“Go on!” Alicia urged. Her face was alight with pleasure. I looked at the rubbery three-pronged piece of horror in my hand and felt my stomach convulse. Alicia’s eight year old daughter, who was munching casually on a bag of fried grasshoppers at the time, roared with laughter as she caught sight of my anguished face.
The object in my hand was a chicken’s foot. And it was not how I imagine chicken’s feet to be. If I imagined the fateful day when a smiling toothless lady offered me a specially-prepared chicken’s foot to munch on, I would be in a market in China. The foot would of course be disgusting but it would at least be deep-fried and therefore crispy. It would not be pale, bloated and flobby.
I cannot adequately express the disgustingness of this foot. It had been cooked in delicious stock in a cauldron over a fire for a good hour or so but therein lies the problem – if I eat a foot I do not want it to be cooked in any sort of liquid because this can only lead to one outcome: a soft and flobby mound of fatty horror.
I’m not a complete pansy when it comes to food. If you saw some of the things I’ve eaten in markets over the last couple of months you’d probably say “well what the frig were you expecting?” in response to my last blog.
This chicken foot, however, was at the very limit of my capabilities.
And yet, as I stared at it in morbid horror, I knew I was going to have to eat it. Why do we do these things to ourselves? Our friends the BBs told us that on their ‘honeymoon’ in Laos they drank wine filled with bees and then were persuaded to take a tasty bowl of congealed blood. What? I nearly vomited when they told me this and told them I thought they were disgusting. But in Alicia’s kitchen I knew with a terrible certainty that there would be no other course of action than to eat the damned foot.
And so I closed my eyes, said a short prayer and sunk my teeth into a piece of chicken toe.
You may be wondering what on earth I was doing in this place.
Myself and The Man signed up for some cookery lessons. We’re staying in Oaxaca which has got to be the best place in Mexico for food. (Although the municipal markets, with their trays of cow’s feet, pigs heads, entire sides of deep-fried pork fat and boxes piled high with intestines are not for the faint-hearted.)
Anyway, because we’re like, WAY COOL alternative travellers, man, we chose to shun Oaxaca’s conveyor belt cookery schools and instead organised a day with a woman in a village nearby who would teach us how to cook the old-fashioned way.
The day started quite typically. Alicia did not meet us off the bus as planned; instead we sat on a stone by a field and looked stupid for forty-five minutes. Then we started roaming round town asking if anyone knew a girl called Alicia. “The fat one or the thin one?” responded a woman unloading petrol cans of local liquor from the back of a van.
“The thin one,” we guessed.
“Go to the market, find a little old woman with plaits in her hair. She’s Alicia’s mother. She’ll help you find her,” the woman said.
We arrived at the market; there were at least fifteen little old women with plaits in their hair.
This carried on until we eventually arrived at Alicia’s house. It was a very merry place – her father was weaving fabric on the front porch with Mexican cumbia pumping out of a gigantic 1990s sound system – but she promptly slung us in the back of a van and took us to a nearby market to get provisions. It was not a pretty tourist market; it was the real deal. We passed through meat counters I could never describe in this blog because you would all write to Marie Claire and ask them to sack me. Boys walked round with indignant-looking goats on leads and old women swung still-just-about-alive chickens around in circles from their hips. Every time I stopped to take a picture, old women a third of my size would grab my by the elbow and propel me out of their way. “What stupid people!” laughed one of them as we photographed a bunch of probably bog-standard herbs with great awe.
“You are big and beautiful,” a teenage Mexican boy told me, and then tried to sell me a child’s cardigan.
When we returned to Alicia’s house and I was presented with my first challenge – washing three kilos of chicken.
I was a vegetarian for fourteen years and even now I struggle with raw meat. Bones in particular. YAK, yuk, horror etc. Bleurgh. (shuddering motion.) But I got stuck in. After all, it wouldn’t get any worse than this, would it?
Wrong! Once we returned to the kitchen and I’d scrubbed my hands almost until they bled, Alicia passed round a bag of deep-fried grasshoppers for us to snack on.
There is nothing much I can say about this experience because everything you imagine it to have been will be true. “Barf,” I squeaked, stricken, as a flaming GRASSHOPPER made its way down my gullet. I do not believe we were meant to eat grasshoppers! Fried or not! So why the hell had I just done so? Briefly, I hated myself.
Alicia put us through our paces. We sweated, man. We earned our mole con pollo y arroz (chicken in an amazing green sauce with rice.) We triple-washed chickens in stone sinks, picked and shredded herbs, pounded garlic to a pulp, washed rice five times (did you know you had to do that? This explains why any rice I’ve ever done has been such a crock of shit) and peeled bizarre lumpy fruit called tuna. (?!) We sieved, grilled, boiled, scrubbed, kneaded and stirred.
It was rather humbling to witness the humungous amount of work that goes into a pot of mole verde con pollo. Women who run the comedores (food stalls) in the municipal markets must never rest; after all this will be just one of the dishes that they’ll make for their stall. And yet they’re unlikely to get more than 30 pesos (£1.50) for every plate that they shift. Now I know how much work is required to run a market comedor, I’d imagine that these women average little more than 20p per hour.
You probably know that when we finally sat down to eat it was the most outstanding meal we’ve had yet in Oaxaca. By the time I’d finished I was the happiest, roundest little Robinson you’ve ever seen.
And then came the foot. If you’ve been hanging on waiting to find out if it was in fact glorious, I’m afraid I have no option but to disappoint you.
It was more disgusting than I can ever describe. I wouldn’t say I cried but my eyes were watering with horror and my hands started shaking. Alicia’s daughter fell under the table she was laughing so much. She spoke too fast for me to understand but I’m fairly sure she was howling “Mum, these great big Gringos are the most stupid people I’ve ever met! Why the hell did you invite them round?”
It’s a good question. You need only look at my attempts at a corn tortilla to understand why The Man and I have gone back to paying other people to make our food for us.