Saturday, July 24, 2010

Musings Prior to Day of The Dead.....Mitla 2007

Day of the Dead is almost here and I have to admit that I am far more excited this year than last because I have thrown myself into the preparations with gusto. This is far more fun than Christmas as far as I am concerned.

I have been having a rather difficult time trying to describe the flurry and frenzy so this morning I decided I would find a spot to park my ass and just absorb the smells and sounds and all that good stuff. Perhaps I may even be able to share some of that.

Today is the thirtieth and the market is bustling like I have never seen it before. My nostrils are assailed by the odors emanating from the various pots of incense burning. I like the smell when it is outside and not confined in some silly cathedral. It seems more natural and there are many varieties. I am reminded of my trip to Morocco when I smell it.

I am hungry this morning so I head to the indoor market to visit my empanada lady who dutifully tells me the price every morning for my favourite breakfast (3 whole pesos per empanada!!) even though I have been eating here everyday since I arrived. It has become a sort of game with us. Her empanadas are pure Oaxaca, stuffed with the stringy quesillo and flavoured with epazote, a local Zapotec herb that I am very fond of using for frijoles and soups.

Dona Maria must be at least eighty-something years old. Every crack in her face is a story and then some. I dare not ask her if I can take a shot. Instead I burn into memory these lines. It has taken me most of this month to win her over and yes she did remember me from last year but that was, after all, last year. She makes some great salsas and is very proud of her recipe. She gets very insistent with me to slather my empanadas with her concoction and she will watch to see how much I use. Today I used a lot and she was content with that.

I like being back here for I have gotten to know many Mitlenos. They can be a conservative bunch at the best of times but it is festive events that seem to wash away the taint of modern life that has invaded even this staid valley town. Folks from the outlying communities, you can tell because they are dressed up in their Sunday best, have been gathering here for the last several days. This is what I like to call the last big blowout before the spending orgy that entails Christmas only this one has far more significance as far as I am concerned.

Day of the dead comprises more than one day and no I am not going to describe it here. Google it in for there are writers that are far better equipped than me who can give the more anthropological slant. I concentrate on the food and family stuff. In other words I am gonna make you sing for your suppers and yes I am a lazy bastard sometimes.

Mole, mole and more mole. There are several varieties for sale today but most folks will make their own from trusted family recipes. Today for example I will be going to a mole lesson where I hope I will do my teacher proud later when I attempt to do my family's honored recipe that was so good that former President Zedillo ordered buckets of it to take back to Mexico City. I don't think for a second that on my first attempt I will triumph to that degree but as long as it tastes good I will be happy. Sublime will come much later.

Flowers and oranges and more flowers and oranges and apples, so many varieties of such that I am truly surprised. Belize could learn a thing or two if they sent some trade envoys up to live in this valley. I bet they would never go back after experiencing the choices here for fresh foodstuffs.

The orange trucks came in late last Friday and set up on the corners near the main plaza. The oranges are used mainly to decorate the altars that are in just about every home down here. Well maybe not up in the evangelical gringo gulag on the other side of town but who gives a shit about those party poopers anyway? Some altars are very modest and then there are some that defy description and can be so campy as to be cool but they all have oranges and apples in common as main decorations.

There is a Zapotec country woman who has just walked by and I will describe her outfit. She has to be around my age as many of the younger women, even those from the smaller villages, are choosing jeans and sweaters rather than the traditional garb which I believe looks far nicer. Firstly let's see her hair - it is in long pigtails that reach her arse and it is braided in a very loud orange color. Her hair is of course jet black and contrasts nicely with the orange braiding.

She is wearing a crispy white blouse embellished with rocket red roses, hand-embroidered of course, and to top it all off she is wearing a red plaid pleated skirt. Now that is a first for the village ladies tend to wear the same uniform of plain dress covered by hand embroidered full apron, earth-toned reboso (scarf) draped over and around the shoulders. Hair done the same way as the stylish village lady but cloth braiding more plain in colour. Most will also be wearing blue flowered head scarves. You see this uniform so often that when a creature walks by in a red plaid skirt you take notice. Did I also mention that she was gorgeous and that her husband followed her? Cool. He was dressed pretty snappy too and not cowboy kitschy.

Holy shit! Right across the street is my tortilla maestra Josefina clutching a bunch of marigolds that almost obscure her. Well she is a little person but boy does she move fast and her tortillas rock! Yes Marigolds and many more varieties of flowers are for the buying. The flowers are not just for the home altars but for the cemetery (Panteon) that plays a central role this week. This is the week that we honour and celebrate the dead by lavishing much attention on the graves of those who have preceded us.

We honor the spirits, sing to them, give them their favourite treats (in many cases shots of mescal and sometimes joints, toys and foods and will be placed reverently on gravesites) and make sure that every site is honored, especially the sites of the few foreigners who may not have family to clean up or honor their burial area.

Man sometimes it is so hard to concentrate with all the noises and no I do not mean the market and people noises but the new annoying modern noises as generated from the moto taxis, a new phenomena for Mitla. It used to be, and that was just last year for crying out loud!, that if you had a bunch of groceries you could flag down a bicycle taxi and have a leisurely ride back to your home but no more. We now have a hundred of these putt-putt things and it seems that damned near every one of them is driven by someone under twenty-five years of age who thinks he is Mario Andretti. Sorry boys, I am.

Where I am sitting is the main intersection so imagine a traffic jam comprised of these silly machines with drivers impatiently honking their horns as if they are going to get anywhere faster today! Not a chance. The streets are choked with people, livestock, flowers, oranges…best to walk I would think. Besides, how else is one to get an essence of what is going on? I hope that in the years to come that Mitla maintains its traditions and doesn't get too caught up in the bustle that afflicts Tlacolula just down the road. They don't seem to take Day of the Dead as seriously as they used to. Here it is celebrated with gusto.

It is now just a little after ten a.m. and I am hoping that the ladies with the charcoal grills are preparing chuleta and filete for I am looking forward to having some beef. It is a treat to be sure. Man you could eat market food every day and not break the proverbial bank.

