Oaxaca, May 4, 2019
1. – Ceviche
Last week I had dinner at a restaurant that had two irresistible virtues: first, I had read good things about it in the Lonely Planet guide to Oaxaca, and second, I knew exactly where it was, up there by the church on the Calle de Manuel Garcia Vigil. I thought that its attractiveness to gringos might have led to some accommodations for English-speakers, but this hope evaporated when I scanned the menu. I understood the word “pescado” and thought that fish might be just the thing, but then a mesera came up and asked me some questions. When she got nothing from me beyond a pleading, fearful smile, she brought a mesero to the table who launched into a disquisition that, after a minute or two, I realized must be in English. He had used the word “spicy.”
“Is okay?” he asked, finally.
“Sure!” I said. “Sí. Está bien.”
That is how I ended up eating a cold slurry of mango and citrus with bits of raw fish. This is what the word “cevice” means that I had seen on the menu, and I don’t doubt that the mesero explained exactly what I had just ordered before it arrived, but knowing that I had no one to blame but myself did nothing to improve my meal.
2. – What may have been a pomelo
On my walk to school one morning, I found a large grapefruit in the gutter that appeared to be unharmed. I picked it up and put it into a waist-high nook in the ruined wall that abutted the sidewalk. Perhaps somebody would be delighted to find his lost grapefruit, rescued by a nameless stranger who sought no thanks for his selfless act. That afternoon, on my way back, it was still there, so I took it home.
I wore my REI travel pants for a couple of days several weeks ago, while my jeans were at the lavandería. I hadn’t worn these pants since I was in Guatemala almost two years ago, and I remember their having been snug even then – but now it is only just possible for me to get into them. Ever since this disheartening experience, I have been eating fruit for lunch.
I had already developed a keen appetite when I sat down to open my grapefruit. The yellow skin covered a white pith that was more than an inch thick. I hacked big chips of pith off onto the tablecloth. The grapefruit sections in the middle were familiar looking, except that half of their bulk appeared to be seeds, but they were less sweet, less tangy, less zesty – less interesting – than I’d hoped. When I finished eating, the heap of debris in front of me looked like Picachu had been run through a wood chipper, and I was still hungry. What was that thing?
3. – The zapote
There is a graphic-design outfit near my Spanish school named “El Zapote Negro.” My dictionary says that the English translation for “zapote” is “zapote,” and offers “sapodilla” as an alternative, in case “zapote” was insufficiently illuminating. After my maestra, Jenny, explained what they were, I realized that I had eaten one or two of these while I was in Guatemala.
That afternoon, I was out on one of my afternoon constitutionals when I walked past a cart that had been parked in the shade of a wall – a cart simply heaped with zapotes. The guy who was waiting for customers gave me a sliver. They are fantastically sweet and buttery. “Uno, por favor,” I said.
He sold me one for seventy-five pesos. When I got back to my apartment, I opened it up. The flesh was reddish and creamy and sweeter than unrepentent sin, just as I remembered. With every bite I thought, “Seventy-five pesos? That’s like, what, four bucks. That guy ripped me off. Probably, I don’t know for sure, but four bucks? No way. Why didn’t I say something?”
And then the zapote was gone.
4. – Bugs
I have already mentioned that chapulines – fried grasshoppers – are a local delicacy here in Oaxaca. They are sold in heaps at the market, sorted by size and color. And practically everybody knows about the worms in Oaxacan mezcal. But I hadn’t heard about chicatanas, which, as Manuel explained to me during a digression in this morning’s lesson, are flying ants that appear by the millions after the first rains of spring. Their abdomens are plucked off and used to make a highly prized salsa. “Hay muchas palabras por ‘delicioso,'” he almost certainly did not say, and then explained that something tasty is rico. Something very tasty is saboroso. Delicioso is one step over saboroso, and, at the very pinnacle, when you need to describe a food that makes you want to abandon your family and make indecent proposals to the cook, is suculento. Chicatanas, said Manuel, staring hard into my eyes, are suculento. Here is an article about them, if you are curious to learn more.I finished two books within a few hours of each other a few days ago. One, Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, is a wonderful piece of work, but it has nothing to do with Oaxaca, so I set it aside in this post. The other, Oliver Sacks’s Oaxaca Journal, is a small, lovely thing – the reminiscences of a charmingly intelligent man about his fern-botanizing trip to Oaxaca in the 1990’s. He recounts having enjoyed the local grasshoppers during his visit and speaks with fond nostalgia about their crunchy, nutty savor.
I have caught dozens, perhaps hundreds, of grasshoppers, with my bare hands. I know exactly how it feels to have one struggling in my grasp, its tiny claws working against my palm. I would open my fingers just enough to let my captive poke his head out into the air, where he would work his mandibles indignantly and spit brown juice onto my skin. Never once, in any of those sun-glazed afternoons in Idaho’s Mormon country, did I ever ask myself what it might be like to pop one into my mouth and give it a thoughtful chew. Never. Despite Oliver Sacks, despite the menu at every restaurant, the idea is ridiculous.My friend Kerry is returning to Oakland this weekend. If she weren’t, I had thought that perhaps we might go out to dinner, where she might encourage me to order the chapulines, and maybe take my picture as I put one into my mouth. I would be interested to eat some of the local bugs if I were here with someone who also saw it as an adventure; as a solo diner, though, there would be no point to it. Overcoming inhibitions is inherently a social act. Eating grasshoppers in a restaurant by myself, looking down at the heap of brown bodies and working up my courage, would feel like yelling “yahoo” into an enormous empty room.
