Rambling Along

It’s a pace we’re perfectly happy to adopt.

We’re in Stony Stratford for a couple of days to visit family and ramble about. It’s a village outside of Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire that used to be an important stopping off point for coaches travelling between London and northern England. Stony Stratford was, we’re told, primarily a high street of inns. It has some fabulous history to it, perhaps most excitingly as the place from which Richard III abducted one of the two young princes, the uncrowned Edward V, at the Rose and Crown Inn in 1483. Although the Rose and Crown is no longer an inn, several others remain ­–– The Cock, The Bull (from which we apparently get the phrase Cock and Bull) and The Old George.

Tim in front of the former Rose & Crown

Behind the high street lies the River Ouse, with lovely, twisting Riverwalks. It’s easy to imagine Ratty’s “bijou riverside residence” tucked here.

The pasture lands beyond the river led us on a path to the nearby hamlet of Passenham, which consists of a Rectory, Manor, former Mill and St. Guthlac’s Church, mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles of 921 AD. We’ve been assured by our B & B host Jim that the church is still haunted. “No, really, it IS!” Jim runs the best B & B we’ve ever stayed at. Fabulously comfortable, with lovely big full English breakfasts, Telford House on its own is worth the visit to Stony Stratford. Jim’s been running the B & B for over 40 years, and his enthusiasm is infections. “I love my job!” At 82, he’s an inspiration.

St. Guthlac’s Church and churchyard in Passenham

Time doesn’t exactly stand still here –– we ate a marvellous Indian meal in a converted 17th century chapel, with exquisite, tiled floors (the fabulous Calcutta Basserie.) But time doesn’t move quickly. Our three-hour ramble beside the slow-moving Ouse and across the pasture fields needed to be followed by a pub lunch and a pint of local ale (Razorback) at the 400-year-old Old George.

The dining area has sunk below ground. We sat in the front window and watched people’s ankles.

It’s a pace we’re perfectly happy to adopt.

Truth and Serendipity

“History is most often written from a distance, and rarely from the viewpoint of those who endured it.” Chris Killi

The National Portrait Gallery is one of my favourite places to visit in London. It is a gallery of humanity, of how we see ourselves and understand each other. If you have never been to the Portrait Gallery, you may think of it as a stuffy place that shows paintings commissioned by stuffy people to show off their status. I know I did. But The Portrait Gallery is filled with images of people from all walks of life. When done well, these portraits reveal inner lives, truths, and sensibilities.  Whenever I come to London, it is top on my list of places to go.

So I was broken-hearted to learn that it is closed for renovation until June 2023. However, I resolved that this was a good excuse to discover something new.

The Photographer’s Gallery is not far from The Portrait Gallery. I’m passionate about photography, especially black and white. My father was a photographer in the 1950s and I have spent much of the last two years pouring over his portraits of people and places in New York. The protagonist in my next book, Focus. Click. Wind, is an aspiring photographer. Yet I have never gone to The Photographer’s Gallery in London.

When I turned down Ramillies street, I was greeted by the sight of thousands of people, queuing. Were there really that many people lined up to go to photography exhibits? I cursed myself for not buying a ticket online and began to turn away. But I found it hard to believe that so many people had come out to see “Chris Killip: A Retrospective.” So I ventured on a bit further and saw the sign for the gallery with no line up out front.

a small fraction of the people queuing outside the Photographer’s Gallery

Inside, it was calm. People were enjoying Sunday morning coffee and cakes. “What’s going on out there?” I asked as I bought my ticket. “Auditions,” a young man smiled. I thought briefly about how years ago I would have eagerly joined that line up. And I thought about how much happier I was to be doing what I was doing.

I am embarrassed to say that I had never heard of the Manx photographer Chris Killip (1946 – 2020.) He is known as the chronicler of the “English De-industrial Revolution,” and his photographs that show the stories of those who, in his words, had history “done to them” –– the men, women and children who lived in North Yorkshire, Northumbria, Tyneside and other harsh rural landscapes in the 1970s and 80s.

“History is most often written from a distance, and rarely from the viewpoint of those who endured it.”

Chris Killip

Killip spent years with people he photographed, and their trust in him is evidenced by the honesty of these pictures. They allowed him to access inner truths. These are profoundly moving portraits of isolated communities devastated by change.

I came away from the exhibit changed and deeply grateful for the ease and good fortune of my life. And for the serendipity that led me to discover a new Portrait Gallery.


