If you have been reading this blog since I was in Mexico, you may remember that one of the most incredible people I met was a woman named Senora Soledad, a cooking teacher at the Instituto Cultural Oaxaca who became a friend and Oaxacan grandmother to me. When my friend Erin came to visit, she and her family welcomed us into her home and we learned how to make Oaxaca’s most famous and most labor-intensive dish, mole negro, which I wrote up here.
Over the past two years, I’ve had dozens of people, complete strangers, write me and ask if I could help them get in touch with Sra Soledad. After awhile, I stopped giving out the contact information I had because it had been so long and I wasn’t sure if she was still interested in teaching classes, as no one ever got back to me and told me how if they were able to get in touch with her. That is, until this Sunday, when I got this warm and detailed email from Neal Erickson:
Hola! I’ve been meaning to write you to tell you about our stay in Oaxaca over the Day of the Dead and our wonderful “class” and visit with Senora Soledad. We did manage to get in touch with her, finally, after we arrived, and cooking with her and getting to meet her family was the highlight of our trip.
I must also say that, in a sense, you were with us on the trip. I cribbed notes from your “Best of Oaxaca” entries and referred to them a lot, especially about restaurants. We didn’t get to all of them, but I’ll give you an update on a couple.
Soledad met us at the Catedral and we decided to make mole Coloradito, since we didn’t have enough time to make mole negro. We stocked up at Mercado Juarez and 20 de Noviembre: chiles anchos rojos, cosle and Guajillo, sesame, raisins and pork. We taxied to her house and cooked in her indoor kitchen. Her husband Carlos and granddaughter Carlita were home. Since our recipe was fairly small we just used the gas stove and the electric blender. No trip to the molinero needed. Soledad and her family were so gracious and welcoming. We communicated very well with our limited Spanish, mostly because Soledad has a lot of experience working with foreigners and speaks clearly and slowly and was very patient with us.
My wife’s sister’s husband Mikal had died unexpectedly just a few days before our trip. We brought his picture with us and were looking for an altar where we could remember him. Soledad and Carlos invited us back to their house on Saturday (Oct 31) when more of the family would be there. Of course we went. I was able to experience her outdoor kitchen then and watched her make tortillas by the dozens and I helped stir the mole negro in the biggest cazuela I’ve ever cooked with. Three wood fires for the comal, chicken, and mole. It was a beautiful day. We helped set up their altar with their son and our friend Mikal spent the rest of the week on the altar along with their dead family. Her entire living family was very open and welcoming to us and didn’t give a second thought to letting us share their altar. We brought beer and hot sauce for Mikal — they said he would have to share with Soledad’s mother, who apparently could hold her own in that department.
We have a family joke about how I learned to cook from my Mexican mama, my Italian mama, etc. (believe me, I didn’t learn from my real mother). In this case, I feel like I now really do have a Mexican mama!
The rest of our stay was nice, as well. We rented an apartment from a local family on Fiallo only three blocks from the Zocalo. They were also very warm and helpful. Here’s some notes on restaurants visited:
La Biznaga — Absolutely the best, most interesting meal. Cynthia had chicken wrapped around a squash blossom and queso de Oaxaca with a mole verde of their own. I had a bifstek with a red mole. I like how they tart up the traditional dishes — someone in that kitchen has a sure hand. It was also very reasonably priced.
Marco Polo — I had the pescado cooked in the wood oven and it was perfect. The mayonaisse and mustard they used remind me of the “secret sauce” at a drive-in hamburger joint of my youth (mayo and ketchup mixed together). It sure worked. Cynthia did not like the place, I think not only because her fish soup was a mostly uninteresting bowl of reddish broth with a hunk of unboned fish in it, but also the fact that some guy that looked like a minor drug lord right out of a Mexican Sopranos seemed to be getting all the attention. I, however, would eat that baked fish any day.
El Poche Pobre — Underwhelming. We did order the botanas plate and perhaps it was just the wrong time of day, but nothing on it stood out for me. I did have a steak which was excellent and almost melted in my mouth.
La Red — It’s a chain and we ate at the one near Mercado Juarez. We had camarones, two different dishes that were both superb. It’s what I go to Mexico for.
Restaurante de los Abuelos (I think) — It’s on the second floor over the Zocalo’s west side and looks out over the Alameda. Food was good, but the view doesn’t get any better (except from Soledad’s house).
The two attached pictures are of us (los gringos) and Soledad’s family in front of the altar, and her nephew stirring the mole negro.
Anyway, thank you so much for your blog and helping us to get in touch with Soledad. Good luck to you and I look forward to seeing your Korean cookbook.
Neal, I can’t thank you enough for sharing your story and your photos with me. Even in two and a half years, so much can change. I’ve heard El Pochote, the mercado organico, has closed, and Oaxaca’s economy is still reeling from everything Mexico has gone through, but Sra Soledad hasn’t changed and will never change. I hope when I finally grow up, I will be like her.
And check out how similar these photos are!
Tags: mole negro