I love a radish. Nothing sparks in my mouth the way the sting of that red crunchy vegetable does, so it made sense that I’d be thrilled to learn about 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 first.
The Museo de Filatelia is like entering a secret mausoleum of stamps. There are drawers that explorers can pull out to examine stamps, 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 where I sat and dreamt 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 a round radish and carve it into a tiny figurine when they could just chop it up and add it to a salad? It turns out that Mexican radishes are not like the red orbs I buy at my local grocery store. The radishes that are used in the Noche de Rabanos are massive. Mexican radishes can grow as thick and long as your arm. By carving away some of the red outer skin, artists reveal the white flesh underneath, giving the radishes faces and expressions.
During after dinner coffee, I learned 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. We finished our post meal shots of tequila and were instructed to get to the zolcolo early, since people start lining up at dawn to watch the carving that takes place all night and into the next day.
Arriving at the zocalo the next morning, I learned 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. 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 brown in the 85 degree heat.
My favorite radish sculptures were the giant mountains, two to four feet high of mutilated radishes that had collapsed under the heat or pressure. 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 two hours wandering around the tables, then sat and had a fresh juice margarita (Portal de Flores 10, OAX_RE_BENITO JUAREZ, Centro, 68000 Oaxaca, OAX, Mexico) 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 them, although, looking at the odd shapes I could make out the potential sculpture of a chicken or a duck. Who knows, perhaps I’ve discovered 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.
(Photos by permission of Glendene Wolf)
Christine Offutt is a 50 year old writer and artist living in Los Angeles. She spent 20 years working in the television industry and recently did a career change into the tech industry. When Chris isn't writing, she enjoys the California weather hiking, yoga or strolling around the block with a very slow Pekingese named Silly Billy.