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:
And now for the radishes. Saints and virgins are popular themes, so here are just two:
I particularly loved the use of other materials, such as moss for hair and beards:
Another theme was ancient Mayan and Aztec history, as in these guys:
But perhaps my favorite was the animals:
And of course, you had to know that one wag would look at radishes and see boobs. Pointed Madonna boobs, at that:
Finally, the last quarter of the radish walk was devoted to sculpture of another kind, with corn husks and flowers:
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.
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
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.
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. 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.
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
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,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.