpour that turns humidity to fresh air. A chill entered the small workshop space given over to dining room. At that moment, the soup was perfect.

Bellies filling. Pour another glass of red wine. Pass the basket of fresh made sourdough bread from Pan Con Madre. Take a breather. Connect with our table-mates: a U.S. caterer/cook, a Columbian chef, a linguist, a jewelry maker, a food culture guide, a James Beard finalist cookbook writer, visitors from Australia and Ecuador.

From an infinitesimal corner of the space emerges plates of Molé Coloradito with chile pasilla from San Pablo Villa de Mitla. Oaxaca’s Valles Centrales (central valleys) are the source material for our food. Corn, for example, was first hybridized here over 8,000 years ago. The molé puddled on the plate, an underskirt for Oaxaca polenta made with cacao butter and mezcal, topped with whole shrimp and verdolagas –aka purslane.

Those are chocolate bits on top — 90% cacao!

The ultimate dessert was, of course, a molten Mama Pacha chocolate brownie, topped with quesillo cheese ice cream with fresh mango sauce. The chocolate bits on top were crunchy, sending me to the moon.

Need I say more?

Oh, other than this extraordinary meal was priced at 550 pesos per person, including wine. It’s no wonder why so many visitors are flocking to Oaxaca.

The cuisine here has always been exceptional, delicious, noteworthy and a full-mouth sensation — course after course, from humble street food, to worthy comedors, to elegant dining rooms. Traditional food is evolving into experimentation — taking the basic ingredients we know and love here and giving us one more surprise.

Tempering the chocolate to make it creamy smooth

Cooking Up a Storm: Oaxaca Potato Salad with Nopal Cactus

It’s the rainy season here. Thus, Cooking Up a Storm! This week I made two different traditional outdoor grills on the anafre (a Spanish word of Arabic origin, as so many are) — one day was chicken thighs, nopal paddles, potatoes, onions and garlic. A few days later, pork loin that marinated for three days in my extra special made-up, homemade marinade. Nopal is filled with health benefits. I buy my meat in the Teotitlan market from Carneceria Teoti.

You can see these photos on my Facebook page. The results, both times, were yummy. I used mesquite charcoal to give off a smoked flavor, and also local pine wood for fuel. (I learned these techniques from my neighbors.)

Meat and potatoes in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca

Yesterday was Tlacolula Market day. I bought a large bag of about 20 small, red, organic potatoes for 10 pesos. That’s 52 cents. Maybe two pounds worth. A bunch of fresh spring onions, also 10 pesos. A bag of cleaned baby nopal paddles (spines removed). Ten paddles were 10 pesos. Lots of things get sold in bunches of 10 pesos! It’s easy to eat here at home for about $35 USD per week. I had the garlic cloves at home.

Spring onions or baby onions on the comal, low heat

I was going to grill all the ingredients, but decided it would be quicker to just boil the potatoes. That’s when I decided, Why not potato salad? Some of you know that a long, long time ago in another land far away, I used to own a gourmet cookware shop and cooking school. I still carry those cooking genes and yearnings with me in an improvisational sense. I like to cook based on what’s available and what inspires me. In Oaxaca, it is a dream come true.

Nopal cactus paddles, cleaned, drained, before cooking

So, here is the RECIPE for OAXACA POTATO SALAD WITH NOPAL CACTUS

Ingredients:

  • 2 pounds of small red-skinned potatoes
  • 1 garlic bulb, whole, cleaned and trimmed, stalk and roots removed
  • 2 T. salt
  • 6-8 small nopal cactus paddles, spines removed
  • bunch of spring onions, cleaned and trimmed
  • 1 to 2 T. grainy mustard
  • 1/2 C. olive oil
  • 1/4 c. Balsamic vinegar
  • Salt and pepper to taste
Cut the onions like this …

Utensils:

  • 4 quart saucepan filled with water
  • Metal comal for stove-top searing/grilling
  • Long metal tongs
  • Some bowls, a knife, a cutting board
Before combining ingredients and adding dressing

Note: If you are in Mexico, you first want to disinfect all the veggies. (Even the locals do this.) This means ALL fresh fruit and vegetables; it is essential for good gut health. That means soaking the vegetables in 8 drops of Microdyne per liter of water for at least 15 minutes. (Sometimes, with lettuces and chard, I do this process twice.) This food processing takes time and no short cuts allowed. It is not a convenient part of living here, but the quality of the food makes up for it.