I am now on my third cafe con leche. I love the coffee here for they enhance it with cinnamon (canela) and yes, unlike American coffee it has body for it home-roasted and fresh-ground.

For the last two weeks in our kitchen we have been preparing for this week by making rounds of chocolate spiced with cinnamon for the de rigeur Oaxacan hot chocolate which is served with pan de muerte. Every village has its own particular take on this bread and some loaves are quite ornate. Think of the hennae designs on the arms of Indian ladies and you will have an idea as to how some of these loaves are decorated. Some come with little icing angels on them or Jesus themes. The little angel breads are for the one day that we remember the little children who have passed away.

Folks have been fattening turkeys for sale this week. Turkey is the choice meat to have with the moles. Another village up the road, Teotitlan, serves up tamales made with mole Amarillo (yellow mole) and boy are those tasty tamales.

We are not doing turkey this year but will do instead barbacoa with mole. Barbacoa in this region means goat meat and I for one really enjoy it. Not for everyone but I like the rich flavour and when served on fresh, hot tortillas it makes for an excellent meal.

You have to pace yourself when making the rounds of eating (that is front and centre after the cemetery visit) for each household will offer you hot chocolate, pan de muerte, a mole concoction and of course shots of mescal. It is the latter that can really bite you on the ass so I have a strategy already planned. I will take a small bowl and a small shot glass with me to each home I visit so I do not get inundated for on visiting day I will be going to at least ten homes.

Just outside the cafe where I am there is a group of country ladies sitting down on the sidewalk having their mid-morning snack of tortillas some sort of meat stuffing.

The tortillas in this region are worth mentioning for they are not of the wimpy northern sizes that we are used to. These tortillas can sometimes be
almost two feet across and the so-called regular ones measure a healthy ten inches or so in diameter. They are served hot or crispy and my favourite ones come from a small village and are made with blue corn.

A huge tourist bus is trying to make its way past the square towards the ruins. Hahahaha - good luck buddy. As much as I can sometimes be a real snob about certain varieties of tourists I have to admit that it is good to see them coming back to Oaxaca after a prolonged statewide strike. The local economy has taken a major hit since last year and the recovery of such may never happen.

This cafe is a great vantage point this morning and I wonder why I have never sat here and worked before. Maybe because I always felt like I would be too visible. Today that is not the problem and I am able to write unnoticed which is nice. I have only had one person approach me and that was a gringa looking for ways to get to Hierve la Agua (a spectacular waterfall not too far from here). It just so happens that I know Hugo, the man who drives tourists up there so I told her how to find him but I warned her that Hugo may be missing in action for his wife is really pissed off at him. I will see if he is still alive later this week when Richard and I invade his place for our hot chocolate and mescal. It seems that Hugo got rooked into providing a huge breakfast for a visiting fiesta band and he did not tell his wife of this and if I was her I would be angry too for it would be she doing the bulk of the work! Hugo got conned into this honor� when he was sort of in his cups? Hahahahahaha. Never commit to a favour when you have been drinking. Not a good idea and I am sure Hugo will never hear the end of it.

A lady just walked by with a huge bunch of basil with the purple flowers. I smelled the bouquet long before I saw it! Yes, I have been making pesto. Of course!!

A girl is walking past carrying bunches of sugar cane no doubt to festoon the altar at her home. This is so cool this day and finally the nasty weather that has been plaguing us seems to have vanished. It was windy and cold and miserable to say the least but today makes up for that. I am getting coffee-d out now and have the urge to walk to the net cafe in order to post musings to friends.

Author's note......this first appeared in fall of 2007 on a forum,

Day of the Dead and Drag Queens - Part Three of the Mole Tales



Day of the Dead is a celebration, not a time for lamentation. Folks down here have a rather interesting POV when it comes to the concept of death. The ones who have departed come back every year to feast, smoke and drink and sing with the living. In Zapotec culture they believe that death means starting to live. They tend to celebrate deaths moreso than births because of this belief.

I know I am really boiling down some serious concepts here but I am not a trained anthropologist and as far as I am concerned there are some folks in this field that could use an enema or five.

The big afternoon cry fest, post mole production, was not really a cry fest but more a time for my good friend Richard to let off some steam. He had taken some friends, Bill, Alan and Frank, to the ruins in Mitla, appropriately known as the City of the Dead. Richard has cancer and the fact that at this writing he is still alive is a testimony to his need to explore and understand these same concepts that he has been enveloped in for most of his life. I am happy that he got to be around for this particular fiesta for obvious reasons. This is indeed a special time.

I had been told to meet everyone in the courtyard for drinks but when I saw Richard, drinking was the last thing on my mind. One moment he would be crying that he was not yet ready to die and the next moment he would be hysterically laughing that planning a death was not all it was cracked up to be. I ignored as best as I could all of his rantings because I did not want to lose it�. I had made my peace with his disease well over a year ago and I wanted this time to be one of camaraderie and not one of boo hoo hooing. That shit can come later.

Some things remain blurry and for good reason. I am not going to describe what I saw that afternoon for to me that is kind of private and I do not believe that Ricardo would appreciate my telling it here. Suffice to say it was an intense several hours. Alan was headed back to Oaxaca, returning the next day, but Bill was going to sleep in his truck with his corgie. This left mister Frank. I told him to come and bunk with my family as we always can spare space and the family loves to meet new folks. We put Richard to bed for tomorrow he would need his energy for the visitations.

Frank is a fellow writer and when I first saw him earlier in the day my gaydar went right off the scale. We conversed as if we had known each other all of our lives and this my friends is a wonderful feeling to have when you are stressed out. I needed a diversion or five and Frank was to provide diversions not only for me but for my family who were suffering through a particular crises of their own. Let's just say that the visit had been very intense and not just because of the holy times.

Frank, Alan, Bill and Richard had earlier in the day visited the ruinas and Frank had recorded all of Ricardo's words so he could later transcribe them. I thought this was a great idea for Richard always has some sort of bawdy anecdote to add into his historical musings. Frank would have his work cut out for him and I would be able to fill in the gaps later.

