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Oaxaca’s Art and Food Rebels

While tracking down art for a provocative exhibit, writer Douglas Anthony Cooper discovers fabulous recipes from this Mexican city’s great restaurants and cafés.

Oaxaca de Juárez has long been a city celebrated by cultural travelers: revered for its complex cuisine (among the most sophisticated in the world), its contributions to folk and modern art and—no trivial matter in Mexico—its safety. But during the second half of 2006, violent protests against the despised state governor turned ugly: Locals took to the streets, set buses on fire and erected barricades in the Zócalo, the central square. Restaurants closed their doors, and travelers stayed away. But art flourished. And once the army restored peace toward the end of the year, the postmodernist painters, sculptors and conceptual artists who congregate in Oaxaca helped the city’s restaurants recover. When the recent swine-flu panic threatened to paralyze Oaxaca’s businesses once more (after a few fearful weeks, tourists rightly returned), the artists again showed their support by continuing to frequent their favorite food hangouts.

It turns out that many of Oaxaca’s visual and conceptual provocateurs care deeply about protecting the city’s food traditions. Indeed, when McDonald’s planned to open an outpost in the Zócalo, renowned artist Francisco Toledo and his friends set up a stand in front of the proposed location and gave away tamales, atole (an indigenous drink made from ground corn) and other deeply regional foods—and McDonald’s skulked away to the suburbs.

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Church in Oaxaca, Mexico. © Maura McEvoy

When I arrived in Oaxaca three years ago, I was immediately drawn in by this subversive atmosphere. In my work as a writer I often collaborate with visual artists. Also, I am a troublemaker. And so, as I explored the terrific restaurants, cafés and bars where artists and intellectuals gather, I formulated my own idea for an art exhibit.

My concept was inspired by the intriguing tug-of-war taking place daily on my street: Artists would put up exquisite political graffiti on the walls one day; the authorities would whitewash it the next. My idea—for which I could have been deported—was to create a fictional curator: El Sargento Detective Jorge “Saúl” Converso, the policeman responsible for whitewashing the city walls. Converso would invite local artists to submit work to a gallery, which he would then tastefully censor and put on display.

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One of the first artists I roped in was Guillermo Olguín, who offered a towering, bannerlike painting for the show: a man hanged upside down, communing with a carrion bird. (Art in Oaxaca has become increasingly violent, now that the violence itself has evaporated.) Olguín is a famous painter, but also a connoisseur of spirits and a leader in the intellectual underground. His newest project is Mezcalería Los Amantes, a tasting room that he calls a “library of mezcal.” Made mostly in the state of Oaxaca, mezcal is distilled from the bulb at the center of the agave plant, the sugary piña. Ingredients from the earth enter into almost every stage of the process, so mezcal ends up tasting, quite literally, like Mexico. The piñas are roasted over wood charcoal in a stone-lined pit covered in plant matter and earth, then ground, fermented in wooden vats and distilled into a husky, fiery liquid. The commercial rotgut with the worm pickled inside can be as pleasant as, oh, formaldehyde. At its best, however, mezcal is as sophisticated as the finest single malts.

Mezcalería Los Amantes looks like a hip alchemical laboratory, with bottles and jars of mezcal lining the tiny storefront that opens onto the street; behind the wooden bar, glass cases contain surreal curios, like a vintage mannequin. All of this is a theater for the presentation of the dozens of artisanal mezcals Olguín has discovered, as well as his own high-end brand of mezcal. Also called Los Amantes, it is now poured in top New York City bars and restaurants, like Death & Co. and Mayahuel; it is also available at Olguín’s Manhattan restaurant, Casa Mezcal.

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Artist Gabriela León. © Maura McEvoy

During the political unrest, Olguín turned his painting studio into a shadowy bar called El Salón Central, which was routinely shut down by the authorities. At first the issue was ostensibly the liquor license, so Olguín turned the bar into a private club he renamed Colectivo Central. He has reopened the bar now as Café Central, a mezcal-drenched, cheerfully decadent lounge with plush red curtains and upholstery, loud music, dancing and politically charged art (and artists).

