Susan Trilling: An Interview

Interview with Susana Trilling

Chef Susana Trilling, teacher, writer and television host is the owner Seasons of my Heart Cooking School at Rancho Aurora, San Lorenzo Cacaotepec, Etla. She is the author of the best selling and critically acclaimed book, “Seasons of My Heart” and the companion PBS series of the same name, Another book of food vignettes set in various regions of the Republic of Mexico is in the works. This interview was conducted in March 2006 between Susana Trilling and Alan Goodin. 

 Born and raised in the United States, Susana Trilling has fallen in love with the Mexican people and their culture. She was chef at her own restaurant, Bon Temps Rouler, in New York City, and the proprietor of the very successful New York City based “Seasons of My Heart” catering company. In 1990 she opened her cooking school at her home in the Etla Valley of Oaxaca.

Alan: You left behind a successful career as a chef and caterer in New York to come to Oaxaca. Where did you first go in Oaxaca?

Susana: My first glimpse of Oaxaca was Zipolite Beach near Puerto Angel, while I was still living in New York. I went to work at the orphanage there, now named Centro Infantil Pina Palmera. I wanted to do something different, and to help out the children at the school. The children and villagers there taught me about the beauty and sense of humor of the Oaxacans.

A: What impressed you about Oaxacan food?

S: The taste of the raw, ripe ingredients, the blending of all those aromas.  Herbs, and the way essential flavors are coaxed out of them through the local techniques of roasting, toasting and pickling.  I learned to blend them all with the right subtleties.  I always had a very heavy hand in seasoning.  I had to forget everything I thought I knew about Mexican food and learn the basics, like farming. I learned this from the father of my kids who was experimenting with different growing techniques. I learned about germinating seeds, irrigating, harvesting and then cooking the harvested crops.

A: While that is an ongoing process you also began your school. How did that happen?

S: We lived in to San Lorenzo, about 30 minutes north of Oaxaca City. We grew flowers for Dia de los Muertos, and vegetables. Once, after we had a good crop of chile de agua, we had a big party to celebrate. I cooked for three days, and when it was all over, the guests asked me for cooking classes.  In the beginning it was difficult because in those days it was considered scandalous for city women to go to the country without their husbands.  I talked to my city friends and they offered me their homes for classes. They saw that I was serious and respected them.  My Spanish was weak, but one of my Mexican friends served as an interpreter because she could understand me better than anyone else.  Somehow we all got by, had a lot of laughs, and made some wonderful international feasts.  Later, with more confidence from the satisfied husbands, I was able to start teaching out of my home. My kids, who were babies then, were an amusement for the women after the classes.

 A: How did you develop the cooking school in the building where it is now?

S: I was asked to do a PBS series about Oaxacan cooking, “Seasons of My Heart”, which was shown in 15 major U.S. cities. Random House, the publisher of the companion book, gave me a bonus. With that money I bought the land, and every student who came for the next few years helped pay for it.  It was Eric’s idea to put on the dome, and my friends started calling it ”The Temple of Cooking”!  It was then when the school changed, and “grew up” , so to speak.  Now the school is evolving again as I expand the programs to include seasonal classes featuring organic foods for locals and culinary tours all over Oaxaca and the surrounding.  In March we went to Veracruz to study the seafood and vanilla production, take cooking classes and participate in the Spring Equinox celebrations at El Tajin.  There were ritual dancers, curanderas, music and artists.  Each trip revolves around a theme or fiesta and studying the regional foods. 

A: Where are you headed on your next tour?

S: At the end of May, we will tour the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, and attend the Vela Zandunga, which is a big ball. We will dress in elegant regional trajes and dance all night.  We will visit the regional markets of the Isthmus, and make totopos in my friends’ kitchens, cook in the nearby beach villages, go birding and check out the salt flats. The five-day class starts May 26. We will study the culture and traditions in the Istmo.  

During the summer we have classes in birding, mushroom foraging, and trips to jungle villages.  I like to be out there, cooking with the people.  I love going places and exchanging ideas and recipes.

A: What makes your cooking classes special?

S: The entire theme of the school is participation. When students put their hands in the masa, they begin to learn by doing. Although we are popular with chefs and culinary students, everyone is welcome.  On our tours we cook with local cooks on location. The main idea is to try something creative, learn new, and have a lot of fun. There is truly something for everybody. Also, students learn that all garbage from their cooking classes go into an organic compost site. We teach that nothing is wasted.

 A: Thank you, Susana, and by the way, when is dinner served?

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