Now after I got Frank settled in we decided that the time was right to go out exploring - read - find a bar. It's not that I wanted to get shitfaced for tomorrow would be a busy day but I wanted to sit down with Frank and have, well, a frank discussion about not only the day's events but our collective journalistic experiences.

We caught a moto to Ruben's cantina but he was closed so I asked the driver to take us to any cantina. Now the driver must have had gaydar too for he dropped us off at the home of Mitla's only reigning official Drag Queen Miss Ruby. Miss Ruby is amazing to see with her well-defined Zapotec nose and her statuesque presence - god damn - those heels of hers! She has my admiration for this is one conservative town if there ever was but hey this was October 31st so let the fun begin!

Miss Ruby's family are pretty cool folks for they allowed her to have a cantina/dance/lounging space right in the family home. We met other
folks of the same persuasion and proceeded to have some great conversation. Frank was all pumped up about possibly seeing more DQ's out and about but the big drag event for Day of the Dead that had happened two years ago was a one-shot deal. Ruby confirmed this but went on to tell us that a boffo party was happening at another cantina near the ruins and yes, the DQ brigade would be out in full force.

Now I will digress here a bit. The town of Juchitan in the Istmo region (Tehuantepec area) is a town worth exploring if gay/drag culture is your thing. Those of us in the know already know about Puerto Vallarta's boy's town area but Juchitan is the real thing babies! In this town parents brag about their gay sons for they know that they will have someone to look after them in their old age. In Juchitan the closet has never existed.

We grab another moto, address in hand, and head for the party. Miss Ruby promises to be in attendance later. Typical Queen. She needed to get real gussied up as if she was not fabulous already?

We arrive and are greeted by this wonderful cadre of queens, not as statuesque as Ruby but glamorous all the same. I provided much amusement by letting off some firecrackers at the hangers-on lingering around the corner who were too cheap or scared to go into the party. Tossing small incendiaries by the way is to me, a big part of the fun. The locals seem to think that gringos do not know the system but hahahaha I do. I just wished that I could have had some cherry bombs on hand. Alas, not so. I made do with what I had.

Frank asked me if we should get some mescal. I was a little leery about this because I know how deadly it can be but I threw all caution to the wind this night. Why not? I have pretty much given up hard liquor so a little tumble off of the wagon could be fun? The bartender happened to have a bottle of anejo (old) mescal. We have a joke around here about anejo products. Folks want to impress you, the traveler, so they drag out any donkey piss to serve you and tell you it is anejo. A seasoned mescal aficionado like me can tell the difference but I never say anything. I just do not go beyond the one shot. Being a woman is definitely advantageous for women do not traditionally drink down here so I can bow out of a bad mescal situation without hurting anyone's feelings.

This mescal however was ANEJO and therefore damned good. So good in fact that we got into it and got into good right down to the ground up GUSANOS (worms) flavoured with chile salt. I had maybe three shots and I knew that was my limit. Ahhhh, but as to beers? No limits there. Once the music got going me and the girls had some fun.

More folks started to arrive but there was something really strange about this. The majority of the attendees were young males, definitely not gay but seriously curious. They all sat in a circle hugging the walls gaping at the spectacle. Frank was in boy heaven and I gave him his space. It was fun to watch him govereeting with the young men.

I had a sweater on and was starting to get hot. Dancing a samba will do that to you so I decided to take it off ( I had a decent-sized sport tank bra on) and create a mini-scandal. I love to dance and yes, I did dance with absolute mescal abandon and I could keep up to the frenetic beats. A couple of diesels (dykes) moved in on me and I was so much taller than them but the queens formed a phalanx around me as these chicks were trying way too hard.

The place was getting more packed and the bartender told me I could not let off anymore firecrackers. Okay, that was cool as there was lots of papier mache around that could have caught fire.

A man started to dance with me, obviously straight and his English was very good. He started twirling me around and as I got closer to him he tried to cop a titty feel. Oh that is just so amateur-hour so I gave him a nice little cuff across his left cheek like I would to a stroppy little boy for that is what he was and he was old enough to know better. Now some folks would get angry but he knew that his behaviour was uncalled for and he immediately apologized and bought me a beer. Frank was pissed off that he did not see the exchange for he would have been greatly amused.

The time came soon to leave for I was fading fast. I am usually in bed by 9 PM and it was already two in the morning and that day was gonna be busy. It turned out that my dance partner had a moto taxi and he graciously offered to take us back to Artemio's. I bade the DQ brigade goodnight, Frank got some addresses of folks who wanted him to visit later, and we left. When our driver discovered where we were going he confessed to me that he used to date Artemio's daughter Irma. Hahahahahahahaha! This was just too too precioso.

Lucia had left some food out for us and we snacked. I drank gobs of water because I did not want to be CRUDA (hungover) the next day. Fat chance of that working right? I had somewhat crossed the line of reason but I am one of those folks that no matter what the show must go on.

The church bells were tolling as we went to bed still calling out the Angeles (the little dead children spirits) to come out and eat and drink. On the 31st at exactly high noon Don Juan had stood in front of our shrine saying novenas to welcome the little spirits as Lucia and I had made sure that the little cups of hot chocolate and treats were placed reverently there for them to partake of.


We arose early because there were many preparations to be undertaken. The day before we had all bought huge bunches of flowers, some to be placed around the shrine and the rest to go with us to the PANTEON (cemetary).

Frank and I wandered over next door to Artemio's bro Ernesto's place, where Ricardo lives, and we had coffee with the family and Bill who had just arrived with his corgie. Alan and another friend, Jody who is an ethno botanist and a woman full of information, had also arrived.

Nobody is ever in a rush down here. I imagine because most of the town was crudo that there were many folks adopting that strategy.

We sat in the courtyard exchanging barbs and of course Richard had to ask Frank and me what we had gotten up to the night before. He of course rolled his eyes. It's funny how our friendship has morphed from drinking buddies to him being an almost father-figure and admonishing me for what may seem to be decadent behaviour. Oh well. I told everyone that I was his bastard daughter from a liaison with a Berlin call girl. He really rolled his eyes then amidst the laughter.