Time or Tide

Travel is the domain of the imagination, and when you arrive it is as though your imagination has taken concrete shape around you.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time
T.S. Eliot

The miracle of travel is something I don’t want to take as commonplace ever again. It is miraculous. In a relatively short amount of time I have journeyed to another world, a world both foreign and familiar.

Because of the impossibility of travel during the pandemic, it feels as though I have slipped into a place that only existed in my imagination for the past three years. Travel is the domain of the imagination, and when you arrive it is as though your imagination has taken concrete shape around you. I’ve read enough quantum theory this year to know that this is probably true, but this is the first time it feels true.

What I’ve found in this new world, whether it has sprung from my imagination or not, is that we have been on parallel paths for these past three years. We share commonalities of our experiences in a way that we’ve never done before. Different sides of the planet, with different political forces, yet we’ve been experiencing the same trauma. It’s made me feel closer than ever with family and friends as we share our experiences, our losses, our scars, our small victories. Our histories, which previously had been different, are now the same.

No doubt it is a unique moment. This will pass. But I don’t want to ever take for granted the good fortune that has allowed me to be here, experiencing the rawness of the pandemic experience. The shared humanity on the streets is the legacy of our survival.

And so we celebrate. We arrived in time for a double birthday party for Bryan and me, shared with Robbie Burns. A Burns night complete with Haggis, neeps and tatties, (turnips and potatoes), and Cranachan (an amazing dessert of toasted oats, whipping cream, raspberries and a glug of whisky). We don’t party as if there is no tomorrow, but because there was yesterday.

I feel as though the needle on the record skipped. I am birthday years older. But I’ve picked up the needle and placed it down again carefully, ready to start again.

Nae man can tether time or tide.
Robert Burns

Throwing ourselves to the fates

We did a lot of soul searching before deciding to go on an overseas trip.

Tim and I did a lot of soul searching before deciding to go on an overseas trip. We know that Covid still haunts us and are taking precautions. But the hardest decision about travel has to do with environmental concerns. It feels irresponsible to take to the skies these days.

We weighed our social responsibility against our need to reconnect with family in England. It’s been over three long years. Children have grown, elders have become elder. The joy of being hugged by friends and family is a powerful magnet.

As I write, we are sitting in the airport lounge. We have balanced some of our guilt by giving a donation to the Guatemala Stove Project, which reduces carbon by building efficient, non-toxic stoves for rural populations in Guatemala –– thus improving the lives of the people who cook over these stoves and reducing carbon in the atmosphere one stove at a time. It isn’t much, but it’s what we can do.

We also decided to spend a lot of time in the UK –– five and a half weeks –– to maximize our visit and reduce our guilt.  If the last three years has taught us anything, it is that we can’t predict what is around the corner. Who knows when we will next have a chance to make a trip like this.

Eleven years ago, we went for a year-long excursion. I was fleeing job burn out, Tim was pining with a deep nostalgia for England, and we both wanted to dig our hearts into European culture. It was a trip that changed us both profoundly as humans and artists. While this journey is much shorter it feels as monumental. Fighting the inertia of the last years has been hard. We’ve sheltered in place and been safe. But now we are stepping out into the wide world again, opening ourselves to the fates. It is exciting, thrilling, and somewhat terrifying.

I look forward to sharing the road with you. And I look forward to the changes in store.

Writing: These Are Not the Words

My new novel These Are Not the Words was officially released in North America on April 5, 2022.

Me with Scatty in our apartment in Stuyvesant Town, circa 1960. Self portrait taken with a timer.

These Are Not the Words is a semi-autobiographical novel.That means there are real people in it who do imaginary things, and imaginary people who do real things. I am not Miranda Billie Taylor, but we share a lot of history.

I started writing the story from a memory. I was taking the Picture Book Intensive at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, Writing for Children and Young Adults program, and we had been given the prompt to write from an early childhood memory.

What came out was a memory of walking through the living room late at night to get a glass of water. The dark stillness, the flicker of the TV light, the sound of the record, the smell of cigarettes and marijuana are vivid. I was probably about four years old.

Nothing “happens” in that memory, but the assignment was to turn it into a picture book.

Because it was a picture book, the language was spare, evocative, and poetic. It didn’t work as a picture book, but it inspired me to begin writing vignettes, initially as prose poems and then as verse. As I began to drill down, more memories began to bubble up. I found myself writing a novel in verse.

Although I was writing from personal memories, I wrote in third person. I made the character older, and distanced her from me so I could tell, I thought, a larger, more interesting story.

