jude's culinary journey

Tiny Napkins

Posted 6/21/23

The first few years that my sister and I visited Oaxaca, Mexico, we were both still working. Our stays were short vacations—around nine days to two weeks. 

Everything was novel and …

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jude's culinary journey

Tiny Napkins


The first few years that my sister and I visited Oaxaca, Mexico, we were both still working. Our stays were short vacations—around nine days to two weeks. 

Everything was novel and exciting. It’s a great walking city, accessible and safe. The food is out of this world, and Oaxaca was—and is—rightly known as a food destination.  

At first, I wasn’t irked by a situation at restaurants that eventually grew to be an obsession.

It wasn’t until I retired and Janet semi-retired, that our time in Oaxaca expanded each year. Last year, we stayed for five months, and this year for six.

It was last year that the napkin situation began gnawing at me in earnest. 

I’ve always used a lot of napkins when I eat. I’m not a fastidious maniac, but I like to wipe my mouth between bites, particularly if I’m consuming something saucy, juicy or sticky. 

With few exceptions, there is no such thing as a dinner-sized napkin in Oaxacan restaurants. In every eatery we visited, the average paper napkin we were given was about cocktail size, maybe smaller. At all meals, we had to request more napkins. “Más servilletas, por favor,” became a constant refrain. Sometimes the server would bring over a ceramic or tin cup filled with more tiny napkins. We were never supplied with a larger napkin, though I noticed that the bathrooms were equipped with dispensers of paper towels that were more than ample.

As I mentioned, the year before our last visit, my reaction to the napkin situation moved from bothered to irritated. “Why can’t they give us a larger napkin?” I railed at Janet at each meal. She’d shrug and change the subject. But I was incensed and couldn’t stop harping on it. Daydreaming while we ate, I came up with what I felt was an innovative, lucrative and common-sense plan regarding the circumstances. 

There are myriad shops all over the city of Oaxaca, large and small, that sell every manner of handicraft for which these artistic and creative people are known. There is clay pottery and figurines of all sorts; hand-embroidered clothing; tin work in the form of boxes, picture frames, mirrors and colorful Christmas ornaments; wooden vessels, cutting boards and cooking utensils; hand-wrought jewelry; and handwoven items from cloth napkins and placemats to tablecloths and bedspreads.

The idea that was sprouting in me was this: I would set a table outside of a restaurant and have a supply of amply sized cloth napkins that I would have purchased at a local store. Janet and I had outfitted our house upstate and the studio in our hotel in Oaxaca with just this kind of colored cloth. When customers arrived at the eatery, I would have at the ready a selection of cloth napkins, which they could rent for the duration of their meal. Upon leaving they would return the soiled napkin to me. Later I would cart them to a laundromat a few blocks from our hotel and have them cleaned for a reasonable price. What a brilliant idea, I thought to myself.

This past visit I shared my idea with many of the friends with whom we had restaurant meals. As you might imagine, I was met with good-natured smiles and the nodding of heads. Encouragement, though, was not forthcoming. Everyone knew it was just a pipe dream. The job would be an enormous undertaking and, let’s face it, I’m retired. 

I’m thinking that perhaps this coming October I’ll carry my own personal cloth napkin with me when we eat out. Maybe not. There is one restaurant—a favorite—that not only doles out large cloth napkins, but they are deposited onto our laps by a waiter with a pair of tongs. Thank goodness, because we adore the roast suckling pig and ribs in sauce the restaurant is known for.

judes culinary journey, tiny napkins, mexico, Oaxaca


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