Monthly Archives: July 2010

Two great meals in the Oaxaca area

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Yesterday, as part of our “Arts and Crafts Week” here at the NEH Summer Institute on Mesoamerican Culture, we went to the town of Teotitlan del Valle.  There, Lynn Stevens, a distinguished professor of Anthropology and Ethnic Studies who lived and studied the weavers in Teotitlan.  She even learned how to speak Zapotec while she lived there!  Just for our visit, the family she lived with gathered and made a big lunch for us at their compound.

One of the things we did while we were there was to go out into the milpa, the cornfield.  There, corn (maize), beans and squash are grown at the same time (I had thought they were rotated by season or year).   The corn provides a stalk for the beans to climb on, and the squash is planted between the rows to keep the ground covered and the weeds out.  While we were out there, one of the men pulled up a weed and told me to taste it.  He said that this weed was going to be a part of the soup we were going to eat shortly.

Here is a milpa

We went back to the compound, where we were given a demonstration of dying wool using natural colorings.  Then, we sat down to long tables and prepared to eat.  It is a tradition to toast the meal with mezcal shots, and we also had agua de jamaica (hibiscus flower drink) to drink.  As promised, the soup was served to us first.

I found out later that the herb used in the soup was called chepil (or chipil) and it was very good.  Here is the info on it from a website on Mexican culinary herbs:

Chepil or chipil crotalaria longirostrata:  An important ingredient in Oaxacan cooking, probably because of its drought resistance, the tiny leaves are tucked into the famous tamales de chepil and their green bean-like flavor adds a delicious touch to white rice.

The sopa de chepil was served with squash blossom quesadillas made with freshly made tortillas.  The soup itself seemed to be a broth (chicken?) with chilis and corn masa.  There was cut up squash and chepil leaves in the soup as well.  I thought it was great.

chepil in the wild

Following the soup was chicken in mole negro, accompanied by white rice.  The mole sauce was great and I ate all of mine.  Dessert was a strange regional dish called nicuatole.  It’s basically, in the words of a colleague, “corn jello”.  I had a version at one of the local restaurants that had a very smoky taste, but apparently this is not usual.  The nicuatole served in Teotitlan del Valle was made from blue corn and had a thin layer of red dye on the top (the dye came from cochineal beetles – the same red dye used to color the wool for the rugs.)

The next day, we had a very interesting talk on corn by Marietta Bernstorff of the MAMAZ (Mujeres Artistas y el Maíz) Collective.  She had gotten together a group of women artists who have made art related to corn and its importance in the cycle of life.  There is a wide variety of artwork in their shows, including photography, collage, installations and multi-media works.  They are very concerned in protecting the traditional varieties of corn indigenous to Mexico.

Nicuatole, or "corn jello"

Then, we went to Itanoní, a restaurant in Oaxaca City that specializes in native corn from the Oaxaca area.  We had a tasting menu that consisted of: quesadillas made with blue or white corn, memelas with beans and queso fresco, and chalupas.  Next time I go, I will need to try their agua fresca made with lime juice and mint (or the one with lime juice and parsley…).

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Zapotec Ratatouille

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Before I came to Mexico, I made some (okay, a lot.  OKAY, TOO MUCH!) ratatouille in my crock pot.  Until we got tired of it, it was a good way to get our veggies in during the summer.  I am not always good about eating vegetables, and it’s nice to have some around to just heap in a bowl and run through the microwave.  With Parmesan or Mozzarella cheese on top, it was a meal.

There are a lot of recipes for ratatouille, but I definitely wanted to try and make it in the crock pot.  According to my computer, I either used this recipe or this one.  Because I live so close to the awesome and exotic Buford Highway Farmers’ Market, I had in the back of my mind an idea.  The idea was to make a ratatouille using vegetables and spices that come from Mexico.  I brainstormed:  Onion, Mexican zucchini, yellow squash, corn, poblano peppers, chayote, nopales, tomatillos… and I was going to use maybe epazote, dried chilies, cumin, Mexican oregano, and salsa verde to kick it up a bit.

