Though born in Mexico City, I consider Oaxaca City to be my hometown. It’s in this colorful and mountainous place where all my childhood memories take place. As the youngest daughter of Chef Iliana de la Vega, I was fortunate to call El Naranjo my home, and I spent my days hiding under tables and tablecloths, or inside pantries and kitchens, playing with the waiters and cooks, and, of course, learning to cook (and eat) Mexican food. As my mother had done with her own mother, we would often visit the nearby market—I even got lost there once. It fascinated me to see how easily she could navigate the aisles, her familiarity with the vendors, and how she just seemed to know what everything was and how to use it in her cooking.
I imagined I too would be a chef one day, so I helped the cooks make tamales, and assisted my mom in her cooking classes during the summer. Eventually, I realized my food related talents lie more with eating than cooking, so I became a cultural anthropologist and journalist instead. Still, food somehow seems to always find its way back into my mind, ending in a good amount of my research and writing. Because I believe food cannot be fully understood without proper context, I like to think of it—the ingredients, the rituals of eating—in relation to place, people, and the history and circumstances that lead to its creation. My travels, both the personal and shared, along with my food writing, are framed with this idea behind.
Isabel Torrealba graduated with honors in Cultural Anthropology from The University of Texas at Austin and also holds a master’s degree in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from New York University. Her work has appeared in Atlas Obscura, Food52, Slate Magazine, LA Review of Books, Edible Austin, Eater, and The Art of Eating, among others.