It took a couple of years and many re-writes, but finally I started sending the book out on submission. The reactions were positive –– editors and agents told me that they thought it was beautifully written. (“Heartbreaking and lovely.”) But it wasn’t for their list, it was historical fiction and hard to sell, the character seemed too sophisticated. But one response really stuck out. An editor I respect they said that it felt as though the story was told from the perspective of an adult, not the child. It was verging on nostalgic. Clearly, I wasn’t “in” the story.

Out of frustration, I decided to try to write one chapter in first person. I’m not a big fan of first person and feel it is easily overused. But I chose the first chapter, the one that had started the process, just as a writing exercise. I was totally unconvinced that it would be possible. “I hate writing in first person,” I said to myself.

I remember starting to shake as I re-wrote that first chapter. Suddenly it was real, vibrant and alive. And suddenly it was a bit close for comfort.

I’ll confess to a lot of tears in the months that followed. But being a writer is not about being comfortable.

I created a book trailer for These Are Not the Words. I used some photos that my father took and a recording of Billie Holiday singing Tell Me More, recording it from a vinyl LP that belonged to my parents. I recorded myself reading a chapter of the book and then worked with a technician friend, AL Connors, to bring it all together.

Putting the trailer together was hard. The photos pull me back to those years. The living room is the one where that first memory came from, where I hear Billie, always. It’s the image and the sound that started me writing the book.

I am not Miranda Billie Taylor. But we share a lot of history.

Dream: The Joy of Creating with Oily Cart. PART ONE.

As an artist, working within a set of parameters is always an exciting artistic challenge. In this case the parameters included things like working with children in wheelchairs, children who were cognitively impaired, visually impaired or with auditory impairment, non-verbal children, and children who had hyper or hypo sensitivities. We had four days to create four 15-minute performance pieces for them, pieces that would engage them as well as to engage their neurotypical caregivers.

At the beginning of October, 2014, I went to Ashford in Kent, England to dream and create with Oily Cart Theatre http://www.oilycart.org.uk/ Oily Cart has been making unique theatrical experiences for children since 1981. Creating “all kinds of shows for all kinds of kids,” they are world leaders in devising theatre for children with Profound Multiple Learning Disabilities (PMLD) and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

The Oily Cart creation team is made up of director Tim Webb, designer Claire de Loon, and composer Max Reinhardt. Together they devise interactive, multi-sensory kinesthetic adventures for children who are very young, and children who have special needs. They make theatre that is close-up and personal.

The week-long course was offered by the London-based Rose Bruford College http://theatrefutures.org.uk/theatre-for-young-audiences-centre/ The decision to offer the course in Ashford was part of a larger social responsibility. Ashford (population approximately 75,000) is in an impoverished pocket of England. It’s a town of restless teenagers, unemployment and streets that roll up at 8:30 in the evening. But there is an international train station in Ashford (you can get to Paris from there in under two hours), regular high-speed connections to London (you can be at Waterloo Station in 30 minutes) and there are people on the town council who believe in renewal through the arts. Hence a new partnership with one of the UK’s premiere dance companies, Jasmin Vardimon, and a fabulous studio space that is used by a variety of arts groups. Away from the intensity of London, Ashford was the perfect place to focus on our task of creating scratch performances for children with PMLD and ASD.

We were a diverse group of sixteen participants from the U.K., U.S., Belgium, and Canada. We were theatre practitioners, arts therapists, and teachers – people who work in schools, hospitals, clinics and theatres. We had all travelled long distances to work with Tim, Claire and Max.

I do not have a specific background in working with children with special needs, so I came to this as an artist, first and foremost. The genre of Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA) has certain parameters, but the sub genre of TYA for children with PMLD and ASD has its own ethos. Performances are created for small audiences, usually 2 – 8 children, supported by a large team of actors, musicians and caregivers.

As an artist, working within a set of parameters is always an exciting artistic challenge. In this case the parameters included things like working with children in wheelchairs, children who were cognitively impaired, visually impaired or with auditory impairment, non-verbal children, and children who had hyper or hypo sensitivities. We had four days to create four 15-minute performance pieces for them, pieces that would engage them as well as engage their neurotypical caregivers.

It was a joyful week, a week of great bonding, of honest creation. There were no egos, no competitiveness – we were all at the service of the work. It was a week in which I made new discoveries about theatre as an artform, and about myself as an artist. It was, indeed, a joy to create with them.

