Emily Chaplin‘s Mexican homestay involved a peculiar yet crunchy snack.
I had been duly warned. But somehow, when relaxing outdoors admiring a serene mountain view, the offer of a handful of roasted grasshoppers still managed to catch me off guard. Eyes closed, I reached out my hand, threw the selected victim into my mouth, and crunched.
So began my initiation into the distinctive food culture of Oaxaca, Mexico, where I spent four days this past week living with a family in the rural village of Santa Catarina Minas.
During my stay, I experienced the joy of being served a steaming bowl of hot chocolate accompanied by sweet breads for dipping–as an appetizer, for breakfast. Delicious, freshly squeezed fruit juices accompanied each lunch, the largest meal of the day. And with every meal, local ingredients were employed in abundance–from the crumbled goat cheese to the handmade (and hand-milled) soft corn tortillas to the avocados I picked myself.
Shots of locally produced mezcal also proliferated. The Maguey plant (akin to the Agave) is revered in Oaxaca, and the resulting fermented beverage is believed to offer numerous health benefits, including serving as a digestive aid. “Just a little bit, every day,” encouraged one of the brothers in my family, likely noting my uneasy smile as I confronted the glass placed before me at 9 a.m. “A little bit,” in this case, was a decidedly relative characterization.
And of course there were the grasshoppers, or chapulines (cha-poo-leen-ez), which my host family members would reliably toss back like popcorn at most any time of day. The insects, as it turns out, are prolific in Oaxaca, and incredibly diverse and beautiful in appearance (at least in their live state). In prepared form, their flavor was sharp and savory and only slightly off-putting to my American palate.
Life in Oaxaca centers around food and family. One can visit the region and have a wonderful food experience perusing the markets, dining in the restaurants, and sampling street stand offerings. But to really gain insight into the culture (and to give your taste buds and stomach an invigorating challenge), staying with a family is the way to go.
PEI (Programas Educativos Interculturales), a non-profit organization based in Mexico City, can arrange rural homestays for international visitors.
You will just need to go in with an open mind, extensive patience, and the willingness to say “yes,” to the roasted grasshoppers, and to that glass of mezcal for breakfast. Don’t worry … they’re likely to take pity on you (particularly if you are a petite gringa like me) and pour you a small one.
When she is not eating grasshoppers for lunch, Emily Chaplin travels and writes and photographs. View her work at www.emilychaplinphoto.com.