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?
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 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.
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.
Yes, I agree that Carolina Herrera’s new 2020 resort collection, just unveiled, is beautiful. The collection, the company says, is inspired by Mexican indigenous designs. When you look at the clothes, some of the designs are startling — exact duplicates of textiles made by hand in Mexican villages for centuries. Excusing this behavior because it is beautiful, ignores deeper questions about race, culture, heritage, history. Why don’t we call it what it is? Plagiarism. Stealing. Copying.
Okay. I’m angry.
Outrage is not based on whether a fashion house creates a beautiful line of clothing for it’s ultra-rich clientele nor does the beauty as a subjective assessment, figure into the discussion.
It is based on how and why indigenous people create the cloth they wear, who has authority and power, and who receives recognition and compensation.
Yesterday, Vanessa Friedman, fashion editor of the New York Times, wrote Homage or Theft? Carolina Herrera Called Out By Mexican Minister. It fuels the conversation about cultural appropriation issues, a hot topic today among those of us who respect indigenous people and what they make. Theirs is a history of culture, family, storytelling, spirituality and belief, through cloth as a cultural expression.
Lifting designs out of context violates the very foundation of culture. We have a hard time understanding this in the USA because we are bred in a culture of be more, earn more, get more, compete more. Here in Mexico, culture is based on community, family and ancient rituals. Clothing interprets this.
What fascinated me most was reading the comments from seemingly intelligent, considerate readers of the New York Times. I encourage you to read the comments section. There are over 450 comments. Overwhelmingly, people feel that:
the Herrera designs are beautiful and unique, and in no way resemble the indigenous clothing style of, for example, the Otomi traditional embroidered dress
there are no legal restrictions on design, and runway designs are being copied and mass-marketed everywhere
imitation is the sincerest form of flattery
artists and creatives take their inspiration from wherever they want
political correctness in art and fashion has gone too far
I was surprised to read the responses that confirm that the Western world is either ignorant of or doesn’t appreciate the issues of disenfranchisement facing talented people, who are marginalized with little or no voice and have no legal protections. I am angry that people are blinded to human rights. Someone said, There is no such thing as cultural identity.
But, why should I be surprised? Indigenous design theft is only one more version of the power and wealth imbalance of conquerors with their attendant racism.
Here is what I wrote in the NY Times comment section in response to the Vanessa Friedman article:
Here we go again! This is a recurring theme of the privileged who think that “borrowing” from indigenous cultures is equal to paying homage, respect, and XXX Many of you label cultural appropriation as PC. It’s actually a real problem in Mexico when poor people living in remote areas have no voice to protect what belongs to them. People living and creating in indigenous villages for thousands of years don’t know about PC. They do know that working the cloth takes months. They learned it from their grandmothers and the designs include sacred symbols that have cultural, spiritual and social meaning. There is no context for the designs that haven been lifted and repurposed for the ultra-rich. There is no compensation to villages whose designs have been stolen. These designs are unique. Unlike music or architecture that builds upon what came before. It is different. These are designs copied verbatim. You get thrown out of college for that! Remember? Yes, the CH designs are beautiful – but because the original designs are beautiful. Let’s get it right. Let’s collaborate, not steal. Let’s employ at a fair wage. Let’s justly compensate. This is not about liberal or conservative. This is about doing what is right in the world. I’ve been living part-time in Oaxaca and working with indigenous artisans for years. Their lives are humble, they are generous, and they are concerned about loss of culture because clothing here is identity. We can help, not hinder the cause.
In response to Gail Pellet on my Facebook page, I say:
We have seen here in Mexico with the Isabel Marant case of stealing Tlahuitoltepec designs, that lawsuits don’t work. The indigenous designs are too old to be covered by copyright and patent protection, and are legally considered part of the public domain. However, the patrimony of Mexican pre-Hispanic culture is at risk. Invasion continues in its modern form.
And, in a conversation with Carry Somers, founder of #fashionrevolution on her Instagram page, I noted:
… the luxury brands are stealing our indigenous/native designs without compensation. There is a poverty of ethics in our world.
She says: We need to look to the Nagoya Protocol to protect indigenous knowledge around biological resources and need some comparable protection for indigenous designs. Let’s hope @susana.harp.oaxaca (singer turned senator from Oaxaca) can do something about this.
Please read the NY Times feature, then the comments, and comment, too, if you like. Please don’t comment unless you read the article. Thank you.
Why We Left, Expat Anthology: Norma’s Personal Essay
Norma contributes personal essay, How Oaxaca Became Home
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