Staying Off the Treadmill, A 2nd Anniversary

Early morning paddleIt has been two years since Tim and I started off on our “Gap Year for Grown Ups”, two years since I began this blog. At the time, I thought I was taking a year’s leave of absence from my job. An unstructured year of travel was bracketed, I thought, by structure. I had a job, I’d be away for a year, I would go back to the job. As far as life changing adventures go it felt relatively safe.

But travel changes a person and time waits for no man – to use two well-worn clichés. The organization that I was absent from altered so much in my year away that my job became unrecognizable. Life on the road brought me into a different understanding of myself and who, perhaps, I wanted to be. I could not go back to where I’d been before. I began looking for a different treadmill.

Some of the lessons that I have learned in the year since we’ve been home have been harsh. Job hunting when you are a woman of a certain age is painful and soul sucking. “A lifetime of experience” became a negative phrase. The matter of an income weighed heavily as did the lack of independence and personal status. As I frantically tried to step back onto a treadmill, any treadmill, every foray made me question what on earth I was doing.

Set against my anxiety has been my continued freedom. Remaining off the treadmill has given me a chance to be more accessible to family, friends and community. I’ve had time to do a couple of meaningful volunteer projects. I’ve been back in my calligraphy studio, remembering how much I love the shape of letters. I was able to travel to Mexico to visit my mother. I had time to go on a pilgrimage to California with my father’s ashes. I’ve made sure to begin each day with a calm walk down country roads.

Most excitingly, I’ve written a book that will be published this fall — September 17: A Novel. I hadn’t expected that to happen but that’s the great thing about being in freefall – you just don’t know what you’ll find.

“…Alice had not a moment to think about stopping herself before she found herself falling down what seemed to be a very deep well.

 Either the well was very deep, or she fell very slowly, for she had plenty of time as she went down to look about her, and to wonder what was going to happen next. First she tried to look down and make out what she was coming to, but it was too dark to see anything; then she looked at the sides of the well, and noticed that they were filled with cupboards and bookshelves; here and there she saw maps and pictures hung upon pegs…” (Alice in Wonderland)

While I was looking around me, I discovered a story that needed to be written. Like Alice, it came from a picture that I saw on a wall, a picture of a group of 5 little boys, grinning from ear to ear, wearing oversized sailor’s uniforms and waving from the deck of a ship. They had just been rescued after spending 8 days on a lifeboat in the Atlantic. The picture led me to the story, and into writing a novel.

September 17: A Novel is based on true events. It follows a group of children who are being evacuated from England to Canada during the Second World War on The SS City of Benares. Told from the perspective of the children, it is a story about their dreams of a life across the ocean, a life free from bombs, free from fires and death, free from food rationing. When their ship is torpedoed in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, it becomes a story of adventure, survival, loss and incredible bravery. September 17 is published by Red Deer Press. A portion of the proceeds from the book will be donated to Save the Children, and I am looking forward to working to help them raise funds for their worthy efforts on behalf of children. I’ll be having book launches in Toronto and Ottawa this October and I hope you’ll join me if you are around.

The boys from Lifeboat 12
The boys from Lifeboat 12

Travelling was very much an Alice in Wonderland adventure for me. But since I have been home, those boys have helped my temperament to become  more like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz than Alice.

“What have you learned, Dorothy?”

 “I think that it wasn’t enough just to want to see Uncle Henry and Auntie Em, and it’s that if I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again l won’t look any further than my own backyard. Because if it isn’t there l never really lost it to begin with.” (The Wizard of Oz, MGM 1937)

Looking in my own backyard
Looking in my own backyard

I’ve spent this year paying attention to my own backyard, literally and figuratively. I’ve also been connecting with friends in the theatre community, with the result that I’ve got funding to work at Theatre Direct in Toronto this fall. I’ll be involved with two of their new projects – theatre for the very young (toddlers) and theatre for children with autism spectrum disorder. The latter will pick up on the work that I previously did in Ottawa, and I’m thrilled to be working with Jacqueline Russell from Chicago Children’s Theatre again. It is an exciting and rewarding area for me to be focusing on.

I’ve also begun my own business, The Ottawa Children’s Theatre, dedicated to developing and producing theatre for children and youth.

Ottawa Children's Theatre
Ottawa Children’s Theatre

I’m working with Jan Irwin and Easy Avenue Productions to develop a new theatre piece based on Brian Doyle’s book Up to Low. The Ottawa Children’s Theatre is also going to offer acting classes for kids aged 5 – 15. I’ve got a stellar line up of teachers for the fall, and, I’ve partnered with the Acting Company to operate out of the newly renovated Avalon Theatre in Ottawa’s Glebe. It’s an exciting new venture.