I did a bit of searching on the internet, and of course, there are no new ideas under the sun, so I found a recipe for something called Mayan Ratatouille.  It is from Mario Martinez of A. J.’s Fine Foods in Phoenix, Arizona.  It is on several websites, so since I gave them credit, I will put it here:

Mayan Ratatouille

Ingredients:

  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 2 tbsp. minced fresh garlic
  • 1 large Spanish onion, peeled, cored & coarsely chopped
  • 2 chayotes (also known as cho-cho or mirliton), halved, seeded & coarsely chopped
  • 1 large red pepper, seeded & coarsely chopped
  • 2 Arbol chilies, seeded & coarsely chopped
  • 2 Tbsp. achiote paste
  • 1 Turkish Bay leaf
  • 1 large zucchini, halved lengthwise & sliced
  • 2 large, ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded & diced (substitute canned diced tomatoes if desired)
  • 1 Tbsp. paprika
  • ½ tsp. ground cumin
  • 2 Tbsp. dried epazote or 2 sprigs fresh
  • ¼ cup salad olives with pimento (or chopped pimento-stuffed green olives)
  • ¼ cup tomato paste
  • ¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper or hot sauce to taste

Preparation:

In a large skillet, heat the olive oil over high heat until hot, but not smoking. Add the garlic and onion and sauté until lightly browned. Add the chayote, peppers, achiote and bay leaf and sauté another 2-3 minutes. Add the zucchini, tomato, paprika, cumin, and epazote and cook, stirring often, for 3-5 minutes.

Add all remaining ingredients except for the cilantro, mix well, lower heat to low and cook another 6-8 minutes. Remove from heat, mix in the cilantro, and season to taste with salt and pepper or hot sauce. Serves 6-8.

So, here I am in Oaxaca, with markets all over the place.  I sent my husband to the local equivalent of the WalMart here – interesting that they have a Sam’s Club, but no WalMart – with a translated list of ingredients.  The ones he was not able to find, I made up at the big market called Benito Juarez.  This afternoon, I chopped and chopped, and here is what I have so far:

Zapotec Ratatouille

Ingredients:

  • 2 Mexican zucchini
  • 2 chayote squash (also called mirlitons)
  • 1/2 pound of chopped cactus paddles (nopales)
  • 1 white onion
  • 1 1/2 to 2 poblano peppers
  • 3 – 4 Roma tomatoes
  • 2 to 3 cloves of garlic
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 cup tequila or mezcal
  • 1 – 2 tsp. cumin seeds
  • 2 tbsp. chopped fresh parsley
  • 2 tbsp. chopped fresh epazote
  • 2 – 3 bay leaves
  • 3 sprigs of Mexican oregano (1 tsp. crushed)
  • 1 – 2 tsp. of paprika (I sort of over-poured…)
  • 2 – 210 gram cans of Herdez salsa verde
  • 1 – 210 gram box of La Costena tomato puree
  • 1 ancho chili pepper

1.  First, crush and dice the cloves of garlic.  Then, chop up the poblano peppers and onions into a dice.  Pour olive oil in to a pan and sautee until fragrant and softened.  Add Tequila or mezcal and let it boil for a bit…

2. While you are doing the cutting, cut up the tomatoes, zucchini, chayote, and nopales (I bought my nopales already chopped).  I added the tomatoes first, then cumin and let it simmer for a while.

3.  I added a can of salsa verde to the mix, stirred a bit, then dumped the rest of the vegetables in.  They needed to cook until they are soft.

4.  Now is when I start to randomly add herbs and spices.  Epazote has a bit of an anise/licorice taste.  I chopped that up, added some parsley, then another can of Herdez, and the tomato puree.

5.  Finally, I soaked the ancho chiles in boiling water.  Then, after they were soft, I put some of the liquid in a blender, added the chiles, some cumin, and a clove of garlic and some tequila.  I used it as a marinade for the chicken I made, and then added the leftovers to the ratatouille.

