Searching for Āina in Hawaii

The Big Island of Hawaii is divided into two unequal halves: The wet Eastern shore where we are staying in Hilo, with its jungle and multi-hued Hawaiian people, aqua palm-shaded coves and sea turtles, its cheap plate lunch and the rumble of old cars and waves on lava-shrouded cliffs. And the arid Western shore full of resorts, sandy beaches, boutiques and haoles like us.

Choosing Hilo was a conscious choice. When we travel we come looking for local food, local people. We want to bend the barrier between us and the real people who live there. We are not interested in the seclusion of resort living where an airplane ticket and a door-to-door resort shuttle armor us against the heat and the humanity around us.

So while we are loving Hilo, one day we decide a white sand beach is in order,  where Stu can play in the waves. And so we have come 70 miles across the island to Hapuna Beach in an old, faded, dirty Honda Civic rented from a local boy named Tony who surely knows his wrecks. We are standing under a shade tree with round shiny dark green leaves the size of lunch plates. Stu is holding a boogeyboard and I am standing gingerly on my good foot. The bad foot, still swollen and pushed carefully into a flip flop, is making a valiant comeback eleven weeks after surgery, and on this day is released for its first outing from the heavy black boot that has been my constant companion and boat anchor.

But there are no waves on Hapuna Beach today. I balance carefully on my good foot in the sand, and glance at Stu. He smiles, shrugs, and tosses the boogeyboard on the picnic table under the tree, and we walk out across the beach. For the afternoon, we read and walk and read and swim. Stu comes back from a swim, and reaches down to stroke my swollen foot resting on the edge of the picnic table, and then he sees something in the sand, and wiggles loose a piece of flotsam with his toe. It’s a teaspoon, dropped by some recent picnicker. He sets it on the bench, and wanders back to the sea.

The sandy teaspoon is upside down on the bench. Something about its shape is familiar to me, and as I reach to turn it over, I know what I will see: a few curlicues and a small flower stamped into the cheap stainless. The very same pattern on the flatware my parents bought with Green Stamps in California and that I used every day of my childhood. A few pieces even came with me when I left home and are still somewhere in our camping equipment in Oregon, 63 years after my parents handed those Green Stamps over to the gas station attendant and took home the service for eight, serving spoons and butter knife included.

The spoon, like so much else in Hawaii, is not from around these parts. It’s the imported flotsam, like this very spoon, which has been thwarting my Don Quixote-like search for the local and the real on this big, fecund island. Which, oddly enough, I’ve been thinking about a lot on this particular afternoon, sitting under the tree with the lunch plate leaves, reading MFK Fisher’s “Serve it Forth.” Fisher is traveling the centuries, looking to make sense of how and why we eat what we do in much the same way I want to understand the food of Hawaii, and why and how Hawaiians eat it.

But the forces that brought that spoon to Hapuna Beach have other ideas. When we arrived at the Hilo condo, I opened a cupboard to find two boxes of Jello left by the previous renters. Not an abomination, exactly, but a curious affectation in the land of papaya, passion fruit, and macadamia nuts. Why did they buy Jello? And why didn’t they eat it?

Maybe they visited the big Hilo Farmer’s Market one morning and brought home a papaya, which made them forget entirely about the strawberry banana Jello in the cupboard.

It is hard to override our baser tastes, driven by convenience and habit. Our condo Jello eaters, the spoon in the sand, they’re why I am tilting somewhat unsuccessfully at this windmill, searching for local food, and the old ways of eating it. All 1.5 million Hawaiians and the eight to nine million tourists who visit here each year are consuming mostly imported food. Only about 20% of what Hawaiians eat is actually produced in the islands. In 2013, food imports here were almost $7 billion of Jello and other essentials, including $8 million in bread, pastry and cakes, $16 million in beer, $19 million in frozen beef, and $23 million in tuna. The number one fruit import? Oranges. And this is odd because nearly every neatly trimmed yard we pass is home to a tree that groans under a canopy of oranges. So many oranges that paper bags full of oranges are often left at park entrances for our pleasure.

An Island import: flocked Christmas trees at the Hilo KTA market
An Island import: flocked Christmas trees at the Hilo KTA market

As I sit thinking about the power of local food for local people, I watch the Hapuna Beach gardeners raking up the fallen leaves and the larger-than-life almond-like seeds that have fallen from the trees with the big green leaves. Could these be the Malabar chestnuts I’ve read about? After we return to Hilo, I read up on Hawaiian trees and discover I have spent the afternoon under a Sea Almond, and that its seeds are a prized nut in India. Here in Hawaii, where 80 percent of their food is imported across thousands of miles of ocean, they are swept up and tossed away.

