Recipes From a 9,000-Year-Old History in Oaxaca, Mexico

A concinera in Oaxaca, Mexico

I can hear the clacking of the looms long before I arrive at Pastora’s place.  Vida Nueva is a women’s rug cooperative nestled in the small Zapotec village of Teotitalan de Valle, Mexico.  Pastora is the head of the cooperative, which has 14 women weavers as members.  They make beautiful wool rugs reminiscent of Navajo weavings, but with more ancient symbols from their 9,000-year history.  The vivid colors are made from plant dyes and the famous red color from the cochineal larvae that cohabitates on the Nopales cactus.

The colors are as vibrant as the foods these women create; the interlinking weave of each rug as complex, yet intrinsically understood, as the recipes that have been passed down here, from generation to generation.

I am here in Oaxaca teaching a course called Food, Culture and Health with students from the University of Vermont.  Our role here is simple, but profound: We are recording recipes from these women in order to share them with English speakers, with our world.  My students are collecting the recipes by observing the women in their homes.

With comals over wood fires the women roast peppers, cacao beans, tomatoes, and corn kernels. On their metates, they grind the corn, canella, garlic, and fresh and dried peppers to a fine grain or paste.  In the cauldrons, they simmer black beans and chicken caldo.  Their facile muscle memory creates a “flow,” a choreography comprised of flawless, sub-conscious movements in food preparation passed down from mother to daughter for thousands of years.

Our UVM students engaged in recipe testing

You see, these recipes have never been written down because they never needed to be.  These “recipes” are ways of knowing – they make up a language that moves raw ingredient from the milpa to the plate – and we were there, generationally de-skilled Americans, to write down recipes for a blog site.


Before I share the recipes, let me share what I learned as I watched these adept concineras.

  • The women of Vida Nuevo know nothing about measurements.  They eyeball everything with a precision developed through years of practice.
  • The students of UVM know nothing about measurement – as in how many teaspoons in a tablespoon, or cups in a pint, or ounces in a pound, let alone knowing anything about the metric system. The sad part is that they also have no generational practice.
  • A full boil requires thicker logs, about four 5 inches in diameter.
  • Simmer requires thinner sticks about four 2 inches and about 2 feet long (so they can stick out of the fire and be removed to control the temperature).
  • Dry roasting cacao or dried peppers requires some thick switches that burn quickly and heat the comal up just enough to roast gently.
  • Beans simmering

    Grinding something to a powder or paste requires major upper body strength and long hours on one’s knees.

  • There is no substitute for wood fire roasting, toasting or simmering.
  • Throwing a plum tomato into the ash of the fire to blister makes a dazzlingly delicious salsa roja.
  • Thickening beans with roasted ground corn give a texture and taste to the beans that should not be missed.
  • The concineras taste continually by spooning a tiny drop on the palm of the thumb.
  • Writing down recipes to capture the action and exactitude of the preparation is extremely difficult.

Besides a 7.4 level earthquake which shook the very ground on which we walked, we stood while watching pepper-roasting under a corrugated metal roof. We managed to capture, test and write down the recipes with great success.

Our taste test was a huge success

Here is one recipe for a delicious dessert:

Dulce de Manzana

  • 4½ pounds apples (small and soft, approximately 20 apples)
  • 3½ ounces canela (10 inches total)
  • 9 ounces of sugar
  • ½ gallon water

Cut four vertical slits in each apple (more for large apples). Place apples, canela, sugar, and water in pan and place on stove over high heat. Bring to a boil. Boil mixture for approximately two hours. Drain and discard canela. Serve apples warm.

Review all of the recipes that we collected.

Our UVM recipe recorders and the women of Vida Neuvo

Pastora and her group of weavers and cooks approve of our contribution, so please try some of them and contact Vida Nueva with your reviews!

Which recipe will you try first? Share your experience with us in the comments section.

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