Oaxaca Journal, by Oliver Sacks

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‘A few blocks from Santa Domingo, we stop at a tiny but wonderful, aromatic spice shop. My botanical companions are fascinated, gastronomically, botanically.


There are huge, compacted towers of chilies, like bales, or castles – bright green yellow, orange, scarlet, these seem very characteristic of Oaxaca. There are at least twenty types of chilies in common use – chile de agua, chile poblano, and chile serrano are the commonest fresh ones; there are also chile amarillo, chile ancho, chile de arbol, chile chipotle, chile costeño, chile guajillo, chile morita, chile mulato, chile pasilla de Oaxaca, chile piquín and a whole family of chilies going under the name of chilhuacle. I wonder whether these are all separate species, or varieties produced by domestication. All of them, presumably, differ in taste, in texture, in hotness, in complexity, in a dozen other dimensions to which the Oaxcan palate is sensitive – in New York I just have a bottle labeled Powered Chili, and that has been the extent of my sophistication so far.’


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Oliver Sacks is best known as an explorer of the human mind, a neurologist with a gift for the complex, insightful portrayals of people and their conditions that fuel the success of his books. But he is also a card-carrying member of the American Fern Society, and since childhood has been fascinated by these primitive plants and their ability to survive and adapt. In OAXACA JOURNAL, Sacks recounts his visit, along with a group of fellow fern aficionados—mathematicians, poets, artists, and assorted botanists and ornithologists – to the state of Oaxaca, in the south of  Mexico, a region that is also rich in human history and culture. He muses on the origins of chocolate and mescal, pre-Columbian culture and hallucinogens, the vibrant sights and sounds of the marketplace, and the peculiar passions of botanists.

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