Tag Archives: maize

The Season for Blue Corn in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca

This morning I awaken to the smell of the wood fire.  The smoke drifts through the air like a voice into my sleeping room, calling me. Magdalena is at the outdoor comal preparing tortillas.  This is the season for blue corn.

This is ancient corn — maize — organic, grown from kernels cultivated here in the Tlacolula Valley for 8,000 years.  In 2010, UNESCO named the archeological site and caves at Yagul as a World Heritage Site.  Here, they found evidence of corn cobs in the caves as the indigenous population shifted from hunter-gatherers to farmers, laying the foundation for cultivated agriculture in all of Mesoamerica.

This particular blue corn that Magda uses is grown on a rancho in the foothills outside of Teotitlan del Valle on the road to Benito Juarez in the Sierra Madre del Sur, an hour up the mountain.  She buys it already ground and then mixes the masa to the consistency of her liking, adding water to the dry corn powder.

  

Then, she will take a fist-full from the larger balls of dough, put it on the metate, knead it by hand, then knead it with the mano de metate (the granite stone that looks like a rolling-pin).  She will then form a small ball and put it between two pieces of yellow plastic and form it into the tortilla shape on the tortilla press.  Lots of upper body work!

Corn is sacred.  It is the sustenance of life. Indigenous corn is pure, not hybridized by Monsanto, and is full of nutritional value.  When eaten with beans and squash, it forms a complex protein.  Chef Susana Trilling and photographer Judith Cooper Haden are vocal advocates in Oaxaca for the anti-Monsanto movement. working in the Mixteca to preserve indigenous corn and the milpa crop-growing traditions.

Coming Up, April 2-9: Portrait Photography Workshop

Last night for dinner I ate this blue corn with organic lettuce and tomatoes drizzled with olive oil and lime juice, a hunk of Oaxaqueño cheese, and black beans.  I could taste the earthy deliciousness.  The coarse bits of corn told me this was real food.

Of course, it takes Magda’s wise and skilled hands to create this wonder.  She is now close to 70 years old.  Women live here until well into their 80’s and 90’s.  She is carrying on a tradition that not many of the younger generation will adopt.  It is hard work.  The outdoor fire is stoked with wood gathered from the campo (countryside).  The labor of tradition is in the souls of the grandmothers.

Soon it will be time for breakfast and we will eat this wonderful flat corn bread.  I can hardly wait!

Coming Up, April 2-9:  Portrait Photography Workshop.  There’s a space for you!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tribute to the Women of Oaxaca by Lila Downs. Disfruta bien! Enjoy!


“Era importante para mí hacer un tributo a algunas mujeres de mi país que muelen maíz y lo llevan al canto y lo celebran como un milagro que a mí me ha inspirado mucho para poder seguir caminando y cantando.” ~ Lila Downs

“It was important for me to honor the women of my country that grind corn in song and celebrate it as a miracle that inspired me a lot to keep walking and singing.”~ Lila Downs

Video footage filmed in the Tlacolula valley of Oaxaca and the village of Teotitlan del Valle. Disfruta bien! This is where I get to live. Thank you Lila Downs and Paul Cohen for all you do.

Upcoming Oaxaca workshopscreative writing, photography, weaving and natural dyes — give you this sense of place.

Read more about the traditional trajes (costumes, dress) worn by Mexican women with commentary by Sheri Brautigam on Living Textiles of Mexico.

Baptismo, Mercado, Massaje: Just Another Day in Teotitlan

The sound of familiar music drew me to the doors of the village church and another celebration.

[My guess is that village life is a mutual support society.  Families support each other by providing and paying for the services needed to sustain the constant celebration of life.  There is incredible joy for families, and economic benefit to those who create the music, food, flowers, and the red and blue striped tent rentals that mark the homes of celebrants throughout the village.  Okay, so the music is a little off key, but I can assure you that the cake will come from the best pasteleria and the tamales from an expert cook.]

I took my seat at the back of the church as the service was coming to a close.  The band led the way, playing full throttle.  Behind them came the family — father holding a little girl about one year old dressed in white, a huge smile on his face, his wife next to him was beaming, beautifully dressed in a gauzy pink floral dress and gold jewelry.  The rest of the family trailed behind them.  As they approached, I smiled and said, felicidades.  He stopped, asked me where I was from.  Carolina del Norte, I replied.  Oh, my brother worked in Raleigh for a while.  Why don’t you join us at the party, just follow us to our home.  I thanked them, and expressed my regrets.  I had a massage appointment with Annie that I couldn’t miss.  But, I was astounded at the generosity of the invitation, and reminded myself that this is what Teotitlan life is about — generosity and inclusion.  I joined the procession as it curled for a block or two along with abuelos wrapped in tradition jaspe-style woven shawls, tias from Tehuantepec bedecked in gold and high heels, and then peeled off.

