Under the Jagur Sun
âO AXACA â is pronounced âWahaka.â Originally, the hotel where we were staying had been the Convent of Santa Catalina. The first thing we noticed was a painting in a little room leading to the bar. The bar was called Las Novicias. The painting was a large, dark canvas that portrayed a young nun and an old priest standing side by side; their hands, slightly apart from their sides, almost touched. The figures were rather stiff for an eighteenth-century picture; the painting had the somewhat crude grace characteristic of colonial art, but it conveyed a distressing sensation, like an ache of contained suffering.
The lower part of the painting was filled by a long caption, written in cramped lines in an angular, italic hand, white on black. The words devoutly celebrated the life and death of the two characters, who had been chaplain and abbess of the convent (she, of noble birth, had entered it as a novice at the age of eighteen). The reason for their being painted together was the extraordinary love (this word, in the pious Spanish prose, appeared charged with ultra-terrestrial yearning) that had bound the abbess and her confessor for thirty years, a love so great (the word in its spiritual sense sublimated but did not erase the physical emotion) that when the priest came to die, the abbess, twenty years younger, in the space of a single day fell ill and literally expired of love (the word blazed with a truth in which all meanings converge), to join him in Heaven.
Olivia, whose Spanish is better than mine, helped me decipher the story, suggesting to me the translation of some obscure expressions, and these words proved to be the only ones we exchanged during and after the reading, as if we had found ourselves in the presence of a drama, or of a happiness, that made any comment out of place. Something intimidated usâor, rather, frightened us, or, more precisely, filled us with a kind of uneasiness. So I will try to describe what I felt: the sense of a lack, a consuming void. What Olivia was thinking, since she remained silent, I cannot guess.
Then Olivia spoke. She said, âI would like to eat
chiles en nogada.â
And, walking like somnambulists, not quite sure we were touching the ground, we headed for the dining room.
In the best moments of a coupleâs life, it happens: I immediately reconstructed the train of Oliviaâs thought, with no need of further speech, because the same sequence of associations had unrolled in my mind, though in a more foggy, murky way. Without her, I would never have gained awareness of it.
Our trip through Mexico had already lasted over a week. A few days earlier, in Tepotzotlan, in a restaurant whose tables were set among the orange trees of another conventâs cloister, we had savored dishes prepared (at least, so we were told) according to the traditional recipes of the nuns. We had eaten a
tamal de elote
âa fine semolina of sweet com, that is, with ground pork and very hot pepper, all steamed in a bit of cornhuskâand then
chiles en nogada,
which were reddish brown, somewhat wrinkled little peppers, swimming in a walnut sauce whose harshness and bitter aftertaste were drowned in a creamy, sweetish surrender.
After that, for us, the thought of nuns called up the flavors of an elaborate and bold cuisine, bent on making the flavorsâ highest notes vibrate, juxtaposing them in modulations, in chords, and especially in dissonances that would assert themselves as an incomparable experienceâa point of no return, an absolute possession exercised on the receptivity of all the senses.
The Mexican friend who had accompanied us on that excursion, Salustiano Velazco by name, in answering Oliviaâs inquiries about these recipes of conventual gastronomy, lowered his voice as if confiding indelicate secrets to us. It was his way of speakingâor, rather, one of his ways; the copious information Salustiano supplied (about
Amanda A. Allen, Auburn Seal