Any day that begins with a fried grasshopper is going to be an interesting one, full of interesting flavors and new experiences; yesterday was no exception. “Chapulines?” offered our neighbor, holding out a little plastic bag. The children had seen them in the market the other day, mounds of deep maroon bugs graded according to size, piled high in terra cotta bowls, offered as “plain,” “chile,” or “garlic,” the chile seem to be most popular. You can even purchase only the legs, for a particularly unique culinary experience. Gabe and Ez raised one eyebrow each, as if to say, “Why not?” Ezra, long ago, became our self designated “taster” of new things, from raw olives to fried grasshoppers. They each gingerly removed a desiccated critter from the bag and examined it in the morning light, popping it lightly into their mouths. Ezra’s immediately exited with a loud spitting noise followed by fingers wiping his tongue… “ACK! NOT GOOD!” He pronounced. Gabe’s made it to about the third crunch before the sticky red wad was spit into the grass. “It’s the legs! It tastes alright, but the legs are… tickly!” He grimaced.
It was one adventure after another for the rest of the day, beginning with a tour of a mezcal factory. We joined a group of Tequila bar owners from London, Paris and Sydney to learn about the 26 varieties of agave that are used to produce a liquor as subtle and varied as any wine. The factory is owned by the proprietor of our campground. “You bringin’ the rugrats?” He asked before breakfast. “Of course, we always do.” “Well make sure they don’t touch anything, we’re not exactly OSHA certified, if you know what I mean.” And that was no idle warning.
We saw the huge “pinas,” the centers of the agave plants piled high while various men with axes the size we use to split the biggest logs busted them into pieces to cook. After 36 hours of steam cooking the pieces are fed through a not-so-glorified wood chipper to create a pulp. Several times we ducked as pieces of agave were spit out the back side and went sailing across the factory, sticky projectiles heavy enough to knock a kid out. Women in rubber boots and gloves moved the pulp through a series of squeezers by hand, extracting the juice, which is then fermented in tanks, and distilled twice, to produce the basic, silver mezcal. It’s a fascinating process. “Instead of investing in newer, fancier machines to mechanize the process and produce more liquor faster, I prefer to use slower, hand operated processes and invest the same money in employing more people. Oaxaca is the poorest state in Mexico,” Doug explained, “For every person I employ, three get to eat, so by employing these twenty folks, my business feeds sixty locals. It’s a good thing.” Yes, it is.
The bar owners sniffed and sampled the many bottles of various mezcals with the delight of somaliers in a wine cellar, exclaiming over the wide varieties of flavors and scents. The boys looked up at Tony, “Can we try it?” “Sure,” he laughed, handing them a thimble sized cup. Their lips barely touched the liquid before their faces twisted into macabre shapes and the tongue wiping began again. “THAT is disgusting!” pronounced Ezra. Excellent, mission accomplished.
The afternoon was wiled away between the four big markets that populate the center of Oaxaca with every imaginable saleable item, from plastic housewares, to undergarments, to fruits, weavings, pottery and… chapulines. Having separated himself from the initial shock of the legs by several hours he was determined to purchase a bag. “I’m going to learn to eat these with a straight face and be cool before we get home, Mom,” he informed me, “Then, I’m going to offer them to my friends! It’ll be GREAT!” And so it will. It was a major shopping day for me. The first of the trip. I started by purchasing two of the woven nylon bags that last forever and can carry a ridiculous amount of weight. Into the bags I loaded about five kilos of mole, red and black, followed by about six liters of real, Papantla vanilla, a package of Mexican table chocolate and 250 grams of garlic, deep fried with chiles and then salted… far better than the chapulines, I assure you.
We mopped up six big plates of pollo mole con arroz with handmade tortillas sold by a grandma walking by, congratulating ourselves on an excellent day. The perfect ending to the perfect day? A Saturday night stroll around the zocalo, complete with fabulous music, and an enormous balloon tube for the children to play with among the local youngsters to the side of the cathedral. We photographed a beautiful girl in a lime green ball gown with matching flowers, celebrating her quinceniera with six dapper fellows in tow and basked in the warm night air. It wasn’t until later that I was reduced to tears, tired to the bone and frustrated at having found that the bus route wasn’t quite what we’d expected. Every now and then being the only literate person (and not fully literate, at that) is overwhelming and when I get over tired, I cry. In spite of this, we found the bus: Ruta 25 San Felipe, on Calle Reforma, and made our way back up the mountain in the darkness. Near the end, when the street lights had all disappeared and the road switchbacked perilously across the canyons, I commented to Tony, “Is it just me, or does this feel a lot like the Space Mountain ride at Disney?” He agreed that it did. We rode right to the end of the line, the last folks on the bus and then hiked our tired little troupe the last 100 yards down the hill and rolled them straight into their tent. It was the perfect night for wine beneath a full moon and a comparison of treasures culled from the markets with our surfing friends next door. Today was all the things that are Mexico to me, flavors, scents, delights and frustrations, rolled into one.