Well he is almost old enough to be my dad.

The time had come to make the important visitation to the panteon. This is the time when folks gather with treats, flowers, incense (copal) and cleaning materials. The latter is for the freshening up of the gravesites so we can festoon them with the decorative and imbibing elements. Some graves even sported joints and mescal in shot glasses.

Richard looked tired and sad and unfortunately I did capture that on the camera. There are some pictures that need to be taken if only to give others an idea of the gravity of a particular situation. I allowed (not like I was in charge) Richard and Jody to walk together while Frank, Alan, Bill and I walked separately. We did not need to mention to each other Richard's situation. It would have been moot.

Richard needed to visit the gravesite of a very old friend. He gave some good stories about this man that when he passed on had the largest funeral cortege ever in Mitla, such was this man revered. Alan had wandered off to take shots but I decided that I did not need to do so. Richard remarked as to the differences between Norte Americano attitudes to gravesites vs. those of Mexicans. We walked all over the tightly packed sites as did everybody else exchanging greetings, shaking hands and hugging those folks that we knew. Back at home I could not imagine a festive situation like this being accepted. The closest I had ever come to duplicating this moment in Canada had been at the funeral of my best girlfriend's brother when we bade all in attendance to release balloons while his favorite song TIME OF YOUR LIFE by Greenday was playing in the background. To this day I cannot listen to that song without crying and laughing at the same time and yes, that is possible to do just that, laugh and cry simultaneously.

Frank, Bill and I went back to Artemio's so Bill could get the truck and fetch Richard and Jody back. Richard needed to conserve his energy for the afternoon visitations. He would try to do four of them but he managed only two. He did two more the next day. Last year we did ten, one in another town down the road so this should demonstrate just how difficult the day would have been for him.

FOOD OF THE DEAD, THE MOLE TEST and many jokes about hangovers

That day we had started off our morning with Caldo Guajolote at Ernesto’s house. I would say that was great hangover recovery food. Served with fresh tortillas and chiles this broth made from the turkey was enjoyed by all. Nothing gets wasted down here foodwise. I do the same thing in my home with carcasses, bits and sometimes offal. The caldos down here are flavorful and are meant to be enhanced by freshly chopped chiles, cilantro and onions eaten of course with the ubiquitous tortillas.

I had taken recently to calling Margarita's and Lucia's salsas SALSA DE MUERTO - salsa of death - named so for they can range from medium to quite fiery but have great flavor layers that are subtle and do not smack you between the eyes like a badly made salsa would.

The ladies, the two sisters in law, love my naming of their salsas so much that now they refer to their salsas that way. The household rivalry between these two women will be explored in further musings. It is thoroughly amusing to say the least the two of them vying for the compliments of the visitors and the opinions of la gringa.

That they value my opinion means a great deal to me for our shared love of the kitchen is something that cannot be described. It just happens.

I had already been sampling and making sauces for almost a month and boy was I ready for the challenges ahead. Our first visitation was for Hugo's place, he of the forgotten breakfast pledge regarding the musicians who had been playing for the San Judas fiesta. I wondered what his wife would be like for I knew that she had been very angry with him just days before.

As I sit here typing warmly ensconced in my reboso (shawl) I am still chuckling about Hugo whom the families call my boyfriend. He is a funny, warm and generous man and as I was to find out, had a wife who was incredibly patient. Myself, I would have bitch-slapped him several times over regarding some of his foibles. Yeah right, like I am some kind of saint? Hahahahaha!

Alan and Bill were not able to stay for the visitations and that was unfortunate for they missed some great scoff. Jody, Richard, Frank, Ernesto and myself made our way to Hugo's where we were first seated in the salon for the initial ritual of beers and mescal. Hugo had brought out the first bottle of a pretty decent anejo. I was not in the mood for mescal but I took a shot glass after much ribbing about the night before. It seems that mine and Frank's exploits of the night before had already made the rounds in this little burg. Oh well, suffer in style sayeth I.

The whole time they were imbibing all I could do was commiserate on the smells emanating from the kitchen. Oh man. Pure fucking ambrosia. Not soon enough for me we were summoned to the kitchen for what would be a veritable feast. I broke my plan of eating small because I kind of figured that due to Richard's flagging energies I would not be doing that many food stops that day so why not indulge?

Hugo's wife had three dishes on tap for us. Firstly a fantastic caldo, followed by the poultry in a chile-based sauce, not a mole and then another dish that encompasses the giblets, some offal, eggs and ham in the same caldo broth. Wow. But before we could start on the courses we had to first have some PAN DE MUERTO (dead bread) accompanied by hot chocolate, Oaxaca style. This is always the format - drinks, chat, bread, chocolate then the food. Now do you understand why one has to pace themselves?

By the way it is seen as gauche if you do not eat all of the bread given to you with your chocolate water. This is why I always ask for small portions of this dense bread for it will fill you too quickly. Mind you, gringos are almost always forgiven for this slight.

The ancho chile sauce could easily have been confused for a mole. Its flavor was dense, smoky, garlicky and sweet/hot but it did not have that chocolate element to it. I loved this sauce and asked how many kinds of meats it could be served with. Many it seems. I shall have to get her recipe as this sauce would be a good start for me to attempt as opposed to the complex mole that I would get into later that I had been observing the preparation thereof.

Almost two hours of great food, conversation and laughter had passed and it was time to take our leave for we had to go to Don Fausto's.

The wind had started to pick up strength and I felt chilled. I regretted having to change from my Mitla-made long skirt into more practical trousers but I was cold. I am a denizen of the tropics and the weather here can be taxing if one is acclimatized to a warmer temperature profile. The blowing dust swirling in the courtyards causes me to serial sneeze. Other than that, all is good in Oaxaca and this is why I am planning on building something here. That will be later though as my heart is Belizean first. Besides, I have digs for now and that is good enough for me to share space with my crazy family.

