Years before I married, I had a culinary-inspired wedding. It was the higaditos and the marimba band that made me do it. Higaditos is a Oaxacan wedding dish, a transcendent, eggy chicken soup I first tasted at an anniversary celebration in the Oaxacan village of Teotitlan del Valle during the summer of 1971.This was long before I knew that I would become a cook. I had gone to Mexico to study Spanish, hoping also to fulfill my fantasy of learning to weave.
A handicrafts dealer I met in Cuernavaca sent me, with a letter of introduction, to a weaver named Don Isaac Garcia in this Zapotec village, which is still renowned for its heavy wool serapes. When I stepped off the bus from Mexico City in Oaxaca and found my way to the station for local buses, I encountered a quiet crowd of women headed for markets, their arms filled with baskets of produce, tortillas and live chickens. They smelled like corn, a sweet, earthy smell I associate with Oaxaca to this day.
Near the entrance to Teotitlan sat Garcia’s home, a gated compound of four small stucco buildings set around a dusty courtyard where chickens and turkeys pecked, scratched and squabbled. To accommodate “the gringos,” an outhouse had been constructed behind a shed. There was no running water in the village, and minimal electricity — enough for electric lights, the village loudspeaker and the Garcias’ television set.
For $1.50 a day, Garcia would give you room and board and teach you his craft — at least the easier elements of weaving. I wove several serapes that summer from morning to well after dark each day, stopping only for the meals brought by one of Garcia’s three young daughters. We were only served cooked food; no Oaxacan salsas, nothing spicy at all. The Garcias were under the impression that non-Mexicans could not digest anything but soup and eggs, so that’s what we were served. There were ggs with deep-orange yolks, the best I ever tasted; fresh corn tortillas; thick, aromatic black beans seasoned with avocado leaves; simple vegetable soups made with luscious turkey or chicken broth; and at night, sweet Oaxacan rolls served with fresh chamomile tea.
At about 11 a.m. each day, I’d begin to hear the kitchen sounds — the “pat-pat-pat” of tortilla-making and the steady grinding of corn and spices on the stone metate across the courtyard. Had I known that I would become a cook rather than a weaver, I would have left my loom and spent the next few hours in the kitchen. That kitchen was a small, dark but clean space across the courtyard that was furnished with a metate, a couple of burners and straw mats covering the dirt floor.
I would have loved eating family food: fresh salsas made with tomatillos and local chiles, cactus salads and guacamole, and the crisp oversized tortillas they called clayudas, topped with black bean paste and chorizo or salted beef or pork, fresh cheese and thinly shredded cabbage; empanadas filled with cheese and squash blossoms, or with mushrooms and earthy epazote, or with yellow mole and anise-tasting hierba santa; rich atoles, and waters made with guavas or pineapples. Still, I was happy with my meals and never once got sick.
But neither did I get sick on the days I took the bus to Oaxaca to shower at the public baths and eat lunch at the wonderful food stalls in the central market. There I tasted my first Oaxacan black mole, and bean enchiladas called enfrijoladas. I drank hot chocolate and atole from big bowls, fresh carrot juice and banana licuados. After a little shopping, I would wander out to one of the cafes on the zocalo, the elegant colonial Oaxaca square, drink a cafe con leche or a beer, chat and flirt with other traveling hippies, then catch the same bus back to Teotitlan to weave.
After dark, I would go to my room and read, draw designs for serapes and write letters to my then boyfriend John, whom I’d left behind (but not for good) in Texas. John hadn’t objected to my traveling to Mexico, but I missed him and persuaded him to visit. I told the Garcias that my “novio, Juan,” would soon be arriving from Texas, but worried they may be offended by the fact that John and I lived together but were not married. Until the higaditos gave me a plan.
The soup ruse
The Sunday before John arrived, the Garcias hosted an anniversary celebration for Don Isaac’s parents. There was a marimba band, fantastic food and endless copitas of mezcal. The band played for hours while Don Isaac’s tiny father-in-law, who reminded me of Stuart Little, walked around with the little cups of mezcal on a tray. The women in the extended family had cooked for days, grinding spices for the dark mole they served with turkey, and cooking and shredding chickens for the wonderful soup called higaditos. I had enjoyed the complex Oaxacan moles before, but I had never tasted anything quite like that soup, which is standard fare at Oaxaca fiestas and weddings. Eggs are beaten and slowly added to an aromatic broth filled with shredded chicken, chicken livers and sometimes pork. The eggs slowly set in billowing curds, settling into the broth and enveloping the poultry shreds. The combination of the meat, broth and velvety pillows of egg is incredibly sensuous. My first mouthful of higaditos was as startling as my first taste of souffle. Until I actually looked at a recipe for the dish years later, I imagined the hard-working women of Teotitlan carefully dipping each shred of meat into the egg before adding it to the soup.
The Garcias’ fiesta eliminated the problem of how to explain my relationship with John: I decided I would stage a wedding. Although at 21 I had no interest in becoming a real bride, I’d always thought having a reception without a wedding would be tremendous fun. With John’s status raised from boyfriend to fiance, there would be no reason to worry about offending the Garcia family. I didn’t consider the deception, I just thought about what a good time we’d all have — and about eating higaditos again.
