Cuisine of the Matriarchs
''Nine bulls, five sheep, seven pigs, and 75 chickens I killed,'' said Venáncia Toledo Hernández. She was describing her recent experience as mayordoma, or directress, of the celebrations surrounding the feast of San Gerónimo Doctor, patron saint of Ixtepec—her hometown in the state of Oaxaca, on Mexico's Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Every town on the Isthmus honors its protector every year, and the resulting festivities are the height of the social season. Civic celebrations are typically hosted by a married couple, but sometimes a single man or woman will be the sponsor; in any case, the host is expected to pull out all the stops. Toledo did. ''Sixty thousand pesos [about $8,500] it cost me,'' she continued, ''for the food, the music, and the parades.'' She shrugged. ''But for us, prestige is everything.''
It is the food, with its bold flavors accented by sophisticated seasonings, that has brought me to the Isthmus three times—most recently last May, when the papaya and coconut trees were heavy with fruit, filling the air with a tropical scent. But it is the spirit of women like Toledo that I remember most vividly of all.
The Isthmus of Tehuantepec is a slim neck of land between the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. For centuries, even in pre-Hispanic times, merchant traders roaming the Pacific and the Gulf of Mexico stopped here, and the resulting convergence of cultures gave the region an identity very much its own.
The towns of the Isthmus are an anomaly in Mexico for another reason: They are largely matriarchal. No one seems sure how this unusual situation first came about. But the region is hot, and local men preferred to work the fields and to hunt and fish mostly at night—leaving the women to run the villages during the day while they slept. In any case, women now play an active role in the economic life of the Isthmus, owning businesses and making most of the decisions about everyday life. Women are also dominant socially. It is not uncommon, during the velas—all-night dances on the eve of saints' days—to find tents full of women dancing together while the men sit outside talking and drinking.
A role model here is the legendary Juana Cata Romero. Born a peasant in the early 19th century, Cata became immensely rich, owning several businesses and living in a two-story chalet. She dressed in spectacular outfits of velvet or peau de soie covered in embroidered flowers'a style the women here still emulate. (Local fashions may have been influenced by the wares sold by Syrian fabric merchants who settled here—another element in the cultural mix.) For special occasions, Cata wore el resplandor, the traditional festive Isthmus headware depicted in many Frida Kahlo paintings. She became the mistress of Porfirio Díaz, the Mexican president, and through their association, an intellectual community, known for its literature and music, flourished in the region. I grew up listening to the languorous tones of songs from the Isthmus, appreciated all over Mexico for their beauty.
Venáncia Toledo Hernández is an imposing woman herself, all the more so when adorned as she was at our first meeting: She wore a long, flowing, cotton skirt imprinted with blossoms in bright orange and red; over the skirt was a sleeveless tunic decorated with purple-and-yellow chain stitching. Her hair was in braids wrapped in shocking-pink ribbons; there was an oversized red hibiscus tucked behind her ear, and a heavy gold chain around her neck.
I met Toledo when I stopped at a combination butcher's stall and dress shop (!) in the Ixtepec market to ask where I could taste some regional dishes. The man behind the counter, Luís Armando Hernández, told me that his mother, who owned the stall, prepared an assortment of local specialties for sale there every Sunday, and that he owned a catering business. As I started to jot down some of Hernández's recipes, Toledo swept in with a decisive air—a businesswoman to be reckoned with—and introduced herself. As I quickly learned, she is the epitome of the Isthmus woman, strong and financially independent, with a take-charge attitude. An accomplished entrepreneur, she runs a small herd of cattle as well as the market stall. She also controls her family with an iron hand. When Toledo was a young mother with small children, her husband had an affair with another woman. Learning of his transgression, Toledo told me, she said to him, ''I love you madly, I will die without you, but if you love me so little that you can do this, go and never come back.'' After he left, she made a promise to San Gerónimo Doctor that if her children (three sons and two daughters) survived to adulthood, she would host a spectacular celebration in his honor. When her youngest child was almost out of college, she did just that.
I learned all this when Toledo invited me home for lunch one day. We ate toasted corn soup, shrimp tamales, fried patties of dried shrimp, and a kind of meat loaf made with pork, beef, and sausage. But the real stars of the evening were two great Isthmus specialties: One was cochinito relleno de picadillo—suckling pig stuffed with vegetables and fruits, perfumed with Old World herbs and spices, its tender skin tasting of orange-and-red-chile adobo—extraordinary in its complex blend of flavors. The other was estofado de res, a famous Isthmus dish, which is one of the specialties Toledo sells in the market on Sundays. Pieces of a whole boned cow are layered with chopped fruits and vegetables in a huge pinecone-shaped ceramic pot on an outdoor stove. The pot is stirred all night over low heat until everything dissolves into a marvelous silky pastelike stew, at once sweet and tart, spicy and mellow. (Toledo sometimes makes a simpler version of the dish at home, in a pressure cooker.) It was a memorable meal, and one I wouldn't have found anywhere else in Mexico.
I had been introduced to Isthmus festive cooking not in Ixtepec but at a vela in nearby Juchitán, a year earlier. There, in a gaily decorated tent, while beautifully dressed women smelling of musky Maja perfume surrounded a brass band playing the songs called sones, simple but delicious food was served on paper plates. I was given a portion of something whitish and mashed—puré de papas, potato purée, I was told. I was stunned when I sampled it. There were so many different taste sensations—tangy, creamy, salty, spicy—exploding in my mouth like fireworks, one after another. In this simple dish I had found perhaps the richest blend of flavors I'd ever sampled in all of Oaxaca state.
One of the secrets of the dish, Venáncia Toledo later told me, is pickled onions mixed into the potatoes. Her son, however, failed to share my enthusiasm. ''There is no real gastronomy in Juchitán,'' he snorted. Based on my subsequent experiences there, I'd have to disagree. The Bar Jardín restaurant is owned by Julio Bustillo and his wife Marta Toledo (no relation to Venáncia). Toledo is a photographer, and a worthy representative of the juchitecas—the local women who have been much praised in songs and stories for their beauty. Bustillo is the president of a nonprofit environmental organization, and the restaurant is the intellectual and artistic center of the city—and something of a gastronomic center, too.
I had to remind myself that I was a food professional when the chef, Odilia Román, offered me a daunting dish of stewed iguana with its black, leathery skin and globules of yellow fat swimming in an aromatic broth of tomatoes and chiles—but when I tasted it, I was pleasantly surprised by its rich, subtle flavor. I cleansed my palate with a spicy but comforting cheguiña (the name is Zapotec for masa-thickened chile soup) flavored with fresh epazote, and I loved the smoky flavor of the camarones enchilados, freshly caught shrimp cooked in a chile sauce laced with mayonnaise.