Instructions:

First, soak the nopal paddles in a bowl of salt water for 30 minutes. Use enough water to cover the nopal. Use at least 2 T. salt. This pulls the slime out of the nopal. Remove and drain.

Bring water to a boil. Add salt. Add potatoes and garlic bulb. Cook until potatoes are soft. You can test this with a wood skewer or fork. Remove and drain in a colander. Cool to room temperature. Peel the garlic cloves. Skin will remove easily.

Nopal paddles on the comal turning from bright to olive green

Heat the comal on the stove top. This is dry grilling. Do not add oil. Place the onions on the comal and cook, turning at regular intervals with metal tongs until bulb is soft. Do not burn. Remove and reserve until cool. Chop green stems and cut bulbs in half.

Cuts of the nopal cactus paddle after grilling

Add nopal paddles to hot comal. As they cook and sear, they will turn from bright to olive green. They are completely cooked when the entire paddle is olive green. Remove and cool. Cut into strips and cut again into 1/4 to 1/2 inch cubes.

Olive oil, NOT Gin Mezcal, gracias a dios!

Combine potatoes, onions, and nopal cactus in a bowl.

Mix the salad dressing together: oil, vinegar, mustard, salt and pepper. You can add a few tablespoons of water to thin the mixture if you like. Pour over the mixed veggies and toss all ingredients together. Correct the seasoning adding salt and pepper as needed.

Potato salad, dressed and ready to refrigerate — or eat!

Serve immediately at room temperature or refrigerate. Will keep for two days. Serves 6 to 8 people.

Heirloom Beans: Mexico’s Legumes Elevated to a Higher Power

The Hunt for Mexico’s Heirloom Beans, a New Yorker Magazine feature written by Burkhard Bilger and published 4/23/2018, starts and ends with eating.  Thanks to my Teotitlan del Valle friend Scott Roth for sending me this article, lengthy but worth the time to read.

For northern North Americans unfamiliar with bean culture, we think of this legume as filler, to be mashed, seasoned, dipped into with a tortilla chip, pushed aside or preceded with a Bean-O pill to cut intestinal gas.

Eat your lima beans, I remember my mother saying. Ugh. It wasn’t until much later, when I learned to cook fresh limas, that I began to appreciate the oft-maligned bean.

For Mexicans, where the bean originates, it is a staple of life, high in protein and flavorful in its pure and simple state of existence. Cook it simply in water and salt, says Rancho Gordo heirloom bean maven Steve Sando, and you will love the taste and texture.

Rafael Mier holds Jaguar Beans, a rare, ancient strain

Here in the south of the United States of America where I have lived for the past thirty years, the traditionalists gravitate toward black-eyed peas and collards. This is especially true during New Years, when the black-eyed pea is center stage on every table to signify a new year of abundance. I’ve even seen the tradition carried to snow-bound climes by southerners yearning for a bit of home. 

Out west where I grew up, my family’s preferred bean was pinto, always industrially grown and originating from a sixteen-ounce tin that my mother could easily open with her electric can opener.  With contents dumped into the Farberware two-quart saucepan, gas burner turned to high, the beans were ready to serve in minutes to accompany the chewy, gray-center ground sirloin she called hamburger, if they didn’t burn first.

Weighing native beans, Teotitlan del Valle Market

I used to think that black beans were a gourmet delight when I started living in Oaxaca in 2006. I used to think that big, plump beans were better than dwarf-like varieties. Little did I pay attention to the fact that the bigger the bean, the more likely they are to be genetically modified. I didn’t realize that there are almost as many varieties of beans in Mexico as there is corn, based on regional differences and genetic adaptation to soil and climate.

In December 2017, I wrote a blog post, Union Zapata Hosts Biodiversity Fair in Oaxaca. Native corn, squash and beans took center stage. I went there in search of red, purple, yellow, and blue corn. I left with a deeper appreciation for what it takes to sustain a traditional milpa — the bean, corn, squash native agricultural growing exchange that provides complex protein intake for indigenous people.

Here is my challenge: Think about your own experience about beans growing up. Add your memories in the comment section. Share your recipes. Treat yourself to some real beans!

Mexican yellow bean soup, Norma’s made-up recipe

Scott Roth with old Zapotec rug