Thursday, August 25, 2011

A Dream and a Cooking Class

On the first night in Oaxaca, I have a dream.

There’s a couple. A man. He’s in the hospital. His passing is unexpected….I’m in a kitchen. There are other people around me. We’re preparing food and cooking.

The next morning, I try and remember the details of the dream. The mind a tad dull over boxed white wine and gritty, spiced Mexican beer, called michelada…a way to soften edges from the previous day’s poopenstance.

The bell tolls breakfast at 8am. A spread awaits us. Eggs scrambled with tomatoes and onions (a la Mexicana), wedges of sliced cantaloupe, watermelon, mango, yogurt. Bread that is flattened, then toasted and generously buttered. Hot coffee and sour grapefruit juice. The pink silk evaporates and puckers lips as the glass tilts fully upward.

We pass Javier, the B&B manager on our way to the library.

“What are you going to do today?”

His English is perfect. Too perfect and preened for gringo ears and wallets. He purrs and courts like a cheshire cat waiting for its next saucer of milk.

“No plans. But while we’re here I’d like to take a cooking class.“ My voice is surprisingly urgent.

He tells me about 2 options and goes off to make calls on his mobile phone hooked from the belt. He’ll arrange it and get back to me.


I find myself always hungry here.

Our first meal, a sampling of Oaxaqueno favorites. A platter painted with beef prepared 2 ways, grilled and rubbed with a red spice, 2 types of cheeses, fresh and crumbly, another a salty and chewy mozzarella (quesillo), uncased chorizo, bright red and tasting oddly fermented…and of course, the ever so famed, chapuline…roasted grasshoppers, crunchy and lemony against white gnashing teeth. The legend is if you eat these little insects, you will surely find your way back to Oaxaca one day. We place the bounty into palms of handmade tortillas offering the purse of gold to greedy mouths.

chapuline at the market

The tastes are rich and balanced. Salty against sweet. Sour against smoky. Calculated to coax the carnal queen and king from within.

There’s a little girl, no more than 6, she walks up to the table next to ours and lifts a sauced drumstick from a boy’s plate. She shows the claimed chicken in one hand and walks away. We look down at our feast and realize we must share…but before we can find her, it’s too late. Her body weaves amidst the tables until she’s out of our sight. There, in the crowds. The faint orange square lights gleam on her braided hair. She’s sharing her conquest with a baby sister. We realize that her pickings are deliberate, she chooses what she wants. Our dishes, perhaps too common…too boring to merit attention.

Oaxaca is what Lyon is to France, the culinary mecca of Mexico. Ingredients, spices, herbs, techniques, an ocean of pre-Columbian recipes passed down from generation to generation.

My mind bobs and waddles, its own quest to seek satiation. It’s not fully present, but lost somewhere in the constant need to pounce on the future, like Biela, ears perked, ready to jump at any moment at the patch of grass. At breakfast, the mind wants to know what will be for lunch, at lunch, what’s for dinner.


Our room inside the B&B, has a large window, a partial garden view. Time feels trapped somehow, forever overcast...longing for sun. The large garden wanes small with surrounding trees and bushes ---unyielding, blocking the sky above. There’s a koi pond with a large wire net over it. A family of parrots quibble over seeds behind closed cages.

Pictures of people adorn the dining room and entryway. Hand drawn cartoons with cutout photographed heads. Past group tours. Lively. There’s another cartoon with a band, animals carrying instruments. A group of people from Stanford. All the pictures are dated. Nothing past 2008.


Rain drops fall on a humid landscape. Sweat beads condense under rain jackets. We make our way to the zocalo, the main square, the heart of the city.

The sidewalks are smooth and uneven. Modern in comparison to the old cobblestone alleys of San Miguel de Allende. Busses and cars pour onto streets with purpose and speed. The street chokes with engine exhaust.

On our way, we walk up the steps of the Basilica de Nuestra Senora de la Soledad. A showcase of various helado and nieve stands (ice cream and sorbet) out rival a diminutive empanada stand. A maiden in school uniform, white knee high socks, sits next to her beau, her mouth opens fully for him, ice cream exchanged with wet kisses. Her thick black wavy hair sweeps over her dark eyes… a beautiful face.

billboard along the mexican highway

We cross the enormous, Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción…ants to Everest. A restaurant on the square advertises its menu del dia for $65 pesos ($5.50). A small cigar stuffed and fried with frijoles and cheese. A bowl of green squash soup with a cheek of lime. A bowl brimming with sweet broth, bones and beef, string beans, carrots and chayote. A lemon gelatin with taro paste and coffee.

Basilica de Nuestra Senora de la Soledad

I’m always thinking about food. Always thinking about the next meal.

Why this sudden need? What am I trying to fill?


In the library at the B&B, there are pictures on walls and bookshelves like hibiscuses on tangled vines. Black and white photographs. Colored ones bleached by the sun. Folk art is scattered on tables and nooks filling gaps of empty spaces. A figurine of a woman giving birth. A red devil and his clubbed tail. A miniature rodeo, a man with a cowboy hat on top of a bull. Skulls and skeletons smoke and dance. A tree half alive and half dead, at the roots a sprouting fetus.