There are farmers markets here on the Big Island every day of the week. This is a positive sign, no? Farmers, coming together, selling local food. But I had been warned before we arrived that most of the food sold at them is bought wholesale by the vendors from large produce suppliers, much of which is not even grown on this island. Or any of its brothers here on this chain of the loneliest islands, the farthest from another land mass of any islands … in the world. Some vendors offer a backyard papaya or long beans from their garden, but the rest of the items on their tables come right out of Dole boxes, sitting in plain sight, and is parceled up into convenient tourist-size bags for that tiny fridge in the resort hotel.

Yes, there is passion fruit, lychee and rombuton. And I am happy for them, and even for the common, familiar things. A banana grown here or a fresh pineapple is full of the flavor we never taste on the continent 2,500 miles away, after the fruit makes a long ocean voyage en route to mainland cold storage.

But I want more: tree tomatoes, egg fruit, ice cream beans, Malabar chestnuts, ohelo berries from atop the volcanoes. I ask about them, or about particular things I did not know or understand, and a veil comes down. Papaya is five for $2. What else do I need to know? A busy market is not the time or place for history and cooking lessons. I leave the market, a few somewhat familiar items in my bag, but an ache in my heart to know more, taste more, to be for a moment not a haole, a cracker, a gringo, a honky. But for just a few days, a part of the āina.

Āina. It’s what Hawaiians call the land, but it is more than that. It is more than the French notion of terroir, which is merely all the physical things … land, earth, soil, sun … that impart flavor to a particular wine. To Hawaiians, the land is alive in a very human sort of way: “… it can do things, want things, and know things. [Hawaiians] are the offspring of a union between the earth and sky, making the āina a direct relative,” writes Judy Rohrer in her book, Haoles in Hawaii.

All Hawaiians needed, the āina provided, and then Captain Cook sailed up in 1778. Suddenly, āina was not enough. In less than 100 years, 95% of native Hawaiians had disappeared, ravaged by diseases and the white man’s ways. “This powerfully demonstrates” writes Rohrer, “how colonialism can be seen as a form of genocide in Hawaii.”

Now the islands are dependent on the mainland and foreign markets (mainly Indonesia and Thailand) for mattresses, cars, the oil to fire its electric generating plants. And yes, stainless steel flatware, oranges and Jello.

Maybe I want what is impolite for a haole to desire. Or for a honky to want in New Orleans, a gringo to crave in Mexico. My own whiteness means I am forever shackled to the only true culture most Americans can experience, and most of that does not interest me: processed fast food and streamlined foods from immigrant populations, a taco on a pre-cooked hard shell that is about as far from authentic as the earth is from Pluto. I can never make rabbit as a Frenchman, or gumbo as a Cajun, or poke as a Hawaiian. And yet I want to go deep, make it part of my marrow. Yet I know I am a symbol of another kind to native Hawaiians. I am the spoon, I am the Jello. I am the descendant of Captain Cook.

So I bash along against the tide. I arrive. I observe, I ask questions and teach myself. I paw through Hawaiian cookbooks in the Hilo bookstore looking for illumination, and set aside in a stack on the floor the books by celebrity Hawaiian chefs and the recipe collections by haoles like me. There is nothing else left on the shelf.

I come home from the Maku’u Farmer’s Market on Sunday with taro and pumpkin blossoms. I dice the unfamiliar pale purple taro and boil it until tender. Is this the way? I don’t know, but I know tubers, and this seems right. When the taro is fork-tender, I drain it, let it cool, mix it with Puna goat cheese, and stuff the mixture inside the pumpkin blossoms. I dredge them in flour and egg and flour again, and fry them, and serve them up on a salsa of peppers, avocado, papaya, shallots and cilantro. They are not Hawaiian, but they are very good, out on the lanai, near the turtles.

Feeling so Italian, under a big blue Oregon sky

For the legions of Americans who feel compelled to torture a sweet little pork loin until it tastes like someone waived a meat wand over a sawdust heap, I give you the Italian solution: porketta.porketta

Porketta is a pork loin that has been brined a bit, then smothered in fresh herbs, garlic, and my own special touch: dried pears poached in cognac, then wrapped in pork belly (uncured bacon my friends). Then it’s roasted until the belly is cracking and brown on the outside, and the pork loin is insouciant and juicy on the inside, completely untroubled by that oven roasting.

