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Fortunato Angeles and his brother-in-law Raul Marin eat pozole and fresh tortillas after a day working at a palenque, or mezcal factory, in San Juan del Rio, Oaxaca. The terroir and tradition in authentic Mexican food was apparent to our writer at first bite.

From the edge of the highway south of Juarez, the Sonoran Desert runs all the way to the horizon, impeded only by a few scraggly scrub bushes. Just to the north in Texas is the big sky country of cowboy poetry. But here in Mexico, with an SUV bearing down in my rear-view mirror, the open country suddenly felt like the kind of place that travel advisories are imagining when they talk about non-essential trips – especially ones done in a Subaru with American plates. I locked eyes with my dog, Tempo, in the passenger seat as the SUV flew past. Then a pickup blew by and another SUV barrelled around us and I realized that the only dubious thing on the road were the speed limit signs, which were clearly not meant to be respected. I turned up the AC and accelerated into the desert sun. I had a lot to learn about Mexico.

It would be generous to call my plan to drive south “half-baked.” I was living in Colorado and suffering from the kind of heartbroken angst that makes you think that a long time on the open road will help clear your head. When my friend Diego’s dog had puppies in the spring, he gave me one and then moved home to Mexico City. I figured that Tempo would want to see her parents, so I put on my cowboy boots, tossed a couple cameras in the car and we started driving. Fortunately, Mexico met me with her arms wide open.

Tempo, the author's dog, peaks out of the window of a pickup while Augustin Guendulain harvests agave in Amatlan, Oaxaca.

On that first day, once I recovered from my make-believe cartel scare, I resolved that I’d have to get over those stereotypes. Feeling bold, I started looking for breakfast and, a few kilometres later, I pulled over on the street in bustling Villa Ahumada where a few guys were selling quesadillas and coffee. I grimaced, thinking that my first bite in Mexico was going to be something off the children’s menu. But, when I dipped the steaming tortilla and cheese in creamy salsa with roast jalapenos, my perspective on Mexican food changed forever. North Mexico is cattle country, and they are proud of their melty, nutty asadero cheese, which makes a simple quesadilla an essential pillar of cuisine. I ordered two more. Driving away, I realized that food would be my gateway to the country.

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Later that week, I pulled into Zacatecas just as the sun was setting. The core of the city was built in the 16th and 17th centuries when nearby silver mines reached their peak. With historic churches and winding alleys lit up in the blue dusk, I felt lost in time as I walked down the cobblestones. I had let Tempo run in a park with an ancient aqueduct and, as she made friends with another dog, I asked the owners where I could get a quick bite for dinner. “Gorditas Dona Julia,” was the reply.

I expected tacos, but took their advice. Rounding a corner, I heard music playing and then caught up to a parade of antique VW Beetles and children in skeleton costumes. The Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) procession led me to the restaurant where a woman was toasting fat little tortillas on a comal and then slicing them open to stuff like pita pockets. A car backfired in the street and everyone laughed. I had never seen a gordita before, but I spooned a spicy green salsa into one filled with chicharrones and smiled. Where thin street tacos spill juices on your plate, gorditas heartily soak up every drop of flavour. A mariachi band was playing in the street and vendors were selling decorated sugar skulls. After another pair of gorditas, I was ready to let the spice of dinner lead me out into the streets to join the party.

Tempo in front of a fountain in San Miguel de Allende.

Day of the Dead easily stretches into a week of events and, as I pulled into San Miguel de Allende the next day, the town was just setting up for their celebrations around the central Parroquia San Miguel Arcangel with its famous pink spires. When I arrived, I was invited for a drink at the city’s old cavalry stable, now home to Casa Dragones tequila (which Oprah has repeatedly included on her list of her favourite things). I had a tequila flashback to a long night, and an even longer next morning, in college, but how could I refuse a chance to peek inside this rich slice of Mexico?

I dusted off my boots, put on my best shirt and followed directions to an intimidating, unmarked wooden gate. A posh American couple stood outside and at first we hesitated, unsure what part of the door we might even penetrate with a knock. But then, at precisely 6 p.m., the gate opened and the three of us were gestured into a lush garden where three stools were set in front of an antique bar that held three crystal flutes and a bottle of tequila. The bartender, Sandra Vasquez, poured us each a dram that smelled like young grass, fresh herbs and a dash of spice. The setting felt like a fantasy version of the country, but taking a sip of the tequila, I was reminded instantly that the spirit came from the earth. Unlike the headache-causing swill I had in school, this tequila tasted like agave and had as proud a heritage as any artisanal product in Mexico. Sandra refilled my glass and served a little ceviche.

Toribio Hernandez walks through agave fields in San Juan del Rio, Oaxaca.

Twelve hundred and fifty kilometres later, an agave spine dug into my leg. I had on thick jeans, but still the plant had penetrated and I could feel blood running down my sock. Toribio Hernandez laughed at me as he swung his hoe. Generations of his family had tended these fields in the mountains of Oaxaca, planting beans, chilis, squash, corn and agave together in an ancient, symbiotic, milpa crop rotation. Toribio’s plants have a special role in town though, as he works with three of his relatives to distill mezcal at a small palenque above their fields. I arranged to meet him to learn about the tough, hands-on process, with the men working together to harvest agaves, roasting them over a wood fire in a pit, crushing them with a donkey-driven millstone, fermenting the mash in wood tanks and then feeding it into small copper stills.

Pedro Reyes wipes the sweat from his brow after a day of harvesting both wild and cultivated agave near Amatlan, Oaxaca.

Day labourers walk to work in San Juan del Rio, Oaxaca, a primarily subsistence farming village.

After a long day in the fields, one of Toribio’s cousins, Fortunato Angeles, invited me to his house for dinner. His mother, wife and sister were already in the kitchen, pressing corn from their fields into tortillas. They put fresh chili paste and steaming bowls of pozole on the table, and we dipped the fresh tortillas in the spice and then sopped up a little soup. This was pure expression of terroir and tradition, with food fresh from the garden out the window, which I realized would make most chefs jealous. And it was nothing like the burritos, chimichangas or flautas that pass for Mexican food abroad.

Arnulfo de los Angeles and Rodolfo Hernandez sit at the palenque they share with Fortunato Angeles and Toribio Hernandez in San Juan del Rio, Oaxaca.

Driving out of the mountains, I felt a flutter of new love in my heart. Tempo’s dog family reunion had been brief – her dad was recovering from an injury and we had to keep everyone in separate tail-wagging areas for safety – but she had run free with strays, made friends with a donkey and now poked her nose out of the window to soak in the every ounce of Oaxacan dust. Whatever we had thought of Mexico before we started driving had been spun around entirely by friendly hosts and richer flavour than I ever imagined.

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An agave field above the town of San Juan del Rio, Oaxaca.


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