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Dr. Grauer's Column - Teacher Contemplating The Skulls Of Pomuch

This tale of culinary wizardry delves into the dark world of a sage village chef. Join Stuart's expedition into the heart of Yucatan, but be prepared to question what you know about life, death, the power of small communities—and tacos.

Teacher Contemplating the Skulls of Pomuch
By Stuart Grauer

On the Ruta Puuc, the Puuc highway, in the state of Campeche, on the Yucatan peninsula, near the Gulf of Mexico, I had one of the strangest experiences of my life, and of death.  

On this route, you can eat culinary creations beyond the imagination. These are creations that take generations to arrive at, things the people throughout Yucatan claim they could only have learned from their grandparents who learned from theirs. Along this way, in a village so tiny it barely appears on the map, the village of Pomuch, I spent an afternoon with a chef of transcendent accomplishment, Diego Tun.

I met him while traveling with the phenomenal teacher and chef, Susana Trilling. I first learned of Susana when I came across her book, "My Search for the Seventh Mole” [moh-lay]. I was an instant fan, and soon traveled to Oaxaca to study with her. Ultimately, she moved into my pantheon of great teachers. Susana and Diego are both chefs whose food, caring, and teaching makes you think you had not previously known what cooking was for. Both preside in small communities. Both are world class in their accomplishments.

Susana Trilling in Mayan village for traditional cooking

In life and career, I have been schooled to be competitive, extremely quick and filled with guile, to worship entertainers, to be constantly entertained, and to be short-sighted. In short, I am well adapted to my ecosystem. Some of this makes sense, as we are flashes in pans. In contemporary societies, the average human being is almost completely, utterly forgotten off the face of the earth within around forty years. Most communities I have known espouse values that are not widely practiced, other than money and fame. Both of which these two chefs could have, but have chosen the small community instead.

Small Communities with Big Spirits
In small communities, you can see things that are stable and that pass a thick thread through the generations. It is rare to find a community that has such a thread. When I have seen one, I have never forgotten it. Can you name some you have been in? In communities like these, people like Susana and Diego have, with their hands, incredibly managed to retain the spirit of those who came before them. They are traditional. They are endangered.

Small, stable communities teach reverence, remembrance, and the patience of nature, if we can only find them. I found them this week in the heart of Yucatan. 

Crossing the Veil
In the village of Pomuch, Campeche, something many of us are taught is  fearful and forbidding opened up into a new dimension. Darkness became light.

We drive through the Puuc Route archaeological region known for Mayan ruins, in the west, where jaguars still roam and are revered. There, Susana takes us into Diego’s modest family restaurant in Pomuch, a place so nondescript it would have been invisible to me. They are old friends and mutual admirers, and they embrace. Diego is an unassuming, gentle presence, and a chef whose single taco made me realize I had never even known what a taco was: the blanched, pickled red onions, the habanero essence, the lightness of the tortilla made me leave my long-held San Diego taco snobbery behind. But the other dimension he showed me was not just in tacos, and I will try to describe it.

The next day, Diego takes us through the winding marketplace so we can purchase the best ingredients for this afternoon’s backyard feast: epazote, achiote to make the red pibil paste for marinade, yerba santa, huge avocados for the guacamole, habaneros and tomatoes for the salsa, etc. We head for his home and, with his whole family of all ages, begin assembling ingredients in the indoor-outdoor kitchen. We dice ingredients with knives with curated, stropped blades, and mince the habanero peppers extremely finely so we can use them sparingly like a spice, not a food, and not burn our mouths and stomachs. We soak them in the juice of six limes. We assemble the parts of a chicken and suckling pig all around a large, stainless steel cooking box the size of a suitcase. With our hands, we massage them with the achiote and spices until they turn a deep reddish orange, squeeze the sour orange all around with herbs, pour a healthy cup of lard over all of it, cover it with giant banana leaves, and bury it to slow roast over the hot rocks in a fire pit out back. Now we have two hours or so free. 

We climb in Susana's van and Diego escorts us into a 200-year-old, family-owned bakery in the middle of the pastel-colored village to sample their ancient recipes. It is on the Bosque de los Muertos (Forest of the Dead) street, down the street from the town cemetery. 

We walk down to the cemetery where reside the townspeople from the underworld. “It’s above ground burials,” I say to someone, looking across the colorful family mausoleums. 

The Living Dead
Preoccupation with the other world is both common and strange in contemporary living, given our fear of death and dying and the distant relationship almost everyone I know holds with those who are dead, even their parents. The people in this Mayan village do not see the dead as gone, as I always have. Nor do they see death as bad. There are two coexisting worlds: lightness and darkness. We need both the same. This sounds like an abstract theory, so read on.

Access to dreams, the subconscious, and the theta state of mind is one of my personal greatest goals. We all know how to access the living world. We access the underworld through sleep and dreams, but Diego explains that we also access this through our direct connection with ancestors. Diego opens the gate to the cemetery and ushers us into a new reality: the dark world. 