Okay, so it’s not that scientific.  Obviously, I am not ready to write a cookbook yet…  But play around with it and let me know what you come up with.

Lord Eight Deer Jaguar Claw

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Just before I left for Oaxaca, I started collecting Zapotec (and other Oaxacan) myths and legends.  I just happened to come across this book called The Legend of Lord Eight Deer: An Epic of Ancient Mexico by Dr. John M. D. Pohl.  I ordered a second-hand copy on Amazon.com and received it a while before I left for Mexico.

The story is based on Dr. Pohl’s interpretation of the Codex Nuttall, and on his research in the Oaxaca area.  Apparently, Lord Eight Deer was an important historical figure of the area’s past.  Here is a brief description:

“The Codex Nuttall is made of deerhide, pieced together to make one continuous strip over 40 feet long and roughly 6-1/2 inches high, then folded fan-wise into 10 inch sections to form a compact, 98 page “book”. Both sides were coated with fine lime plaster and 88 of the pages were painted with the vivid little scenes and date glyphs in bright colors.

The book is very well-written, and actually helped me to understand some of my high falutin’ readings on the codices.  When I bought it, I planned on taking it with me in my suitcase, but my husband scanned it and made PDF’s for me.  It was a really good idea, but…

The first night that we all met as colleagues, the NEH Mesoamerican Studies people threw us this fabulous party at the Casa de la Cultura here in Oaxaca.  There was food, and mezcal, and honored guests… including Dr. Pohl.  Of course, after he was introduced, and they had finished talking, I made a beeline to speak to him.  I told him how much I enjoyed his book and he said, “Oh, if you have your copy with you, I could sign it for you!”

Um, er, well…

I explained to him about the scanning (purely to save space – I DO own a copy of the book) and we had a little chuckle about it.  Since then, of course, we have been honored with his presence at a talk last Monday on Mixtec Codices.  He happens to be here with a group of his students and accompanied our group on tours of Coixtlahuaca and the ruins nearby.

A Spanish version of the Lord 8 Deer story

I have also bought this book: Ocho Venado, Garra de Jaguar, héroe de varios códices by Krystyna Magdalena Libura – It is in Spanish, but has great illustrations and descriptions. I plan on buying a copy of the Codex Nuttall, which Dr. Pohl told us that he used as a “guidebook and map” of the Mixtec Valley of Oaxaca.

I know that I have spoken a lot about Lord Eight Deer, but have not given much information about him.  I have really enjoyed, however, testing my knowledge of the calendar naming system of the Aztecs – so that I can at least read some of the names.  Dr. Pohl, Dr. Spores, and Dr. Wood have also given us some basic instructions on reading the codices, as well.

Mezcal and Mitlan, Part Two

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After having a tour of the mezcal making area, me and my new friend, Gabriel went to a covered hut where a woman was making corn tortillas.  He asked the nice lady to make a fresh tortilla for me, and I got to eat it after adding a bit of salt.  Then, it was time to taste mezcal.

It’s so strange, the variety of flavors that mezcal comes in.  I tasted some coco(nut) and strawberry.  Then, when we sat down to lunch, the waiters came around, offering MORE tastes of mezcal.  I had ordered beef tongue in a sauce, and it was okay.  The tongue, however, was a little sinewy, which doesn’t have to happen.  I did buy a small bottle of mezcal for our friends in Atlixco, as a hostess gift.


After lunch, we set off for Mitla, which is a ruin with a church built right on top of it, and a town all around the ruins.  It began to rain a little as we were touring, but it was not too bad.  I was fascinated by the intricate patterns formed by the limestone (?) bricks in the friezes at the top of the walls.  My favorite one was inside one of the rooms in the back part of the site.  I am still working on recreating that on graph paper.

This represents lightning...

After we left Mitla, I was really tired.  I think a lot of us were.  But, we took a little side trip to Tule, where they have an enormous tree.  It was truly magnificent, and I did go and look at it, but I didn’t take pictures.  You see, my husband took the camera with him after we parted ways at Monte Alban.  Tule also has a beautiful square, and I got to see it again when I went after some strays who took a wrong turn getting back to the bus.