And that’s our main course next Saturday, April 9 when I cook again at the Balch Hotel in Dufur.

The rest of the meal is inspired by Italy, too. We start with an antipasti plate: savory goat cheese panna cotta with preserved lemon, Italian artichokes, slow-roasted tomatoes, basil oil, with crostini. Then it’s that porketta with fennel potato gratin, lacinato kale and pork pan sauce. And for dessert? Honey lemon ricotta cake, lemoncello creme anglaise, fresh strawberries. All that, and the Balch will just separate $45 from your wallet (plus gratuity, which is up to you.) We’ll have some nice wines, and a wine flight, to choose too.

The Balch is a short hop (I say that because we are three days away from opening season for major league baseball, and I’m remembering all my favorite shortstops who can pick up a grounder and swing around to first with the fine liquid movement of chocolate sauce over vanilla ice cream) from Hood River, and elsewhere in the Gorge. If you’ve never stayed there, you’ll love what they’ve done with their beds, baths and beyond. Course, you can just drive home afterward, watching the last shreds of April sun slide down the Gorge.

Visit balchhotel.com for the details. Hope to cook for you again soon.

What they don’t tell you in guide books, or, we tried to figure it out so you don’t have to

“Is this a two-lane street?” asks Stu, a note of both frustration and panic in his voice as he is piloting our rental car through a roadway heading in to Oaxaca Juarez, the beautiful colonial city where we have been living for two months.

And then we both laugh. Who knows? It’s a two-lane street IF the drivers using it want it to be. Gutters, parking lanes, breakdown lanes, the lanes going the other direction, can all be utilized by drivers if they need them at any given moment. And then I utter our refrain, the one we use whenever we attempt to use American logic to understand anything here:

“You’re assuming someone is in charge.”

If Mel Brooks had directed Fury Road, he might have set it in modern-day Mexico. Driving here is a comedy action thriller.

Take one-way streets. Many streets in Oaxaca and surrounding pueblos, towns and barrios, both paved and unpaved, have large painted arrows on facing walls, showing if the street is two-way or one-way. The Mexican driver believes you should probably obey those arrows, unless you really need to go the wrong way on a one-way street, in which case, you should try to avoid the oncoming cars as judiciously as possible. Wave, showing your appreciate their understanding.

Take crosswalks. Someone, somewhere (the person who was temporarily in charge?) painted many crosswalks on Oaxacan streets. As near as we can tell, these painted areas tell drivers that this is the area where they should, if convenient, avoid hitting people as they drive through, very rapido. It does not mean, under any circumstances, that they should stop and let the people standing nearby cross. Unless of course, they are already stopped because of a red light, in which case it is the pedestrian’s responsibility to make eye contact with the driver, and wave at the driver, just to make sure the driver agrees with the pedestrian’s interpretation of the event. And of course, Oaxacans, being extremely friendly and accommodating, always smile back, “Why, of course, go right ahead!” It’s such a civilized approach.

Take bus lanes. Actually, yes, take bus lanes. The sign on the lane repeated every 100 feet that says “Bus Only” is meant to be poetic. It may mean that a bus uses the lane sometimes. But the definition of bus is rather lax, and encourages creativity. Cars, trucks, motorcycles: we all feel like a bus sometimes, don’t we? A couple of “Bus Only” lanes are the only lane you can take if you want to turn right or left at the next light. So call me a bus. I’m OK with that.

Take other traffic “violations.” Some weeks ago, the erstwhile traffic department of Oaxaca (the people, who, at one time or another, are briefly in charge) put up a nice tent on Alcala, the main downtown tourist pedestrian-only street. Inside the tent, they put 20 posters on easels, each with a drawing of a traffic violation, and a recitation of the Oaxacan law at issue. The first thing about this display that struck me is that it was set up on a street few local drivers ever visit, and it was placed on a street where cars can’t drive. It was honest and sincere, but in a state where literally anyone can get a driver’s license, no test required, it seemed woefully inadequate as a driver education event.

That said, here are some of the things, pictured on the posters, that are illegal here:

– Putting rocks, buckets, old chairs or spare construction material anywhere on a public street to reserve the parking spaces in front of your house or business. So, who knows why every street in Oaxaca sports one of these free-lance loading zones. Illegal, we’ll give you that. Enforced? OK, now you’re acting like there’s someone in charge.

– Riding with a dog or child loose in the front passenger seat. The poster only showed one loose child and one loose dog. Maybe that explains why we’ve seen three or four children loose in one front passenger seat. One child could get knocked about, but there’s safety in numbers.