So it would seem that I have accepted that I am not getting back on the treadmill any time soon. To be fair, I’ve lived most of my life as a freelance artist. Working for someone else, for a steady pay cheque with benefits, turns out to have been an aberration. While there are things about that job that I miss terribly, I know I am on the right path. So I am celebrating the 2nd anniversary of this blog fully off the treadmill.

For Fearless Drivers: A Journey into the Sierra Juárez mountains

Just north of the city of Oaxaca is the Sierra Juárez mountain range. It is the land of the Sierra Zapotecs, one of the first indigenous peoples of Mexico, whose ancestry stretches back to at least 1000 BC. The mountain range is known for its incredibly rich natural diversity, with over 2000 different plant species, tropical evergreen forests, and a cloud forest that forms a band 1,000 – 2250 meters high. In Zapotec, Schiaa Ruavia means the “hill where the cloud is born”.

We rented a car and asked our friend Lynda Wilde, a fabulous photographer from Kingston, Ontario, if she would drive us into the cloud mountains. Heading out of Oaxaca on a cool morning, she also drove us backwards in time.

Teotitlán, 37 kilometers outside of Oaxaca, is the gateway to the mountain road. The town sits under the shadow of el Picacho, the mountain where, legend has it, the Zapotecs were born.

el Picacho
el Picacho

The town has been Zapotec for 2500 years and Zapotec is still the primary language. Teotitlán is famous for weaving. Rugs and tapestries are made on hand looms, mostly with locally sourced wool and dyed with natural, traditional dyes. Even though tourists flock there for the authentic craft, it is small and retains ancient customs and ways.

Out of Teotitlán, the road begins a serious sequence of switchbacks. Checking directions in a guide book, we notice for the first time the cautionary sentence, “for fearless drivers”.

Switchback roads in the Sierra Juárez mountains
Switchback roads in the Sierra Juárez mountains

Linda has done this journey before in her four-wheel drive. Our little economy rental seems wildly inappropriate. It would be a suicidal drive in the rainy season.

Looking back on Teotitlán in the distance
Looking back on Teotitlán in the distance

But after travelling through seemingly endless, narrow, remote roads, we arrive at the bustling town of Benito Juárez (population about 1,000), fifty-eight kilometers north of Oaxaca city.

The town, originally called San Pablo Guelatao, was the birthplace of Benito Juárez, Mexico’s first indigenous president and Mexico’s most beloved native son. We are now 2900 metres (7200 feet) above sea level, sitting amongst the clouds. It’s cold, so we stop for hot chocolate and pan dolce beside the tourist information centre.

Benito Juárez tourist information centre
Benito Juárez tourist information centre

The mountains are home to endangered species of jaguar, ocelot and deer. One of the largest areas for butterflies and birds, there is a strong ecotourism movement to try to conserve the forest and protect it from the stresses of logging, agriculture and potential hydroelectric dams.

the Sierra Juárez cloud forest
the Sierra Juárez cloud forest

Los Pueblos Mancomunados is a group of eight small towns that have developed trails for hiking, mountain biking and camping in the mountains. The town of Benito Juárez is one of the starting points. We meet a Polish couple, who ask if we can tell them where the trail begins. We encourage them to go to the information centre, but they speak no Spanish. Intrepid, they head out into the woods. We hope they have a map.

In the centre of town we come across school children performing what looks exactly like “Speech & Drama”. A small girl declaims in the central square, her voice commanding the space as examiners make notes and parents look on.

Speech & Drama exams in Benito Juárez
Speech & Drama exams in Benito Juárez

Beside the square is a recreation of Benito Juárez’s birth home with adobe walls, tile roof and dirt floor.

Reproduction of the kitchen of the home of Benito Juárez
Reproduction of the kitchen of the home of Benito Juárez

Juárez was born in 1806 in the town of San Pablo Guelatao. His parents died when he was 3. He was raised by an uncle and became a shepherd. When he was 12, speaking only Zapotec, he walked to the city of Oaxaca where he was taken in by his sister. Here, his “thirst for learning” was recognized, and he received schooling at the city’s seminary. He became a lawyer, entered politics, and in 1857 became Mexico’s first indigenous president.

The statue of Benito Juárez in the town of Benito Juárez
The statue of Benito Juárez in the town of Benito Juárez

Throughout the country there are statues and monuments in his honour. March 21st, his birthday, is a national day of celebration. The town of San Pablo Guelatao changed its name in his honour.

Clearly this is a town of impressive orators.

