Last week we ditched Spanish class to … take a different class, on Oaxacan cooking. This makes us sound a little too eager, I know, and it might be true. I’m still coming to terms with my tourist identity (read as: dread embarrassment of foreign uncoolness and/or confusion, but delight in sharing earnest enjoyment of simple pleasures that are new to me, usually in the form of a beautiful building or a snack of some kind).
Our day spent in the kitchen of Reyna Mendoza and her family in the village of Teotitlan del Valle was a welcomed break from “pronombres demostrativos.” She was patient with my stilted, incomplete Spanish and chatted with her brother and mother in Zapotec in between wide-eyed questions about local ingredients. Teotitlan is known for its intricately woven hand-dyed rugs, an occupation Reyna was also employed in before being surprised to discover gringos would pay her to teach them Zapotec cooking techniques.
The day began with shopping for ingredients. As we followed Reyna around the busy marketplace like a middle (aged) school field trip, we were just as conspicuous, and also rather annoyingly in the way of village residents just trying to buy their damn vegetables. Tiny Zapotec women with with spindly salt and pepper braids shuffled past us, inquiring about the price of beans or greeting a stall vendor with a very distinct hand clasp and head nod. I saw Reyna do this to several senior ladies in the market, too.
I bought a tamal de chapulin (grasshopper tamal) and ate it as we walked around. Let’s get this out of the way: grasshoppers are real food in Oaxaca, not a Fear Factor-esque novelty created for tourists. They are ubiquitous in the markets here and come in a variety of flavors/preparations. The midsize ones fried with whole chiles and garlic cloves are my favorite. A long-time fan of chapulines, I’ve enjoyed having them so readily available, though this was my first tamal version. I regret not buying more, it was delicious. May we meet again, tamal de chapulin.
Besides chapulines and dried local fish, most of the items at the mercado were familiar sights from my market back home. Epazote, tomatillos, squash blossoms, nopal cactus paddles - all available at my local supermercado in Oakland. Thousands of miles from home, their familiarity was comforting and exciting at the same time. Way fewer goats back in Oakland, and way more refrigeration. There were stalls for every aspect of domestic life: an entire stall that sold only plastic bags, and another that specialized in the embroidered aprons worm by Reyna and many other women here.
Back in the kitchen, and after a cup of hot chocolate, we were given our prep instructions. There was a lot of grinding and chopping, weirdly obvious declarations from some classmates about how physically demanding the preparation methods were, and general enthusiastic scrutiny of the fire-powered clay comal used to cook or roast many of the ingredients. Heavy grinding stones called metates are used to pulverize everything from pumpkin seeds to chiles, with each metate used only for its designated food counterpart. As is with most culinary endeavors, skill in Oaxacan cooking is the result of practice and an intuitive knowledge of the cooking technology at hand. These women were masters of their craft, but patiently supervised us as we clumsily ground corn using the metlapil and metate for the mole. There's a technique beyond brute force when it comes to grinding corn.
I can’t say I went to this class to learn how to prepare a Zapotec meal so I could make one at home, necessarily, or even to learn how to replicate traditional methods like comal cooking or grinding corn on a metate, though it was genuinely a pleasure to experience and I eagerly absorbed all I could. Those aspects were interesting because of the human beings employing/demonstrating them, and the generations of experience guiding them. It’s one thing to be curious about a culture, it’s another to treat the people living in it as curiosities. Taking a class from someone with a lifetime of knowledge in regional Oaxacan cooking seemed like a good way to express our curiosity while participating a universal human activity, food preparation. Conversational Cooking 101, or something.
If I’m honest, I wanted to have an unhurried, genuine interaction, lasting more than 20 seconds (or however long it takes to buy mangos, chicharrones, or cheese at the market), with someone from Oaxaca. This is surprisingly easy to miss out on when visiting a foreign country, stumbling through language gaps, and mostly interacting with people when paying for things, ordering food, or asking for directions. I wanted to chat with someone who lives here and learn about them and what life is like - for them specifically, not as representatives for their entire town or country. There’s an awkwardness about attempting this in the market or at restaurants because it feels forced, rushed, and (lest we forget) I’m already plenty awkward in my first language. Our Spanish teachers here have been great for these sort of exchanges, equally curious about what our lives are like in California. Sitting next to Reyna, sipping a mezcal and trading stories about the way we cook, or listening to our maestra enthusiastically talk about her love of rescue dogs have felt like the most authentically Oaxacan parts of our trip so far.
