Friday Takeaway: ‘A little bit of Oaxaca in New England’

The Daily Hampshire Gazette, June 23, 2017, by Caroline Pam of the Kitchen Garden

The fire was starting to smoke from the cool rain seeping into the brick-lined pit in the ground. A corrugated metal roof panel covering the opening was dragged aside to reveal a whole goat with a glistening, browned crust that had been roasting amid the ash wood coals overnight.

“We cook all kinds of things this way in Oaxaca,” said a young man with a shaved head to the TV camera zooming in for a close shot.

His name is Neftalí Duran, and his method of Mexican wood-fired cooking was being featured on the Cooking Channel show “Man Fire Food.” I was there in his backyard, where I’ve been several times before. Over the 13 years that I’ve known Neftalí, he has buried and barrel-roasted whole pigs, lambs and chickens for many an epic taco party right here in Sunderland, where I live and run Kitchen Garden Farm with my husband, Tim Wilcox.

That afternoon, we were huddled under a pop-up tent on a 40-degree spring day with 30 of Neftalí’s other friends while the TV producers told us to try not to look cold.

Neftalí picked up a soft corn tortilla and stuffed it with fragrant spiced goat, perfectly smooth, creamy guacamole and a smoky chile de arbol salsa.

“A little bit of Oaxaca in New England,” he said and smiled as he presented the taco and we all lined up to fill our plates.

These parties always used to happen on Sunday, the one day of the week when Neftalí didn’t need to tend the fire at El Jardin, the wood-fired sourdough bakery he owned and operated first in Holyoke and later in Deerfield.

While the daily demands of the oven never ceased, over the past several years Neftalí has immersed himself in books, studying Mexican and indigenous food history. He has been invited to cook alongside legendary chef Zarela Martinez (his mentor and the author of several cookbooks, including “The Food and Life of Oaxaca”) and to speak at Native American food conferences with celebrity chef Sean Sherman (aka The Sioux Chef). Earlier this month, Neftalí participated in The Moth Mainstage in Boston, sharing his personal narrative, on the theme of “Between Worlds,” for the live storytelling show hosted by WBUR.

Last year, Neftalí closed the bakery to return to Holyoke in a new role running food-justice programs empowering teens at Nuestras Raices, the non-profit urban agriculture organization that coincidentally housed El Jardin’s first oven.

“I used to do a lot of community-related work back in Oaxaca and when I lived in L.A.,” Neftalí told me recently at the Nuestras Raices office in Holyoke. “But then life got in the way… I decided to have a child and have a house.”

Neftalí’s son Emiliano just graduated from high school, and Neftali decided it was time to transition from baking full time to making a broader impact on the community. He is someone who is passionate about food as an expression of who you are — and as a way of bringing people together.

Now his days are spent working with high-school students at the Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter School in Holyoke, and other local youth, to develop leadership skills through cooking, gardening and advocacy projects to improve food access in the community and its schools. The program is called Nuestra Comida and is funded by a grant from the Kellogg Foundation.

Neftalí is Mexican and the majority of the students he works with are of Puerto Rican descent, so he’s learning about Puerto Rican culture and its reliance on root vegetables, Roman beans and sofrito, a mix of cilantro, garlic, peppers and onions.

“You have to know what people want to eat and what they have access to in order to make small incremental change,” he explained.

“I am really passionate about racial justice and feeding people,” Neftalí continued. “We all should care about what children eat and that they have access to good healthy food regardless of where they live. The everyday reality is that’s not happening.”

But progress is being made: At a meeting earlier this month, youth leaders from Nuestras Raices and the Springfield-based nonprofit Gardening the Community were able to speak directly with representatives from Sodexo, the food service provider for the Holyoke and Springfield school systems, about ways to improve the food in their schools.

The cafeteria at Paulo Freire is small for the size of the school, and students rely on delivered, precooked lunches as well as snacks from the vending machines. But right outside the cafeteria door is the Nuestra Comida garden.

On the day of my visit, Neftalí had invited his friend Liz Charlebois, a Native American seedkeeper, to lead the students in planting a traditional Three Sisters garden with heirloom Narraganset white cap corn, Seneca buffalo creek squash and Abenaki skunk beans. The students, still squeamish about getting dirty, donned gardening gloves and formed mounds, pressing the seeds into the soft soil.

While the seeds of change for the Holyoke schools may take years to come to fruition, Neftalí and his students will be harvesting the fruits of their labor this summer.