My best-laid plans were scrapped the moment I arrived in Oaxaca City. “You want to see the real, authentic Mexico, right?” asked Alejandro Ruiz, one of the city’s most renowned chefs, as he giddily steered his SUV through narrow cobblestoned streets lined with brightly painted colonial buildings. I’d signed up for a private cooking class with Ruiz, hoping to glean some culinary skills and nueva-Mexicana recipes. His restaurant, Casa Oaxaca, is famous for its wildly creative interpretations of classic Oaxacan dishes, a rarity in this mole-centric town 280 miles southeast of Mexico City. But once I described the goal of my trip — to seek out the unexpected, and the authentic, in this sometimes staunchly traditional region — Ruiz had a better idea. The cooking lesson could wait. Today, Thursday, was market day in Zaachila, a Zapotec Indian village twenty minutes outside the city. “You must see this,” he insisted as he hung a sharp right onto the highway.
We drove south along a valley hemmed in by grand humpbacked mountains, alongside fields of corn and agave, cottages pieced together out of scrap metal, and clumps of stately pecan trees. As we approached the village, locals began streaming past our car, arms laden with recent purchases. A pair of teenaged girls strolled by, deep in conversation, clutching handfuls of live upside-down turkeys. A leathery old farmer in a cowboy hat dragged a reluctant, bleating goat by a rope. Seeing my wide eyes, Ruiz suddenly thought to ask, “You’re not vegetarian, I hope?”
We didn’t enter the market so much as get swept into its gravitational pull, suddenly immersed in a bobbing sea of villagers in straw hats, tethered horses, pickup beds full of big-eyed goats, and women tossing corn at a gaggle of shrieking pigs. I struggled to keep pace with Ruiz’s purple polo shirt and chef pants as he practically jogged through the labyrinthine aisles of produce, pausing only to collect armfuls of herbs and a bag of fragrant guavas he’d use later that night to prepare Casa Oaxaca’s most popular dessert, guava cheesecake with cinnamon and rose-petal sorbet. Throughout the market dark-skinned Zapotec women wearing colorful embroidered huipiles (textile dresses), their braids threaded with satin ribbons, sat cross-legged on tarps, dwarfed by their wares: three-foot-high piles of squash blossoms, purple garlic and sweet potatoes, and buckets of dried hibiscus flowers and cacao beans. Ruiz was clearly in his element. “This is what makes me go crazy — look at this!” he said ecstatically, pointing to a dozen peaches and apples beautifully displayed on a lacy web of cilantro.
Thanks to its abundant produce, semitropical climate, and rich native traditions, Oaxaca (pronounced wah-HAH-kah; it’s the name of the state as well as the city) has a well-deserved reputation as Mexico’s culinary capital and one of the world’s top destinations for foodies. And for travelers seeking the “real Mexico” — beyond expat havens like San Miguel de Allende or the luxurious but cloistered resorts of Los Cabos or the Riviera Maya — Oaxaca delivers so much more. The city’s compact downtown, or centro histórico, is a UNESCO World Heritage site, full of hypercharming colonial buildings that are protected under strict architectural ordinances. In restaurants all over the city you can taste the region’s seven styles of mole, the indigenous sauce made by toasting and grinding spices, seeds, nuts, chiles, and cacao beans — often upwards of 30 ingredients in all. And in outlying villages, markets like the one in Zaachila teem with local farmers and shoppers, and legions of artisans uphold the craft traditions of their ancestors, weaving fabrics on primitive back-strap looms in Santo Tomas Jalietza, for example, or firing glossy black pottery in San Bartolo Coyotepec by using a technique that dates back to pre-Hispanic times. A handful of rug weavers and wood-carvers have even rejected modern synthetic dyes and paints and resurrected the long-lost art of creating natural pigments from locally sourced plants, insects and minerals, as their ancestors did centuries ago.
However, even for a place like Oaxaca, which can sometimes appear frozen in time, maintaining its identity can be a slippery proposition. Wander a few blocks from the 16th-century Zócalo, the leafy central square, and you’ll stumble upon a Burger King; not far from that, strains of Abba’s “Dancing Queen” issue from a café doorway. A new Wal-Mart on the city’s outskirts has begun to skim shoppers from Oaxaca’s much-beloved markets, the beating heart of the local economy for centuries. Nonetheless, the city retains an innate and rare sense of place that’s easy for modern-day travelers to tap into. Oaxaca feels “authentic” today not because it has been preserved in amber — for what living city is? — but because its culture continues to evolve, informed by its heritage and strong, unbroken traditions.
