After travelling through Northern and Central Mexico, entering the state of Oaxaca was like entering a whole new country. We began seeing signs of a culture different than any we had previously experienced. Oaxaca marked our entry into Zapatec country. No experience better encompassed the most notable differences than a walk through the city market. The produce stands carry a number of new and strange items, the tortillas have doubled in size and are fried and stuffed with an assortment of delicious fillings and amidst the hum of the market we overheard languages that were neither English nor Spanish. The metropolis acts as a magnet drawing in all of the regional specialties that left Jill and I overwhelmed with new foods to try and shops to peruse.
One of the many foodstuffs Oaxaca is known for is chocolate. Throughout the city we stumbled upon a chocolate store here and there, but it was when we walked down the street on the south side of the market that it was clear we were in a chocolate lover’s paradise. The street is lined with chocolate shop after chocolate shop, each one adding to the sweet chocolate aroma that overwhelmed any other city scents that may have been floating through the air. Each shop had, in addition to a plethora of chocolate related products, anywhere from 1 to 5 dishwasher sized grinders. One could choose the additives and proportions desired (2 part cocoa, 1 part sugar, a bit of cinnamon, some nutmeg and a few vanilla beans, for example) and out comes a liquid that quickly thickens and can be used in moles, hot chocolate, or to simply add some walnuts and cool. One night, Jill and I found ourselves pulled back to chocolate row where we indulged in an after dinner hot chocolate. Prepared with milk, and whipped just enough to give the cup a nice frothy head, the moment the rim touched my lips I knew that Swiss Miss would forever be coupled with feelings of disappointment.
No longer is tequila the liquor of choice. Now, when we go into liquor stores it is mezcal that line the shelves. As I mentioned in my tequila post mezcal is the whiskey to tequila’s bourbon, and at times I could not tell the difference between the two. One noticeable difference, however, is that mezcal is often bottled with a moth larvae that inevitably sinks to the bottom. This “worm” gives the mezcal a distinct smokiness that quickly grew on us and made the transition from tequila an easy one.
The large corn tortillas sold at the markets are called tlayudas and are a specialty in this region of Mexico. Like a Mexican calzone, a tlayuda can come with any number of different toppings, folded in half and fried in asiento (pig fat sounds nicer in Spanish). Jill and I made an attempt to make some back at the van but unfortunately learned it is best to leave it to the professionals. At the edge of the market we could find women selling pre-prepared tlayudas, and even though it had been hours since it was pulled from the fryer, it was still ten times better than what we had made back at the van. And despite the low price of $1, it was more than enough food to constitute a meal. In what has become an annoying theme of our journey, just as I fall in love with a new food, its regionalism prevents it from becoming a long term habit.
As we continue south, I find myself thinking often about the differences in the regionalism of the United States versus that in Mexico. I would never imply that that the US is a homogonous place. Growing up in Oregon and living for the last 10 years in the north east I could write a dissertation comparing and contrasting people from the two coasts. But moving south through Mexico it can feel at times as though some regions aren’t even aware the other regions exist. For example, philly may be the only place you can find a decent cheese steak, but pubs across the country won’t hesitate to make an attempt. We had been travelling in Mexico for two months and never heard of a tlayuda, but for a few days we couldn’t find a menu without them. Then, as quickly as they arrived, they were gone again. It’s not as if I’m talking about a fruit or vegetable whose production is dependent on a specific climate. This is a tortilla, and Mexicans love tortillas, practically every meal incorporates a tortilla in one way or another. You can’t drive through a Mexican town, no matter how small, without finding a tortillaria. And yet if you were born in Oaxaca and moved to the Baja your tlayuda eating days would be numbered.
I’m sure a sociologist would talk about the lack of a transitive population, and an economist would mention a weak infrastructure making the distribution of goods more costly. On the surface what we have seen as we travel through the country is that what people eat, what they wear, and how they worship changes much more dramatically than what we observed while travelling through the states. It’s just one of the reasons we have fallen in love with travelling by car. It’s allowed us to see each little town in the context of its surrounding influences. Without that perspective we would attribute everything we saw with a broad brush like, oh that’s Mexican or oh that’s Mayan, without realizing when an attribute is completely unique and separates one town from its neighbor. It is a higher level of isolation than what exists in the states and does not come without costs, but the benefit is that it allows for what appears to be a thriving indigenous culture.