Grilled cactus anyone?
I am standing in a Mexican kitchen on a picturesque ranch outside of Oaxaca city kneading dough that will become mini tortillas. I've already grilled the cactus that will be a part of the topping for these mini tortillas called Memelas.
The rest of my gang is working equally hard—my son Matt and husband Andy volunteered for the rice, my two daughters Reggie and Mel (chocoholics!) for the chocolate pudding dessert made with the famous chocolate from this region, and I work on the little tortillas that we will cook outside on a special tortilla grill called a Comal.
We had spent the morning touring the ancient ruin of Monte Alban, where Zapotecs lived from 500 BC until 1500 AD. The place is huge—some 12 square miles with 21 buildings in various stages of excavation. The views of the surrounding mountains and valleys are stupendous. We climb down into an ancient tomb to the museum and marvel at the artifacts that have been found here—skulls, pottery, jugs, beads, and even tiny children's toys.
Oaxaca is in the southeastern part of Mexico and we've come here for a few days of cultural immersion after a week lazing on the beach. Mexico beaches are terrific, of course, but there is so much more to see and do in this country, including learning about the cuisine. To make the most of our time, we've arranged for Austin-Lehman Adventures to guide us—including our day at cooking school—so that I don't have to fret the details.
While we were touring the ruin, the other people in Susana Trilling's class, including a family of eight whose members ranged in age from seven months to 88 years, shopped with Trilling for the ingredients for the feast we would cook.
"We all love to cook and be in the kitchen together," said Annie Hooker of Lake Forest Illinois. She'd gathered her family—mother-in-law, children, and grandson—from around the country for a trip to Oaxaca and a day here.
As kids become more sophisticated eaters, there are more opportunities to learn about cooking and local cuisine on vacation, whether visiting local restaurants or farmers' markets. I especially love San Francisco's Ferry Plaza Marketplace where kids can talk to local farmers or take cooking lessons. Even museums are getting into the act. This month the Greensboro Children's Museum will become the first museum in the country to have an Edible Schoolyard featuring gardens, a greenhouse, teaching kitchens, and even a chicken coop—all designed as a national model to teach kids where food comes from and how to prepare it.
Kids can even learn to cook while cruising the high seas! Aboard the Holland America Line, for example, there's the kids and teens Culinary Arts Center where kids learn to create dishes on board the ship as part of Club Hal. Disney Cruise Line's Med cruises offer adults-only cooking lessons at a farm in Tuscany, while the kids are entertained and supervised on board. Disney also offers family shore excursions where you can all cook together.
"Family cooking classes in Italy are a big hit and can be the most memorable part of an itinerary," says Amie O'Shaughnessy of Ciao Bambino!, which arranges such excursions. "The best classes are hands-on where kids are engaged and interacting with the instructor, and then everyone sits down for a yummy meal as the grand finale."
Resorts are incorporating cooking lessons and demonstrations in their kids programs, too—from major all-inclusives like Beaches in the Caribbean to the Grand Velas in Puerto Vallarta, which is offering great summer kids-free deals along with deals for single parents.
The Ritz-Carlton Golf & Spa Resort, Rose Hall, Jamaica, offers a Jerk Center class every Saturday that is open to the entire family. This class focuses on the origins of "Jerk," the ingredients used in making it and how to prepare it.
The mega-resort Atlantis in the Bahamas has even built a Culinary Room for budding chefs, as part of its expansive new Kids Club, while Loews hotels in Miami Beach and Lake Las Vegas invite kids to Sushi Skool.
There are plenty of options too at small hotels like The Coppertoppe Inn and Retreat Center in Hebron, New Hampshire, or the Essex Resort & Spa in Vermont, which offers summer culinary camps for kids, as well as special private family classes. They're also pet friendly. For more information on cooking classes at small inns, check out BedandBreakfast.com.
Trilling, meanwhile, herself the mom of two teens, couldn't have been more welcoming to the baby in our group, even providing a port-a-crib and a young local girl more than happy to play with him while his parents and grandparents cooked.
She explained the day's recipes: Memelas, basic Oaxacan snacks that are small tortillas smeared with bean paste, cheese and various toppings; grilled Nopaeles Salad (Cactus with avocado, tomatoes, cilantro, and more to put on palm-sized tortillas; Tortilla Soup; Green salad with pears and Roquefort; a savory chicken stew with capers and olives; rice flavored with Chepil, a pre-Hispanic herb; and the piece de resistance—an Oaxacan chocolate pudding with a strawberry tangerine sauce.
Soon the big kitchen was noisy as the 30 people chopped and stirred and kneaded and sipped Mexican beer. I spent a lot of time grinding spices with an old-fashioned mortar and pestle.
"This is right up my alley," says 22-year-old Tracy Gifford, a college senior from North Carolina, who opted for cooking school with her aunt and uncle while her parents, younger sister, and cousin spent the day in Oaxaca. Some work harder on their dishes than others. Some wander outside to the Comal; others to the garden. Thankfully, Trilling's staff whisks away the dirty pans, bowls, and measuring spoons. When everything is ready, they invite us to the big wooden tables and serve us our creations course by course.
We applaud after each one. We're proud of ourselves and eat until we can't manage another bite. Trilling presents us with the Mexican wooden tool called a Molinillo that's used to stir and froth the famous Oaxacan chocolate. She gives us some chocolate, too. I leave clutching my recipes, my chocolate, and my new mortar and pestle.
I use it all the time—and smile.
Have you ever gotten a taste for the local cuisine while traveling? Share your thoughts, experiences, and advice by submitting a comment below!