I have found a general avoidance of the “dark” world in our community with a fascinating exception. Of course there is Halloween, but that holiday is ceding its dark-side connection to commercialism. And yet, many of our teens seem to find depth, passion, and identity in darkness. They gravitate to musicians and artists who allude to it. It’s like darkness gives our teens to a special club only they can belong to. Listen to:

  • "Three Tree Town" by Ben Howard, on his "The Old Pine E.P.",was released in 2011.
  • Muse's "The Dark Side" from their 2018 album "Simulation Theory" speaks directly to living in and dealing with darkness.
  • Lil Wayne, featuring Nicki Minaj, offers a rap track called "Dark Side of the Moon" from the 2018 album "Tha Carter V."
  • The Grateful Dead’s whole brand was based upon this allusion, as well as some of their best album covers.
  • And this list could never be complete without the captivating 80s teen anthem:  "(Don’t Fear) The Reaper" by Blue Öyster Cult.

Personally, I think Isakov’s “The Stable Song” does a great job of evoking loss, death, and the eternal. The dark world pushes the emotional IQ. I think that’s a key job of a teacher, and Diego challenges all of us to overcome avoidance and step into the darkness as a form of humanity.

Diego and the humble people around here believe that spirits live with them permanently. As such, this village has a special burial tradition and way of celebrating and honoring the dead. It takes place every November—not a Day of the Dead but, in this town, a month of the dead. The townspeople decorate the graves and hang out there routinely for the month, and those in the dark world are quite alive for them.

When relatives die, they do not bury them—they put them in caskets. After 3 or more years, they exhume the body, and take it to an embalmer who preserves the bones and hair, etc. They clean them and place them on a special embroidered cloth in a wooden box in their open tomb at the cemetery, with flowers. They even add the hair back on top. 

The bones are on display. We stroll the cemetery face to face with the skulls, peering into their big, round eyes.

Throughout November, in Pomuch, they bring the bones home to speak to relatives, introduce new members, and catch them up on the news. They clean and decorate the tombs on the last night, some even prepare food to go. They bring clean flowers and candles to the tomb. Then, returning the skulls and bones after the month, they go home and have a large meal of celebration: traditional cochinita pebil, cooked underground with hot stones. This same feast awaits us back at Diego’s house.

Diego takes us through the cemetery where we encounter the skulls of the town’s forebears. With love, he shows us his abuelo and premecieto (grandfather and prematurely-born child) in their boxes, and he moves the bones around to see them better. 

At the Pomuch cemetery, I did not know whether to hold my breath. I had no prior experience in the immediate company of the dead. As I watched Diego lovingly adjust the bones of his forebears, I learned there were ways to escape our self-centeredness, short-sightedness, and fear. I learned the fear of death was not necessary except in avoidance. 

Diego talks to the dead in whispers. 

Death, Cuisine, and Teaching
I would never know or meet a person like Diego, but for renowned and elegant chef and teacher, Susana Trilling, who has roamed these areas for decades discovering hidden gems, and her son Kaelin Ulrich, who is taking this work into the next generation. They search for chefs and meals as I do great teachers (and waves), all over the world. They search in tiny corners of the world, but throughout Mexico, their networks are especially thick and strong.

After the cemetery, we return to Diego’s home, dig the buried meats out from underground, peel the banana palm leaves off them, and fiesta. From down the street on the light Yucatan breeze, ranchero music drifts over the smoky smells and conversation. There, everyone in the family, even the nine year old son, can create alchemy with a lime, some sal de gustava (salt with ground agave worms) and almost anything they add it to. Salsa, ceviche, and margaritas are merely incantations to enter.

What would it mean for a community, such as a school, to see it’s forebears like they are present, to treat the dark world as well as they do the light? What if the dark world were as vital as the light world?

None of this would be useful to me if I could not tie it into education. We can draw parallels between the tight-knit community of Pomuch and the intimate setting of a small, place-based school. In such environments, we have immediate access to meaningful connections, a stronger sense of identity, a tremendous capacity for respect, and an inherent appreciation for the past that can be infused into educational practices. In contrast, most of the schools I visit could be transplanted to other cities and not much would change.

The town of Pomuch is a reminder of the importance of embedding a sense of history, place, and continuity within the ethos of a school or community. I want to embed that ethos into the definition of “school.” I want every student grounded in a sense of intergenerational connection, and a deeper understanding of our worlds, dark and light.

The intimate knowledge of ancestors and the ritualistic honoring of the past in Pomuch inspires me and I hope all our teachers find ways to celebrate heritage, because passing along a heritage is the most basic function for schools that I know. I only wish I would not have to keep travelling to remote corners to find evidence of it.