So, a note on authenticity: Like so many travelers to this part of Mexico, we are interested in experiencing “authentic” Oaxacan culture, or what we’ve been told to expect it to be, in any case. However, I’m disinclined to use that word as an appropriate descriptor or evaluative standard for another culture, or parts thereof (see: "authentic Oaxacan cooking, clothing," etc). Seeking out traditional or ancestral customs is one of my favorite things to do while traveling, but for some, the goalpost of achieving authenticity seems to make those things a means to an end. It might be a rather loaded subject for me since that particular term (and the ideology around it) has triggered an avalanche of futile quests for “authenticity” in the form of niche consumerism among folks back home in the Bay Area. If you have purchased a cup of coffee or shopped for a leather wallet in the Mission lately, you know what I mean. I don’t blame people for trying, and often, find myself among them. I enjoy craftsmanship, too. I would like for us all to have less stuff, in favor of better stuff, made my talented people who care about their craft. This isn’t a wholesale condemnation of authenticity as a concept, just a squeamishness about its commodification and its transmutation into a pet cause for the affluent.
It’s obvious that not all experiences/foods/interactions are the same or would be of equal interest everyone, especially if you are engaging with them as an “extranjero,” or foreigner. The effort to prioritize authentic experiences/foods/interactions at home or abroad is about an urge to possess something we perceive as truthful, and therefore high-quality, in a world dead-set on duping us into being sheeplike consumers of anything it can; authenticity has not only become synonymous with “best,” but is now implied to reflect a savviness in the consumers who find it, as well. Back home this obsession with bespoke goods and techniques manifests in esoteric exchanges about the design virtues of a keychain, or in coffee rituals more dogmatic than any organized religion. It has also resulted in numerous new businesses built on the precept of making beautiful products with real skill, and that’s a very good thing, but respect for craft and artisanal skill doesn't have to result in hollow, fetishized quaintness.
The idea of authenticity has become an essential branding component for many products and lifestyle brands in The States. In the glossy pages of a travel magazine, Oaxaca might seem like the perfect extension of this aesthetic. Home to artisans of nearly every stripe, pristine galleries and posh shops showcase beautiful ceramics, textiles, and sculptures from the region. In rural Mexico, things are different. In the tiny towns like Teotitlan dedicated to maintaining generations of experience in a single craft, the notion of authenticity as a “brand value” feels unseemly, to say the least. I’m a visitor here, this is their home, and whatever way they live is authentic to the degree that it’s a real life being lived in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico. In other words, the notion of authenticity becomes substantive when we stop viewing it as a transactional experience. Travel is about submission, about giving up our expectations and culturally subjective qualitative lens. When we seek to parse “authenticity” across cultures, we inadvertently trivialize entire histories and human experiences. We diminish complex individuals into conveniently amiable cultural mascots, where predictably and adorably, they show us only what we expect to see. We should put effort into engaging with the culture we are guests of, but resist the urge to think of authenticity as something only found in people or things that make us feel good.
Though far less likely to induce the involuntary eye-rolling I experience back in The Bay, I worry that the tourist quest for authentic Oaxacan experiences runs the risk of (at best) favoring aspects of regional Mexican culture most palatable to touristas and interfering with the cultural landscape it seeks to celebrate, or (at worst) reducing composite cultural elements into singular gimmicky novelties. For the record, I don’t think this is an eventuality, and I’ve been happy to find many tourists who approach each cultural experience here with gratitude, not supposition, but the heavy shadow of tourist dollars looms large in nearly every corner of this area. I’m so appreciative of travelers who put effort into engaging with the countries they visit, even (or especially) when it’s less comfortable. Maybe the quest for authentic travel experiences should not begin with asking a place or group of people to fulfill our expectations, but offering ourselves, first.