Reg and Mel cooking dessert at Seasons of My Heart

DAY 11 — I am standing in a Mexican kitchen outside of Oaxaca city kneading dough that will become mini tortillas. I’ve already grilled cactus outdoors that is part of the topping for these mini tortillas.

Welcome to Seasons of My Heart Cooking School ) that is run by well-known chef Susana Trilling, an American from Philadelphia who fell in love with Mexico on vacation more than 20 years ago and has lived here most of the time since, raising her two kids here.

“Mexico is so wonderful for kids,” she tells me. “They love children.”

Our Austin Lehman Adventures ( guide Nicholas Garcia is a friend of Trilling and has arranged for us — my husband Andy, daughters Mel and Reg and son Matt to take a cooking class at Trilling’s cooking school at her ranch outside of Oaxaca.

We spent the morning touring the ancient ruin of Monte Alban, where Zapotecs lived from 500 BC until 1500 AD. The place is huge — some 12 square miles and 21 buildings in various stages of excavation. The views of the surrounding mountains and valleys are stupendous. We climb down into an ancient tomb and marvel in the museum at the artifacts that have been found here — everything from skulls to pottery, jugs beads an even tiny children’s toys.

It is sobering to imagine this culture flourishing (they even performed brain surgery!) so many centuries ago.

While we were touring the ruin, the other two dozen people in Susannah Trilling’s class today — including a family of eight ranging from an 88 year-old great grandmother and 7-month-old baby boy — shopped with Trilling for the ingredients for the feast we would cook.

“We all love to cook and be in the kitchen together,” said Annie Hooker, who is from Lake Forest Il, and gathered her family — mother in law, children and grandson — from around the country for a trip to Oaxaca an d the day here.

Trilling, herself the mom of two teens, was so welcoming to baby Oscar, even providing a portacrib and a young local girl more than happy to play with him.
She explained the day’s recipes: Memelas, basic Oaxacan snacks that are small tortillas smeared with bean paste, cheese and various toppings; grilled Nopaeles Salad (Cactus with avocado, tomatoes, cilantro and more to put on palm-sized tortillas; Tortilla Soup; Green salad with pears and Roquefort; a savory chicken stew with capers and olives; rice flavored with Chepil, a pre Hispanic herb; and the piece de resistance — a Oaxacan chocolate pudding with a strawberry tangerine sauce.

We all volunteered to work on different dishes — no couples working together, Trilling said! And soon the big kitchen was noisy as the 30 people chopped and stirred and kneaded and sipped Mexican beer.

My son and husband volunteered for the rice; my two daughters for the chocolate pudding desert and I worked on the memelas that we will cook outside on a special tortilla grill called a Comal. Everyone drinks beer and laughs a lot. I spend a lot of time grinding spices with an old fashioned mortar and pestle. It’s hard work!

“This is right up my alley,” says 22 year-old Tracy Gifford, a college senior from North Carolina who has opted for cooking school with her aunt and uncle while her parents, younger sister and cousin spent the day in Oaxaca. “I really love the markets here,” she said, “seeing how different people live.”

Why Oaxaca for her mom’s 50th birthday? Tracy Turner, Gifford’s aunt explained the family wanted a place that would combine culture, good food, good shopping for the three girls and some pool time at the Camino Real Hotel where we’re also staying and boasts a really nice, albeit small pool in a secluded courtyard filled with flowers. “So many kids are learning Spanish now and it’s so useful. We wanted our daughter to see that and it’s been great.” And that’s not always easy to achieve with a 14 year-old, she acknowledges.

Some work harder on their dishes than others. Some wander outside to the Comal; others to the garden to nurse a beer. We buy Trilling’s special mole paste and a mortar and pestle in her shop. Of course Trilling’s staff has laid out all the ingredients for each dish and they whisk away the dirty pans, bowls and measuring spoons. When everything is finished, they invite us to the big tables that seat ten and serve us our creations course by course.

We applaud after each one. We’re all proud of ourselves and eat until we can’t manage another bite. Trilling presents us with the Mexican wooden tool called a Molinillo that’s used to stir and froth the famous Oaxacan chocolate. She gives us some chocolate too. I leave clutching my recipes and my mortar and pestle. Hope it fits in the suitcase.

I thought we’d head out for one last raucous night but my gang is pooped. Too much vacation, I guess. Tomorrow we fly home and the kids want to be fresh for their New Year’s Eve parties.

(last of Mexico 2008 Travel Diary entries)