1970s Archive


Originally Published December 1977
Elisabeth Lambert Ortiz takes a trip to Oaxaca, Mexico to sample regional specialties in the land of seven moles.

Three cultures combine to entertain one in Oaxaca in Mexico’s southeast: the lively present, the colonial past, and Indian antiquity. I arrived at a particularly animated moment just before the New Year and in time for the Saturday market with its extraordinary display of green glaze and black pottery. Vendors were offering pots and dishes of all sizes and shapes ornamented with flower, bird, and fish designs; black pottery mermaids perched on their tails; angles masquerading as candlesticks; and my favorite, a whole orchestra in green glaze—deer, donkey, goat, pig, dog, all playing a very strange assortment of instruments such as violin, cello tuba, cymbals maracas, drum. The potter who made the lot had a rare musical imagination. Along with the pottery were colorful handwoven rebozos, serapes, and blanket-rugs, some gaudy with all the colors of the rainbow and other beautifully subdued designs of doves in beige and white with tiny accents of red and black.

Both the plazas—the city boasts two, side by side—were jammed with people, many in local costumes, which no other state of Mexico can rival, and the scene reverberated with music. There were visitors from the world over, some of them as colorfully, if not as elegantly, dressed as those in native costume. In addition to music the air was filled with a medley of Indian languages (still very much spoken in Oaxaca), Spanish, English, French, German, and Italian—all creating a background for the inevitable, sometimes desperate, honking horns of automobiles whose drivers were ill-advised enough to attempt to traverse the plaza.

It was late afternoon, but the sun was still brilliant in a deep-blue sky and the trees were green and lovely. In the soft warm air, tempered by five thousand feet of altitude, it hardly seemed possible that it was winter. I had a tequila cocktail beneath the arches of the Hotel Margués Del Valle as I wasn’t yet ready to deal with tequila’s fiercer cousin mescal, the Oaxacan specialty. I was a little bemused by the gaiety around me and also by the fact that some people like me seemed to be having a predinner drink while others were finishing a late lunch, and still others, to judge by their choice of food, were having breakfast. It was the true atmosphere of fiesta. We were staying were staying at the Misión de los Angeles (formely the Oaxaca Courts), described as a motel, which I suppose it is technically, though the term hardly does justice to the attractive whitewashed bungalows with their beamed ceilings, polished brick floors, and colonial furnishings. There are not a great many units, and the spacious garden insulates one from whatever fiesta is taking place; the noise is mainly in the center of town, only minutes away by car but a long way by ear. There is a swimming pool in the garden and a colonial-style resataurant with red-tile floor and red-brick ceiling, a décor that I never tire of. The windows, barred in a decorative patter of wrought iron, are the celosia, or jalousie, type used by parents to keep daughters safely indoors and their lovers outside. They also work admirably in this sweet climate, letting air in and keeping burglars out. In the restaurant one is waited on by charming young women wearing the costumes of the region.

The Zapotec, an ancient people, were the first Oaxacans, and their name for the city was Huaxyacac, which time and the Spaniards changed for Oaxaca, They were descended from the Olmec, a people about whose origin very little is known and who left the great mysterious stone heads in the jungles of Veracruz and Tabasco. Later arrivals, probably from Teotihuacán near Mexico City, again about whom very little is known, were the Mixtec. Today their descendants are two of the fifteen or so major tribes in the region, each of which has special costumes. There are the full, embroidered skirts and the embroidered blouses of the Valle women; the short, white, embroidered huipils (tunics) over full skirts, worn with rebozos, of the Mixtec; and the full white skirts topped with sashed and colored tops and white rebozos o the Sierra. The Yalalog dress in heavy white cotton huipils with tasseled embroidery down front and back over a long skirt and braid their hair into elaborate headdresses with skeins of black wool. The Tehauna from the Isthmus wear heavily embroidered huipils over long, finely pleated, lace-trimmed white skirts with lots of necklaces—gold where possible—and a unique headdress, a sixteenth-century Spanish baby’s baptismal dress, the pleated skirt falling to the shoulders and the lace-trimmed sleeves hanging decoratively at each side. Men wear white cotton trousers tied at the ankles and white cotton shirts, extremely effective in contrast to the colored ribbons, embroidery, and necklaces of the women. Not all the costumes appear at one time in the hotel’s restaurant, of course, so I never quite caught up with the full range. I did go, however, to the Regional Museum, where I counted twenty-eight different costumes before I gave up and decided that numbers are not what matters. The outfits are colorful and pretty, and I am glad they have not disappeared.

Oaxaca is not only the land of innumerable costumes; it is also the land of the seven moles, dishes whose sauces are made with chili peppers and various other seasonings. The most famous is mole negro oaxaqueño, which, like the well-known mole poblana, has bitter chocolate in the sauce. The Oaxacan version is darker in color, slightly hotter, and not as sweet as the Puebla one. It is a festive dish and was the highlight of our dinner one night, made with hen turkey and served with the usual accompaniments of rice, beans, guacamole, and tortillas. It was so good that it sent me to market later on looking for chilhuacle, the chili pepper that gives the dish its special flavor. In the meantime I was able to impose on friends and do some work in their kitchen, and I found a substitute for chilhaucle, which is very hard to locate outside Oaxaca, even in Mexico. Guajillo, a long, smooth dried red chili pepper, which is available, gives much the same flavor, though it lacks the dark color. While I was about it, I investigated the six other moles and discovered that of them it was possible to make Amarillo (yellow), verde (green), and coloradito (red). Oaxacans love color so much they even use it as a theme for favorite dishes.

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