MASKS, SKULLS, FOOD, FIREWORKS and more ribbings.

Richard, in a rather morbid moment a couple of weeks prior to Day of the Dead had bought this grotesque yet funny mask to wear whilst sporting a classic seersucker suit. This getup was topped off by his favourite hat while he carried a cheesy skull whose mandible could be manipulated. I think he liked the mask for it represented his feelings about the pinche cancer and what it was doing to his body and spirit.

He had decided those two weeks ago to trot out the seersucker because, well, why the fuck not? He looked very dignified and dashing in it but by the same token to me he looked like one of those old Dons which was kind of cool. He is Italian so it was kind of fitting for him to be dressed so even with that damned zombie mask.

It was with Richard and the entourage that we made our way to Don
Fausto's place. He scared the crap outta a bunch of little kids and I enjoyed that.

After tossing more firecrackers and scaring more little kids we finally arrive at Fausto's to repeat the same joyous ritual. By this time I can enjoy some mescal and cerveza. I normally would never have chocolate with beer but in this case I toss aside my prejudices. The fabulous mole is soon produced in bowls with a special piece of the turkey swimming in that chocolaty morass. The tortillas are brought out for we use them instead of forks. Spoons yes, are most apropos as we can taste the sauce at a leisurely pace. Oh joy. I am sorry but this tastes amazing!!! What is really ironic here is that I had tasted this same mole at the same house last year and yes, it tasted the same which was amazing as one would think consistency would be difficult to achieve with such a complex sauce!!

To achieve that sort of consistency I am gonna have to work my ass off.

Oh the food and the company. Why cannot more folks back at home live this way? They are too busy buying shit they do not need.

The town was quiet. Folks were out walking on their way to visitations. The shops were closed down tight and many of the businesses would not be open proper until Sunday. Even the Saturday market was a non-entity and this was a first. For some odd reason Day of the Dead was more observed this year. Maybe it was because this was the first year in several that the valley was this green (it had been an excellent rainy season) and not muted in brown tones. Everything felt more fertile, folks were smiling and no one was in a hurry.

As one of my amigas was remarking to all one day - how green is MY valley.

Part Two - A Mole Tale


First off I must apologize for the ajo word being used instead of it a Mexican fraudian is part two....the tales of ribaldry will come later.....

The momentum has been building and from what I had observed in the markets this morning everyone's energies were hyper-focused on their collective and individual preparations for Day of the Dead which is more than one days worth of celebrations.

Lupe and her son el Diabolito (Angelito) were in the market selling off their last bags of pecans which we had shaken out of the huge tree that morning. I love to sit in the courtyard with a hammer and enjoy them at their freshest. I have found that in the absence of pine nuts these nuezes work just as well. Yes, the food snobs will crucify me for this one but one thing I have learned in my travels is to make adaptations in the absence of certain ingredients. To date, my efforts have been appreciated by those whom I cook for.

By the time I was done with my mornings musings it was time for me to head back to the family compound to have some lunch and get ready for part two of our production. I was really stoked for this. Our household was engaged in its own particular bit of craziness. Lucia, Lupe's mom, had picked the sacrificial victim for tomorrow's special meal the goose which she was going to do with her own particular Coloradito sauce. This is a rich red sauce, not quite a mole but a specialty unto itself. I was to learn the next day during the visitations just how many kinds of sauces could be served and how delightful each one could be in its own right.

Lucia dispatched her husband Artemio to fetch the machete and sharpen it up for the sacrifice. There was no commiseration here. She picked a spot in the yard and got her son Diego to assist her. With two quick motions the goose's neck artery was severed and the blood allowed to flow. This is getting to know your food at its best. How many folks I wonder have never seen a critter get slaughtered, cleaned, dressed and prepped for the pot? Most of my friends think they are being daring going to a butcher shop and getting their meats in brown paper as opposed to the cellophane packages in the big box stores. I prefer Lucia's approach as it brought me back to my farm upbringing.

Lupe was still at the market so I thought it best that I head over to her Auntie's house as they were waiting for me and mole should never wait for anybody. I grabbed my notebook and camera bag and made my way down the circuitous back lanes lined by the adobe walls that to me, define Mitla. I came up with this great thought the other day as I was wandering home one night down the same lane, hearing laughter and music coming from behind those walls. Was the notion of life in the courtyard something handed down from the Moors of Spain? Or was this something that had existed in Mexico before the invading Spaniards put their imprint on this society? Walking a lot is good for the brain.

The big wooden door to Don Fausto's workshop was open and I entered the courtyard yelling out the standard greetings. Everybody laughed, hugs were exchanged and I was beckoned into the kitchen. The tomatillos and tomates rojas were reducing beautifully and within fifteen minutes would be removed from the stove to cool and be strained.

It was upon leaving the kitchen to organize my camera gear that I noticed the comal heater had this huge tin tub on it full of steaming water. Then I saw that the turkeys - the GUAJOLOTES - were being prepped to be defeathered. I made the slashing motion across my neck and this brought gales of laughter. These were gorgeous specimens of black turkeys and unlike the horrible things that are passed off back at home, all fat and flavourless, these Oaxacan turkeys are full of flavour and lacking in fat. I have had turkey many times in Mexico and now when I have one back at home I could almost cry because these creatures are the real thing. Tasty and organic and yes, they lived well and not in cramped feces infested barns.

Fausto and his son Armando and his wife Ophelia got down to the task of defeathering with gusto. It does not take too long to do this but once again this is a practice makes perfect kind of thing.

Fausto's wife Flor summoned me for the next important step, the washing of the chiles that we had toasted the night before. Flor grabs a generous handful, dips them into the pot of water and proceeds to wash and squeeze them. The juices are a rich brown color, a portention of things to come.

I am grateful to be able to capture her motions as well as the juices on the camera.