– People riding in the open bed of pickup trucks. Seriously? Even the local, state and federal cops ride around standing in the back of pickups. Of course, they are all carrying semi-automatic weapons, which they use to steady themselves against the truck frame when they go around corners, so that probably makes it safer for them. It also ensures I won’t be pointing out to them that it’s illegal.

If you’ve ever watched bees in a hive, or an ant hill, it is obvious that advanced civilizations have no need for traffic signs or bureaucracy, as long as all the bees and ants are just going about their genetically-inspired jobs as judiciously as possible. The primary rule here is: we’re all on this road together, trying to get to our destinations. Let’s just get along. And if that means I need to drive the wrong way in your lane for just a minute, we’ll all just smile and wave.

New things to do with very large radishes

The most exotic thing I’ve ever done with a radish is roast it to make a chilled soup with crème fraiche, white wine, tarragon and shallots.

But here in Oaxaca, on December 23, the Oaxaquenos take radishes to another level.

It’s Noche de Rabanos, Night of the Radishes, in which radishes that have been left in the ground to grow to a massive state are carved into scene after scene of life and phantasmagoria, all for thousands of people from around the world to enjoy. It’s a temporal art … the artists have to regularly spray their creations with water just to keep them fresh for the night. After that, it’s compost.

The scene: all around the zocalo, under the big trees, are over a hundred tables, each with a radish tableau. The viewing line begins to form early, at 2:30 and at 4:00, we are allowed to begin walking past the displays, in small groups at a time, no shoving please, with plenty of time to stop and ponder the creativity, humor and occasionally, sheer madness, that drives someone to turn a pile of grossly distended radishes into a preying mantis, or with as much passion, Porfirio Dias, a 19-century Mexican president.

I took so many pictures, my little Canon PowerShot got hot. Which I will share in a moment, but first – Celebrity Alert! – Not too far behind us in line was a fine American chef, Rick Bayless, known for his Chicago Mexican restaurants and cookbooks, and when I saw him, I asked politely if I could take his picture, and he obliged, graciously (it must be hell to be famous, though no one else seemed to recognize him) so here he is:

Rick Bayless, waiting with everyone else, to see the radishes
Rick Bayless, waiting with everyone else, to see the radishes

 

 

 

 

 

 

And now for the radishes. Saints and virgins are popular themes, so here are just two:

A lovely virgin of Guadalupe
A lovely virgin of Guadalupe

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A virgin with a beauty mark.
A virgin with a beauty mark.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I particularly loved the use of other materials, such as moss for hair and beards:

Governor Porfirio Dias
A Medusa with snakey radishes
A Medusa with snakey radishes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another theme was ancient Mayan and Aztec history, as in these guys:

A carving of a relief from Monte Albon
A carving of a relief from Monte Albon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But perhaps my favorite was the animals:

Coyote at rest
Coyote at rest
Turtles in a radish sea
Turtles in a radish sea

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A preying mantis
A preying mantis
A chicken that looks good enough to stew
A chicken that looks good enough to stew

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And of course, you had to know that one wag would look at radishes and see boobs. Pointed Madonna boobs, at that:

Radish Boobies

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finally, the last quarter of the radish walk was devoted to sculpture of another kind, with corn husks and flowers:

A corn husk devil
A corn husk devil

 

 

Classy corn husk wedding
Classy corn husk wedding

 

A weaver made of dried flowers
A weaver made of dried flowers

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Merry Christmas everyone!

 

Christmas Joy without Borders

In a closet at home in Hood River are boxes and boxes of Christmas decorations. They give me great joy, from the noodle angel Annie made at age three to the battery-operated dog who sings a hip-hop version of Jingle Bells.

This is the first year in my life that the boxes will stay in the closet.

We are experiencing a new kind of Christmas here in Oaxaca, replete with posadas (wandering parades of worshipers re-enacting the Blessed Couple’s search for a place to stay and have The Baby) and nacimientos, elaborate large nativity scenes where scale and Biblically-authenthic actors and environs play no role whatsoever. The idea seems to be to gather as many of God’s and man’s creations around Mary, Joseph and the Baby Jesus as humanly possible, and then light the living daylights out of it. I have seen 6-inch high cows next to foot-tall shepherds, next to elephants dwarfed by guys on motorcycles. Somehow this works for me, for Jesus taught that all are welcome in Bethlehem.

The irony of an arid Mexican city adopting Norte Americano Christmas decorations is lost on the population here, who gleefully sell Santa hats and plastic Douglas Firs and sing, “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas … just like the ones I used to know.”

