The loss of a Mexican tradition
by Ben Feldman; illustrations by Kelsey Skordal
Oaxaca, one of Mexico’s southern-most coastal states, is widely recognized for its rich cuisine. Geographically isolated from the rest of the country, Oaxaca is a largely agricultural state with a huge diversity of climates. The state is known for its unique chiles, banana leaf tamales, fried crickets, cheese, tasajo meat, mescal and its seven famous mole sauces. I chose to study Spanish in Oaxaca this past summer with gastronomic intentions. I wanted to eat, collect recipes and learn how to cook the mysterious mole.
For those who are unfamiliar with mole (pronounced ‘mo-ley’), it is a Mexican sauce ranging in consistency from a brothy soup to a thick, pasty tar. Many mole recipes include 30 to 40 ingredients and combine sweet, savory, spicy, bitter and sometimes sour or burnt flavors. Nearly every ingredient found in a Mexican marketplace is used in some kind of mole sauce. The two types of mole most commonly found in Mexican restaurants in the United States are mole negro, the famous chocolate mole from Oaxaca, and mole poblano, the sweet-spicy mole from Puebla. Gastronomes have attempted to categorize mole into a system of up to 16 types, based on ingredients and place of origin. However, nearly every abuelita in Mexico has her own variation of her favorite mole recipe. Traditionally, mole can take up to three days to prepare, and so has historically been served only on very special occasions.
On my first night in Oaxaca, I was somewhat surprised when my host family served me Domino’s pizza for dinner. The pizza had cream cheese on it, with hot sauce on the side.
Several times during that first month, I asked my host mom if she would teach me how to cook mole. Each time, Sandra told me that she didn’t cook mole because she didn’t like the taste. After all that I had read about the importance of mole, I was surprised that this woman, who served me a wide variety of pasta meals Mexicanized with tasajo, chorizo and fajitas, didn’t cook this supposedly treasured national dish.
I also asked many employees of museums, galleries, bookstores and my language school if they could share mole recipes with me. All of the men I asked told me they did not cook. All the women I spoke to were surprised that I, a man, would be interested in cooking at all. The young, female professionals working in my school and elsewhere did not cook mole either. I wondered if people were unwilling to share recipes with me because I was an outsider, or if anybody even cooked mole anymore. It certainly wasn’t that people don’t eat mole: even the Wal-Mart in Oaxaca sold it. Every person I spoke to had a favorite mole that his or her mother had prepared for him since he was young, but the only people I could find cooking mole worked in restaurants. How do I find these mole-making mothers? I wondered.
It was not until my fourth week in Oaxaca that I discovered that my host mom, the woman who I had been constantly asking to teach me how to make mole, was actually not the person cooking my food. I felt like an idiot. I had come to Mexico to study food but didn’t even know who was preparing my meals. I had seen my host mother make me toast, eggs, hot dogs and instant coffee in the morning. I had also seen her heat up leftover enchiladas, spaghetti dishes and steaks. But unbeknownst to me, it was my host mother’s mother who lived next door who had been doing the sautéing, searing, blending and all other types of cooking all along (excluding Bimbo bread toasting and breakfast scrambling). Every morning, while I was away at school and my host mom was busy at work, my host grandma would cook a big meal. She would then stuff the food into Tupperware containers and deliver it to my host mom. By the time I returned from Spanish class, the table was already set and the food ready to serve for “comida,” a late lunch that is typically the biggest meal of the day. If I ever complimented the meal’s flavors and enormous portion sizes, my host mom said “gracias,” told me she wanted me to be happy and well-fed and served me another plateful. It wasn’t until I asked her how she prepared a particular cheese sauce that she revealed that her mother was the secret chef.
With this newfound information, I went next door and asked my host grandmother if she could share any mole recipes with me. She told me she did not have any recipes written down, but that she could show me how to make a few moles and I could take notes. As we cooked together, she explained to me how she had learned to cook. Growing up, she had no interest in culinary arts, but when she got married, her mother forced her to go to cooking school so she could provide for her husband and family. I wondered how my host family would feed themselves when my host grandma was no longer able to cook. My host mom ran two of her own businesses, making dresses and hosting exchange students, in addition to driving her kids to and from school each day. She did not have time to cook, nor did she know how.
The following week, the city of Oaxaca hosted a mole exhibition. At this event, I met several women from nearby pueblos who shared mole recipes with me. The exchanges set off a chain reaction that put me in contact with other women who were willing to exchange recipes. Though I was glad to finally collect recipes and achieve my goal for my mole project, I learned much more from my struggle to find women who cooked mole than from the recipes themselves.
What began as a purely culinary project taught me about the changing social dynamics in Mexico. By investigating mole, I learned that when a society relies on a particular group to master and teach a skill, when that group’s role shifts, the skill will be lost. Historically, women have held exclusive responsibility for feeding their families. Because tortilla-making is such a labor-intensive process, this was truly a full-time job. Even in modern times, with conveniences such as store-bought tortillas and modern kitchenware, women who carry on Mexican culinary traditions typically fulfill likewise traditional roles in the family. As these women enter the commercial workforce in Mexico, family recipes will be lost. There is a tension between progress and preservation of cultural values. I am uncomfortable saying that Oaxaca ought to openly accept the effects of globalization, just as I am uncomfortable saying that women should remain in the kitchen on behalf of Mexican culinary heritage. Paradoxically, Oaxaca’s tourism-based economy relies on cultural preservation for its success, while at the same time being a vehicle of economic development and Westernization. As a tourist, I came to Oaxaca to study food. But after my experience asking beneficiaries of the tourist industry for mole recipes, I can’t help but wonder if food tourism threatens food traditions.