Hope for a Beleaguered Planet....

Our book Milpa: From Seed to Salsa - Ancient Ingredients for a Sustainable Future explores through a blend of essays, recipes and documentary photography how the ancient agricultural knowledge and the wealth of 1000 year-old seeds and planting practices still in use among the Mixtec peoples of southern Mexico can help us to meet the ecological and food crises of today.

The essays, written in conjunction with campesino farmers, serve as a warning about the complicated dangerous effects inherent in the rapidly expanding distribution of GMO (genetically modified organism) seeds in Mexico, the birthplace of corn. Our documentary cookbook discusses alternatives for campesino farmers across the world and gardeners and consumers who care about food safety. Using the example of the Milpa planting system in the Mixteca Alta region of Southern Mexico just north of Oazaxa City, the book supports recent studies by UN investigators that show that small plots of land, heritage seeds and sustainable practices can in fact feed the world while enriching the soils on which we all depend for life…….

Milpa contains the traditional recipes lovingly shared by the local indigenous Mixtec women, allowing readers to re-create the culinary magic that flows from this ancient agricultural system. Recipes are painstakingly tested and photographed in traditional indigenous kitchens as well as in a professional modern test kitchen. Please purchase the book, below.....

All Rights Reserved: © Phil-Dahl Bredine, © Kathy Dahl-Bredine © Judith Cooper Haden Photography, © Susana Trilling SOMH.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Francisca's Traditional Mixtec Kitchen in Hidalgo Jaltepec

Traditional kitchens in the Mixteca are seductive. They have no relationship with what we are used to in the United States.  Inside, they are smoky, dark and wonderful. Cleanly dampened and swept dirt floors. No windows but light manages to creep in between the bamboo-like stick walls, and in the small space between the tin or thatched ceiling and the walls.  If outside, they are usually covered and open to the air.  The smells of freshly made masa from corn grown just outside the door being toasted into a tortilla on a huge clay comal is an unforgettable aroma.  And once you taste a real tortilla...well, it's hard to see the relationship between that, and what we are served here at home.

Francisca Garcia Ferrer
Francisca, her daughter Sylvia and her husband Apolonio have become great friends during our project. They have shared much of their time and knowledge with us, and we are most grateful. Francisca knows all her traditional recipes by touch and smell, and stopping her in mid-recipe to measure how much onion, now many grams of masa dough -- how big was that handfull of oregano? -- interrupted her stride. The daughters and daughters-in-law are all present to help cook for festivals or large family gatherings -- they prepared 150 tamales for the Dia de la Candelaria/Candlemas Celebration -- and I was very aware of watching the unwritten passing of the recipes down through the generations. Francisca would gently chide if the appropriate method or quantity wasn't quite right. All with good cheer, laughter and an excellent repast at the end.

The ceramic pitchers are hung on the walls for safe keeping, ready to serve atole (a hot, thick sweetened corn or wheat drink) or the famous regional hot chocolate.
The huge clay comal is the heart of the kitchen, and rightly so, as corn has been their sustenance for thousands of years....it's earthy, round seasoned presence is like a beloved  member of the family. The corn grinder in this kitchen is a manual one; some more 'modern' kitchens have a new electric or propane operated free standing machine that is very noisy, but very efficient for feeding large numbers of people.  Some of the women in these small towns make 5-6 dozen tortillas (corn, wheat, and a mixture of each)  to sell at their local markets to earn an extra $25-35 dollars a week, and the new device is much appreciate

Manual corn grinder
Most houses we visited had the traditional kitchens with wood-burning stoves for  tortillas, tamales, and larger quantity preparations. Some can afford a newer more modern kitchen, usually built in stifling  hot little concrete block additions with a propane stove for small family breakfasts, reheating tortillas and tamales, and easily ready to offer guests a quick cup of coffee. Some have refrigerators, like Francisca and Apolonio. Even though at times the smoke kitchens are difficult to spend time in, that's our preference. There is ventilation on most kitchens, but it is usually insufficient for the amount of smoke produced, and the older women are start to develop eye disease from constant and lengthy daily exposure.

Many times dogs are only fed tortillas, and they learn to wait patiently outside the kitchen door for their portion. Dogs are not pets the way they are for us, nor cats; they have practical jobs assigned to them -- night watchman,
rodent police, garbage collector -- and are actually bought and sold, cats fetch 30-40 pesos -- $2.50-4$!  They are not attributed with feelings or needs; it takes a while to get used to the treatment of these domestic creatures. (I remember receiving a letter from  home while while in the Peace Corps in El Salvador; my Dad knew our beloved beagle was really sick when he refused a large portion of roast beef....I read this after coming back from the wake of a baby who died in essence from dehydration and starvation..... we don't know how lucky we have it.)

This was the first picture I took at the very beginning of this project, over a year ago. We all felt it had special significance.....and still do!

©Photographs Judith Cooper Haden

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