When immersed in the culture of a city for almost 2 weeks you learn very quickly the “local” way of life. I love to travel, but very rarely return to an area simply because there are so many other places in the world I would like to see and only so much time and money to dedicate to the cause. My first experience in Oaxaca in 2010 was simply magical. When I took the opportunity to travel to Oaxaca for the second time to experience the sacred ceremonial traditions of Dia de los Muertos, I never dreamed I would have an experience quite like this. Accompanied by my mother and younger sister, I thought we were playing it safe by going with a culinary tour comprised of 10 curious and adventurous travelers led by Susana Trilling and her staff from Seasons of My Heart Cooking School and Culinary Tours (the featured chef of my newly launched Mexican food product company). In contrast, we experienced one of the most eventful, thought provoking, sensory overloaded, flavorful vacations of my life.
Never having truly experienced “Muertos” before, as it is called by the locals, I went into the adventure with visions of painted faces, papel picados, elaborately adorned altars, marigolds and dancing in the streets. It proved to be all of this, and oh so much more. To Mexicans, Muertos is a time to celebrate death, not mourn it. Each of the 3 days of Muertos is dedicated to a specific group of deceased, the young, the old and those who left this world through accidental death. All of the homes honor the dead through the construction of elaborate altars made of sugar cane frames, hanging seasonal produce such as tangerines, pomegranates, jicama, nuts, bright yellow and orange marigolds, hot pink cockscomb, candles, photographs of loved ones, trinkets, icing and glitter decorated sugar skulls and small paper maché and wire hand painted figurines usually crafted in the profession or favorite hobby of the dearly departed. Neighbors, family members and visitors all come to pay respect to the altars.
In the graveyards, another form of paying respect takes place. The above ground headstones and monument like mosseliums are as meticulously decorated as the altars and are tended to each night by family members. The scent of burning copal envelops the spaces surrounding each gravesite. Thousands of candles burn a yellow light brighter than the moon and the laughter and chatter echoes through the crowd as you try to be respectful to not step on any of the headstones that are placed so closely together. In fact it is customary to set up chairs and celebrate graveside with free flowing mescal, tamales and other traditional foods accompanied by the sounds of an occasional Mariachi band, making the graveyard literally come alive with the spirits of those lost.
During the holiday, for 3 days straight, we gathered as a group to cook the traditional foods and moles of the holiday, construct our own altar honoring our family and friends and bond together as a group with a closeness as no other holiday could provoke. The days were filled with knowledge and experience that gave us all a great appreciation for the culture, cuisine and the holiday. But our nights, well, those were filled with things that are difficult to describe. We seem to gain a greater sense of appreciation for our freedoms and luxuries in America, but the one thing that is missing from many of our lives that is so deeply rooted in Mexican culture are traditions. I am not just talking about Sunday night dinners with the parents or watching fireworks on the 4th of July. Cultural traditions are a way of life in Mexico. Each state, city and village finds a way to come together as a community to celebrate ancient customs. We visited many graveyards around Oaxaca city, some of which have set up state fair like carnival rides, product vendors and food stalls just outside the cemetery gates which were strategically placed to entertain the hordes of visitors coming to pay their respect to loved ones and witness an amazing display of honor and gratitude.
Most travelers would have ended their night at this point, but our adventure was not over. We continued on to a local village to witness another tradition know as Comparsa. This “battle of the bands” like custom brought the streets alive. Let me set the stage…..thousands of people gather from two neighboring villages. There is a separate starting point for each group and a publicly known ending point in which musicians, outfitted in traditional dress of mirror adorned capes or jingle bell pant suits with elaborate masks and headdresses, march the streets in one direction while the other neighboring band proceeds from another starting point. The sounds are reminiscent of a college marching band playing at a football game over and over for hours on end, 6-8 to be exact. When the 2 groups converge in the middle, it is at a local school or park and the festivities continue. The “battle of the bands” was enhanced by the dancing, costumes, drinks and pure love for the tradition. We finally gave up around 1 am but had seen enough to be mesmerized by the visions for years to come.
Each time I have visited Oaxaca the experience changes. Every time I am able to connect with the culture of the people through their traditions, art, music, celebrations and most of all the food. Once again, the food of Oaxaca did not disappoint. I still dream of the freshly made, buttery, rich, extra stringy Oaxaca Cheese know as Quesillo. And bakeries operate around the clock preparing Pan de Muerto, which makes its debut this time of year with its beautifully light and tender egg dough made with a hint of anise seed tucked inside. But the Mole Negro was the star of the show during this visit. The most famous, extremely complex and incredibly delicious sauce made from a variety of chiles, nuts, spices, seeds, chocolate and so much more, is toasted and ground to perfection into a paste. The mole paste is then fried and simmered in a broth of roasted tomatoes and stock for hours to obtain the perfect balance of flavors, spice and texture. The aroma is mesmerizing and the smell alone will evoke a hunger in you that makes you crave a second helping. The simplicity of how Mole Negro con Pollo is served is so satisfying. A piece of chicken slathered in a generous portion of mole sauce simply served with freshly made tortillas and possibly white rice. Plain, simple, perfect. We had the honor of tasting many moles negros throughout our visits to artists and friends homes. Each recipe had its trademark flavor profile of that family and each home took so much pride in serving their guests. We all took much pride in eating it.
As the trip began to wind down, we all felt a little closer to each other, as strangers travelling in groups tend to do after being together for 10+ hours a day for 10 days, we felt a little more at peace with the idea of death and mourning our loved ones we had all lost, and after all of the eating…..we felt really full!