Credit for this is mostly due to a new generation of Oaxaqueños, who have begun pushing things forward, reinventing and reinterpreting old customs in an exhilaratingly modern way. Innkeepers are carving stylish, high-end havens out of 19th- and 20th-century buildings, such as the chic and minimalist Casa Oaxaca inn, with seven rooms and a sexy, kidney-shaped pool, and Casa de los Milagros, an intimate three-room bed and breakfast surrounding a hot-pink courtyard. Chefs like Ruiz are bringing a contemporary sensibility to traditional food. And a fleet of artists and designers are embracing the region’s wealth of indigenous talent, working with master artisans to create new products for a design-savvy international audience.
Such evolution is integral to the state’s future well-being. After all, despite Oaxaca’s ample natural resources (280 miles of coastline, rich volcanic soil and unmatched biodiversity), it is the second-poorest state in Mexico, with vast villages emptied of their men, who migrate to the U.S. looking for work. (Oaxaqueños call my home state “Oaxacalifornia.”) Education is inadequate throughout the state — 19.3 percent of its 3.2 million residents are illiterate, compared with the national average of 8.4 percent. Outside the city, roads are poorly maintained, and only 70.9 percent of households have running water. Another major problem, as throughout Mexico, is corruption: federal money that is intended for projects to build schools, hospitals and other infrastructure in the villages often ends up in the pockets of legislators. As one local told me bitterly, “The only rich people in Oaxaca are politicians.”
These tensions boiled over in May 2006, when a routine demonstration by a powerful teachers’ union turned violent after the governor dispatched hundreds of police to stop the protest. The event triggered a massive civil rebellion, calls for the governor to resign, and at least 13 deaths. The situation stabilized within seven months, but media accounts, and the U.S. State Department’s warning at the time that visitors should avoid travel to Oaxaca, drained the city of most of its tourists for two years. Things are peaceful now. The Zócalo, which during the conflict was overrun with thousands of protesters and overturned trucks, as well as scrawled with graffiti, is perfectly tranquil today, save for the occasional mariachi or marimba band that trolls its outskirts, serenading diners in the sidewalk cafés. But the city itself is still recovering economically, and many believe that Oaxaca has a long way to go. Bernardo Vasquez, a former Cabinet official who, fed up with corruption, resigned from politics eight years ago, explained to me the inherent problem. “Our government is clearly not going to take the initiative, so it’s up to the civil organizations, and society in general, to push things in a better direction,” he said.
Fortunately, that has begun to happen. Alfredo Harp Helú, the former co-owner of Banamex, the biggest bank in Latin America, has dedicated almost $129 million of his fortune to improving Mexico’s education, culture, and health-care and social-welfare systems through his private Alfredo Harp Helú Foundation, which in recent years has funded several schools, tree nurseries, and museums in Oaxaca. Credit for the city’s thriving cultural scene is due, in large part, to Francisco Toledo, the celebrated Zapotec artist known for his folkloric prints and paintings, who has made Oaxaca’s cultural well-being his top priority for the past two decades. Almost every cultural institution downtown is somehow connected to Toledo; he has an unusual habit of buying and restoring historic buildings, living in them for a while and then donating or lending them to the city for use as cultural centers, as well as providing a monthly endowment and, often, a major chunk of his personal art collection. “When I was growing up, artist training in Oaxaca had many deficiencies,” Toledo told me by e-mail. “So these institutions are for artists like my younger self, who don’t have the chance to travel and see high-quality exhibits, so they can be informed about what is going on in the international art world.”
Among Toledo’s former residences are the Institute of Graphic Arts of Oaxaca, a graphic-arts gallery and workshop (to which he donated his collection of 18,000 graphics and prints, and thousands of art books); and the Manuel Alvarez Bravo Center of Photography, a photography museum that also houses a music-listening library. Toledo also helped found the city’s Museum of Contemporary Art; the six-acre Ethnobotanical Garden, which spotlights indigenous plants from all over Oaxaca; a papermaking cooperative and art school in a textile factory outside the city; and Pro-Oax, a nongovernmental agency that fights to protect and preserve the city’s natural and historic treasures. “Oaxaca was one Oaxaca before Francisco, another one after,” said the gallerist Graciela Cervantes de Ortiz, who represents Toledo at the Quetzalli Gallery. “He has taught us to be proud of our city, and to take care of it, without ever telling us to. His message is in his own actions.”