5. – Tlayudas El Negro
A tlayuda is a grilled tortilla sandwich that seems to be the favorite local food here in Oaxaca. A tortilla is slathered with refried beans, lard, cheese, and whatever else comes to hand, another tortilla is pushed onto the slab, and then both sides are subjected to the fire. Tlayudas in Oaxaca have a status similar to the position pizza occupies in the United States. There is pizza here, too – there is a Domino’s down by the supermarket – but pizza is occasional and tlayudas are everywhere. Both foods are circular, flat, dripping with grease and cheese, and seem designed to invoke the wrath of whatever strange, tubular gods are worshiped by the human digestive system. In both cases, you feel full long before you stop eating.
The local branch of Tlayudas El Negro is just down at the corner of Calle de Manuel Sabino Crespo and Av. de la Independencia. The place is enormous, but I have never seen it with more than a handful of its tables occupied. When I arrived there, on one of April’s last evenings, it was easily 80 degrees, the cicadas were howling glassily in the trees outside, and the sound system was playing a Spanish version of “The Little Drummer Boy.” “Pa rum pum-pum-pum,” I hummed, studying the menu. Before I made up my mind, a quick-witted employee had changed the disc from “Christmas Favorites” to “Top Hits of 1971,” so, by the time the mesero arrived, I had already heard “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do” and “A Horse with No Name.” I had to yell over the music as I ordered. “Can’t Live, Una tlayuda, if living is without you. Y una cervasa Can’t live! Sí! Con queso! I CAN’T GIVE ANYMORE…”
When the beer arrived, I settled back to admire my surroundings. I had not paid any attention to this restaurant’s signs when I came in; a young woman in faux authentic garb had lured me in from the sidewalk. It took a remarkably long time for me to realize that this restaurant was not named “Black Tlayudas,” as I had first thought; if that were the case, the name would be something like “Las Tlayudas Negros.” A better translation of “Tlayudas El Negro,” judging by their logo, is “Pickaninny Tlayudas.” This is not at all how we name restaurants in the United States.
Half an hour later, I had eaten everything I wanted, and then as much again. The bill was $6.50 American, including the tip. I waddled home along the roaring traffic of el Calle Crespo. Eating fruit for lunch won’t help if I keep having dinners like that one.
I asked my teacher, Jenny, about the name of this restaurant on the following morning. She had to tell me something that I had somehow not noticed on my own – that there are no black people in Oaxaca. I haven’t seen any Asians either, come to think of it. Thus, I suppose, Oaxacans feel free to use whatever language they like, since there is no one here who might object. I asked her why there are no black people, and she only shrugged.
I have done some a little Internet research on this subject, and could use this paragraph to advance some theories about it, but I won’t bother; I don’t know, and can’t know, about racism in Oaxaca. My infant español does not allow me to pry into the matter. Manuel told me a joke about a Galician leper who broke out of prison piece by piece, prefacing the chiste by saying that Galicians are well known for their stupidity. Is Manuel prejudiced against Galicians, or would making that accusation be something like saying that I am prejudiced against Poles because I sometimes told Pollack jokes when I was a kid? Maybe the people who run Tlayudas El Negro would protest that they have nothing against black people. They might say that they are charmed by pickaninnies and their cute antics – all that watermelon and fried chicken! – in something like the way decent white Americans might have defended themselves against such a charge during the 40’s and 50’s. Maybe racism here is the water everyone is swimming in. I don’t know.
I have already booked a flight and arranged lodging for the next leg of this trip. On May 15 – less than two weeks from now – I’ll be in Quito. This hardly seems possible. I only just got here.
Unless something changes, I will leave Oaxaca without having drunk mezcal or eaten a mezcal worm. I will not have tried chapulines or chicatanas, I will not have eaten nopal or tuna, the fruit of the nopal cactus, and I will continue to ignore the broad swathes of restaurant menus that I cannot understand. I will not have bought anything at a market. I will not have gone to a bar. I won’t know why there are no black or Asian Oaxacans, I won’t know why these people set off nerve-shattering concussion grenades more often than I pass gas, and I will not know Spanish. When I leave, I will not understand Oaxaca or Oaxacans.
I will have eaten tlayudas and ceviche and a zapote. I will have laughed at a chiste en español and shaken my head at those idiot Galicians. I will have visited ancient ruins. I will have flagged down a shared colectivo taxi, ridden it out into the hinterlands, paid the driver, and then repeated the process on the return trip. I will have become comfortable with the city’s layout, I will have gotten used to the local levanderías, and I will have clawed my way back to the pitiable level of español that I attained in 2016. I will have admired thunderstorms, scratched the backs of appreciative cats, strolled through lovely churches and museums, and made a friend. I will have fallen slightly in love with Oaxaca.
Thank God for traveling. Es suculento.