Monte Alban and Mezcal, tour day part one

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Yesterday (Tuesday) was a field trip day.  The NEH fellows met at the corner of Constitucion and Reforma and boarded a large University bus with a very stoic bus driver with sideburns.  We made our way around the top of the valley to the archaeological zone of Monte Alban.  I had been there once before with my husband and father (in 2003), but this was a little different.

For one thing, we were accompanied by the foremost expert on Mixtec culture and history, Dr. Ronald Spores.  He would periodically stand up on the bus and point out places in the distance, usually covered by urban sprawl, that were Zapotec or Mixtec sites.  He maintains that the indigenous peoples of Oaxaca state never “died”, but are alive and well up until the present.

We got down at the entrance to Monte Alban, where we were met by family members who came on a separate bus.  My husband and nephew were there – my husband taking pictures, of course.  My nephew, who is into geocaching, was volunteered by me to operate a GPS donated to the Virtual Oaxaca Project.  The idea was to map the exact locations of the major buildings at the site so that it can be recreated in a virtual world, probably on Second Life.

To that end, I walked around with a notebook and pen, and each time Robert (my nephew) plotted the coordinates of a major temple or the ball court, or anything major, I wrote down the name of the place and its coordinates (latitude and longitude).  It ended up being quicker to just do the last digit, the “seconds” because the degrees and the minutes did not change.

Let me tell you that we went to EVERY tomb, edifice, pile of rocks, etc. that there was at Monte Alban.  The only place I did not go was to the top of the South Pyramid.  My nephew, of course, trotted up and down that twice, measuring coordinates at the base of the steps and at the top of the structure.

I stayed at the bottom and tried to sketch a hieroglyph that looked a bit like Donald Duck – I don’t know what was up with the bill… Maybe it was a visor.  While I was sketching that, the husband of a co-participant (David Geer) was sketching me!

Can you tell it's me?

After we left Monte Alban, we were heading for Mitla.  First, we planned on stopping at a restaurant and mezcal distillery for lunch.  Alas, we has an adventurous side-track because the highway was blocked – we think it was some kind of protest.  Our bus driver said he knew a “short cut”. and turned off onto a dirt road.  A one-track dirt road.  With cars going in both directions as they made their way around the blockade.  Did I mention that we were in a tour bus?  He got through just fine, but boy, were we ready for some mezcal tasting when it was done!!!

Rancho Zapata was the name of the restaurant/showroom and it is one of those destination restaurants for families to come to for the weekend.  They bring their kids with them (there’s a playground), have a leisurely lunch on the covered patio, and buy a little mezcal.  The place is operated by Mezcal Benevá, and they also raise race horses there.  There are stables in the back.

The front of the restaurant is decorated with old pictures of Emilio Zapata, and the back room has starting gate and finish line photos of their winning horses.  In the back is also a palenque or press for getting the juice out of the maguey roots.  There are vats with maguey in several states of fermentation, and a big murky tub feeding liquid into the distillers.  From there, the mezcal drips into big plastic tanks to be bottled later, I guess.

Now, the one thing I learned about this whole process is that there are a LOT of flies.  Flies on the growing maguey plants, flies on the pulverized core, flies on the vats of fermenting pulp, and flies over the murky tub.  The one source of comfort is that that stuff is boiled, distilled and stored in a fly-proof tank.  Did you know that some mezcals (not all) have an maguey worm in them?  They should really put a fly in there!

More later!  I have another long day in a bus tomorrow and I’ve got to get to bed.

First Day of Class

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Exterior of Santo Domingo church

Yesterday was my first day of “classes”.  We meet in a beautiful convent (ex-convent?) called the Santo Domingo Cultural Center.  The best thing is that it’s only a couple of blocks from where we are staying.  We have to have ID badges to get in, and our class is being held in the back of the gigantic convent kitchen.  I will have to take pictures of the frescos – at least in our classroom.

