Recently Tlayudona took a trip out to Yatareni, Oaxaca, to test out our open-air “tamales” experience. We´ve known Doña Juana for a long time, and were excited when she decided she wanted to be a part of our project. She knew that she wanted to center her first experience-offering around her family’s ancestral recipes, but was not sure which one. We oh-so-willingly obliged her request to visit her on the land she tills each year with her family to try out the different recipes and help her put together a fun and delectable offer…. (It was a tough job, but somebody had to do it!)
We jumped into the experience, and by the end were able to make some formidable tamales. Out of the various recipes that Doña Juana prepares often for her family, we narrowed down our first experience to four: the quintessential black bean tamal, the “chepil” tamal (a locally-grown herb with a distinct flavor quite typical in certain Oaxacan cuisine), the chicken tamal, cooked with strips of just-the-right-amount-of-spice pepper strips, and the pumpkin flower and “quesillo” (Oaxacan string cheese) tamal. While the “mole” (unique Oaxacan sauces made with a smorgasbord of ingredientes) tamales were absolutely delicious, we ultimately decided that they were time consuming beyond what we could expect of our guests in an introductory experience, although Doña Juana is ready to delve into those more advanced recipes if you are particularly interested.
What’s unique about this experience is the cradle-to-grave nature of food cultivation and preparation for Doña Juana´s family. Her family’s diet is a microcosm for a larger crossroads happening in Oaxaca where tradition intersects with ever-growing global influences. They live on land that was given to them based on her husband’s ancestral pertinence to their village, where land-ownership is granted based upon ones commitment to cultivating his/her plot rather than dedicating it to alternative use. These policies ensure that land remains in the hands of the villagers and is not sold off to outsiders in a short-sited decision. Because of that, Doña Juana´s family is extremely rich in some ways–they have perpetual access to fresh air, unpolluted soil, water, a variety of fruit trees that bare delicious treats year-round, and the annual yield of their milpa (a traditional integrated planting of corns, beans, and squash) which she culminates into fresh and entirely-local recipes that foodies worldwide can only dream of–while in other ways, her family struggles to obtain some of the most basic necessities.
They are very proud of their minimal ecological footprint, and their sustainable contribution to their surrounding environment. They hand-harvest their crops and sort out the seeds that they will use for the upcoming year’s planting. Their property feeds their four growing children and a constant flow of visiting family and friends, all of whom have never left their home without full bellies due to the gifts that the fertile Oaxacan soil and a solid dedication to sustainable harvesting practices has provided. That being said, we don’t aim to simplify or falsely-glorify the complexities of village life. Dona Juana often has limited access to healthcare to attend to her family´s needs, and has been saving for years to add another bedroom and an indoor bathroom to their two-room home where six people live.
Oaxaca is complicated, and Doña Juana and her family experience some of the best and worst of their home state. They have graciously offered to open their doors (both proverbially and the actual gate to their land, home, and hearth) to give us insight into all that implies. At one point during our last visit, one of her children knocked over a small container filled with seeds from last year’s harvest. We instinctively began to scoop up the pile and place it back in the cup, but Doña Juana and her husband continued the retrieval until every last seed was salvaged. For us, the experience provoked a more profound reflection on the value and splendor of each little seed, and all of the time, energy, work, and soul that their family had poured into its life-cycle.
On top of that, the food is so amazing that you’ll want to continue eating long after you feel full. We could not stop licking our fingers after we finished our lunch, and even in the throes of our stuffed-contentment, we were already looking forward to the extra bag of tamales that Doña Juana packed us to take home.