Lynda takes us out of the town on a search for “Truchas Cuachirindoo Ixtlan”, a trout farm in the mountains. A trout farm in the mountains? We weave through the tiny streets of Ixtlan de Juárez, searching for handwritten signs that say “Truchas”. It’s like a scavenger hunt. After many false turns, and several dead ends, we find a dirt path that leads to a small parking lot. We’ve arrived.

We shiver as we settle at outside tables. But we are greeted immediately by Noel, the owner, carrying glasses of mezcal.

Laurie and Lynda warm up with mezcal
Laurie and Lynda warm up with mezcal

Noel grew up Zapotec and left to live in Los Angles before returning home to begin a family business. His English is flawless, so we are able to understand the story of the trout farm.

There is a stream running down the mountain, which Noel’s family has tapped into. They have set up a series of holding tanks and, working with water from the stream, have built up their fish nursery. The baby trout are furthest up the mountain. Our lunch trout are in a tank right outside the kitchen door.

Trout tanks at Truchas Cuachirindoo Ixtlan
Trout tanks at Truchas Cuachirindoo Ixtlan

Noel brings us cups of sweet Mexican coffee to augment our mezcal, and hot toastados to nibble on while he cooks our fish. My filet arrives sealed in aluminum foil. It’s been steamed over the wood stove. I open the foil and the warm smells of tomato, garlic, lime, epizote, onion, chili verde and quesillo (a thin cheese sauce) waft out.

The drive may be for the fearless, but it is certainly one well worth conquering your fears.

The view from Truchas Cuachirindoo Ixtlan
The view from Truchas Cuachirindoo Ixtlan

Cooking and Eating in Oaxaca

Nora Andrea Valencia learned the techniques of traditional Oaxacan cooking from her late grandmother, Ofelia. Together they earned a reputation for the delicous breakfasts they prepared every morning at La Casa de Mis Recuerdos, the family’s B &B. My mother stayed at La Casa de Mis Recuerdos for a number of years, and has become a friend of the family.

With interest in Oaxacan cooking at an all time high, Nora has become internationally recognized for her knowledge of Oaxacan cuisine. She conducts cooking classes from her home, (http://almademitierra.net/) and we joined up with a small group for a day of cooking and eating.

The history of Mexico can be learned through food. Nora comes from a Zapotec tradition and many of the cooking methods that she has learned are based on knowledge stretching back for thousands of years. But since the Spanish invasion, Mexico has been a blend of cultures. The Spanish brought African slaves with them, and the mixture of indigenous, Spanish and African was perhaps the world’s first true fusion cooking.

Our first stop is the Merced Market to buy the ingredients for our comida.

Nora outside of the market, with a large cactus pad
Nora outside of the market, with a large cactus pad

There are many markets in Oaxaca, and this one is in Nora’s home barrio. Before we enter the market proper we meet some of the women sitting outside. Their hands are busy cleaning nopales (cactus pads) of various sizes.

Cleaning the spikes from the cactus (nopales) pads
A woman cleaning the spikes from young nopales. Hierba santa is on the ground beside her.

Nopales are very good for cholesterol levels, and the Mexicans put them in many different dishes. Nora picks a few choice pads and a big bunch of hierba santa, or sacred leaf. This green is used extensively in southern Mexican cooking. It has a unique lemony, licorice taste and it’s believed to cure just about everything including rheumatism, asthma, bronchitis, digestive disorders and skin conditions. Of course, it is impossible to grow or find in Canada. Nora recommends fennel as a flavor substitute, but there is nothing that can substitute its health benefits.

We proceed into the market where Nora explains properties of different chilies, dried and fresh.

So many chilies
So many chilies

So many chilies, so many flavours. The capsaicin in chilies is a stimulant and analgesic. It awakens endorphins, which means that “eating chilies gives your body pleasure. It also means you can get addicted to them.” But even Nora admits you can never really know how hot a pepper is. “It’s like a lottery,” she says cheerfully. You just have to keep tasting as you go. If it gets too hot, she tells us to add a bit of something acid, like cider vinegar or tomato, to bring down the spice. She introduces us to the pastillo oaxacaño, a special pepper grown only in the high Mixtec region and smoked in adobe ovens. A ready-made paste from this smokey pepper is a kitchen staple – she keeps it by the stove to add a little zing when necessary.

From the chili stand we move to the squashes. Every part of the squash plant is used, and Nora shows us how to pull the fibres from the stems so that they will be softer when added to a soup.

