Tuesday, December 07, 2010


I've just read a story over at the ExpatWomen website about the family lunch tradition in Brazil, and it has inspired me to reflect on the Oaxacan comida.

The word "comida" can mean just a meal, but it can also mean THE meal, the big kahuna. In Oaxaca, I've found most people follow the traditional schedule of having comida at 3pm or so, when the children get home from school. People take off work, or bring their kids to the workplace, and start the process of cooking several items. There's usually corn tortillas, maybe a broth-based soup with veggies or lentils, whole beans or bean paste, some type of main dish like tasajo or mole enchiladas, and an auga, or a fruit water.

But comida means more than just the food. The whole cultural concept of having the main meal closer to midday than in the evening reshapes the day. Most people in the family find time to hang together and it can be loose, with kids running around, friends, neighbors, maybe a modicum of homework getting done. Rather than the standard lunch half hour or hour I saw in my variety of jobs (though I was often the "eat quickly at the desk" type so I could leave earlier, when possible), comida goes on. People read the paper, practice instruments, make out in the park, whatever, but it seems to go on for a good couple hours. Maybe in my old days in Oaxaca, 15 years ago, this was called siesta, and shops closed. Now some shops stay open, but people may have their kids on their laps and be dining in the middle of the shop.

This major comida time also creates what we call comida rush hour. Everyone picks up and leaves at 2pm or so to collect children, get food, start cooking, or whatnot, and it can be more jammed than the morning or evening traffic. What it also creates, however, is what my family calls "the golden window." The golden window is a space of time, usually between 3 and 4pm, in which you can zip through town, go grocery shopping, pay bills, and not encounter many other people, except those slowly dining at comedors, puestos, and restaurants.

When people visit me in Oaxaca, I sometimes try to hold them off from eating lunch. It's very hard, 1pm hits and they don't want to keep looking at folk art or snapping pictures of graffiti. They don't understand that if they can just wait one more hour, the eateries around them will transform. Waiters pull out sandwich boards listing the comida of the day. It's a fixed price menu, featuring everything from agua, salad, soup, main dish, tortillas and sometimes dessert, and it usually costs under four bucks, maybe five or six if you want to go gourmet. And it's almost always wonderful. Steve and I scored a comida at Maria Bonita last week (it's our date "night" at 3pm)that included tostadas and bread, green salad with avocado, vegetables in shrimp broth, pan-fried fish, orangeade and fruit in honey for dessert, for 60 pesos.

The final aspect about comida that I find quite profound is that, due to its early hour compared to the United States version of dinner, people go out again. Sure, many have to return to work or second jobs or puestos they have set up in their garages. But just as many head out for the parks with their kids, or to walk around, or to slowly shop, filling vinyl market bags with fruits, veg, tamales. The city opens up, for this second afternoon shift, just as my al norte compatriots are getting stuck in rush hour traffic.

Of course, the question always arises, when my visitors try to wrap their minds and stomachs around this schedule: If you eat your main meal at 3pm, don't you get hungry later? The answer: Of course! When am I not hungry? Then it's time to roll out the cena, or dinner, which is a lighter affair, though my son, Max, hasn't gotten wind of this concept. For kids, every meal is comida but, for me, comida is something special, that golden window of time, food, and family.

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