By Christine Offut
I love a good radish. Nothing sparks in my mouth like the sting of a red crunchy vegetable. So I simply had to go when I learned of the Night of the Radishes in Oaxaca, Mexico.
I arrived on Dec. 22nd, and while waiting for what I assumed would be a mass consumption of radishes, I decided to visit the Museo Filatelia, a museum of postage stamps where I discovered the Penny Black. Queen Victoria’s profile decorates the Penny Black on the world’s first adhesive postage stamp issued in Great Britain in 1840 for one penny, which allowed the sender to mail letters up to 1/2 ounce for a flat rate. (I never could figure out how much I needed to put on a post card from Mexico to the USA, so I pasted on about $2.00 worth of postage. The card arrived 3 weeks after I’d returned from my trip.)
Entering the Museo de Filatelia is like entering a secret mausoleum of stamps. There are drawers that explorers can pull to examine stamps, there are sliding glass panels encasing tiny colorful squares of postage, and display cases holding rare valuable stamps. Wandering straight back from the entrance, I found a tiny courtyard shaded by trees and furnished with a few little tables and chairs where I sat and dreamed of the radishes I planned to eat the following day.
“You can’t eat the radishes,” I was told by one of the other guests during dinner at Casa Colonial as we consumed deep chocolate colored mole chicken. “They carve them into figures and make scenes out of them.”
I was baffled, why would someone want to take an inch-round radish and carve it into a tiny figurine when they could just chop it up and add it to a salad? But it turns out Mexican radishes are not like the red orbs I buy at Whole Foods. The radishes that are used in the Noche de Rabanos are massive, Mexican radishes that can grow as thick and long as your arm. (Being hit on the head with one of these babies would leave a hell of a lump!) By carving away some of the red outer skin, artists reveal the white flesh underneath, giving the radishes faces and expressions.
It turns out radishes arrived in Mexico in the 16th century, about the same time as the Spanish and local farmers began sculpting them into figures to attract customers at the market. In 1897 Noche de los Rabanos became an official tradition that attracts tourists and locals to the zocalo where carvers compete for cash prizes. I was advised to get to the zocalo early, since people start lining up at dawn to watch the carving that takes place all night and day.
On December 23rd, not being much of a morning person, I sipped coffee and played scrabble on my phone at Equinoxxio until about noon. Equinoxxio has great coffee, smoothies, frappes and delicious crunchy waffles covered with either fruit or chocolate.
At noon I wandered down to the zocalo where music burst through the quiet village atmosphere and thousands of people were lined up around tables filled with carved radishes. Locals and tourists cued up for café tables at the surrounding restaurants where they could sit with a drink, listen to the bands and people watch.
What had started 150 years ago as a quaint village celebration is now an international event that lasts several days and includes parades, religious ceremonies and traveling bands playing in the streets (sometimes directly under your bedroom window during afternoon siesta).
The figures and faces were detailed, yet crude (carving a radish is no easy task!). Many of the carved scenes were religious, often depicting Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico. There were also intricate panoramas of deep ocean life filled with radish carved octopi, lobsters and fish hanging from fishing line strung on a bar above the table. The artists (or their recruited children) stood behind the tables constantly spritzing the radishes with water from spray bottles to keep them from drying out, shriveling or turning into a drooping brown mush in the 85 degree heat.
Oddly. my favorite radish “sculptures,” were the collapsed giant mountains, 2’ to 4′ high of mutilated radishes that did not make the cut. Sad as it is after all that work to have an art piece collapse, for some reason it made me laugh, like when someone trips over a crack in the sidewalk, then keeps walking, pretending it never happened. Yea, I’m dark that way….
I spent about 2 hours wandering around the tables, then sat and had a fresh juice margarita at Portal de Flores as children high on sugar and excited for Christmas ran wildly around the square.
It only takes one cocktail, and lots of noise to make me drowsy, so I headed back to Casa Colonial where I could turn on the hum of the air conditioner, close the double doors to darken the room, and take a siesta. As I passed a street vendor selling fresh vegetables, I noticed she had stacks of large radishes cheaply priced. For some reason I had lost my appetite for the mighty radish, although, looking at the odd shapes I could make out the possibilities of sculpturing one into a chicken or a duck. Who knows? Perhaps I could launch a new career as a radish carver. More than likely, I’d be the artist with the giant pile of half slaughtered red vegetables collapsed on the table, inspiring some tourist to have a good laugh at my expense.
Oaxaca: Where to Stay
Casa Colonial is a charming bed and breakfast located approximately 10-15 minutes walk from the zocalo in Oaxaca. The historic hacienda style building has a dozen charming rooms, mostly doubles, one family suite and few singles surrounding a lush tropical garden. The garden is populated with enormous plants, a talking parrot and one or two of the owners’ friendly dogs.
I wouldn’t consider the B&B fancy, but it is comfortable and the rooms do have air conditioners. The room we occupied for 3 nights was directly in line with the entrance and could be noisy when people were coming and going. It was also next to the outdoor patio tables where guests liked to congregate.
For us, this was an advantage because we enjoyed sitting with the other guests and chatting or playing board games, but if one prefers quiet and privacy, book a room further from the entrance.
We had two comfortable twin beds with plenty of blankets if it got chilly at night, and private bathroom with a shower tiled completely in deep blue Mexican tiles. Our room was quite dark, and most of the other rooms were also void of natural light. The manager explained that traditional houses in Oaxaca were built this way to maintain a cooler temperature when heat rises in the summer.
Accommodations at Casa Colonial include a full breakfast, and the option to add “cena” or a light evening meal to your tab. The food at the Casa was excellent Mexican fare served family style.
The staff was wonderful and accommodating, willing to make arrangements for tours, taxis, dinner reservations or anything else that’s needed. Staff members were always friendly and happy to help carry bags, find a board game we wanted to play or mix up a batch of margaritas. We did find the owner to be difficult at times though, inconsistent and often unprofessional in her dealings with the staff and guests. However, the owner does not spend a lot of time at the Casa, which can be a good thing for all involved.
Rates are reasonable, from $45-$110 (US Dollars) and a discount is offered if the full amount is paid in advance. The Casa accepts PayPal, making it easy to send a deposit from your bank or with a credit card.
Casa Colonial Bed & Breakfast
Calle Miguel Negrete 105, Ex-Marquesado, 68000 Oaxaca, Oax., Mexico
+52 951 516 5280