Food & dining

Food & TRavel

A Boston chef finds slow food in coastal Oaxaca

Red snapper in a tomatillo salsa made by chef Spring Sheldon in Huatulco, Oaxaca.
Sarah Sweeney for the boston globe
Red snapper in a tomatillo salsa made by chef Spring Sheldon in Huatulco, Oaxaca.

Chef Spring Sheldon for The Boston Globe
Sheldon’s homemade yam gnocchi.

Huatulco, Oaxaca — I’ve just touched down here, where two lifelong dreams are becoming reality: There’s a man at the airport gate wielding a sign with my name on it, and I’m shacking up with a chef for the week at an airy casita overlooking the Pacific.

I first met Spring Sheldon in 2014. She was then chef de partie at Milton’s Steel & Rye. I blinked and next she was the personal chef to a member of Aerosmith. We reconnected a year later in Mexico — I was living at an arts residency in Akumal, and she was in nearby Tulum, sampling tacos and the beach before rambling onward to Cuba.

But on a pioneer trip to Oaxaca City for Día de Los Muertos last fall, Sheldon fell doubly in love — with the food capital of Mexico and her boyfriend, Cato Castellanos. By then she’d landed as head chef at Kitchen Porch, a Martha’s Vineyard catering outfit where she works summer through October, spending the rest of the year traveling and eating. (She also runs her own catering company, the Kitchen Window.)

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She returned to Oaxaca in January, traveling with Castellanos by bus down to San Agustinillo. The tiny beachfront pueblo is typically Mayberry-quiet, they tell me, but I’ve arrived during Semana Santa, the Holy Week before Easter. Families from Mexico City fill the narrow streets, and just over the thundering waves come the sounds of blaring cumbia.

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But this is paradise, regardless. My first hour here, Meli, my airport chauffeur, pulls off-road so I can sample mezcal from a slapdash road stand. Oaxaca is mezcal country, and I buy a bottle for 120 pesos, or $7.

It’s night by the time I reach Sheldon. Full moon like a wheel of cheese. Castellanos is out fishing marlin for the night, so we walk to town for tacos de cecina and tasajo — thin, tender cuts of pork and beef, respectively — with a requisite Victoria beer. The American concept of the taco is the culinary equivalent of a cruise ship, replete with flashy ingredients. The real thing is simple: corn tortilla, protein, finely diced onion, cilantro, salsa as you like it. Perfection.

I sleep shrouded in mosquito netting and awake ravenous, sniffing out the loaf of bread Sheldon whipped up for Castellanos’s fishing expedition, baked from masa and spiked with homemade pasta sauce, local quesilla cheese, olives, and roasted vegetables, topped with sesame seeds.

Sarah Sweeney for The Boston Globe
Chef Spring Sheldon.

When he returns midmorning, Sheldon prepares a true breakfast: scrambled eggs with fresh homemade tomato and tomatillo salsas and bacon shaved from the big pork belly she hauled down from Oaxaca. “I’ve been rationing it,” she tells me.

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The closest market is in nearby Mazunte, but it’s small, for necessities only, so every Monday Sheldon travels by colectivo to the city of Pochutla and its bustling market filled with hundreds of vendors selling everything from cowboy hats to fruits Sheldon has never before seen.

“Everything here requires planning,” says Sheldon. “It’s not like, ‘Oh, I’m going to take a trip to Whole Foods.’ All your ingredients have to be sourced from various places, which I appreciate. It really redefines slow food. But that’s also why I go get tacos — a lot.”

That’s also why I have no coffee. Sheldon doesn’t drink it, and with no market to easily procure it from, she tells me I might find it — and anything else, for that matter — on the beach, where vendors hawk everything from tamales and bread to peanuts and bug spray.

It’s a lifestyle she and Castellanos have readily adapted to. They’ve built a backyard fire pit, and that night Sheldon marinates local shrimp in tomatillo sauce, fire-roasting them alongside yams she’ll coat with a buttery herb sauce. She fashions a cold salad from green mango, jicama, celery heart, red onion, grapefruit, carrot, cilantro, chile, passion fruit-esque granada china seeds, and a vinaigrette with local honey, pulque vinegar (made from fermented agave plants), and wormsalt, which is exactly what it sounds like — salt and ground agave worms.

The next morning we eat banana pancakes with Massachusetts maple syrup that one of her many houseguests has supplied her with. Then we go to the beach. Our days all pass in a blur like this. But with Easter fast approaching, Sheldon sends out invites for a dinner party.

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We spend Sunday morning swimming, awaiting the fishing boats’ return. When they appear, we pounce, nabbing the red snapper. That night, Sheldon’s guests arrive — fishermen, neighbors, locals she’s befriended. Castellanos grills the fish while she sautés handmade yam gnocchi topped with mole sauce, cilantro, and queso fresco. It’s a new recipe she’s been eager to make. She assembles another cold salad with jicama, grapefruit, cucumber, radish, more pulque vinaigrette, and when we finally sit down to eat, I’ve never seen a table so silent.

“Muy rico,” mumbles the fisherman next to me — very delicious.

But if I have to be honest, I was sold by the second day here. “Will you marry me?” I’d blurted, after devouring my first shrimp, to which Sheldon replied, “I get that all the time.”

Sarah Sweeney can be reached at sarahkathleensweeney@gmail.com.