This article is from the December 1997 - January 1998 The Mexico File newsletter.
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Savoring Oaxaca, Or How I Became a Seasoned Traveler

by Michael Thompson

Michael Thompson is an artist/designer living in San Antonio, Texas, who travels to Mexico as often as he can. He has visited Mexico City, San Miguel de Allende, and Oaxaca, and is planning a trip to Guadalajara and Morelia in March.

We have all heard the saying, "You are what you eat." Usually this phrase is invoked when trying to emphasize the relationship between a healthy diet and a healthy body. While this is true, it can also be used to illustrate how food defines a people or a culture. What we eat, which ingredients are used, how it is prepared, and what ingredients and equipment are used ... all tell a story about the culture of a people. In other words, what we eat speaks not only of who we are as a people, but also of our history and geographic location on this planet.

So, with this said, what better way to get to know a people than to take a cooking class. On a recent trip to Oaxaca I had the pleasure of participating in a one-day class on the cuisine of this fascinating region of Mexico. Granted, one day is hardly enough time to scratch the surface on such a topic, but it certainly provided a good introduction and stimulated my appetite to learn more.

My instructor was Susana Trilling, owner of "Seasons of My Heart" cooking school. She arrived promptly at 9:00 in the morning to chauffeur me and my companion, Rafe, to the class. After one more stop to pick up another couple, we were on our way. As she drove through the bustling city streets in her vintage VW Beetle, she informed us of the day’s itinerary. The first segment of the class would consist of a shopping trip to a market in the town of Etla where we would buy the ingredients needed for the class. Next we would proceed to Susana’s home on a ranch nearby where we would each get hands-on experience in preparing the selected recipes for the day’s menu. And finally we would sit down to enjoy the meal we had prepared ... after which Susana would return us to our respective hotels at around 6:00 that evening.

The drive to Etla gave us all time to get acquainted. Susana, to my surprise, is originally from my hometown of San Antonio, Texas. At one time she owned a restaurant in New York City which specialized in Cajun food. A few years ago, however, she came for a visit to Oaxaca, and not only did she fall in love with the land and its people, but also with Eric, the man who would become her future husband. She has lived in Oaxaca for the past nine years. She lives on a ranch a few miles north of the city in a spacious adobe house she and Eric built themselves. And it is there that she operates her cooking school, as well as a bed and breakfast.

After about a half-hour’s drive we arrived at the market in Etla. Here Susana assumed her role, not only as the procurer of the foodstuffs to be used in the class, but also as our tour guide. We also assumed our roles, not only as conspicuous tourists but also human beasts of burden. We were each handed two large nylon bags which, by the end of the morning, would be brimming with produce, both familiar and exotic. She led us through the puestos or booths of the various vendors with self-assurance, pointing out things of interest, making a purchase here or exchanging small talk in Spanish there. Occasionally Susana would buy samples of ready-to-eat food for us to try. For example, we would try a savory tamal wrapped in a banana leaf or a cup of tejate, a local drink of ancient origin made from corn flour, cocoa and coconut and topped with a thick foam. Then it was perhaps a hot cup of champurado, a chocolate drink, along with a piece of pan dulce, a Mexican pastry.

The sounds of the market were just as interesting as its sights. No matter where one went, the most commonly asked question of the day was, "¿Que va a llevar?" (What will you take? What’ll ya have?). Elsewhere, an old man walked through the market crying out in a deep and raspy voice,

"MATAMOSCA-A-A-S" (flyswatters, literally, flykillers). A tiny old woman selling extremely large tortillas from a basket by her side shouted "Tlayudas. Tlayudas. ¿Tlayudas, señor?" At one stall, after buying some tomatoes from a matronly woman, Susana gave her a photograph taken by a participant from one of her previous classes. It showed the woman, seated in her booth and selling tomatoes. A smile brightened the woman’s face. She thanked Susana in Spanish and said something that none of us understood, except for Rafe. He informed us that the woman said she was happy, because now she would have a picture of herself for her family to display at her funeral, "when the time comes." For us it was a poignant and unexpected response, but for her it was merely a statement that reflected her acceptance of the duality of existence: life and death.

But there was too much life pulsating around us to dwell on such somber thoughts for long. By the time we had finished shopping, which was around noon, we had acquired several bags full of raw ingredients. Now the challenge was about to begin: to turn these meats and vegetables into an authentic Mexican meal. After loading bags brimming with tomatoes, onions, chicken, squash blossoms, chiles, corn, nopales, epazote and a world of other ingredients, there was barely any room for the five of us in Susana’s Volkswagen. The added weight of our purchases was so great that I was actually afraid the car might scrape bottom as we took off down the cobblestone streets.

A brief drive brought us to Susana’s home near the town of Etla. The adobe structure is surrounded by orange trees laden with fruit, and an enormous bougainvillea covers one side of the house. The ruins of Monte Alban can be seen in the distance, keeping their centuries-old watch over the valley. Susana informed us that there are many other ruins nearby that are as yet unexcavated. The history of the area comes alive when you enter her home through a collection of precolumbian artifacts grouped on a windowsill. These pieces attest to the long and varied human occupation of this area over thousands of years.

Susana’s assistants brought in our shopping bags and washed and prepped the produce we had bought. After a few minutes of rest we were given a brief orientation on the next phase of the class. We each chose two recipes we had an interest in and then we got started. Soon the kitchen was alive with activity. Susana would come around to each of us to check on our progress, answer questions, and provide tips on our technique. The equipment we used ranged from the modern to the ancient. Electric blenders and food processors served duty alongside an iron comal and a stone molcajete and matate y mano. These last two items have been used since time immemorial. Carved from volcanic stone, they are used to grind seeds, nuts, corn and other ingredients. Food ground in this manner gives the finished dish its unique texture. The comal was made of clay in antiquity, but nowadays is made of iron. Placed over a fire, it is used like a griddle to toast everything from corn tortillas to chiles, onions and garlic. It is this toasting that gives the food a nice smoky taste and enhances the natural flavors.

After everything was completed we all sat down at the table to enjoy the fruits of our labor. Susana poured each of us a shot of mescal and we toasted to a culinary success. We then proceeded with our leisurely meal with good conversation while the food was served by Susana’s assistants. After dinner we spent a few minutes more reflecting on the events of the day and then Susana drove us back to our hotels in Oaxaca City.

I often look through the many photos that we took that day and reflect on the smiling faces in these photos. They are truly indicative of the good time we shared. One does not have to be a professional chef to take this class. Even if you have only a passing interest in cooking or cuisine, or if you simply want to gain insight into the local culture, this class provides an excellent experience. This will long remain one of my fondest memories of this enchanting region of Mexico.

For more information, you can contact Susana Trilling at Seasons of My Heart: 011-52-951-87726 (fax). Day, weekend and week-long cooking classes are available.