2 chairs sit next to one another. One is a long elegant oval backed rocking chair. The other is squarish and firm. There is intimacy in their proximity.

I try and recount the dream. I let my mind drift. The image is different. I see an old woman in her 80s. A love story unfolding. The woman decides to pass on because she cannot bear to have her husband take care of her. Their marriage, based on absolute freedom and staunch independence… its fullest meaning. She’s too prideful. She will not allow it, to be taken care of. She wills the end of her life. So like that she leaves. And he decides to follow her shortly after into the next life because he cannot live without her. He would have done anything for her. My heart cracks open, tears in my eyes. Why didn’t she tell him? Why? They are from a different generation when feelings were left unspoken. If only she had told him how much she loved him. How crazy she was for him. Handsome beyond her imagination. 

I'm confused now about the dream and the images in the library. Are they connected? I see the owner of the B&B…she is the spitting image of Frida Kahlo in flesh and blood, a cigarette between fingers. I want to walk up to her, share the story, but I stop myself. Embarrassed. Perhaps, the story is just for me.


There’s a fries stand in front of a cafe. 2 men in caps and yellow shirts crack jokes as they stir the cauldron of bubbling oil, fishing out vats of chips and fries. The smell of potatoes cooking in oil calls forth a demanding line of women, men and children. The center of the universe, all eyes are on this stand. Even at an identical fries stand next to it, the few people who go there, long to be at the other stand, eyes glued on these men in yellow and their potatoes. The man in yellow prepares an order, inside a large popcorn sized container. A layer of chips. A long squirt of ketchup. Another layer of chips. Topped off with a dash of maggi soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, the juice of half a lime and a dusting of chili powder. It isn’t too long before we find ourselves in front of the stand watching the magic show.

Across from the catedrale, we watch the night sky burst fireworks. A whirling lollipop of sparks spins and spits smoke. Colors of white, green and orange spray and explode like cannons. People walk past us, as we eat our dessert, fried platanos, bananas with sweetened condensed milk from the fries stand. We’re so close that it feels like we’ll catch fire at any minute.


On the 4th day, Javier has enrolled me in an all day cooking class. Meet in front of a hotel a couple minutes before 9am…his only instructions.

As I sip the last of my coffee, a family arrives at the communal table. The asian woman quizzes her 14 year old son and asks if pan, bread is masculine or feminine. Her husband, a balding man with glasses, thumps the entire table and all the mornings breakfast on top of it, as he sits, awkwardly.

“Oh, I’m sorry my legs are so long!” he screams out loud in English.

My cue to leave. The boy looks at me with a don’t leave me with these knuckle heads look.

The map shows me that it will be a quick walk. Even with directions I’m never sure if I’m going the right way. As I turn onto avenida crespo, I see a tall man wearing a pair of Keens and one of those hydration back packs. He kneels down to tie his shoe. My short legs speed walk past him. I cross another street, a woman with short hair and a red backpack walks in front of me. She’s headed the same way. Keens is still behind.

For a split second, we line up in unison like birds in flight.

But then, the woman takes a turn. I look down at my map and Keens walks past me.


12 are seated at a table. After the market, we’ve come back to a ranch to a beautiful kitchen. The class is taught by a world renown chef and author. I fall in love with her stories about mole. Oaxaca is a land of 7 moles. She describes the composition and the rituals…some moles eaten only during special events: births, quinceaneras, deaths. Food to celebrate, to morn loss, to mark new seasons. 

Our chairs are next to each other. Some one asks a question…was it cooking or specifically Mexican cooking that started her passion? I want to shake my head and dismiss the question. PBS filmed a documentary about her. She has written multiple books. She’s gracious in her response.

She asks me how I found out about the class. I tell her where I’m staying. She owes her success to Frida and her husband who convinced her to start teaching. She single handedly planned her destiny. Her comadre, her godmother. I tell her about my dream on my first night. That I saw a man.

She tells me that Frida’s husband died several years ago. That the B&B has a special place in her heart.


On our final day, Frida pours a pool of syrup on her hot cakes. Over morning conversations, I let her know that I've taken a cooking tour and how much I've enjoyed it, especially meeting the chef and author. Yes, I’m her comadre. She smiles a real smile. I tell her about her role in a woman’s destiny. Yes, I’d like to take the class again. She has a big heart. Her smile becomes bigger.

“What are you plans today?”

“We’re leaving for Puerto Escondido.”

“The beach. Have a great time. Come back and tell all your friends. It’s just a shame that people don’t come as much as they used to. Prejudice, you know. All the politics. It’s awful.” The mask gently makes its way back on.

I’m still unsure what the dream or the images in the library mean. If the events that followed were pure circumstance or if I played a heavy hand. What was the message? That while you're alive, tell those who you love what they mean to you before its too late? Or was I an irrelevant detail in the whole process, meant to pass a note, connect...remind those who once loved deeply to keep on loving, to keep on living.

By Mai Brehaut

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