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.
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.
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.
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.
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…).