George took a cooking class? Impossible.

Cooking School in Oaxaca-even George gets to help-toasting sesame an pumpkin seedsThose of you who know that I survive on Trader Joe’s and my microwave are in for a surprise: I took a cooking class!

Today I joined four other travelers to learn how to make a traditional Zapotec meal at Casa de los Sabores – house of the flavors – a bed and breakfast and cooking school. Our teacher was Reyna and she is called that because she was born on the day of the Three Kings, January 6, the same day as my mother. So Reyna is called Queen. She lives in the Zapotec Indian town of Teotitlan de Valle, a small village known for its handwoven carpets (and now, for Reyna’s cooking). She learned cooking from her mother, who learned from her mother, who I’m guessing learned from her mother, too.

Together with me were a woman from New York who was on a grant to study Spanish and cooking (I want one too!), two female medical students from Portland and a woman from Greece. We began by walking to the public market to buy the things we needed to prepare our lunch.

Our menu:

Salsa de tomate y chile with avocado and corn tortillas

Sopa de flor de calabasa (squash flower soup)

Chicken with Pepian sauce

Rice with vegetables

And banana bread for dessert

Cooking School in Oaxaca-Reyna with the chickensWe stopped at various stands, which were crowded together along narrow aisles in the indoor market – Reyna knew all the vendors. What a sight – dozens of whole chickens with their yellow, bony feet. The chickens in Oaxaca are fed marigolds to give their skin a yellow hue, which is the way Mexicans prefer them. None of our U.S. supermarket whiter shade of pale meat.

We also bought sesame and pumpkin seeds for the Pepian sauce, carrots and potatoes and onions and bananas and garlic and, of course, four kinds of chiles.

Cooking School in Oaxaca-Reyna selects some tomatoesCooking School in Oaxaca-chiles in everything but the banana breadCooking School in Oaxaca-squash blossoms for the soup

After filling our baskets we walked the three blocks back to the school where the two assistants, smiling girls in their early twenties, had laid out baskets on the broad table, separate ones for the ingredients of each dish. Reyna gave us our sheets of recipes printed in English and aprons to wear. Mine was denim with the Trader Joes logo sewn on it. How it got to Oaxaca I don’t know, but it was perfect for this non-cook.

Cooking School in Oaxaca-ingredients for salsaCooking School in Oaxaca-ingredients for rice with vegetablesCooking School in Oaxaca-ingredients for pepian sauce

Reyna set us to our tasks of chopping, stirring, grinding and mixing. Smells overtook the kitchen: toasting nuts, frying garlic, onion and chile; simmering chicken breasts and baking banana bread.

Cooking School in Oaxaca-crushing the chiles for the salsaCooking School in Oaxaca-roasting chilesCooking School in Oaxaca-add the squash blossoms

Cooking School in Oaxaca-the table is setCooking School in Oaxaca-mescal ready for drinkingTwo hours later we sat down at a prettily set table and toasted our work with glasses of mescal, the tequila-like beverage made from the maguey plant. Yes, that’s the same plant that pulque comes from. Remember pulque? I visited the temple of the pulque god in Tepoztlan on my infamous hike up the mountain.

Cooking School in Oaxaca-the chicken with Pepian sauceCooking School in Oaxaca-the soupPepian salsa was my favorite, a creamy sauce redolent of nuts and colored a pale green from the tomatillos we used to make it. The squash blossom soup was a pureed delicacy available only in the summer, though Reyna told us that the flowers freeze rather well. She thought that the banana bread was a little dry because the bananas weren’t ripe enough.

Content and full we left the school, full of thanks for Reyna and her assistants, for the millennia of cooking tradition in the villages and for our good fortune to have come together today. Food, like art, reveals the soul of a country and its people. I took a long siesta in my colorful room at Casa Las Bugambilias. Whether or not I ever try to recreate this meal on my own, I don’t know. But I bet I can buy the Trader Joes apron at the store just a few blocks from my Seattle condo.

Buen Provecho! Bon Appetit! Guten Appetit! Why don’t we have an English phrase to start a meal? Hmmmm…I will have to investigate that next.

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