Nora peels the squash stems
Nora peels the squash stems

Bags of ingredients are sold cut and ready to cook a perfect Zapotec soup – squash stems, squash blossoms, pieces of squash, pieces of corn. Nora selects some perfect blossoms for our soup. “We only use the male blossoms. They are very showy, but not good for anything else,” she laughs.

At the tortilla stand, Nora shows us the soft masa dough that makes Oaxaca’s unique tortillas. Northern Mexico uses wheat for tortillas. In the south, they are corn based. Preparing the dough is an incredibly labour intensive process, involving lime and soaking and grinding corn. The result is a velvety soft corn dough that makes light tortillas totally unlike the hard corn tortillas I buy at home.

Next, Nora takes us to the cheese stand. I am addicted to Oaxacan cheese. There are two kinds – soft and stringy. The soft cheese is sold in wooden boxes to keep it moist. Like a cross between a ricotta and feta, it is crumbled over salads, enchiladas, and most dishes that have sauce on them. The harder cheese, Oaxacan string cheese, is boiled, kneaded and stretched into strands. It is melted in quesadillas, separated into strings for raw eating, wound into tight small balls to include in soup. It is salty and chewy and tastes like nothing else I’ve ever had.

The cheese stall
The cheese stall

Our final stop is to look over the mangos and avocados. She rails against people squeezing avocados in the store. “You can tell if they are ripe by looking at the stem. If there is a little dent, it is ripe. If it isn’t ripe put it in a paper bag and leave it in the trunk of your car. It will ripen!”

Nora and the mangos
Nora and the mangos

Mangos come in different sizes, colours and varieties. The small ones are super sweet and perfect for just eating a bit of fresh mango. The larger ones are better for adding to other ingredients – they absorb other flavours well.

We head to Nora’s home to turn these fresh ingredients into our comida.

Nora's courtyard
Nora’s courtyard

Mole. Originally from a Zapotec word, mole (pronounced Moh-LAY) reflects a whole concept in cooking – blending ingredients together to make a paste for a cooking sauce. Guide books talk about the 7 moles of Oaxaca. “But it’s impossible to have just seven,” laughs Nora. Mole is a concept, more than a specific thing. It is ubiquitous. “Aguaca” is Zapotec for avocado. Thus we get guaca-mole or guacamole – ground up avocado.

Nora gets us chopping and peeling. Our Comida today consists of “Consome de Hierba Santa”, a light chicken soup with tons of garlic and hierba santa, served over squash blossoms and balls of Oaxacan cheese; “Ceviche de Mango”, a marinated red snapper salad served on tostados; “Pipian de Camarones”, a pumpkin seed mole with shrimp and nopales; “Salsa Borracha”, literally drunken salsa – a hot sauce made from our dried peppers; and “Gelatina de Kahlua”, a light dessert jelly of coffee and chocolate.

Comida menu
Comida menu

We are assigned tasks. We do a lot of dry toasting on a comal, a flat dry pan traditionally made of pottery. We dry toast chili de arbol, chili de onza, and chili mora for our salsa borracha. We dry toast and boil huajillo chilies for our mole. We dry toast and grind pumpkin seeds, the thickening agent for the mole. We peel our fresh shrimp and make a shrimp stock with the shells. We cut and cook nopales; chop onions, mangos, cilantro and avocado for the ceviche. We lightly cook chunks of red snapper.

Nora shows us how to toast the chillies
Nora shows us how to toast chillies on the comal

Everything in Nora’s kitchen happens at a measured and even pace as she laughs her infectious laugh and sprinkles our cooking with historic and gastronomic information.

Nora shows us how to lay out squash blossoms and cheese balls in our soup bowls
Nora shows us how to lay out squash blossoms and cheese balls in our soup bowls

William comes in with glasses of mezcal, slices of orange and little piles of dried chilies. “Mezcal is a digestive. We have it before a meal. We have it during a meal. We have it at the end of a meal.”

We sip, dip orange slices in the chilies, taste and sip again. We are ready to eat our comida. It is as wonderful as you can imagine.

Our class is over, comida is finished. A good day with Nora Valencia
Our class is over, comida is finished. We’ve had a good day with Nora Valencia!

The Restorative Powers of Mezcal

Oaxaca is known for its cuisine. Apparently there was an article in the New Yorker recently that raved about a particular Oaxacan restaurant. For those gringos/gringas who have been coming to Oaxaca for many years, the article presented a terrible conflict. It is wonderful for the world to know about the wonders of Oaxaca, but for those who love it, Oaxaca is treated as a well-guarded secret, a secret that could be jeopardized by more tourists.

