What Lyon is to French gastronomy, what Emilia-Romagna is to Italian cuisine, what the South is to American cooking, many would argue Oaxaca is to Mexican food.
For Anglophiles, Oaxaca was made famous by Diana Kennedy’s Oaxaca Al Gusto. For Mexicans, Oaxaca is a revered place, not only for its savory dishes but for it’s rich history spanning 485 years of European settlement.
At the mention of Oaxaca (pronounced wɑːˈhɑː.kɑː) Mexicans fall reverently silent and exclaim, “¡Que bella es Oaxaca!” How beautiful!
So what took Oaxaca so long to celebrate its indigenous food? That’s what food expert and restauranteur Celia Florián wondered. So she made it her mission to establish the first recognition of traditional cooks from the eight regions of the state. (Like New York, Oaxaca is both a state and a city named Oaxaca.)
Florián, owner of the respected Las Quince Letras restaurant, implored the mayor of Oaxaca city and the governor of Oaxaca state to establish the Primer Encuentro de Cocineras Tradicionales de Oaxaca (the first meeting of the traditional cooks of Oaxaca).
The results were a success with some 10,000 people over two days exploring the offerings of 48 women cooks, April 24 and 25.
For those of us who were lucky enough to be invited to write about and photograph the two-day food fest it seemed like 48 glorious meals in 48 hours. And a little mezcal.
The Food of Oaxaca
Of all the foods synonymous with Oaxaca perhaps the best known is the tlayuda. A large tortilla is first spread with refried beans and then stuffed with cheese. Next comes a turn on the grill over wood embers. One of the best known locations for tlayudas in Oaxaca is Doña Flavia. The ones at Doña Flavia come with beef, chorizo, and grasshoppers.
Dr. Soto, if you’re reading, I’m not likely to develop arteriosclerosis from consuming too much Mexican beef, but the pork is divine. At the Benito Juárez market we found sheets of slivered pork so thin you could practically see through them. This cut of meat, known as cecina, is typically made with beef and salted for preservation. At Catedral restaurant I ate the best backbone to leave a kitchen since I loitered around my mother’s G.E. electric range. The Catedral version was served in Oaxacan green mole sauce. At El Paseo cantina I tried the renown salchicha Oaxaqueña, which must be an acquired taste, like grasshoppers. Adding seasoning and pork fat would satisfy my Georgia palate.
The Three Sisters: Corn, Beans, and Squash
Mexico and the American South share more in common than one would imagine. The Three Sisters of Native American cooking — corn, beans, and squash — is a prime example. A Spanish settlement on the Georgia coast 200 years before the arrival of the English is another. Most southerners recall the memories of stewed yellow summer squash, a big pot of butter beans on the stove, and a cast iron skillet of cornbread on the side.
Evelia Reyes wakes every morning to nurse a giant pot of beans at her restaurant Cocina Económica Fuensanta. She serves Oaxacan tamales made of corn. For special guests she prepares sopa de guías, a soup made with the runners of squash plants.
We are more alike than we are different.
The women who are traditional cooks in Mexico, who pass down ancient recipes and cooking techniques, are known as las mayoras. You may also be interested in reading an article I published about the women soul-food cooks of The Beautiful Restaurant in Atlanta. Together the nine women tallied 292 years of kitchen experience when the article was first published in 2014.
© 2017 Doug Hall