The slightly deranged look in Christine's eyes is most likely the fear that a firecracker would explode on our heads

The slightly deranged look in Christine’s eyes is most likely the fear that a firecracker would explode on our heads

It’s not proper IPA spelling, but hopefully Christine the linguistics Masters degree holder will forgive me. It’s been quite awhile since the last post, and instead of addressing things consecutively as I usually do, I’ll handle the food of the Oaxacan region first.

On New Year’s Eve, Christine and I went out from Casa Giron to see the festivities on the Zocalo, the main square in the city. We stopped to watch a fast speaking clown called “el Tonto” (the Fool) who had drawn a crowd at its edge, but of course as soon as he spotted two foreigners in the crowd, he just had to pull us into his act, and literally into the center of his act to speak in rapid fire Spanish while blowing up balloon animals for us. Christine told me later that it was mostly dick jokes regarding Mexicans and Americans, so I guess I didn’t miss out on too much. We were stuck with the balloon animals for the rest of the long night; we ended up giving them away to some begging children on the edge of the square (along with a peso or two as well). The rest of Tonto’s act was something that drew some wry amusement from the Americans in the audience – Tonto pulled two little boys and a girl out of the crowd and (apparently, according to Christine) was going to have them reenact “the classic love tragedy.” One of the boys was given a poncho, the other a sombrero, and the girl a dainty red lace umbrella. And then both of the boys were given cap guns and Christine said, “oh geez, this would never fly in the USA.” Tonto told the children exactly what to do – the girl was to deliver a passionate speech regarding “I love both of you, how could I ever choose!” and then the two boys were to circle each other menacingly, threatening each other with child-level threats (“your hat is dumb!” “you look stupid!”) and then open fire on each other with the cap guns. One boy was “killed” immediately (although he had difficulty remembering to stay dead, much to Tonto’s derision) and then the girl threw herself down at his side, shouting that it was actually he that she had loved the most. Then she grabbed the gun, shot the other boy, and then shot herself, and all three lay on the ground twitching theatrically.

"Kids, resolve your problems by shooting each other the way you see them do it in old movies!"

“Kids, resolve your problems by shooting each other the way you see them do it in old movies!”

The crowd of children, parents, and young people in our age group just ate it up. Tonto’s off-color jokes probably helped too. Christine and I enjoyed it as much as two non-native speakers could, but of course our perspectives were colored by the fact that if any children’s clown tried this in the USA, screaming parents would be hurling themselves at him, shielding their own children’s eyes, and he’d probably be imprisoned for willful endangerment of children’s minds or some other similar charge.

Anyway, that had nothing to do with Mole, pronounced Moh-lay, which became the focal point of the rest of New Year’s Eve-ning. All of the restaurants around the Zocalo were packed to the gills; some had been taking outdoor reservations since noon (we had seen the “reserved” tags go up earlier as we walked around). That was okay though; we didn’t want to sit outside because it was LOUD out there. Peruvian flute bands were toodling away madly on every side of the square, not to mention the other traveling entertainers with saxophones and guitars, and then to top it off, several of the restaurants had hired their own bands to perform for their customers. Top it all off with young people with highly explosive fireworks – and not the ones that make pretty colors; only the ones that make loud, cannon-like booms – and it was hectic outside. We sought to find a space indoors, preferably with a layer of brick around us.

We settled on a place called Del Jardin, Of The Garden, and immediately started enjoying the $3 cocktails on their list. We had not yet tried mole, and both Christine and I ordered a dish that we knew would come with it, as well as another secondary dish, too. After eating orders of 3-5 tacos, I expected most servings of Mexican food to be small, so I figured mole-covered chicken or something called a syncronizada would be the same. How wrong we were!

No mas!

No mas!

Two hours later, with midnight and the New Year fast approaching, we hadn’t yet finished our dinners. Mole is a paste of varying viscosity and varying color (although the Oacaxan variety is usually black) made from a lot of spices and “other stuff.” We’d heard some Mexicans refer to its ingredient list as “whatever spices and herbs you have lying around.” In Del Jardin’s case, the Mole was thick, brown, and tasted indescribably of chocolate, cumin, chilis (mostly the chilis, really) and a whole bunch of other stuff. I’d never had anything like it. And when Oaxacans serve food with mole, it comes slathered, swimming in it. As Midwesterners who have been trained since birth to clean our plates, we bravely tried to use all of our solid food (when we found it, buried under the mole) to mop up the mole, but it just couldn’t be done. We were being weighed down like leaden boats. The fact that we were on our sixth (shared) cocktail, made strong, was exacerbating our sleepiness.