When the chiles are done being washed we grab the pot of strained tomatoes, the pot of washed chiles and the casserole containing the concoction that had been festering all night covered with a cloth. Flor, myself, Armando's son and his daughter all leave the courtyard to go to the community grinding spot. I am familiar with this ritual for we have an industrial MOLINO (a large machine whose design has not been altered since the 1930's) at our place that gets a great deal of use when folks come in the morning with their fresh-roasted beans for Artemio to grind up. Maybe this is why I love this house for I get to smell fresh coffee everyday. Take that Starbucks!! When the latter-mentioned company tries to duplicate Oaxacan cafe Olla that will be the day that I howl greatly in protest even though I must confess that I do like their pumpkin spice latte (send me a check later for my generous plug here okay?).

I can smell the grinding house before we cross its portal. It is a rich smell, one that promises of great things tomorrow. There are many ladies there, dressed in the de rigeur outfit of dress, apron and braided hair, lined up to have their mole ingredients treated. I feel very privileged to be here in that everyone has their secret ingredients and I get to photograph in this place. Normally, many Zapotecs despise their shots being taken unless they ask you to do so. I too was once one of those stroppy shooters who took umbrage at not having access. It has taken me two years of being in this community to be accepted and thus have unfettered access but I still ask for permission for it is a sign of respect. And I have great respect for my fellow women here.

Now there is a particular order to the grinding process. You just don't dump all the shit in together and schlep it back in one pot. Oh no. That would be not only sacrilegious but it would screw up the flavor order later once the cooking part began. First we place into the Molino what I refer to as the blonde ingredients, the stuff that was in the casserole, the spices, raisins, prunes, garlic, onion, sesame, herbs and yerba santa. I call it blonde for when it comes out it is a rich blonde color. This mash goes back into the same casserole.

The grind house Duena rinses out the Molino so we can do the chiles. Obviously the color of this paste will be much darker. In order to rinse out the Molino the tomato/tomatillo mash is added with a wee bit of water. This mash goes in with the chile paste. We are now ready to return to the kitchen so we hail one of those moto taxis and pile in holding the pots on our laps so as to not spill the precious pastes.

The propane heater setup is turned on almost full-blast and another huge tin tub is placed on it. 1 and ½ litres of cooking oil is poured in to heat up. If you have been cooking long enough all you need to do is carefully observe the oil and how it moves to know when it is at its optimum temperature. I would say to the anal folks out there most likely a 350 degree temperature needs to be reached.

This next step kind of took me by surprise. Another big onion, having been sliced into almost clove-like shapes was incorporated into the hot oil. Another joyous aroma greeted my nostrils. The onion slices had to reach a dark, not too dark, brown consistency. Salt was added during this process. How much salt one uses is purely at the hands of the chef. There are some things one cannot measure. The heat by the way is gradually turned down so this can reduce.

It is now time to add the blonde mash. The mixture froths and spits as we both furiously stir. Now this is the funny part for I am stirring and shooting and Flor is cranking up the flames. This is definitely a two-woman production. This too will be reduced and constant stirring is absolutely necessary.

Once again observation is key and this is why I know that it will take many attempts to duplicate (if I ever can) this particular mole but it is a challenge that I look forward to. Flor after a time decides that we can now incorporate the chile/tomato paste into the mix. The flame is turned to low, the lowest setting. I love to watch the mixing of the dark into the light and have much fun stirring. Flor laughs at my ease with micromanaging two tasks, stirring and shooting.

Remember the tomato/tomatillo straining of earlier in the afternoon? We saved the juice for this next part. We add the juice to the blended pastes and stir some more. More. And more. My arm is getting tired but I dare say nothing for Flor needs me to keep doing this as she adds the last, most special ingredient and one that will vex to no end, the homemade chocolate blocks. I say this will be vexatious for every household has its own particular spin on chocolate. These blocks are of course not the blocks we use to make the infamous Oaxacan hot chocolate. These blocks are more bittersweet. We add 17 in total, stirring them in to the mix.

This brew will reduce and attain a smooth consistency over the next three hours.

My part is done and my next task will be the tasting of the mole the next day with the turkey. I had to take my leave for some guests were arriving from the city for afternoon drinks at my friend Richard's home which happened to be right next door to me. This is when things ahhh, will get very strange and quite delightful.

A Mole a few parts

LESSONS IN MOLE PRODUCTION PART ONE.....fond memories con mi familia segunda en Mitla, Oaxaca - Fall 2007

I was all pumped up to do this one knowing that the women who were going to walk Lupe and I through the steps of making mole had consistently in the past produced a concoction that was rich, tasty and complex in flavour layers. The food snobs out there would say flavour profiles but to me mole is all about layers.

Our hostesses, relatives of Lupes, her Tias (aunties), had the best comal setup I have seen yet. It was in a separate prep area and for good reasons which I will point out soon enough. First I must describe this all-important piece of kitchen gear.

The comal is a concave shaped clay apparatus that comes in many sizes. Some can be several feet across but this one was about two feet in diameter. Our comal in our compound is housed in a wee building off of the courtyard and we use charcoal underneath it to heat it. That is the traditional way but now there is an easier system using a gas setup that the comal sits on top of. This makes heat regulation easier for in the construction of mole heat control over the surface of the comal is very important. If any of you have ever roasted and toasted spices and herbs in your cast iron pots at home for curries then you know what I speak of.

This comal instead of being the usual white colour was a deep earth-tone with black areas on it, no doubt the latter effect being produced from years of roasting chiles. The lack of light in the kitchen (why are so many country kitchens poorly lit?) and the darkness of the comal surface made for some challenging photography situations but I was able to document all of the steps during the first stage.


We used three kinds of dried peppers. Before we start the tostado process they must first have the seeds removed.

¼ kilo Chile Mexicano
1 kilo Chile Ancho (these are the spiciest ones)
1/8 kilo Chile Chiluacle

As we prepared the chiles the comal was set to heat up on the lowest flame setting. You do not want a super-hot surface for that will spoil the process by producing peppers that taste more of charcoal and not enough of toastiness.