Lessons from the Underworld
In Pomuch, we took a deep dive that opens up into a vast world we call “dark” but mistake for fear. Inviting the "dark world" into schools and curriculum, as described in Pomuch, where it represents introspection, remembrance, and the historical depth of human experience, can be approached through several educational strategies:

  1. History Lessons: Real history doesn't shy away from darker and more spiritual aspects of the past so it can increase understanding of the heritage of humankind. We access these lessons through letters, diaries, primitive cultures study, and activist movements.
  2. Ancestral Projects: Some of the best assignments I have ever seen students explore are their own family or community histories, projects that involve interviewing elders, constructing family trees, and sharing stories, much like the people of Pomuch do with their ancestors—there is no greater form of expeditionary learning than to experience the remembrance of those before us.
  3. Cultural Celebrations: One of the most important aspects of maintaining a strong school culture is to incorporate celebrations. Mexico's Día de los Muertos is a day marked annually by The Grauer School Spanish teacher Mimi Robinson and her students. Students create ofrendas (altars) for figures in history or loved ones, but we can expand on this. We can write reflective essays and engage in community service to honor past generations. I once shared such a ceremony with students in Ecuador and none of us will ever forget it, or the epic lightning storm accompanying it—much like experiencing another dimension. Did you know our school peace pole was planted for an end-of-life ceremony I produced for a school patron who was still alive, and who attended the ceremony?
  4. Local History and Archaeology: Our students can invite in local historians or archaeologists to explore the history beneath their feet. We have increasingly invited ethnobotanists and local spiritual figures onto The Grauer School's campus, but perhaps we can be involved in field trips to historical sites, the San Diego Mission, or local cemeteries. 
  5. Mythology and Literature: Let’s continue to include myths, legends, and literature that explore themes of mortality, the afterlife, and the importance of remembrance. Stories from various cultures help our students make peace with the “dark world” they might spend their whole lives avoiding.
  6. Art and Expression: Art, music and performing arts classes can explore themes of life and death, allowing students to express their feelings about loss and remembrance through creative means. These pieces can evoke introspection and historical reflection. We can integrate with Day of the Dead through arts, as occurs all over Mexico.
  7. Mindfulness and Reflection: Students can explore their inner thoughts and feelings, akin to the introspective journey into the "dark world" of sleep and dreams that is valued in Pomuch. This opens up and invites access to a whole part of widely-ignored consciousness.
  8. Philosophy and Psychology: Students can think and talk openly and critically about life's big questions, including ethical considerations around death and the significance of remembrance within a community. Students and teachers can only be healthier and better adjusted in accepting the reality of the dark side. 
  9. Environmental Education: The natural world has cycles of life and death. Students can study how ecosystems function and the importance of each stage within them—we seem to ignore dying, while our human industrial “progress” is obviously threatening us with our own extinction. What will this mean?
  10. Community Service: Some of my most treasured connections have been sharing in community service projects that connect students with the elderly in our community, fostering intergenerational relationships and allowing for the sharing of wisdom and stories. Likewise, visiting indigenous communities with students is consistently life-changing.

Teaching in the Shadows
By incorporating the dark side, a small school can provide a holistic education that respects and explores the complexities of life, preparing students not just for academic success, but for a thoughtful and meaningful engagement with our heritage.

There is a moving artistic tradition from the dark side of teaching. I have never been able to describe what I love so much, as a teacher, about Rembrandt’s Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer, but I have seen this stunning, dark painting dozens of times and, when in New York, never miss the chance to visit it again. What greater homage could we possibly pay to a teacher or abuelo. And the first time I ever stumbled into Saint Jerome by Caravaggio (accidentally, in the Borghese Museum in Rome), I was so entranced by the depiction of the scholar in his study I could not leave the museum before sitting with it for an hour. And, as for The School of Athens by the Italian Renaissance artist Raphael, I ran into that at the Vatican and I could not believe I was in its presence. It made me shudder—it should be required teacher education. No teacher could fail to be stopped in their tracks by these three works of art. I’m not even going to mention The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David, also at the Met in New York. You’d die.

I don’t expect any of my students will someday clean off my skull and adjust my hair on top of it, as Diego did to his forebears. The hair looks like a wig, and they should just leave it off! But it is good to think that a teacher might not permanently leave those who come after them. It’s good to think we are not living and dying all in vain, and better to think maybe a school could study this.

Religions and philosophies commonly suggest that there is dark or there is light and that they cannot coexist. But in deep in Yucatan, over food from another dimension, I could see that this is not necessarily true. If we want to teach our children to be resilient and realistic, we can find ways to show that those are not polarities at all, that they are ever-present. This is a wonderful and fascinating thing to teach and learn in preparing not just academically, but emotionally and culturally, for growing up and living and dying well in a complex world.

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Photos for Dr. Grauer's Column

Susana Trilling in Mayan village for traditional cooking

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