First, we have “Homeroom” where we discuss things we’ve seen – this session was more of a “getting to know you” group.  After a break on the terrace overlooking the gardens, we were given an introduction to the different groups of indigenous people who live in the Oaxacan state by Dra. Maria de los Angeles Romero Frizzi, an ethnohistorian and senior researcher with the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH).

We walk past the cloisters to get to our classroom.

In the afternoon, we met at the Fundacion Bustamante for a  lecture given by Dr. Michael Swanton, Coordinator of Linguistic Projects at the Biblioteca Francisco Burgoa will speak to us on “Languages and Cultures in Oaxaca.”  It was not easy to find the Fundacion, but we finally got there.  As there were no more chairs, I sat on a table in the back.

In addition to this, my nephew, Robert, was scheduled to land at the airport at 7:00 PM for the third leg of his trip to visit us.  He first flew from New Orleans to Dallas/Ft. Worth, then from there to Mexico City, and finally from D. F. (another name for Mexico City) to Oaxaca.  There were several updates from my husband, but the bottom line was that his flight was 2 hours and 45 minutes late getting in.  To add to the confusion, Mexicana Click, the airline, changed the flight number.  So, although I was fairly certain they were the same flight, you never know…

When he got to the apartment, I made some sopes for him and we fixed up the futon in the living room for him to sleep on.  Even though he must have been beat, he wanted to come along on the trip to Monte Alban in the morning.  Since family members are not allowed on the bus, which is for US NEH scholars, there was an alternative plan.  All of the S. O.’s (Significant Others, so that no one get’s left out) were going to go separately and meet us there.

More about the field trip tomorrow.  Time to go to bed!

Getting a cell phone in Mexico…

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Yesterday, my husband and I got off to a slow start, exhausted from our travels.  Our priorities, after seeking breakfast – er, brunch – were:

  • find a Telcel cellphone retailer and buy SIM card chips to make our phones work less expensively in Mexico.
  • Go to a Soriana supermarket – which is the closest there is to a WalMart here in Oaxaca.  (Curiously, Sam’s Club – Yes; WalMart – No).
  • Get everything put away in our little kitchen and apartment.

After a lovely breakfast of chilaquiles and Diet Coke, we set off on foot to find the Telcel store recommended by Dr. Wood (my program chief).  It was located on 607 Porfirio Diaz, a street which is only one block over from our street, Garcia Vigil.  Or so we thought…

First, we did locate the local mercado (a street market, or hive of small business owners selling everything from blue jeans to saddles to meat to produce).  We took note of the location and plan to go there for stocking up on fresh foods.  Since it was on Porfirio Diaz, we kept going north.  The address numbers read 200, then 300, so we were pretty sure that 607 would come up soon.

After a while we were walking along a beautiful old aqueduct, and then we came upon a stretch of street where everything was broken up.  While we were trying to decide how to get around it, we noticed that the street numbers had far surpassed the 600s.  So, we tracked back, counting carefully as we retraced our steps.  No Telcel store.

We looked at the address again – it said 607 Calz. Porfirio Diaz.  Calz. stands for calzada.  Could there be two different Porfirio Diaz streets?  Well, coming from “Peachtree Street USA” – we figured it was possible.  The first person we asked – a young lady selling newspapers in candy from a booth on the sidewalk – had no idea what we were talking about.

We moved on to a hotel lobby with a gift shop, and that young lady led us to a big map they had posted on a wall in the shop.  Yes, Calzada Porfirio Diaz is different from Porfirio Diaz (calzada means road).  She then indulged me by showing me how to pronounce “Netzahualcoyotl” – the name of a street I espied and hoped I never had to use in giving directions.

As we were walking along Niños Héroes, a major thoroughfare, we espied an Office Depot.  My husband was so excited!  We could check on printer prices.  So, while I was temporarily distracted by the abundance of Distroller notebooks and backpacks, he went to the printer area and scoped things out.  We were able to buy a printer/scanner for about what you’d pay in the U.S. for a bottom of the line item of this sort.  We decided to return here after the Telcel store and buy one, taking a taxi home.