Using two long sticks the duena of the house deftly tossed the peppers over the surface not allowing the peppers to linger for too long in one spot. It was within ten minutes of doing this that I noticed a funny burning sensation forming in the back of my throat. I started to cough like I have never coughed before. Pretty soon Lupe joined me racked with coughing fits. Everybody started to laugh at us because we were now brujas (witches). Local kitchen folklore has it that if you cough while roasting chiles you are a witch. Now do you understand why the comal had a separate space from the main kitchen area? These fumes were so powerful I could feel their effects from thirty feet away out in the courtyard. How the duena did not cough at all is beyond me. I told her she must be the real witch and that got everyone in stitches to be sure.

While she was working on the peppers the rest of us peasants had the joyous task of working with the garlic. We use what is referred to here as CRIOLLO AJO or country garlic, sort of like the stuff you would have in your home garden and nothing related at all to the perfectly white elephant garlic that comes out of Stockton, California. That shit glows in the dark man. This garlic however is the real thing. The only bitch is the dealing with the cloves later for they are difficult to peel being so darned small.

We used 17 of these small heads. We separated and removed the cloves, keeping the skins on. The duena would inspect our bowl and ask us for a head count. She seemed satisfied with our efforts. Supposedly garlic amounts used is one of the many secrets of a good mole.

Now you are probably wondering how we knew when the peppers were done? It is in the brittleness of the skin. They are not blackened or burned but are rendered brittle. This takes practice so do not despair okay? We were pursuing the perfect mole and when it comes time for Lupe and I to try and do justice to her granny's recipe I will be really surprised if we totally nail it down being that our comal is tricky for heat control.


Like the el vs. la discourse in Spanish, ajo vs. tostado is another one of those concepts that you have to permanently engrave onto your cooking head because yes, it does make a difference. The difference here is purely textural. For example the chiles were done TOSTADO whereas the garlic we were about to work with would be done ASADO.

After the comal was brushed and prepped for the garlic we poured the cloves onto the surface to start the asado process. Now this was an aroma I could very comfortably deal with. No choking fumes here. Once again you have to really watch and play with what is being treated on the comal. The constant swishing of the little whisk combined with deft stick movement was a dance in itself.

The garlic is easier to tell done-ness. Just think of when you roast garlic heads in the oven at home. Same thing. After cooling off the skins will be removed from the cloves. Nothing is simple with a good mole. I know for having tasted the commercial moles and then tasting the carefully crafted ones here I would never go back to a store-bought one. A few hours of torture is worth it as far as I am concerned.

ONE BIG WHITE ONION..sliced however you like but long slices are best for a comal treatment.

I can hear the garlic (ajo) popping on the comal as Lupe slices the onion. It is about four to five inches in diameter and has a lovely translucency about it. But before the onion is allowed dominion over the comal there are other treatments to do first.

½ kilo of AJONJOLI (sesame seeds)..these seeds are used in many Oaxacan dishes. I love toasting sesame seeds. Yes these will be done a la tostada. To be noted here if the flame is too hot on the comal the seeds will jump and THAT IS NOT GOOD. A delicate balance needs to be maintained. Garlic obviously can take a bit more heat than these little seeds.

Same principal here, constant whisking. Your nose has to be clear (maybe this is why we do the chiles first, to clear out our sinuses) so you can smell the exact time to remove the sesames.

Next stop, Almond City. We will be toasting a ¼ kilo of almendres (almonds). A slightly higher heat here than the sesames. Practice over time and you will develop a nose for all of this stuff. I felt like I was on very familiar territory here having worked with curries and toasting sesames and almonds for dessert uses.

After the almonds then came the CACAHUATES (peanuts), all ¼ of a kilo of them. Repeat the same process as with the almonds. A bit of smoking is permissible.

We had a big ceramic bowl sitting on the table to put this stuff into. Now the chiles stayed separate but everything else that had been treated thus far on the comal went into the deep casserole dish.

Now comes the herb and spice treatments. These do not take as long as the other ingredients but they must be handled quickly.

Thyme (Tomillo) about ten grams
Oregano about an ounce

You work with these herbs separately and as you do the stalks and other detritus must be removed. The little whisk is a handy tool for this and of course seasoned hands from years of working on a comal are quite useful too.

The spices...Canela bark (cinnamon) one piece broken up into small bits, 20 Pimiento (allspice) balls and 20 cloves. Oh yes she was very serious about counting this stuff all out.

The smell generated here was wonderful, dominated of course by the cloves, but rich, evoking some very pleasant memories.

This last bit is done ASADO and that is the 25 grams of Prunes (zuruela or pasas) and ¼ kilo of black raisins.

Making mole should never be a solo event. I could not see that happening just because the sheer amount of work and tediousness of some production aspects would make for a lonely day. Methinks the chef would be reaching for the grog halfway through peeling all that damned garlic. Like the baking of Christmas treats, thanksgiving dinner, making knishes or perogies or dim sum, this kind of cooking requires a few bodies if anything to trade artful barbs whilst peeling, you guessed it, all that damned garlic!

My favourite part of the journey was hearing comparisons to other moles and I just had to inject a bit of controversy. I told them that just about every cookbook out there and television show regarding moles stated that this concoction originated in the state of Puebla. This statement of course brought howls of derision. No no no, mole is a ZAPOTEC invention and those pinche Pueblanos are thieves!!! I was not about to argue and yes, I will look into this further and see what all the foodie anthropologists have to say. Zapotec cuisine is unique and knowing what I do about the sheer variety of chiles just in this one valley leads me to believe that these women are not whistling Dixie outta their arseholes!

Haha! Now we can ASADO the CEBOLLA (onion slices). I have grown to enjoy working with onions even though I do not like to eat them. I have found several ways to treat them and incorporate them into my dishes without causing myself too much grief. Everyone has their food peccadillos and onions are one of mine. Funny how I love to work with garlic and leeks though.

The onions are not removed until they start to get a golden colour.