First, a stop at the pasteleria to order my New Year’s Eve birthday cake, an all chocolate affair that would feed 20.  Then, I noticed the chocolate cake topped with flan double layer extravaganza and ordered one of those, too.  Federico was in the rug market today and I thought I would join him for a few minutes before heading off to Annie’s up the hill.  The Chavez Santiago family displays and sells at the rug market intermittently depending upon whether there is a celebration, trip to Oaxaca, or a commission to finish that might take priority.  Today the market was filled with tourists, and as a gringa sitting in the stall with a Zapotec weaver, I guess I was somewhat of an anomaly.  The English-speakers asked me where I was from, and from there it was easy to start the conversation about rug quality, natural dyes, cultural preservation, Spanish conquest history, and conserving authentic weaving and dyeing traditions.   I met a bi-lingual man from Texas who brings his children to Mexico to teach them about their cultural history and traditions.  He wanted to show his daughter rug weaving techniques so he went to the house where Dolores and Janet were weaving.  Another family from Cancun stepped in to visit and placed a custom order.  It was a good day.

Tuk-tuk time for me.  I hopped into one of those little three wheel red moto-taxis that ply the village lanes and we huffed and puffed over the cobble stones, across the river, onto the dirt and stone road that leads to the hillside where Annie lives.  I am entering shiatsu heaven.  First a bit of tea and talk, then I’m down on the mat.  When I emerge an hour later, magically all my back pain from carrying talavera tile in my backpack is gone.  I’m light footed down the hill, gaze at the golden stumps of shorn cornstalks dazzling in the last moments before sunset, stop at El Descanso for a bowl of fresh vegetable soup and agua de pepino con limon, and arrive home just in time to greet Eva Hershaw, a university student applying to graduate school, who came to Oaxaca to create a photo documentary of people who grow traditional maize (the non-bioengineered kind).  We had been carrying on a correspondence and I suggested that she first connect with Itanoni, the Oaxaca bakery that only uses native corn.  I invited her out to the village telling her that everyone here grows corn just like they did 6,000 years ago.  She joined us at the kitchen table as we were finishing late comida, and she met the Chavez family and talked about her project.  We will help her connect with local farmers and invited her back to join us for the Las Cuevitas new year celebration on December 31 and January 1.

It is a good day!

Amazing Maize: First Cultivated in Oaxaca 6,000+ Years Ago

It’s amazing to know that in a farming area southeast of Oaxaca City, likely somewhere in the highlands past Mitla or Matatlan, is where maize originated. Maize is different from the huge kernel, yellow corn we know in the U.S. Its variegated, multi-colored kernels are smaller and full of healthy richness. The Oaxaca region is home to at least 59 species of maize, from the protein-rich variety used to make tortilla chips to a softer grain mashed for use in tamales. Maize comes in a rainbow of colors: blue, red, black, purple, orange, yellow, creamy white, and a mix of all, each used for a distinctive purpose with distinctive textures and flavors. The cobs vary in size, too, depending on what it is cultivated for.

grinding maize

Photo: Grinding maize in Teotitlan

Farmers in Oaxaca first bred maize some 6,000 to 8,000 years ago, and from there it spread and was adopted by Africa, Asia and Europe. Worldwide, we eat it roasted on the cob, popped, stripped and cooked into cereal or polenta, ground and baked to become bread or cakes. It is a staple that traces its origins to a possible DNA mix of teosinte and gammagrass (there is still some controversy about origins, since teosinte has very tiny cobs and kernals). Plant geneticists believe that edible maize was developed by Mesoamericans within a 100 year time span — an incredible, accelerated feat! When combined with beans, maize offers a complex protein that is very nutritious.

Though the exact date and circumstances of the first cultivation of maize is a mystery, by 1500 A.D. the Aztec and Mayan civilizations had long called the descendants of that original plant “maize,” literally “that which sustains life,” and claimed that the crop was flesh and blood itself. Maize cob and stalks were incorporated into the stone carved images of Aztec, Mayan and Zapotec leaders connoting royalty derived from the gods and assumed a central place in their headdress. It was a symbol of power, source of life.

In the modern economies of the U.S., East Asia, and Europe, however, it is the ultimate legible” industrial raw material: agribusiness uses its starches and cellulose for fuel, fodder, paint, plastic, and penicillin. The risk is that genetically modified corn will eradicate the local small farmers of southern Mexico who have been practicing sustainable agriculture, farming on 10-acre plots for millenia, using the same milpa techniques as their forebearers to replenish the earth without having to use chemical feritilizers, a stake in the ground for cultural preservation and a healthier food source. Local farmers cannot compete with the lower priced genetically modified corn produced by agribusiness, and we have seen smaller farmers in Teotitlan give up their plots. The debate is fueled around NAFTA and corn imports, providing more corn for more people that may or may not have as much nutritional value as the original source, and the risk of the genetically modified corn wiping out the DNA of the heirloom varieties.

The practice of milpa is the farming technique of growing corn, beans, avocado, and squash all together on one plot of ground, the beans and squash twining around and hanging on to the corn stalks, adding their nutrients to the soil, year after year, with no depletion of minerals. Oaxaca soils have sustained food growth in this manner for thousands of years with no loss of productivity.

You can read more about this in Charles Mann’s book, “1491,” and when you visit Oaxaca and eat tamales and tortillas, think of this food as a 6,000 year old contribution to gastronomy and world health. Ask, if you like, where the corn comes from in order to support the local farmer and local economies. You’ll be doing your part for sustainable development.