We have wandered the city now for three weeks, miles every day, and I’ve been on high Christmas Alert. Here is some of what I’ve seen.

Santa on the pot
Santa on the pot
Giant ornament on the wall
Giant ornament on the wall
Flying pinata
Flying pinata
Funeral Christmas
Funeral Christmas
Hotel lobby tree
Hotel lobby tree
Reindeer hats sold from the hood of a car
High fructose corn syrup tree
High fructose corn syrup tree
Up on a tile rooftop, reindeer's paws
Up on a tile rooftop, reindeer’s paws
Build your own nacimiento: figurines galore
Build your own nacimiento: figurines galore
Oaxaca's colonial architecture reflected in a Christmas shop window
Oaxaca’s colonial architecture reflected in a Christmas shop window
Jose's nacimiento
Jose’s nacimiento
To package your Christmas purchases, a wreath that holds bags
To package your Christmas purchases, a wreath that holds bags
Captive tree
Captive tree
Choose your naciemiento herd from the grandaddy of nacimiento shops outside the Benito Juarez market
Choose your naciemiento herd from the grandaddy of nacimiento shops outside the Benito Juarez market
Mangers at the nacimiento store
Mangers at the nacimiento store
Every nacimiento needs a water feature
Every nacimiento needs a water feature
A hotel creche, complete with decorated agave
A hotel creche, complete with decorated agave
Getting a manicure while selling angels. kings and shepherds
Getting a manicure while selling angels. kings and shepherds
And finally, the big nacimiento in the zocalo, splendid at night

However you say it: Feliz Navidad.  And in case you’re wondering, here’s what I’ll be preparing for Christmas dinner: Roast turkey in mole negro with rice and fresh tortillas, marinated vegetable salad of tiny baby potatoes, carrots and beets with local goat cheese and locally-made apple cider vinager, and for dessert, Oaxacan chocolate panna cotta with candied tangerines

 

 

BANG! Something wonderful is nearby

Religion is like sausage and law-making: sometimes it’s better to be in the dark.

I am wandering through Catholicism in Oaxaca with a quizzical expression most of the time. My stupidity gives me a certain innocent experience: I have no idea what’s going on, and so my encounters with the supplicants, the celebrants, the churches, the reliquary, leave me with more questions than answers. But what interesting questions.

Why do the big cathedrals have all these side chapels lining the sides of the big central cathedral area? (I had the same question in Italy.) I never see anyone in them. Is this where you go to have a funeral for your mother when there will only be six of you? And if there is a reliquary in the side chapel, does it have bones from a saint, or is that just a plaster thing without real flesh and blood remains? And why is Jesus, in a side chapel of the magnificent Santo Domingo Cathedral, lying on his side, covered with a red velvet blanket, with his arms over his head tied in restraints, looking, with his hip in a shapely profile, like a come-thither sado-masochistic Jesus?

I love Jesus, personally. I talk to him regularly. I have never imagined him lying on his side under a red velvet blanket. But somehow, this comforts the Catholics of Oaxaca, so who am I to be critical? It is better to marvel at Jesus reclining there, and wonder at what it all means.

We have been wondering about the regular explosions we hear at night, and in the morning too. Like fireworks, but without the rewarding flash of light and color shooting skyward. Our collectivo driver who delivered us to Monte Alban explained it all for us. The BANG is a loud firework with no flash. It’s meant to let people know that something special is happening somewhere and you better get yourself there. So on Tuesday, it was the celebration for a special virgin (this happened to be our daughter Annie’s birthday, and there is no connection) who performed healing miracles. As it happens, the church celebrating her is on the old road to Monte Alban, and there were BANGS going off everywhere, and a fiesta, and of course, food. There is always food.

We are sure to get more BANGS in the weeks ahead. December 12 is the birthday of the Virgin Mary of Guadalupe, who is the biggest most bad-assed Mary in all of Mexico. Today, as we wandered through the Centro, BANG, BANG, very near by, and sure enough around the next corner was a wonderful parade of musicians and dancers and giant paper mache figures (a huge 20-foot high chef? Maybe that was the only one they could rent) coming our way, carrying remembrances of the Virgin Mary of Guadalupe.

BANG BANG! Pay attention! Something amazing is just around the corner from you. Say your prayers. Love your saints. Buy a frosty cajate nieve from a sidewalk vendor and let the cold caramel flow like baptismal water down your throat. God is good.

