I met up with Catalina Chávez at a gas station in Tlacolula, Oaxaca, where she and her husband picked me up in a tuktuk and immediately took me to eat ice cream. The day only went up from there. Catalina is a cocinera tradicional, which means she’s part of a group of women who are passing down the ancestral cooking traditions from Oaxaca’s eight regions. At the recent “encuentro” where women from all over entered their ceremonial dishes into a competition, Catalina won third prize with her mole enchiladas. Celia Florian, the organizer of the cocineras, introduced me to her when I asked to interview a cocinera not far from Oaxaca city.
After enjoying a cone of leche quemada and tuna ice cream (a staple here), we followed the sweet scent of a fresh bread where she insisted I take a bag of Tlacolula’s pan de yema home. Fairly quickly we were out of the town center and climbing up a dirt road, Catalina with the kind of grace that allowed her to sway and bump in the back while holding her posture and a cone of melting ice cream perfectly upright.
She lives in Colonia Tres Piedras (three rocks), marked by three Flinstone-looking boulders. At the time her comedor was still under construction, so we sat in the shell of the dining room and Catalina told me about her life. We talked for about two hours: about her sister’s passing to cancer, embracing life as a cocinera, motherhood, and yes, about food. Here’s an abbreviated version. At the end she fed me a plate of mole negro, glistening over a pile of white rice. It was perfect.
How did you learn to cook?
I’m the third generation of cooks in my family. This chef asked me once if I went to culinary school and I said yes, I studied at the best school possible: because when you mess up you get a slap on the head! With an onion, with a chile, with whatever is in the kitchen.
My mom had a strong personality. She became a widow when I was 11-years-old. My dad was an alcoholic. She said that all she thought about was how to get food on the table for her kids. Imagine: you have an alcoholic husband, you have to get food on the table, you have to take care of your kids, you have to clean, and all that pressure falls on you and you don’t have any way to let off steam.
I told my mom in the end that I understand. My grandmother was a widow too. You understand eventually that they had to figure out how to do what they needed to do and that shaped them. It shaped me too, because I saw that if you work hard at a job you can provide for what you need in life.
It seems like you see cooking as more than a job — do you think being a cocinera tradicional has always been valued by Oaxacan society?
Since I was a girl helping my mom in Tlacolula, I remember the cook leaving the kitchen: dirty, sweaty and dead tired, everyone turns around and looks. No one values that you just fed 300 or 500 people. I was embarrassed to say I was a cook.
One time this woman asked me who I was and she said, “Oh the cook” with a negative tone when I told her my mother’s name. I remember it. I saw her a while later and she said, “so you became a cook too.” And I said yes, and I’m proud of it. I like it. I’m passionate about it, I love representing the gastronomy of my town. And also— I’d like one of you to try and do one single thing that I do. And she had no words.
How does your husband support your work?
One time my husband got upset because I came home from cooking really late. He said if I didn’t stop going like I was going he would leave. I told him, I don’t need you and I will continue with or without you. From that point on, he got it and has been supportive. I wasn’t changing. It’s complicated to be a mom, wife and worker. But everything is possible— it’s tiring but it’s possible. We as women have to work harder.
Why be part of the cocineras tradicionales?
This really is a project for women. I admire Cecilia [Celia Florian], she could be very comfortable living her life without doing anything else. But she’s doing something beautiful for us. There are women cooking in more isolated areas who need ways to make income. So we need more projects that support our work as cooks. It’s women supporting women.
Apart from that, they are also trying to rescue a diet of unprocessed foods. Maseca is taking over, but when we were little my grandpa and my dad would bring in sacks of corn— it’s such an amazing flavor to eat corn straight from the field. People aren’t growing agriculture like they used to here, and people eat so differently now. That’s why the cocineras tradicionales is important: so many of the diseases we deal with now are because we are hurried and eating fast food.
What’s the difference between your mom’s food and yours?
My grandmother and my mom have the same recipes, but they do change a little when they are passed down. Everything is still made artisanally and by hand, but I think the “sazon” that we have is different. My grandmother is 97 but she still notices details when they’re off according to her.
You represent Tlacolula with your cooking, what kind of dishes should people try here if they want the real deal?
Tlacolula has an intense gastronomy. We are known for our moles: coloradito, amarillo, verde, negro. In Tlacolula we have the custom that when someone dies we make mole de luto, a chichilo mole. Higaditos are also very traditional, with chicken, onion, tomato, miltomate, chicken stock. Just when the vegetables are boiling you add eggs, but if the eggs hit the bottom it doesn’t work so you have to very careful. Also, barbacoa is typical at important events too.
What about the rest of your family, are your siblings cooks too?
My siblings all crossed [the border]. I remember one night my sister said she was going to leave, but I told her I wouldn’t leave my mom. That night my mom came home and my sister was gone. She was 16 years old, I was 13. She’s still there 27 years later. She said she was going to build a house here and she did, it’s beautiful but she’s never returned. I stayed to work with my mom. There was one day when she said “we’re doing ok, you could go back to study”, but I said no, I liked my work. And since then doors have opened. I have an 18 year old in college and a 14 year old as well. And thanks to the cocineras tradicionales, I got a 10 year visa. Imagine that.
Find Catalina Chavez in Tlacolula at:
Donají 48, San Isidro, 70400 Tlacolula de Matamoros, Oax.