After we found the correct Porfirio Diaz, we started up the street.  Many businesses and residences do not have numbers, so we had to keep track whenever we espied one.  These blocks seemed MUCH longer than the ones on the previous street, and I didn’t know if I would make it to 607.  In the middle of the 200 block, I saw a 300 address – but it was just a cruel joke.  Finally, we took refuge in a paleta (ice cream popsicles) shop called Popeye.  I had a cajeta paleta and Wheat had a pineapple.

We agreed that it was going to take forever to get 4 more blocks under our beld, so we decided to ask at the Telcel store across the street.  There was a security guard there, and he had no idea where 607 was.  He was very friendly, though, and this was a large Telcel store, so we decided to settle on that one.  Recommendations be damned.

(My husband wanted me to include his joke – He requested “Dos tarjetas SIM por Carlos Slim” – the guy did laugh)

The process of replacing our chips was fairly straightforward, since my husband had obtained the unlock codes from AT&T before we left.  For about $15 each, we got a Oaxacan phone number and 50 pesos of talk time (about 20 local minutes).  After it was all said and done, the cashier handed over our paper work.  Guess where we were?  607 Calz. Porfirio Diaz.  Talk about an inscrutable address system!

We hailed a taxi, who took us to the Office Depot and waited while we got the printer and some paper (and a Distroller notebook for me).  Then, we went home.  Throughout the day, my pedometer told me we had walked 6.66 miles.  Whew!

Aqui estamos!

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The airport in the daytime.

This evening, we arrived at the Xocotlan Airport in Oaxaca.  There were quite a few of my colleagues on our flight, and we were met at the airport by Dr. Stephanie Wood and Yasmin Acosta-Myers.  We all climbed aboard a couple of collectivo taxis and made our way into town.  The airport is about a 20 minute drive from our part of town.  I can’t wait to see everything in the daylight.

Last time I was in Oaxaca, it was 2003 and I came with my father and my husband.  We stayed at the Holiday Inn Express, and mostly stuck to the center of town – with one trip to Monte Alban.  I look forward to living here for a month as a resident!  Our apartment is very close to where most of my classes will be, and that is why I chose it. There are, I think, two other NEH fellows staying here, too.

It’s a nice apartment, but there are a few things we found out this evening when we got here:

  • There is no microwave – that’s okay, but it’s strange to see when most hotels these days (I know, in the U.S.) have them.  The stove is gas.
  • The first big bottle of water is free.  After that, we pay by the bottle.
  • Same thing for the toilet paper.
  • If a third person uses the futon in the living room for sleeping, it costs $10 per night outside of the $695 we have already paid.  (I actually found out about that before we came)
  • There are no screens on the window, and you should close them when you are gone to avoid “visits by the cat”.

Here is the floor plan – we have one of the one story apartments in the little complex of 6 apartments.  Isn’t it cute?  And that little closet looking thing between the bedroom and the kitchen?  It’s just a “hole” in the building where they put the water tank, I think.  I had thought it would be a pantry.

Tomorrow, my husband wants to go right out and find a way to get cell phone service here.  A lot of other people have done it, so it is possible and supposed to be not too expensive.  We also are going to the market to stock up on food and supplies like toilet paper and Diet Cokes.

Our opening reception is on Sunday evening, and apparently Dr. Wood (call her Stephanie) and Yasmin are doing a lot of cooking for it!  Can’t wait!  On Monday evening, my nephew from Louisiana is coming to stay with us for a week.  He’s been taking Spanish and has only been to Cozumel, so I really am happy to be able to welcome him here in Oaxaca!

My dog is the one on the right. But they will both miss me!

Oh, our dog is being cared for by my in-laws in Atlanta, who have a great back yard and two children who are excited about having a dog visit.  That is so great of them, and they were awesome to offer.  It really makes a difference, knowing that she’s in such good hands.