Rooted in pre-Hispanic indigenous religious and spiritual practices that has nothing to do with the Catholicism imported to Mexico by the Conquistadores and attending priests, unfortunately, Day of the Dead has morphed into what is becoming an attraction for party-goers in Oaxaca. Day of the Dead is coming back around on the calendar, observed from October 31 to November 2, and it’s time to write about What is Day of the Dead? for visitors and travelers. I want to plead for respectfulness for ancient cultural practices. These are the days to remember the ancestors.
These dates were set by the conquerors to blend the pre-Hispanic native rituals to remember those who have passed with All Souls’ and All Saints’ Days on the Christian calendar. The blending of European and indigenous practices is called syncretism and was an effective way of bringing indigenous people into the religious fold of the conquerors.
Let’s take a step back. Up the road from where I live in Oaxaca, the Zapotec-Mixtec archeological site (and village) San Pablo Villa de Mitla was the burial grounds for the ruling elite. Originally called Mictlan, which means place of the dead, the reverence for the ancestors was played out with offerings of candles, incense, bread, corn and squash, pulque, chocolate and flowers, mostly wild marigold that grew in the countryside. Elaborate altars were constructed on floor-level that included these offerings. With the conquest, the altars were raised and included a backdrop of Jesus on the Cross and the Virgin of Guadalupe. Today, in many traditional homes we visit, the altar is placed on the ground as it was in ancient days. Around the altar, family members sit with their memories in quiet contemplation as the candles burn and the incense is constantly replenished.
In ancient times, family members were buried in tombs inside each home. With Catholicism, cemeteries became the place where the deceased were interred. Yet, the tradition of respect, reverence and solemn tribute to a loved one’s memory continued. In the 18 years I have lived in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, I have come to understand how important Day of the Dead is to the collective, family and individual memory of a loved one who has crossed over. I have sat quietly with friends at their family plots as they recall the life of the person buried there. Often, these plots will hold the bones of generations of family members, as the plot is recycled every ten years, the time it takes for a body to decompose. The grave is cleaned and the bones replaced there, readying it for the next occupant.
This is how we do it here.
In the last two years, all this has changed. Foreign visitors arrive on tour buses with painted faces and in Halloween costume. (Did you know that Halloween is the second biggest spending holiday in the USA next to Christmas?) They bring mezcal, beer and a picnic into the cemeteries. They gawk. They dance to the music the village band is playing to cheer the local community. It is party-time in Oaxaca regardless of local custom, and these external influences are changing local behavior.
I’m not one to say, Let’s keep everything the way it was. Change is inevitable and there has always been cultural interchange, innovation and adaptation. Yet, what I see I interpret as destructive. Locals are going earlier in the day to decorate the graves and then leave the cemetery before the crowd of visitors arrive. They prefer the peacefulness and solitude that marks this ritual. A few locals say, It’s good for business to have visitors. But, no one, in my opinion, who comes to the cemetery to party is going to buy a handwoven rug that may cost hundreds of dollars! They come to take away only an experience.
I often wonder if any of the guides who bring visitors has a conversation with them about cultural history and respectfulness, as we do when we bring people to the cemetery. When we take a small group we always go accompanied by a local friend who will take us to a family gravesite, sit with us, and explain the practices.
Oaxaca is now an international destination. It is attracting visitors who want to sample mezcal, dine in world renown restaurants, and immerse themselves in the excitement of the Day of the Dead comparsas — the parades — in Oaxaca city. The film Coco did much to popularize Day of the Dead, and I hear from friends in Patzcuaro, Michoacan, where the Coco story originated, that in the artisan villages surrounding the lake, Purepecha people have adapted and adopted the face painting and costumes to attract tourism.
When you visit, please be aware that you will leave a footprint. What kind of footprint do you want to have? What will you learn and what will you take away from participating in this ancient practice? How will you reflect on death and dying, and compare it to how mourning and remembrance is done in Mexico with where you come from? What are your own family traditions?
And, how would you respect your own grandparents and antecedents in the cemetery where they are buried?
Pre-Hispanic Oaxaca Cooking Class with Vicky Hernandez
High up the hill in the shadow of Oaxaca’s famed archeological site of Monte Alban is a humble comedor on a dirt side street down the hillside from a paved access road. Carefully make your way down a curved, steep stairway cut into the hill to find the simple kitchen of Cocina Pre-Hispanica con Fogon where Vicky Hernandez teaches about the origin of Oaxaca food. Simple yet complex, organic and healthy, flavorful and rich with tradition.
Carol, who has known Vicky for years, arranged this cooking class for her daughter and her daughter’s fella. I tagged along. While I used to own a gourmet cookware shop and cooking school, there is always more to learn, especially about the roots of Oaxaca food. Moreover, I remember meeting Vicky six years ago when she taught her first cooking class in Carol and David’s miniscule kitchen on Huzares.
First, what is a FOGON? This is the adobe mud table-height cooking stove fueled by wood and topped with a clay comal (griddle) that is nixtamalicized (coated with white calc so the corn doesn’t stick).
