Travel Weekly editor in chief Arnie Weissmann is in the Yucatan for the Hokol Vuh feast. His third dispatch follows.
I have felt for some time that the term "authentic," as applied to travel experiences, has been seriously devalued. It -- and phrases like "trips curated by our expert team" -- have been usurped by lazy marketers whose only true expertise is in identifying buzzwords and catchphrases.
I'm traveling with 18 chefs from eight countries (Russia, Australia, Slovenia, Mexico, Denmark, the U.S., Norway and Spain) who have been invited to Yucatan to steep in Mayan culture, history and cooking for five days and then prepare a meal with local ingredients for 200 people who have paid $1,400 to attend Hokol Vuh, a nine-course charity event in the shadow of the ruins at Ake, near Merida.
On the second full day of the trip, the group went well beyond the tourist areas and markets to see not only how villages of Mayan descendants live and cook, but how and what they plant and harvest and raise and slaughter.
The de facto leader of the group is Rene Redzepi of acclaimed Noma in Copenhagen, and he has been traveling to Mexico for many years, forming relationships with local communities and learning about their ingredients and methods. This past spring, he did a popup "Noma Mexico" in Tulum, incorporating not only his knowledge of Mayan food preparation but inviting in some of the local villagers he has met over the years to participate in the project.
The Hokol Vuh chefs started their day with a late breakfast in Tixcacaltuyub, one of the towns where Fundacion Haciendas del Mundo Maya, which nurtures traditional Mayan lifestyles within the context of a modern world, is active. In Tixcacaltuyub, the organization has, among other projects, helped set up an educational center/library with computers and helped the village organize its backyard agriculture to take advantage of shared irrigation, a critical component to growing produce in a region that endures a four-month dry season every year.
The chefs were subdivided into three groups and went off for meals in the backyard garden. Before the group that I was with sat down to eat, we explored what was being grown in the yard as well as checking out produce that had been laid out on a table. Between bites, the guests asked about ingredients in the food they were eating, and then listened to a short presentation by Fundacion representatives about the backyard gardens project.
Ben Shewry of Attica restaurant in Melbourne tries his hand at grinding corn in the traditional Mayan fashion. Photo Credit: TW photo by Arnie Weissmann
From there, we traveled to an even smaller village, Yaxunah, to be schooled on the agricultural foundation of Mayan culture: corn.
After learning how to soak and then grind corn between a stone rolling pin and rough stone board, the chefs were shown samples of six types of corn and tasted tortillas made from each. There were striking differences in textures, flavors, colors, thicknesses and moisture contents among them. Redzepi had previously said that the tortillas from this village were the best he had ever tasted (he preferred one of the yellow kernel varieties).
Afterward, chef Rosio Sanchez of Hija de Sanchez in Copenhagen, who had participated in the Noma Mexico popup, arranged to raise her annual order of local corn from six tons to eight.
Then the chefs themselves, with wildly varying degrees of success, tried making tortillas by hand.
Three women in the village of Yaxunah prepare tortillas for a meal that chef Esben Holme Bang of the restaurant Maaemo in Oslo would later call "life changing." Photo Credit: TW photo by Arnie Weissmann
The feast that ensued was, in the words of Norway's Esben Holmboe Bang of the restaurant Maaemo in Oslo, "life-changing." The group gathered to watch two men dig up a pot that had been heating underground for four hours. Inside was a 26-pound, 3-month-old pig seasoned with oregano, bay leaf, peppercorn, bitter orange juice and achiote, and which had been cooking for four hours.
Chef Vladimir Mukhin of White Rabbit in Moscow captures the image of a pot of cochinita pibil, which contains a three month old pig, before it's pulled from its underground oven. Photo Credit: TW photo by Arnie Weissmann
The result, cochinita pibil, was served with red onions on fresh tortillas. "We should serve one to Taco Bell [executives] and tell them to just give up," said Ben Shewry of the restaurant Attica in Melbourne.
But back to the question of authenticity. Blaine Wetzel of the Willows Inn on Lummi Island in Washington state observed that what made it a truly great meal can't be separated from the environment: the village, meeting the villagers, learning about the corn and tortillas, watching the pot be removed from the ground and catching the first whiffs that wafted as the lid was removed. Enjoying the camaraderie of eating among friends who share the same passion for food.
And herein lies the rub. Although, presumably, the village could turn itself into a tourist destination offering virtually an identical experience to nonchefs, it would almost by definition become inauthentic, and likely damaging to the very cultural purity which was shared with the group. The villagers clearly had affection for Redzepi and Hokol Vuh organizer Roberto Solis, chef of the Merida restaurant Nectar, who had been visiting them for 10 years. And although most of the group was not known to the villagers, Redzepi's authentic relationship extended to the guests he brought.
There is a lesson for the travel industry here. I think it's possible that a tour operator can establish genuine relationships with people in traditional cultures and introduce visitors to authentic interactions like the one the chefs experienced in Yaxunah. But the underlying business competencies to do this are less about operational efficiency or revenue growth and more about patience, passion and cultural sensitivity.
I have no issue with companies, large or small, that organize trips for people who want to be exposed to native cultures and make efforts to minimize impact on those residents while facilitating cultural exchanges and sharing wealth with native people. But please, watch your descriptors. For me, the experience in Yaxunah set a new bar for what I would expect from someone advertising "authentic" travel. The critical ingredient was not found in the pot of cochinita pibil, but in the souls of Redzepi, Solis and the villagers.