A tortilla lesson in La Raya

Isabel tells her English-speaking friend Jorge, who explains to us, that she will meet us in the middle of the zocalo at 11 am on Sunday. We are going to her house to make tortillas. That’s the short story.

The true story is a bit more complicated, and substantially longer.

At 10 am we left our home in the clouds above Oaxaca for the 30 minute walk to the zocalo, the central square. We dawdled at an outdoor flower market looking for a nice gift for Isabel, our landlord’s mother-in-law, who has graciously agreed to teach me about corn tortillas, Oaxaca style.

In the zocalo, as we wait, a human ribbon flows around us, caught on the Sunday breeze, floated aloft by the intoxicating smell of pork fat, corn and chilies, mesquit smoke. And we discover another bano — woohoo! 3 pesos – tucked under the central bandstand in the square. We are collecting bathroom locations like Japanese school girls collect Hello Kitty. If you walk all day around the city, miles and miles, you better know where the next bathroom is located.

Isabel arrives, and we go. Donde? No clue. We don’t know where her home is. She said “pueblo” to us when we talked about it, but now, as she is leading us away from the square I wonder, is her home somewhere nearby, just around the corner?

Suddenly, she spies what we think is a taxi. We learn later it’s a collectivo, or collective taxi, or, as many butts as can fit in a four-door sub-compact and still get the doors closed, who are headed in the same general direction. So the three of us crowd in with two other passengers and the driver. I hold the potted plant on my lap.

We leave the city, and 20 minutes later arrive at La Raya, the pueblo, one of many that radiate out from Oaxaca.

At Isabel’s house, we meet her daughter Yolanda who is a filmmaker, living at home in the quiet pueblo as she finishes editing a film. And then Isabel retrieves a bag of prepared masa – ground corn and water – from her refrigerator. Outside in the garden, she and Stu fill a bag with small tree limbs, mostly madrone, that have been gathered in a pile. We are going to her friend Francesca’s house to make tortillas, and taking wood for the fire and masa with us. With a giggle, Ysabel points to her comal, the large wide shallow clay bowl on which she once made tortillas, wedged in a bunch of bamboo near the wood pile. It hasn’t been used for a while.

At Francesca’s, a few blocks away, the outdoor kitchen and Francesca’s family, are well into comida (lunch) preparation.comal waiting There is a fire glowing red in a clay oven, which is shaped to hold the comal on top. On a nearby propane burner, Francesca’s daughter is making a brothy black bean dish, with beans, onions, garlic and water, simmered with some whole avocados leaves that she removes just before we eat. Francesca has made two salsas, a tomato with fresh red chilis that look like red serranos, and a green salsa with fresh green chilies, tomatillos, and the largest oregano leaves I have ever seen. She’s crushing the ingredients for each salsa in a large stone molcajete.

Avocado leaves, after they've been removed from the beans.
Avocado leaves, after they’ve been removed from the beans.

Neither of my cook companions speak English. I am learning with my hands and my eyes. We have no words together. At the fire, Isabel and I get busy with the masa. She dumps it onto the surface of a stone metate and begins to work the masa, pulling it forward and backward the way you might wash clothes on a washboard. When it is a bit looser, and slightly warm to the touch, we dip our hands in water, and pinch off a hunk of masa

Getting the feel for the masa
Getting the feel for the masa

about the size of a small lemon, roll it into a ball, and then flatten it into a disk. Next to us is a huge tortilla press. It’s a steel stand about waste high with a flat bottom plate about 14 inches square. The top plate is on a hinge, and has a handle. But like most things in Mexico,

Ysabel working the tortilla press
Ysabel working the tortilla press

life is impossible without plastic. So Francesca hands us sheets of plastic to press the masa between so that they won’t stick to the tortilla maker.

These are very different from the other fresh tortillas I’ve had in Northern Mexico. Corn was first cultivated in Oaxaca, and is still highly revered here. These tortillas are larger, thinner, and made of a finer-ground masa than what we are used to buying tortillas in American grocery stores (that Northern Mexico influence). The subtle, toasty popcorn flavor comes through especially when charred, and Oaxacans love their food slightly charred. We carefully lay the tortillas, 8 to ten inches across, on the surface of the hot comal. The air is thick with sweet wood smoke. When the tortillas start browning in spots, we flip them, and then flip them again, several times, until they are cooked through, but still very pliable. These large tortillas are the base for tlayuda, an essential Oaxacan dish. They are often spread with black beans like the brothy one in Francesca’s kitchen, and queso fresco, and eaten out of hand.

