Missives from Oaxaca – pt 4

Part IV of our series of guest posts from San Francisco native Susan Coss as she returns to Mexico after a year-long hiatus. Missives from Oaxaca documents her month-long stay in the southern Mexican town. Click to read part Ipart II and part III.

And so it is the eve of my departure and of course the city decided to turn on its charm to the thousandth degree this last week…

Oaxacan skyline at nightThe weather has been unseasonably warm, which has been fantastic, though of course it makes the return to cold that much harder. As is abundantly clear by now, from my missives this year and last year, I am head over heels in love with this place. I am blessed to have been able to return to spend yet another month discovering more, meeting more people, eating more food. It is not perfect here – I could bitch forever about the disorganization, the blatant government corruption, the stupid sidewalks, the traffic. The rose colored glasses slip from the eyes occasionally. And yet I will miss it all, the good and the bad.

The fireworks have been ongoing this week, the navidad celebrations in full swing. Today saw the Virgin de Guadelupe celebration – the singing of Las Mañanitas began at midnight, accompanied by mariachis and a mass (which I did not partake in). Parents dressed their children as mini-Virgencitas and Juan Diegos, the man who first saw the image of the Virgin. It was joyous and filled with smells of tortillas and tlayudas and tacos on the comals. And of course there was mezcal, as there always is. I will miss the major celebration of the Virgin de Soledad, the patron saint of Oaxaca, along with La Noche de los Rabanos (Night of the Radishes). Perhaps next year, because I do intend on returning, especially since I managed to in these last days make some amazing connections with a couple of organic farmers (one, so devastatingly handsome I could hardly look at him, wondering if perhaps my destiny was to marry an organic farmer in Mexico) and more chefs who are determined to ignite a food movement here before traditions and small farms disappear completely. Why does it always seem to start with the chefs?

I was at a meeting the other night – somehow I received and invitation for it – I still have no idea how. I sat between Pilar Cabrera, chef at the amazing restaurant La Olla and Susana Trilling, author of several books on the cuisine of Oaxaca. I wanted to pinch myself I was so excited. And of course a little intimidated Tortillas on the comalby being in the presence of people I had long read about. And then, they asked me to speak about what was going on in the US with the food movement, in Spanish, and I managed to not humiliate myself too much. But it also was a great reminder at how far I have come in pursuing my own dreams of being enmeshed in a worldwide food movement, and being able to speak with knowledge and passion about this subject.

I don’t have much to add about adventures. It has been the usual walks around the city and witnessing of the amazing play of light and shadows on the buildings. I went to Abastos market– the huge, sprawling – it must cover 7 city blocks – labyrinth of stall after stall after stall. In truth, I could spend days in the markets here. I managed to even track down the elusive herb called almoduzar, a hard to find key ingredient for mole. It tastes like a cross between mint, thyme and parsely, and to find it meant asking different vendors who sold it and where they might be located. The problem with this is if you ask the question, in seemingly perfect Spanish, you get a rapid fire answer with directions that involve going forward and then turning right at some vendor stall that has no name – but the one that has only Chili de Agua – and then turning left and the right, past the people with insert-whatever-item-here, and then thru the center till you get to the other side and then you go left and the stall is there. The true miracle was that I found it, by accident really. Three hours later, I emerged from the plastic canopies with a bag laden with 10 or fifteen pounds of dried chilis and coffee, and three comals.

I’ve also been revisiting my favorite street food vendor – it seems almost every night I stop for some tasty treat. La Señora, as I discovered she is called, now always gives me a smile, especially after I proclaimed her Tlayuda the best I had ever tasted. Her secret – three key ingredients – the beans, the lard and the salsa. And her tasajo, a kind of beef filete that is usually thin and dry, is divine and juicy and full of flavor. Then there are her quesadillas, stuffed with flor de calabaza and quesillo and epazote. So simple, and yet, so completely delicious. She will see me at some point tonight, I am sure.

Tonight… I was told to have my bags packed today, to be prepared to stay out all night and to settle for sleeping on the plane. There are more fireworks, an art opening being put on by a professor from the CA College of Arts in SF – he lives here half the year and of course six blocks away from me in the Mission the other half of the year. Then there is a party, followed by a concert at the old train station with a balkan gypsy group that will go head to head with a mixtec band. And then there is dancing at Cafe Central, which will be followed by the drinking of mezcal until the sun comes up. And of course, there will be crying, especially after the several glasses of mezcal have settled in.

In the meantime, the work progresses at a furious pace to complete THE GREAT OAXACAN PROJECT TO RECONSTRUCT EVERY SINGLE GODDAMN STREET IN THE CENTRO. They work almost 24 hours a day today, and perhaps next year when I return it will mean I can walk safely, with my head held high without worrying about stumbling and destroying my pedicure. A great use of public funds.

I am not talking of last walks, or last sunsets, or last meal of mole negro – it has such an implication of finality I refuse to accept.

To friends, to nights of decadence, to the cascade of fireworks that will blanket the city tonight and to a heavy heart.

Besos y abrazos,


Susan Coss organizes the Bay Area’s Eat Real Festival, a social venture created to “inspire eaters to choose tasty, healthy, good food” with a focus on “delicious and sustainable ‘street food’ options.” She is a perennial traveler, completely obsessed with Mexico and can be contacted here.

* image credits phylevnhdaniel