I struggle with the word “tourists”. The Canadians and Americans that I’ve met come here for 2 – 3 months every year. They study Spanish, they take cooking classes, they contribute respectfully to the life of the city. I am only here for two weeks, and my Spanish is abysmal, but I have been welcomed into the homes of the ex-pates and, through my mother, have been given the chance to see a bit deeper into the life of the city.

Last night I was initiated into the smoky world of Oaxaca’s best-known specialty – Mezcal. Mezcal is Oaxaca’s equivalent of Scotch, and serious mezcal drinkers treat it with reverence. Many come to Oaxaca just to tour the distilleries, of which there are 570 in Oaxaca state. It’s produced using the same methods that have been used for over 200 years. As with Scotch, the best distilleries are prized, and differences are compared, savoured and discussed.

Mezcal is made from the piña or heart of the maguey plant (a kind of agave). Oaxaca state has the perfect climate for growing maguey plants, and they are cultivated throughout the region. The plants are harvested when they are between 7 – 15 years old and weigh about 40 kilos. The central hearts are chopped out, roasted in a pit, mashed to a pulp and distilled in casks made from either barro (baked red clay), copper or aluminum.

Traditional mezcal has chicken or turkey breast put into the fermentation, but contemporary mezcal sometimes adds fruit or chocolate. In a rush to attract foreign consumers, mezcal producers are adding caramel syrup and a variety of sweet flavourings. For serious mezcal drinkers, true mezcal may be an acquired taste, but it is one worth acquiring without the trappings of commercialism.

mezcal tasting
the tools for mezcal tasting

Mezcal bottles will often include the larva from a moth that lives on the agave plant (“mezcal con gusano”), and there are many arguments about the correct way to imbibe the worm. The worm is said to add flavour. It definitely adds mystique and price to the marketing.

My mother’s friend Virginia is a lawyer from Kingston who lives in Mexico for four months of the year. She has a wonderful and spacious apartment that allows her to escape the Canadian winter, a climate that plagues her lungs. She loves traditional mezcal, and invited us over to a tasting to compare three types.

At Virginia’s I met Dwayne, Canadian from Vancouver who lives in Oaxaca for 5 months of the year. Virginia and Dwayne met many years ago in a Spanish class. The formal Spanish class has long since evaporated but they have continued to meet, swap Oaxacan confidences, and argue over mezcal.

Our tasting begins with Albarradas, the “house brand” of a local restaurant. Virginia pours the clear liquid into tiny red clay cups.

“You have to take the first sip into your mouth and hold it there as long as you can. You let it burn until you think ‘Why am I doing this?’ Then you swallow.” This, Virginia explains, will open up our taste buds.

I taste salt on my lips before I am aware of the smokey essence that fills my cranium. I hold and swish until it begins to hit my tear ducts, at which point I swallow. I make the mistake of breathing in through my mouth, and am enveloped in a haze of alcoholic fumes. Mezcal is between 45 – 55% proof. But I like the smoke. The mezcale stays in my mouth, on the tongue, for a short time. It is clean and a bit citrusy.

Our second mezcal is Virginia’s personal favourite, from Chichicapa. She confides that she took some in an empty Coke bottle to a “Live from the Met” broadcast recently. “How else could I get through 5 hours of Wagner?” She and a friend sipped surreptitiously out of the little clay cups at each intermission. It was only after the film, when they sat in the empty movie house having a final round, that they were discovered and told “no se permite.”

“But it sure  helped me to enjoy the Wagner,” she said.

The Chichicapa is much smokier, deeper, earthier than the Albarradas. There is less salt, little citrus. Complex and satisfying, it lingers longer on the tongue. Dwayne says that is due to the “pechuga de pollo,” the chicken breast. Virginia, a vegetarian, disagrees but acknowledges that it tastes too good to care one way or another.

We finish our tasting with a tobalá mezcal from the Unión de Palenqueros de Oaxaca. (Tobalá is a smaller maguey plant. A palenquero is a mezcal maker.) It is as different from the Chichicapa as an 18-year single malt is to a blend. Adequate, with just a hint of sweetness, more complex than the Albarradas, it served mostly to show the brilliance of the Chichicapa.

Two million litres of mezcal are produced annually in Mexico. It’s believed to cure hypertension and diabetes, and that it is an aphrodisiac. “Para todo mal, mezcal, y para todo bien también” – for everything bad, mezcal, and for everything good, as well.

I am happy to believe in its medicinal and restorative properties. I certainly feel on the road to being healed…

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