Francesca also shows me how to take a scoop of masa and roll it into a log shape, and smash it in the tortilla press. The shape is called a huarache, like the sandal. I never really learn how this tortilla shape might be used differently from the tlayuda.

Just when I think I’ve gotten a handle on these large, floppy tortillas, Isabel takes the same size ball of masa, and instead of pressing it into a large thin circle for tlayuda or an oval for huarache, presses it until it is only about 6 inches across, and much thicker. She leaves the tortilla on the comal just long enough to firm it up, and then pulls it off and begins pinching the edges up the way you would crimp a pie crust, making the same crimps all over the surface of the tortillas.

a basket of finished tortillas, memelites on top.
a basket of finished tortillas, memelites on top.

Francesca brings out a small plastic bag filled with brown asiento, pork lard with bits of pork. The lard is sparingly crumbled across the surface of the small crimped tortilla, and then it’s placed back on the comal to finish cooking. The lard melts and runs through the maze of crimps on the tortillas surface, adding its rich umami scent to the wood smoke and charred masa. Francesca spoons some of the brothy black bean paste on top. Now Yolanda has arrived with a bag of crumbly queso fresco, and the cheese is sprinkled across the thick, porky tortilla, which is still on the comal.

Francesca adds queso to the memelites
Francesca adds queso to the memelites

Another three or four minutes on the comal, and we collect plates of these thick tortillas, called memelitas, and sit in Francesca’s dining room with her family. We spoon the red and green chili salsas on top and drink pineapple agua fresca.

At Francesca's table
At Francesca’s table

I have made my own tortillas for years, hundreds of them. I make salsas much the way Francesca makes hers. But it is the combination … the stone, the clay, the fire, Isabel’s fine, small fingers, Francesca’s laugh, the rich pork, the fresh masa made from corn just ground the day before … it is a miraculous and rich thing, so satisfying, the rest of the day seemed to just float around me, the woodsmoke still in my hair, the masa still under my fingernails.

The long way up

“No hill for a stepper.” – Richard Watson

When we remember Stuart’s dad, Richard Watson, it is often on some ridiculously steep Gorge hike, and we think of him saying, “No hill for a stepper.” In other words, whatever it is, it’s easy if you’re prepared.

Richard lived in Oaxaca for a while, and I wonder if he ever used that phrase here. Our lovely little house, home for the next two months, takes an ungodly amount of climbing to reach. The kind you don’t want to repeat in a day if you can avoid it. Leave at 10 am, walk all over the city, and return late in the evening. Think of the nosebleed route to the top of Mount Defiance, without the switchbacks.

Our little yellow house, from a distance, gives you a notion about our life on the side of a hill
Our little yellow house, from a distance, gives you a notion about our life on the side of a hill

It takes four long blocks of steep, precarious climbing to reach our house. And after about the third block, I’m reminded of a hike I took Abbey on once when she was about 7. After an hour, she was flagging, and I pointed down the hill and said, “Look, Abs, it’s the parking lot, and it’s all downhill from here.” And she famously replied (repeated oft in family lore): “I don’t want to go up, I don’t want to go down, I just want to go on the flat.”

It is a bit shaming to see little abuelas making the trip up our long hill, carrying the day’s groceries with quick steps and even breaths. We consoled ourselves on the first day with the fact that we hadn’t adjusted to the 5,000 feet elevation yet. And now, on the fourth day, we are doing pretty well competing with the abuelas. By the end of January, we should be springing up these hills, even with packs full of mezcal, masa, limes, beans and rice.

Getting into the Oaxacan groove

atrium in the strars
From our third floor perch in the stars, out across the city of Oaxaca.

We are sitting up in the room that is the third floor of our little house in the Colonia Estrella neighborhood of Oaxaca, Mexico, with windows at floor, wall and ceiling, an atrium of sorts. We look down over the city, and we can hear 100 dogs barking, doves cooing, and just a moment ago, the propane delivery truck announced its presence on our street with a loud, recorded announcement and a horn that sounded like a cow bawling. Oaxacans, people and animals alike, are loud.

And happy. So much joy here, and a simple irony about things: we passed a funeral shop yesterday, with caskets neatly arranged for viewing in the doorway, with cardboard Christmas stockings hanging above on the lintel. Wouldn’t want to go to the other world with cold feet and no Christmas spirit, now, would you?

El Infierno
Simple squash soup, with warm tortillas and a bowl of black beans.