The conversation switches constantly from Spanish to Zapotec and every once in awhile I can interject too with English and Spanish. How four of us fit into that tiny workspace and did not go crazy is an amazing testament to the love of the mole production. We all lamented the passing of some traditions and the need, for this is where I come in, to ensure an interest so that these traditions do not die off. I believe that there is a resurgence of interest in rustic food production and I love to share this theory with my friends down here. Perhaps this is why I get many opportunities to invade kitchens with my gear and share comparative experiences.

Roasting veggies and spices is a wonderful way to draw out flavour and the added bonus here is that there is no fat involved. Pre-Spanish conquest cuisine for the most part had no fat in it. It was with the introduction of European ingredients and methodologies that Indigenous foods almost disappeared in many regions. Not so in Mexico. Not from what I have seen.

The onions are now being placed into the pot with the prunes, raisins, sesames, almonds, spices and herbs. What a crazy, beautiful aroma!! The last ingredient to go onto the comal are six large leaves of YERBA SANTA. These are slowly toasted. At first the aroma is delicate, intoxicating but as the moisture disappears and the leaves become more brittle the smell of course changes. This is when it is time to turn off the comal for the night.

Yerba Santa is one of those crazy things that along with Epazote and the delicate parts of young squash plants I love to work with. My favourite soup to make for example incorporates only the herbs and leaves and no meat whatsoever. It is a traditional Zapotec dish and one that can only be made for about maybe a month, mid growing season…like June or July.

The dessicated leaves which have been turned over many times are now ready to go into the pot.

All of this has taken three hours. Next step which will be this afternoon, will be the tomato and tomatillo reduction and the actual mixing and blending for the mole.

I know this is gonna kick ass!

Part Two coming up.....

the Propaganda Wars against Mexican Travel

State Department warnings as detailed in a CNN report
.....I usually take them with a grain of salt as my idea of travel is perhaps a bit more adventurous than what most folks would undertake but when I saw this story regarding the latest Mexico Travel Advisory I was compelled to read and when I got to the comments section that was where my eyebrows were raised in disgust.

I do not know where to start...phrases like "right-wing hate rhetoric" and "misinformed xenophobes" kept coming to mind when I read some of the remarks. Where do these people get their information from and more importantly have any of the negative nellies ever been to Mexico or as I would ask, have any of them been to the "real" Mexico that exists outside of the tony resorts or bustling border towns?

If any of the following italicized comments are any indication I am given to believe that there are many folks who have no clue whatsoever about that wonderful country.

Ahhh...ole Mexico. Nothing like having a crappy 3rd would country on your southern border. And the stupid Obama Admin sueing Arizona because AZ is trying to stop the illegals from Mexico from sneaking in and costing the tax payers hundreds of millions of dollars a year? And don't forget the crime they do like they do back in their home country. Incredible and stupid to say the least. Close the border already and get rid of the illegals once and for all. AND if you go to mexico for your so called "Pardise vacation", YOU are a moron and get what you deserve. Case closed and have a great weekend!

Or how about this little gem?

Of all the places I have visited, Mexico is one place I will never go again. It is filthy even in the best resorts. I have been there 3 times, but will never go again. People go there because it is cheap and close, not me, I will go where it is safe and clean.

Where was this person staying I wonder? Wow, three times to Mexico and you are now an expert on the subject?

And then there are comments like this one.....comments that are based on years of experience that I can take seriously.....

My husband and I drive from Matamoros/Brownsville to Yucatan every year for the last 5. Mexico is an incredible country! We have always been hospitably treated wherever and whenever we go. The people are generous, kind, obliging, friendly. The scenery is spectacular. The architecture is world class. Hotels and restaurants are great. It is not America but neither is the rest of the world. Yes, there is violence by a few miserable drug lords and their ilk. Highly unfortunate but ask yourselves who keeps this violence going. The drugs go across the border to Americans who demand them. Evil always follows big money. It's in LA. Vegas, New York, DC. If America could do something to curb its own vices, perhaps the Mexican border towns and the streets of America could become safe again.

Driving into and throughout Mexico while not everybody's cup of tea or comfort zone is by and far still the best way to experience that country as a whole. I should know as I have been doing it for twenty years as have many others from various walks of life. And many of my confreres in the travel community are wondering what the motivation is on the part of government to issue these blanket statements that "all" is not safe when there are many Americans, Canadians and Europeans who can attest otherwise and of course let us not forget the Mexican residents themselves for it is those good folks that make that country a great place to live or just visit.

Mexico can no more be defined by border town/cartel violence than America can be defined by the decay of Detroit or the gangland areas of Los Angeles and Houston. I would think that most Americans would bristle with indignation if other governments issued travel warnings saying that America is a no-go zone because of the high levels of gun violence that rock that country. So where do some folks get their justification for slamming an entire country?

Look no further than the phenomena of talk radio - that medium that panders to the angry taxpayer, the working classes who cannot even afford to go to Disney World, those very folks who instead of focusing their anger at the corporate and bureaucratic world instead choose to blame illegal immigrants, primarily Mexican, for all of their economic woes. When times were good folks turned a blind eye to those labourers or dishwashers toiling away but as soon as the tide started to turn?

The violence happening in Mexico that the State Department warns of is mostly concentrated in the cities bordering their American sister-cities. This is nothing new. Border towns are not indicative of an entire country. Like I stated earlier if I were to use El Paso, Brownsville or Laredo as examples of a typically American mindset I would be called to task on that. The violence that makes the news in rather spectacular ways is the gang violence between the drug cartels and I believe that unless you are part of law enforcement, a Mexican progressive politician, a community activist or some gringo brokering several keys of the good stuff then what are you worried about?

We have heard stories of crimes committed against tourists but name me a place where that does not happen. Folks who stay in resorts are deluding themselves if they think that what they experience in a typical tourist trap area, once again, is indicative of an overall Mexican experience. Is the tourist trap that constitutes Orlando representative of America? I can guarantee that a place like Orlando or Myrtle Beach sees more than its fair share of crimes against vacationers.

We live in a society that is becoming ever more fearful and xenophobic. There is no progress or enjoyment of life for that matter when one is stuck in that sort of ignorance. I have had the time of my life getting to know Mexico and its citizens. It has been time well-spent.