“I’m writing now because through the weird journey of my life I’ve gotten to know Paul and Sheila Theroux.” That’s how writer Joshua David Stein told me that he wanted to interview Paul, the famed travel author. When I reminded Stein that Grub Street is a food site, he assured me that wouldn’t be a problem. In the end, he was right, because the conversation that the two had, over lunch at the very good Mexican restaurant Oxomoco, was not only about food, but also about its ability to, with surprising efficiency, reveal something deeper about the people eating it.
— Alan Sytsma, editor, Grub Street
Talking Tlayudas and Traffic With Paul Theroux
It’s a blustery October day in Greenpoint, and when Paul Theroux — traveler of great repute, climber of mountains and dweller of plains — steps out from his Uber, his broad-brimmed beaten-up hat nearly flies easterly down Greenpoint Avenue. Theroux apologizes for his (slight) tardiness. “I took the train down from the Cape and got to the station on time,” he says, “but the traffic was terrible.” Then he pauses. “To say there’s traffic in Manhattan is to say there are the poor in India.”
Theroux knows the subcontinent well, having first explored the country in his 1974 classic The Great Railway Bazaar and returning there for 2007’s Elephanta Suite, a trio of novellas. These are among Theroux’s almost comically prodigious output, which includes essays, novels, countless stories, and, of course, travelogues. His latest, The Plain of Snakes, chronicles the septuagenarian’s journey through Mexico’s borderlands in an old Nissan Murano. Much of the book unfolds in Oaxaca, and so it seems fitting that we find ourselves at Oxomoco, the bright, newish Oaxacan restaurant from chef Justin Bazdarich. We’re here to relive the past, one tlayuda at a time.
Oxomoco is the name of the Aztec goddess of the night, but the restaurant offers, according to its own account, “wood-fired Mexican in a sun-drenched Greenpoint date spot.” When Theroux and I arrive, at noon, the room is empty. Jade pothos plants — Polynesian originally, now found in a preponderance of Brooklyn apartments — stream down from the skylight. The Strokes stream out of the speakers. For a professional grump, Theroux is surprisingly cheery. “This is really beautiful,” he says of the interior as we slide into our booth.
Our waiter approaches. “Hello. I’m Amanda. Welcome to Oxomoco. Have you been here before?”
“No,” Theroux replies, “but I’ve been to Oaxaca.” Then, with the hopefulness of a toddler, he asks, “Have you?”
“I have not,” she says.
“What a shame,” he says. “What a shame.”
After Amanda recites the specials, Theroux turns his gaze to the menu before us. “This is the real thing,” he says admiringly. “You can see that.” His woolly caterpillar eyebrows wiggle when he reaches tlayuda. “A classic,” he says. It turns out Theroux has been jonesing for Oaxacan food for some time: “We have nothing like this on Cape Cod,” the location of one of his three houses, the other two being in Maine and Hawaii. “We have Mexican, but nothing special.”
In truth, I’m surprised he manifests a desire for food in the first place. In an oeuvre overflowing with eagle-eyed descriptions of people and landscape, food rarely makes an appearance. This holds true for The Plain of Snakes as well, the chronicle of a journey that wends through a washed-out landscape of supersaturated flavor that features only in the tiniest cameos. There is the funereal feast in San Dionisio called the recalentado — the reheating of food the day after a burial — in which Theroux admires the women “stirring the big pot of maize kernels, slapping tortillas on a griddle and passing from table to table with a local delicacy, pan de cazuela.” There are many visits to the pulquerias, where men like Alvarado Alvarez turn agave into mezcal by fermenting it in sacks of sewn uncured cowhide. But there again, Theroux takes a keen interest in the financial dealings of the Alvarez family and less in the liquid itself. (Examining the mezcal offerings at Oxomoco, however, he notes with approval that they offer Bozal. “Oh, that’s a very, very good mezcal,” he says.) When I ask about this, he agrees that food holds little purchase on his attention: “To be honest, when I visit a place, food is an afterthought.”
I ask why and Theroux delves into his past. “I come from a very humble family, a very large family. I am one of seven children. So mealtime was always grab and go,” he says. “In addition, my mother wasn’t much of a cook. She made fish chowder, which had bones, sometimes lots of bones. She made spaghetti, but, you see, my mother was very harassed with us children, and if you don’t stir the spaghetti it becomes like a hard steel cable.”
At Oxomoco, he settles on tuna axiote, guacamole, and, of course, the chorizo tlayuda. It’s been almost two years to the day since Theroux embarked upon his Oaxacan odyssey. He began the book, he writes, “in a mood of dejection and self-pity, feeling shunned, overlooked, ignored, rejected — easily identifying with migrants and Mexicans, who knew the feeling of being despised.” In the past two years, some things have changed; many haven’t. He’s still old, older now, in fact. Donald Trump’s erratic cruelty still lashes and maligns the campesinos with whom Theroux found communion. The Oaxacan activist and artist Ruben Toledo, whom Theroux visits near the end of the book, is dead. “They quoted me in the obituary,” Theroux says, allowing himself a bit of pride. “That’s only happened once before, when the king of Tonga died.”
When the axiote arrives, Theroux digs in with the survivalist gusto honed in Medford, Massachusetts. The axiote — ground annatto seeds that dust the tuna — forms a bright-orange ring around his lips. “This is much better than anything you’d get in a Oaxacan village,” he says. “Maybe not in the city, where there are restaurants.” But Theroux isn’t a city guy. “I generally avoid them.” He’s spent most of his time in Mexico in the hinterlands, mostly — always, in fact — among the poor and dispossessed, when he’s not in Cape Cod, Hawaii, or Maine. “The past of the place,” he explains, “survives in the poor. The danger is romanticizing the poverty — all I’m saying is that people are doing things the way they have for hundreds of years.” The tlayuda arrives; festive stripes of hot sauce crisscross a crumble of chorizo on a regal-purple tlayuda. Theroux flips his lid. “I have never seen one made with this much care,” he says. “This is almost like a pizza.”
As he has for nearly 70 years, Theroux seems most interested in getting to the marrow of wherever he lands, and he has little patience for the luxurious skein upon which so many tourists settle. “I was talking to my nephew, Justin, the other day” he says, “a great guy. He told me, ‘I’ve been to Mexico. It’s cool.’ He was saying he used to travel to the One and Only in Cabo. Meanwhile, I was staying in a village in the Mixteca Alta without any running water!” He pulls an incredulous face and shakes his head.
In fact — now he’s on a roll — “I was asked by Town & Country to write about Los Cabos. My idea was to talk about the people who work in Los Cabos, who come from other places in Mexico. But they ended up not running the piece, which I thought was a real shame.” As for his reputation as being a grouch, Theroux rejects it outright: “I often get criticized for being overly critical, but all I’ve done is write about the world as it is, rough around the edges. All I’ve ever done is try to see things as they are.”
At this point Amanda, our server, arrives to sweep away the empty plates.
“Can I tell you about our desserts?” she asks.
Theroux turns to her, face open and eyes wide, and says, “Yes, please do.”