We start the morning at 8 a.m. Vicky picks us up in the Historic Center where Carol lives, hiring two taxis to ferry the four of us and her to Abastos Market first to do the shopping. Central de Abastos is one of the largest market in Mesoamerica. It is a maze, a warren, a hub of everything Oaxaca — food, drink, pottery, clothing, animals and feed. The uninitiated can get lost — easily. It is best to follow an expert like Vicky, who led us to her favorite organic vendors.
On the cooking class menu today are memelas, sopa de guias, quesadillas with squash blossoms, chicken with mole rojo, atole — all traditional pre-Hispanic foods. So we gather ingredients, wending our way through narrow aisles just as the market vendors start to set up shop. The bustling begins.
We are like ducklings and somehow, we end up on the other side of the market only to exit to find the taxis waiting for us on the street. We climb in and begin the drive up the winding Monte Alban hill.
The day is starting to heat up but the hillside shade keeps us cool. We start off with traditional sweet bread to dunk into a cup of steaming cafe de olla (sweetened coffee flavored with cinnamon). On the table are plump cobs representing different pre-Hispanic colors of corn. Vicky asks Becky to choose which color corn to use for the memelas, and Becky points to the red.
Vicky puts the corn kernels into a pot on the charcoal burner and adds calc. Corn needs human intervention to eat. The corn soaked and cooked in calc will soften the hard protective shell, making it edible. Then, the grinding begins. For speed, Vicky uses an untraditional hand-cranked grinder instead of a metate (original stone grinding platform).
We learn that corn soaked in ash is used for corn beverages like atole and tejate, while corn soaked in calc is used for food preparation. We learn that pre-Hispanic cooking translates to using only natural materials: clay, wood, calc and ash, and native plants.
The memelas are the best I’ve eaten, smeared with bean paste and topped with Oaxaca queso fresco (the crumbly local cheese). The corn base is shaped into a huarache (a shoe). The native red corn turns blue in the cooking. It is crunchy, nutty, filled with flavor. Corn and beans combined are an excellent protein source.
For the sopa de guias — squash vine soup — three local herbs are needed: chipil, chipiche and piohito. The base is water to which is added small round squashes called calabacitas that are quartered, squash blossoms (remove the stamens), shredded squash vine leaves, and 2” cut sections of the vine (thick outer strings removed like you do with celery stalks). Nothing of the plant goes to waste. We set about stripping the leaves and flowers from the chipil stalks, careful not to add the seed pods.
Next comes the herb epazote. This very aromatic green is used to flavor beans and squash blossom quesadillas. We use quesillo for this, the Oaxaca string cheese. Don’t be skimpy with the cheese! Vicky tells us epazote is also used as a tea to kill parasites and to eliminate gas and bloating when added to beans during cooking. She a scrambled egg sandwich with epazote and chopped onions is the best.
The mole rojo, the red sauce for the chicken, is started by cooking together roasted, skinned organic tomatoes and two tablespoons of vegetable oil, then adding two cups of chicken broth. Once this is combined and cooked, we add about one cup of mole paste Vicky bought in the market earlier. Later, we eat this slathered over a piece of cooked chicken, scooping up the sauce with pieces of tortilla. Yum.
Kitchen accoutrements are basic: a molcajete to make the salsas, a metate to grind the corn or cacao, a clay olla or cooking pot, a comal (griddle) on which to cook the tortillas. For the salsa to accompany the Sopa de Guias, Vicky puts sliced onion, lime juice, salt and chiles de agua in the molcajete her father made 50 years ago, smashing all the ingredients together. Aromatic and flavorful. If you can’t find chile de agua, you can substitute jalapeño or serrano chiles.
We sit to eat at a table in the humble comedor with views of the mountain above and the city below. The sun is shining and we are satisfied. At the entry, Vicky’s mother prepares an order for customers at the next table. I sip the hot atole. It is the best I’ve ever had, a rich corn liquid punctuated with small particles of floating corn. I ask to take home the corn residue left after squeezing the liquid through the gauze cloth. I’ll use this to add crunch to my homemade, gluten-free biscotti. In Italy, the residue is what makes polenta. Mexico, the source of corn, provides sustenance around the world.
When we finish, we walk to the crossroads a short distance from the comedor and hop on a new Oaxaca city bus that takes us back to the zocalo in the historic center I. 20 minutes. Cost: 8 pesos or 40 cents.
Note: Class is taught in Spanish. If you need translation, Vicky can arrange for a translator to be there with you.
How to find Vicky Hernandez:
Reserve class with linktree — linktr.ee/cocinaprehispanicaoaxaca
Cost: $1,800 pesos per person cash for a 5-hour experience
Highly recommend for great food and culinary education.
Posted in Cultural Commentary, Dining and Lodging, Oaxaca Mexico art and culture
Tagged Cocina Pre-Hispánica en Fogon, cooking, cooking class, food, Mexico, Monte Alban, Oaxaca, pre-Hispanic, tourism, traditional kitchen, travel, Vicki Hernandez