Less boozy than Central but equally important to the art scene is Café Brújula, which opened a few months after the riots ended. Owner Kyle Dromgoole, a Texan married to a vivacious Oaxacan lawyer, concocts drinks made from fresh local ingredients, like a tart-sweet frappé of cucumber and lime. With Oaxaca’s famously good coffee and a gallery that shows the works of Mexico’s best printmakers, Brújula is favored by artists who work in experimental media. Jessica Wozny knits provocative signs and objects out of wool; Gabriela León (left) has made sculptures out of liposuctioned fat (it helps to be friends with a rogue plastic surgeon). I organized much of my exhibit there, with half the artists I was showing sitting nearby. And those who weren’t in Brújula with us were hanging out two blocks away, at La Biznaga.

This open-air restaurant and its ambitious Oaxacan dishes seem to appeal more to artists working in paint, Oaxaca’s long-dominant medium. La Biznaga was, in many ways, what convinced me to move to Oaxaca: I had stumbled across it years ago and decided I could happily live in a town with a restaurant that has this kind of atmosphere. The place is a nice mix of colonial and radical bits: A traditional Mexican courtyard is topped by a retractable roof; stuccoed walls are painted in warm earth tones, except for one with a green mosaic that looks like something out of a 1950s lounge bar.

La Biznaga is named for an endangered species of cactus, which chef Fernando López Velarde tells me tastes like an artichoke and is used to make candies. López is known for using local ingredients that most Mexican cooks ignore, such as mushrooms. “In Sierra Norte, they have portobellos but never eat them. They have porcini, boleti, shiitake. The Japanese come by helicopter and take the mushrooms away,” he says. But Velarde includes portobellos in a soup that gets its smoky flavor from bacon and poblano chiles.

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Entrance to Casa Oaxaca El Restaurante. © Maura McEvoy

The dish Oaxaca is best known for is mole. Mole poblano, the original chocolate version of this complex, gorgeous sauce, was created by a nun in 17th-century Puebla. It was in Oaxaca, however, that mole evolved into high art: Here there are seven varieties, which come in a surprising spectrum of colors with a vast range of ingredients. Though the restaurant Casa Oaxaca has a reputation for serving inventive Oaxacan dishes, chef Alejandro Ruíz Olmedo also makes a magnificent chicken with black mole—traditional in nearly every way, except that he roasts the breast and serves the sauce alongside it for a more elegant presentation, instead of stewing the bird directly in the sauce. Ruíz is also known for superb pork dishes, particularly his pork loin with orange-and-herb sauce. He steeps herbs in freshly squeezed orange juice and uses them to roast the pork loin, and also in the accompanying tangy sauce.

Painter Francisco Toledo is a regular at Casa Oaxaca—Quetzalli, the gallery that represents him, is in the same building—and “because of him,” Ruíz says, “other artists come.” Writers visit from all over Latin America, including Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez, who often dines here and stays at the boutique hotel a few blocks away (also called Casa Oaxaca).

My modest curatorial project eventually filled a converted video store, a huge space called Tinoco y Palacios. Toledo offered me a large piece of handmade watercolor paper with his signature (worth a fair bit, actually); I obliterated it with white paint and signed “Sergeant Detective Jorge Converso, in collaboration with Francisco Toledo.” Demián Flores Cortés created an almost invisible portrait of Ulises Ruiz— the unloved governor—in white paint on a white background.

It is illegal for a foreigner to get involved in local politics, but the exhibit was only subtly irritating, and it managed to close before the police could figure this out and arrest me. I’ve kept a low profile since.

Douglas Anthony Cooper’s most recent novel is Milrose Munce and the Den of Professional Help. He currently lives in Oaxaca.

Published October 2009
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