So far, the food is plentiful, delicious and very cheap. Restaurants serve a meal here called comida corrida, which is a multi-course meal, whatever the house prepares that day. You can usually choose the main course, but the rest just arrives: a pitcher of pomegranate refresco, a squash soup, very simple, pureed with celery, then a plate of warm corn tortillas wrapped in a woven napkin, with a bowl of warm brothy black beans, and a very spicy green salsa. Next came our main courses (I was full already, by the way): Stu had pollo stuffado, a slow-cooked chicken thigh in chili sauce, with rice; I had potatoes and mushrooms with chilies and cheese, with rice and a small lettuce salad with tomatoes and avocado.  And finally, yes, dessert, an apple and raisin strudel. Which I, in my very poor Spanish, asked for: “me postre, llevar?” (to go) and which Stu enjoyed for breakfast today. The cost? 120 pesos, or $7.20. That was for BOTH of us. As in, $3.60 apiece.

We walked all over yesterday, which is a bit of an exaggeration, really just getting our feet wet, and a bit sore. Sleeping like babies at night.

Is it authentic, or is it a poisoned carrot?

Authentic. We bash that word around a lot, and like great sex and a Tesla, it’s what everyone wants.

Stu was telling me about some tourism ads for Pendleton, Oregon, targeted at hipsters who want a handmade, authentic experience: real cowboy stuff, handmade saddles and blankets, which you might really want if you had a horse, but I haven’t seen too many hipsters riding them in downtown Portland. This seems to me to be people thinking too hard about authenticity, rather than just being authentic.

Stu and I took a hike today. We’d been working in the yard all morning, and were still in our hauling-rocks-in-the-rain attire, which for Stu, included wearing these socks. He keeps all his old socks in a drawer in his night stand. I don’t know why he puts them there, but it’s as if he knows they would be shunned by sockshis decent socks, across the room in the tallboy dresser. I don’t know why he keeps them at all, but there they are. This is authentically Stu. No artifice, no worry that the people at Solera Brewery, where we decamped after the hike,  might wonder what a guy in homeless-person socks, a threadbare sweatshirt, $5 Walmart basketball shorts and a 25-year-old gimme cap from a pharmaceutical firm, was doing filling a bowl from the popcorn machine. He didn’t need to think about it, because that’s just who he is. And because Solera is a real place (read: authentic) no one gave him the slightest of inspection.

What is authentic food? I have wondered about this a lot, in a world where it is possible to buy fish sauce, epazote, dried grasshoppers, Argentine wine, Israeli feta cheese, reindeer sausage and kalamansi limes, all within a few miles of home, or closer still, from Amazon.

If you crack the code of another culture’s most famous dish … Spanish paella, say, or Brazilian feijoada or Chinese scallion cakes, and you make them in your own kitchen, as close to the original as you can with what you have at hand, trying hard to honor that dish, what is it that you have in the end? Is it authentic? Or is it, “buzz … thanks for playing! better luck next time!”

I have never been to India. At Nora’s Table, we worshiped Indian food. We gave it our all. We ground our own spices, we toasted them in a pan. We browned our onions for curries until the edges were deep brown. We made paneer from whole milk and a little vinegar. We brought in chick pea flour and kari leaves and nigella seeds. And then we passionately threw in what grows here. No Goan has ever had pear chutney. But we honored the idea of chutney, slavishly, with Gorge pears. And when I saw Indians in our dining room, I would go out to say hello. And here’s what they often said to me. “I have never had a dish like that in India, but it was so perfect, so real, so amazing. Thank you.” Authentic.

That is what authentic means to me now. It is making food as honest as you can, with what you have. And if you do that well, the real owners of that cuisine will recognize what you have created. It will be real to them, as if their aunt had made their favorite dish, but maybe just got creative one night and took it in another direction.

If we have trouble defining what authentic is, it is surely much easier to say what it’s not. It ain’t “Limited Edition” carrots from Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce of San Diego, grown in Mexico and distributed, last month,  in Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, Texas and Utah. The shipping cost a pretty penny, but the salmonella was free. The carrots sickened 285 people and killed one. Not sure what makes this a limited edition, but perhaps it’s because the carrots didn’t sicken or kill people in the other 24 states.

If we want authenticity, the real deal, then we need to stop buying carrots that qualify for frequent flier miles. Yes, you are correct, a kari leaf will never grow in the Columbia River Gorge. In my passion for Indian food, I will find a way to keep a package, grown somewhere in Florida, in my freezer. And there will likely always be a lime in my refrigerator. But there is a line to be drawn, a way to know that those holey socks are authentic. If we stand back and look, we can see where that line is. In a world that craves the real, the honest, the enduring life, we have to draw the line.