What, You’ve Never Had Bright Red Foam on Your Drinkable Oatmeal Before?
Atole rojo in Oaxaca
It was my first time with a tour group. I’d come to Cuajimoloyas, in the northern highlands of Oaxaca, to forage for wild mushrooms during Mexico’s rainy season. Instead of navigating the forests alone, I joined a band of women and their local guide, a man named Celestino, for the town’s yearly Regional Wild Mushroom Festival.
We’d spent the previous day hunting, trying to collect the greatest variety of edible and non-edible toadstools. We woke up early the next morning for the announcement of the winning team by the fairgrounds at the base of the mountain.
I’d packed poorly for the July chill, and wandered the booths proffering various mushroom-based dishes in search of something to warm my bones. I spotted Celestino huddled under a tent, blowing on his hands as he waited for his breakfast. He was having atole, a traditional corn-based beverage thats something like a drinkable oatmeal. It sounded perfect. I ordered my own and we waited at the sole vinyl-covered table under the tent, elbow-to-elbow with an elderly Mexican couple.
When Celestino’s aunt, the woman running the booth, brought over two brown ceramic bowls brimming with bright red foam, I tried to tell her this was not what we’d ordered. “You’ve never had atole rojo before?” Celestino asked. “It’s for special occasions.”
Flavored with a powder of toasted corn, cacao beans, and brick-red achiote paste, the atole was steamed and then frothed on top to create a crown of festive bubbles. I dunked a strip of pan criollo (rich, eggy local bread) into the biggest bubble on top, tasting the icy foam. Celestino held his bowl in his hands, slurping it like a mug of coffee. I followed suit: the bowl was hot to the touch, the initial chill of the top layer giving way to an earthy, slightly-sweet molten drink.
Celestino poked my side. “That’s us, second place!” he said, and I heard the judges repeating our names. We went up to accept our prize, still clutching mugs of our celebratory atole in our hands.