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The Language of Food: Morning with Magda

My Travel Writing Scholarship 2011 entry - Journey in an Unknown Culture

MEXICO | Wednesday, 23 March 2011 | Views [473] | Scholarship Entry

Dawn comes early in Teotitlán del Valle, Mexico. Outside my door, the sounds of morning swell: the gentle scraping of a broom sweeping cobbles, the bagpipe bray of a donkey, the admonishments of one loud, insistent rooster. Whorls of low-hanging mist circle the mountain to the North. I wrap my wool rebozo—a traditional Mexican scarf—tightly around my neck. Below, Magda is stoking her cooking fire.

Magda is just shy of five feet tall, her face lined with deep wrinkles. Her long gray-black braids, threaded with indigo ribbon and yoked at the bottom, sway childishly as she walks. For a woman well into her seventies, she moves surprisingly quickly. Always she is busy—boiling water for tea, cutting up pea-green tomatillos for salsa, splitting wood with her small axe, peeling marigold-colored mangoes for breakfast, collecting eggs from the hens, shooing the puppy out of the kitchen. Her whole life has unfolded here, in this small mountain village of Zapotec weavers, forty minutes outside the bustle of Oaxaca City.

Bending low, Magda blows lightly on her kindling. A spray of sparks issues from the back of the terracotta stove. To her left is her stalwart matate—a three-legged stone block that resembles a short stool. Resting on it is a heavy stone rolling pin, or mano. Magda reaches into a nearby bowl, scooping up a lilac colored mash of masa, corn dough. Expertly, she positions it onto the matate, and rolls up her sleeves. Gripping either end of the rolling pin with her strong, small hands, she rhythmically pushes the masa forward, then back.

Magda smiles at me when I sit down. “Buenos días,” she laughs. “Buenos días,” I parrot, still fumbling for Spanish. “Tortillas,” she nods approvingly.

The comal—the clay cook top whitened with lime—is hot. Magda lifts the lever of her tortilla press and places down a small mound of dough. She leans firmly on the handle, pressing the masa flat. Satisfied, she peels up the smooth disk and tosses it gently between her hands. With a flourish, she positions it onto the comal, and turns to place another patty in the press. As she works, Magda hums. Eight years ago, after losing her husband and her son to cancer, she opened her home to paying guests in order to support herself. This morning, busy at the fire, she concerns herself with the stuff of life—preparing corn in the same way that her mother, and her grandmother, and her great-grandmother did.

When her sisal basket is filled with steaming tortillas, Magda hands one to me, nodding encouragingly. Under the fruit-laden pomegranate tree, we savor for a moment the mild, slightly chewy texture of warm corn. But there are eggs to be cooked, and tomatoes to be chopped. Magda brushes her hands against her apron, and ducks inside to begin the next of many tasks. And so the day begins.

Tags: #2011writing, mexico, morning, oaxaca, tortillas, travel writing scholarship 2011


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