Recently, this civic pride has taken the form of breathtakingly innovative interpretations of Oaxaca’s abundant cultural and artistic heritage. “A lot of Oaxaca is about preserving tradition, and that’s obviously important, but I mean, how many rugs can you sell that all look the same?” So said the shopkeeper at Blackbox, a gallerylike boutique that Gustavo Fricke, a 32-year-old industrial designer, founded two years ago. I’d stumbled onto the shop serendipitously, after being drawn in by its window display: a chair made of neon-orange electrical tubes wrapped around a metal frame. Fricke works with local artisans in nearby villages to create avant-garde objects using ancient techniques — such as bracelets and earrings woven from straw, and light fixtures crafted from organic-cotton paper pulp — in hopes of improving the craftspeople’s livelihood and encouraging them not to migrate to the States. I fell in love with a handmade woven wool bag, identical to many sold in the nearby village of Teotitlán del Valle except that this one was bright yellow and splashed with the silhouette of an electric pole webbed with wires. It was very urban, very unexpected and, for $70, very reasonable — especially when you consider that 60 percent goes back to the artisans.
Around the corner I discovered the eponymous shop of Silvia Suárez, a thirty-two-year-old graphic designer with a passion for textiles. Suárez collects antique huipiles — “the thread and embroidery work is better than on the new stuff” — but slices them up, incorporating them into contemporary clothing designs (a solid-colored cotton sundress with an embroidered bodice, for example). She also works with 120 artisan families in the surrounding villages, commissioning custom fabrics, embroidery and wool weavings in clean geometric designs, which she turns into leather-trimmed handbags that are so popular she can hardly keep them in stock.
Invigorated by the vision and generosity of patrons like Toledo and Helú, and the efforts of young entrepreneurs, Oaxaca has become a haven for working artists from around Mexico and the world. At Los Amantes Mezcalería, a newly opened mescal-tasting bar run by the charismatic painter Guillermo Olguín, I struck up a conversation with Whitney McVeigh, a London-based artist who’d spent the past three weeks in Oaxaca studying printmaking. “I’ve been blown away by how much interesting art is in Oaxaca,” she said to me in a lilting accent as we sipped glasses of a locally produced beeswax-scented, smoky-tasting mescal in the tiny space. The bar resembles a life-sized cabinet of curiosities, decorated with erotic art, religious paraphernalia and mescal esoterica. “I’ve seen more powerful paintings here than I’ve seen in London in years,” she continued. “It’s a small town, but there’s a huge vibrancy to it.” Having happily pinballed from gallery to museum to village workshop to artist’s studio over the previous five days myself, I was inclined to agree.
As for that elusive cooking class with chef Ruiz? No dice. When I stopped by his restaurant to schedule something for later that afternoon, Ruiz outdid himself once again. “Come back at 3:00 P.M.,” he said mischievously. So that’s how I found myself, on my last day in town, trying to be useful in the busy kitchen of the finest restaurant in Oaxaca, helping the staff prepare a wedding dinner for twenty-five. Seemingly amused by the presence of this curious gringa, the sous-chef, Felipe Samario, a small, handsome, mustached man with an endearing affinity for the word okeydoke, kindly took me under his wing. “Watch now the preparation,” he said as he swirled shrimp with butter, chiles, garlic and a touch of hoja santa (a local herb) and then sneaked me a piece to taste. Ruiz showed me how to assemble his famous tacos de jicama, an updated take on some of Oaxaca’s signature ingredients: cuitlacoche, or corn mushrooms, drizzled with a paste made of chapulínes (fried grasshoppers, a local delicacy) and wrapped in a thin slice of jicama root. Then, to my surprise and delight, he handed the plate off to a bow-tied waiter, who ushered me into the open-air dining room to eat beneath a bright-blue sky.
I sat there, my clothes spattered with shrimp juice and my fingers sticky from having destemmed dozens of squash blossoms, blinking blindly in the sunlight, feeling a bit disoriented. But when I took my first bite, my taste buds somersaulted merrily and my internal compass realigned. The dish was warm and spicy, sweet and smoky, a study in contrasts. It was, in fact, a taste of contemporary Oaxaca — proof that a modern approach to ancient flavors can add up to something unforgettable.
Posted in Food & Wine, Preservation, Selected Articles, Travel
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