Leftover tortillas from dinner were distributed by Christine to street dogs (he's just sleeping; we checked)

Leftover tortillas from dinner were distributed by Christine to street dogs (he’s just sleeping; we checked)

We finally called it a night and emerged back onto the square at around 11:45pm. The music had died away, to be replaced by even more fireworks. Dangerous amounts of fireworks, and I don’t use that lightly. I recall watching a wedding in Jordan in which a man walked around with one of those 20-banger fireworks cases held above his head (the one where you light one fuse and then the individual rounds shoot off one after another), in his hand, and thinking that seemed highly unsafe. Tonight it seemed that New Year’s Eve was going to be celebrated by dozens of people ranging in age from approximately 10 to 30 (from what I could see in the streetlamp-lit gloom) launching cannon-sounding fireworks at each other from either side of the Zocalo plaza. Every few minutes the crowd would gasp in unison as a firework landed at someone’s feet, and the crowd would ripple backwards, and there would be a gunshot like retort. Sometimes the fireworks would arc high over our heads and hit the walls of buildings or the cathedral looming over the Zocalo. Christine and I had both stuffed our ears; her with napkins taken from an outdoor restaurant table, me with earbuds. At least we wouldn’t go deaf, even if we lost a limb or two.

Getting this close to the square was difficult and terrifying. That's not food wrappers, that's all from fireworks wrapping paper

Getting this close to the square was difficult and terrifying. That’s not food wrappers, that’s all from fireworks wrapping paper

That was our first experience with mole. A few days afterward, Christine and I took a cooking class that was well-reviewed on Trip Advisor, simply called Augustin Cooking or some other informal title. We were greeted in the square by the friendly Augustin himself, who walked with a bit of a limp as he led us quickly to the Mercado 20 de Noviembre. He spoke English with a noticeable Californian accent; he had lived there for several years when he was younger. He spoke and walked very quickly, and in the cramped spaces of the markets in downtown Oaxaca it was often difficult to keep up with him as he rushed about, buying different types of chilis, vegetables, and tortillas for our class. Our companions were a New Zealand couple about our age, and a father and daughter from Washington D.C.

It turns out that besides the key mole ingredients of two types of chilis for red mole, and four for black, there is a “base” of stuff ranging from avocodo leaves (but not the fruit itself) to raisins, to a massive chunk of bread. Put it on medium heat in a cast iron pan for half an hour until it’s somewhat blackened, then throw it all in a blender. The chilis and the base are done separately.

Looks like a weird salad now, but after a trip through the blender...

Looks like a weird salad now, but after a trip through the blender…

Meanwhile, Augustin entertained us with stories about his cooking, travels, and life in general. His walls were covered in platitudes and friendly comments by other cooking students, with his catchphrases of “hold your horses” (which after a few shots of the aguave-based liquor mezcal, became “hold your fuckin’ horses”) and “you don’t work, you don’t eat.” He supplied us liberally with Coronas and mezcal both during the food preparation phase and the eating phase, which happened out on his roof under a tent-awning. His dog, a very well-behaved poodle-looking mix named Michael Jackson, snoozed nearby.

Christine is told by Augustin to pour the mole very carefully, so it doesn't "cross the line" of the inner plate

Christine is told by Augustin to pour the mole very carefully, so it doesn’t “cross the line” of the inner plate

The mole took about two hours total to make, likely because as it was heating, being blended, etc we were working on other foods like salsas (roja, and de mesa) guacamole, and presentation. Augustin had us arrange 6 plates, bowls, etc before each time we went out to eat on the roof and strictly enforced a one cm separation between them as food was being set onto them. “Treat the plates like American couples; they need their space, not all snuggled against each other like we Mexicans are.”

Judging from Christine's expression, an off-color joke may have just been told

Judging from Christine’s expression, an off-color joke may have just been told

By the time the class ended around 7pm, we were all definitely a bit drunk, as was Augustin. He bid us to write our comments on the walls of his classroom (this might be why the handwriting was roundly bad on the majority of them), and we all exchanged email addresses to share photos and our notes. That as the one downside of Augustin’s class – no pre-printed notebooks or bound books (like what we received in Thailand) meant that we had to write down everything – both ingredient lists and instructions – by hand. He also asked us to take photos of the food every few steps. I told him honestly that the class was a lot of fun, but considering the amount of alcohol we were consuming that the resulting temporary memory loss and slurred handwriting, perhaps investing a bit of time and money into some simple A4-sized printed pages with the ingredients and instructions (if not the pictures; color printing is expensive). He did seem to take a bit of offense at that suggestion, saying that “cooking is from the heart, you have to feel it!” but this was after he’d just taken two shots of mezcal, so I won’t hold it against him.

Hopefully we’ll remember enough of that evening to reproduce mole for our friends and family back at home! When I get some time next, I’ll write about the more outdoorsy things we did in Mexico.