I have to apologize for not having a naughtier addiction. It would be much more fun for you to find a story with a spicy headline like “I Was the Drug-Crazed Love Slave of My Teenage Yardman.” But, alas, my obsession is much more prosaic: I have an irrepressible urge to take cooking classes. It hardly matters what’s being taught (pasta, pastries, seafood, cake decorating, eye of newt, toe of frog); I’ll sign up. Which is how my equally food-obsessed friend Ginny Garcia talked me into taking a fifteen-hour bus trip to visit the Mexican city of San Miguel de Allende this summer. “Fifteen hours!” I moaned. “We could practically fly to Hawaii and back in fifteen hours.” Besides, I hadn’t set foot on a bus since I saw Dustin Hoffman go to that big Greyhound station in the sky in Midnight Cowboy. Ginny, a seasoned Mexico traveler, was unfazed by my whining. “It’s an adventure,” she said. “You take food, a sleeping mask, and earplugs.” Then she said the magic words: “I’ll bet we can find somebody in San Miguel who gives cooking lessons.”
Was she psychic or what? As it turns out, teaching Americans how to cook Mexican food is a veritable cottage industry in San Miguel. In a few minutes on the Internet we turned up half a dozen teachers, and I heard myself agreeing to take the night bus from Nuevo Laredo to San Miguel. On our visit to this beautiful, colonial-era city of 90,000 in central Mexico, we could learn to cook with indigenous ingredients like chiles, jícama, and plantains; study salsas, tacos, enchiladas, and tamales; and learn regional specialties such as mole negro, a delicious and complex sauce made of fragrant roasted chiles, nuts, sesame seeds, and chocolate.
The classes were geared for amateurs like us, but had we yearned for something more challenging or exotic—the iguana cookery of the Yucatán, for instance—special curricula could be devised. Most of the teachers were caterers, chefs, or restaurant owners. Typically, the classes were held in their homes but sometimes in the kitchens of classy bed-and-breakfasts; one series even used a little neighborhood factory that makes tamales. All of the classes were small, accommodating some four to ten students. Most of them lasted three or four hours and cost $40 to $50 per person, including food (you get to eat your lesson). As the bus hurtled toward San Miguel, I slipped on my sleeping mask and popped a Xanax. (Don’t worry; if you’re adventure-averse, you can fly to León and either rent a car or take a local bus into San Miguel, an hour and a half away.)
At Lisa Gahafer’s small and wonderfully serene house, a group of five sat around the dining table sipping tall chilled glasses of lime-cucumber juice (one of Mexico’s refreshing aguas frescas) while Gahafer and fellow cooking teacher Kris Rudolph prepared a feast. It began with sopes and huaraches (round and sandal-shaped masa tarts) and progressed through three moles: a peanut mole,