I'm back in Oaxaca, Mexico and soon will be posting photos of this beautiful city during Carnival, but today I want to re-post a story that I first wrote exactly seven years ago when I was in Michoacan, Mexico, on a tour to see the unforgettable swarming of the Monarch butterflies who come every winter from thousands of miles away. This tour, led by chef Susanna Trilling of "Seasons of my Heart", introduced us to two indigenous women who are true heroines and feminists, and the way they help the people of Mexico is an inspiration to all women, especially today. (And I apologize to all my friends who have told me how much they hate the word "poop". I got it from my granddaughter, Amalia, who at the moment is obsessed with poop.)
Here in the troubled Mexican state of Michoacan, on a tour called “Michoacan Cuisine and Monarch Butterflies” led by the Oaxacan chef Susana Trilling, I’ve met a lot of remarkable people. Two of the most interesting are women from the indigenous Purepecha tribe native to this region. Both women have used their talents and courage to improve their lives and the lives of those around them.
First we met Benedicta Alja Vardas, who came with her 16-year-old daughter Graziella, lugging her carbon-burning grill, from her small village of San Lorenzo to the Colegio Culinario in Morelia to teach us some of the dishes from her people’s pre-hispanic roots. (Both the cuisine and the music of Michoacan have been declared non-tangible World Heritage Treasures by the Mexican government.)
Benedicta, who speaks the Purepecha language at home, was an orphan who married at 13. She had two daughters after the age of 20 and rarely left her village. But seven years ago, in the first “Encounter of Traditional Chefs” in Morelia, she won first place and has won first place (and often second as well) every year since. Last year the judges decided to make her a lifetime honoree and let others compete. Although Benedicta had never traveled, in October of last year she was flown to San Antonio, Texas to demonstrate her cooking methods before the Culinary Institute of America.
Wearing her traditional Michoacan traje of pleated velvet skirt, lace blouse and lace-edged apron, Benedicta cooked several dishes for us. The recipes were all labor intensive and involved lots of grinding things on the metate—pumpkin seeds, chili seeds, herbs, flowers and of course corn,( including masa dough), which is the foundation of the local pre-hispanic diet. Her speciality is Molé de Queso—cheese molé—and a pumpkin-seed-based Atapakua, which is stirred only in one direction until it thickens enough for the spoon to stand up in the pot.
For a grand finale she made tri-colored tortillas our of blue, white and red corn dough.
The second and even more remarkable Purepecha woman chef we met was Calletana (also spelled Cayetana) Nambo Rangel, whose home we visited in the village of Erongaricuaro. She has been fighting for women’s and children’s rights most of her 66 years. One of 12 siblings, Cayetana says, “I get lawyers for abused women and children. I don’t want any woman to be abused because I was abused myself.”
Cayetana was employed as a social worker in her village when, 13 years ago, the Mexican government sent a group of men “all doctors and engineers,” to Colombia to learn about the revolutionary method of using animal waste to create a natural gas that could be used to power a family’s heat and electricity at no cost—and in a way that emits no carbon into the environment and even sterilizes the residue to provide nutritious fertilizer for crops. (It can work with the waste from pigs, cows, goats, and even humans.)
“The government wouldn’t pay for my ticket to Colombia because I was a woman,” she says, “but I wanted to go, so I sold two cows to pay for my ticket.” When the group returned from Colombia, the only person who understood the technology and installed it in her own home was Cayetana.
Since then, she has spread the word about bio gas and biodigesters (look it up) throughout her part of Mexico. She has been visited by people from Peru, Israel, Russia, Canada and many other countries, who came to learn the process. Cayetana can be seen preaching her gospel on YouTube (in Spanish). She shows us a letter written to the U.S. State Department in an effort to get her a visa to come to the Illinois to lecture hog farmers on “improving and implementing technology in hog farms,” but the request for her visa was turned down.
On Friday, when we visited Cayetana in her large, immaculate kitchen and watched her cook several pre-hispanic dishes (again grinding on the metate) she insisted we get hands-on experience and learn to wrap corn leaves around a dough of masa and frijoles for corundas. She also created a stew-like soup, all cooked on her stove which is powered by gas from the waste produced by her three pigs . She cooks using “Quatros Fuegos—four fires” namely burning charcoal, burning wood, propane gas. (she says she can’t remember the last time she bought a tank) and using the bio gas from her pigs.
She took us outside to show how the waste from the pigs is mixed with water from a hose, (“You don’t even get dirty”) and then the waste runs into a tank where it is converted into gas which fills a huge plastic bag. The gas is then sent by a tube into the house to the water heater and stove.
Cayetana insisted we work before we got to eat the feast we’d prepared. in her flower-filled courtyard we toasted her with sweet lime water flavored with Chia seeds before she and her aged mother Lupe hugged and kissed us and waved good-bye.