Chronicle of a Fiesta: Remembering the Dishes of a Oaxaca Childhood
Alejandro Ruiz on Planning a Mayordomía and Embracing Culinary Birthrights
It’s ten in the morning and I’ve arrived at the garden. About half a mile north of La Raya de Zimatlán lies the plot of land where I decided to develop a garden to supply my restaurants. Here is where we’ll have a party, what is known around these parts as a mayordomía. A celebration for my loved ones that includes a banquet, music, and mezcal. A mayordomía can happen for any number of reasons: to celebrate a wedding, the feast of a patron saint, or for no reason at all—just to cut loose, just for the heck of it, just because life has been kind.
Today, I went early to the Mercado de Abastos in Oaxaca City to buy all the ingredients that wouldn’t be available at the garden, such as serving dishes, papel picado decorations, and flowers. Then we stopped to pick up my aunts at their house. There are many chickens, two cows, and a few still young piglets at the lot. There is corn dried for the season and my aunts are armed with all kinds of supplies to prepare the meal. Meche, Raquel, and Chalina will be the head cooks. Don Rafael and Doña Isabel, my grandparents, join the committee, knowing there’s not a minute to lose when there’s a party.
In the span of 48 hours we will have prepared and consumed the most emblematic dishes, not just of this region of Oaxaca, but of my childhood. These dishes are my birthright.
The first day in the garden is a day for preparations, but that doesn’t mean that we aren’t celebrating already. The festivities begin with the planning, the buying of ingredients, the harvest, and the picking. My cousins work, building a tapesco (a grill) and a roof; Uncle Sergio cuts herbs for the different recipes we’re going to make. Aunts Meche, Raquel, and Chalina start the fire and then prepare the coffee, chocolate, and champurrado (a chocolate drink).
Before continuing, we must have breakfast, pan dulce (Mexican pastries), memelas, and more. Aunt Raquel cures the comales—the griddles—with lime. Cousin Peluche goes to a neighboring milpa to gather the ingredients for the sopa de guías. Aunt Meche directs us as we work to cut up the squash, the guías (the runners) and the blossoms, to clean herbs like chepiche and hierba de conejo (an herb with an earthy, aniselike aroma), and to slice fresh corn cobs, while the other women stay by the fire to begin preparing the most elemental ingredient for the meal: the nixtamalized corn that will be the base of tamales and tortillas.
This is how we will spend the next two days: working, eating, cooking, and enjoying each other’s company. The women communicate in silence, consulting one another with quick glances, answering in kind with a look, or beginning to stir the pot or fan the fire, as if the signal had been direct. Here, to learn, you have to pay attention.
The chigol—the person who serves the mezcal—dutifully ensures that all those who arrive to help, or to have breakfast or lunch, drink their helpings a little at a time. This ancestral beverage is the fuel that keeps the action going. It is the spirit that gives this work its soul.
Every once in a while, the cooks meet eyes with the chigol, because the work must go on, and for that to happen sustenance is needed. Cousin Zenaida and Aunt Clemencia have joined the team, their hands helping at the metate, washing dishes, and friends Peluche and Diego are headed to town in case anyone needs something. They’ll give the cooks a ride to take the mole negro ingredients—now charred—to the mill, and bring back firewood. Other cousins are arriving to drink a beer, eat a tamalito, smaller than the traditional tamale, or have a memela.
The stage is set. The brass band arrives, the papel picado decorations are hung, the pots are moved, the agua fresca is made, the dishes are washed, and more mezcal, more beer, and more food are served. After sharing breakfast, now we are also sharing the music, the laughter, the warmth of all the hours of working and drinking together.
The moment arrives for all to sit down: now it is time to try the sopa de guías and the mole. All is silent for a spell. The earth smells wet and the air is clean. In the distance, we can see a team of oxen. Here, at the long tables, we are all content. The flavors are like a promise fulfilled. The embers, the earth, the herbs, we have seen it all, smelled it all, touched it as it transformed, and now everything makes sense in our mouths. It was done as it should be done, and it tastes as it should taste. There is a freshness and an authenticity that cannot be faked; there is an affection and a care taken with this meal that cannot be hidden.
There is an affection and a care taken with this meal that cannot be hidden.
My aunts do not eat until the rest of us have eaten, they are vigilant, proud of what they have offered us. They can read upon our faces that their goals have been achieved. With that satisfaction, they can now sit at the table and receive well-deserved praise and much-needed mezcal. They have nourished us with the fire, with their own hands.
At the fiesta in La Raya there has been no order, but rather cycles in which things are done. The chigol must continue serving mezcal and drinking it with everyone, to honor their presence, to honor life. The band must strike back up with “Pinotepa.” The aroma of smoke, the vision of the fire, and the flavor of the mole will last. The music closes the cycle, the time has come to sing the verses, the time has come to dance, to laugh. We are joined together by all of our senses.
Two Passions Mezcalini
Sal de gusano (worm salt)
1/3 Gala apple, minced, plus slice for garnish
1 ounce fresh lime juice
1½ ounces simple syrup or 3 teaspoons sugar
2½ ounces fresh passion fruit pulp (from puréeing and straining 1 passion fruit)
Salt the rim of a cold martini glass with sal de gusano. Place the apple and lime juice in a cocktail glass or shaker. Crush them or let them macerate, then add the simple syrup or sugar, passion fruit pulp, and enough ice to fill the glass. Add the mezcal. Shake hard and strain into a martini glass. Garnish with an apple slice.
Excerpted from The Food of Oaxaca: Recipes and Stories from Mexico’s Culinary Capital by Alejandro Ruiz and Carla Altesor. English Translation Copyright © 2020 by Alfred A. Knopf. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.