I told Don Isaac that Juan and I were getting married — a quiet civil ceremony in Oaxaca — and asked if we could pay him to organize a wedding party just like the one they’d just given, with a marimba band and the same food. Everyone was thrilled. John, of course, knew nothing of this until he arrived, having driven 36 hours straight from the Rio Grande Valley. But such was his good nature that upon hearing of our wedding plans he assumed the role of future husband with enthusiasm. He liked a party too.
The next day we went to Oaxaca, ostensibly to get hitched. John bought a white linen wedding shirt in the market and I bought a long peach-colored tasseled dress.
The following day John and I wove for hours to the sounds and smells of wedding preparations. The Garcia women and their relatives had begun cooking, and the courtyard hummed with activity, as birds were plucked, spices and chiles were toasted and ground, and large cauldrons were set over coals. Aromas of mole and of simmering chickens filled the air.
On Sunday morning the looms were moved to make way for the party. My big moment came when the women took me to my room to do my hair. They braided it in orange satin ribbons and wrapped the long tresses around my head. The elegance of my wedding costume was hampered only by the huaraches I wore on my feet.
About 2 p.m., family and villagers began to arrive. We sat at a long table and ate bowls of higaditos followed by mole. Mezcal flowed freely. The cute little grandfather was back, passing around copitas. Many people from the village came and shook our hands. After the meal the table was removed, and everyone began to dance to the marimbas. The band played on until after midnight, when John and I thanked everybody for a wonderful wedding party and repaired to our room.
Off the beaten path no more
The next time I went to Teotitlan two decades had past and I was working on a Mexican cookbook. The village had prospered and grown. The road leading from the highway was paved now, and there was running water, some indoor plumbing and plenty of electricity. I looked for the Garcias, but was told they had moved to Tijuana. Today the village is on the tourist track not just because of the serapes, but because of a restaurant run by a gifted young woman named Abigail Mendoza, the daughter of one of the town’s most reputable weavers. Tlalmanalli is a beautiful space where Mendoza makes perfect renditions of local specialties like Oaxacan black mole, as well as her own creations. Mexican food luminaries Diana Kennedy and Rick Bayless are her champions. I have been there twice, and have eaten ethereal corn and squash blossom soups, green, yellow and intense black moles, marvelous ice creams. But I have not, to my dismay, eaten higaditos again. I will have to wait for a fiesta or another wedding — but not mine — for that.
Higaditos (Oaxacan Chicken and Egg Soup)
- Combine all the ingredients for the chicken and broth in a large pot and bring to a simmer. Reduce the heat and skim any foam that rises to the surface. Cover, turn the heat to low, and simmer 45 minutes, or until the chicken is tender and the broth fragrant. Turn off the heat and allow the chicken pieces to cool for about 30 minutes in the broth. Remove the chicken pieces and livers from the broth and set aside, then strain the broth through a cheesecloth-lined strainer. Discard the vegetables and the gizzards. Bone and shred the chicken when it’s cool enough to handle, and chop the chicken livers. Refrigerate the broth and meat, preferably overnight. In the morning or several hours later, skim the fat off the broth, and measure out 6 cups (freeze extra or use for another purpose). Season to taste with salt and pepper.
- If using fresh tomatillos, husk them and simmer them in a pot of water for 10 minutes, until soft. Drain and puree fresh or canned tomatillos, along with the regular tomatoes, in a blender or food processor fitted with the steel blade, or mash in a mortar and pestle. Grind the cumin seeds, peppercorns and cloves together in a spice mill.
- Heat the oil over medium heat in a large, heavy casserole (in Mexico, earthenware would be used; I use enameled cast iron) and add the onion. Cook, stirring, until tender, about 5 minutes, and stir in the garlic. Stir together until fragrant, 30 seconds to a minute, turn up the heat to medium-high, and add the tomatoes and tomatillos, and the ground spices. Cook, stirring, for about 5 minutes, until the mixture has cooked down and smells fragrant. Add the chicken broth. Bring to a boil, add the shredded chicken and the chopped chicken livers, and the optional hot pepper. Reduce the heat and simmer 10 minutes. Taste and adjust seasonings.
- Shortly before serving, beat the eggs with ½ teaspoon salt. Have the broth at a bare simmer, and very slowly pour in the eggs, pouring them around the edge of the pot. Turn off the heat and cover the pot. Let sit 5 to 10 minutes. The eggs should set. Sprinkle with the cilantro and serve in wide bowls, with salsa on the side.
Advance preparation: You can poach and shred the chicken up to three days before you finish the dish. The dish can be made through Step 3 up to 3 days ahead, and kept in the refrigerator. Bring back to a simmer before proceeding.
Martha Rose Shulman is the award-winning author of more than 25 cookbooks, including “Mediterranean Harvest: Vegetarian Recipes From the World’s Healthiest Cuisine,” “Mediterranean Light,” “Provencal Light” and “Entertaining Light.”
Photo: Santa Domingo church in Oaxaca, Mexico. Credit: Jeff Morse