Published June 3, 2020

By Nora Pehrson

“I was hesitant, at first, about enrolling in an online cooking class,” admits Morgan Miller. “It’s a new format, and I’m not a super tech-savvy person. But I forced myself to follow through, and after the first class, I started to look forward to it every week.”  Miller, a photographer living in New Orleans, is learning the art of Mexican cuisine thanks to a new initiative by our Virginia Folklife Program.

Last month, Miller took five online cooking classes with Luz Lopez, a Charlottesville resident and a master artist in the Folklife Apprenticeship program. Under Lopez’s instruction, Miller, along with the other aspiring cooks who participated in the class, learned how to shop for and prepare many of the staples of traditional Yucatan-region Mexican cuisine—homemade tortillas, salsa verde and salsa asada, barbacoa, and tamales.

Screenshot of one of Lopez’s classes. Morgan Miller is pictured in the top left. Lopez adds sour cream to a sauce in the bottom center.

The cooking classes are part of TRAIN, or Teachers of Remote Arts Instruction Network, a new platform created by our Virginia Folklife Program that connects artists like Lopez with students like Miller for online lessons. The initiative helps to support artists who have been hit especially hard by the economic impact of the Coronavirus these past months. For Lopez, and for the musicians and craftspeople who are also part of the program, work frequently depends on in-person interactions like teaching lessons and performing live in front of audiences. TRAIN, which can be accessed through the Virginia Folklife website, currently includes more than sixty artists. Together they make up a diverse collection of talents, offering lessons in art forms as different as old-time fiddle, tapdancing, ceramics—and, in Lopez’s case, cooking.

Miller is no stranger to the Virginia Folklife Program. He photographed the master-apprentice duos in the Folklife Apprenticeship Program from 2002 to 2007 and he remains close friends with Virginia Folklife’s director Jon Lohman, who also participated in Lopez’s cooking class. Miller understands that Folklife artists often draw on the environment around them in order to share their art form with their students. Luckily, cooking is relatively easy to teach virtually, and Lopez is adept at instructing her students through Zoom. Miller says he found himself pleasantly surprised by how quickly the class achieved a comfortable working dynamic. Lopez, he said, welcomed questions as they arose, and it was easy to follow her example on the screen.

Luz Lopez – photo by Peter Hedlund

Lopez was raised in Morocoy, a small town in the southern region of Quintana Roo, Mexico. Her stand-by recipes are traditional ones—she specializes in regional dishes like tamales de hoja de platano (corn tamales wrapped in banana leaves), cochinita pibil (pulled pork shoulder marinated and braised in achiote paste, orange juice, and lime), and panuchos (a specialty from the Yucatán made with a refried tortilla that is stuffed with refried black beans and topped with meat, tomato, pickled red onion, avocado, and pickled jalapeños).

Her cooking style is a unique combination of southern and northern techniques passed down to her by her mother, who came to Morocoy from the northern town of Michoacán. Requiring only a handful of simple, easy-to-find ingredients, like roma tomatoes, cilantro, and black beans, Lopez’s recipes are ideal during a pandemic, when trips to the grocery store need to be limited. Lopez sends out a shopping list in the days leading up to each class, but she also allows her students to make substitutions and modifications when necessary. And while a trip to a new market or to an unfamiliar aisle in the grocery store can be a fun excursion—Miller said he enjoyed finally getting to purchase some of the huge chili peppers for sale at his local Latin supermarket—it isn’t a requirement. Participants likely already have many of the ingredients in their cupboards at home.

Lopez starts out with the basics, teaching her students how to prepare the fundamental building blocks of the cuisine.  On day one, the class made homemade corn tortillas, which Miller described as delicious and “remarkably easy to make.” “You’ll never eat another store-bought tortilla again,” he added. They also made salsa asada, which is similarly simple, requiring only a handful of steps to prepare: charred roma tomatoes, serrano peppers, and garlic get crushed in a mortar and pestle, and minced onion and cilantro are added at the end. The recipes became increasingly complex as the class progressed. During the second and third sessions, for instance, Lopez taught her students how to make barbacoa, a beef dish that takes two days to marinate. Next, they made tamales, which Miller counted among his favorite recipes.

While it’s difficult to approximate the artist-student relationship online, Lopez’s classes are proof that it’s far from impossible. TRAIN provides an outlet and a means of financial support for artists whose incomes have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. If self-quarantine has left you bored or stuck in a rut, or you just want to pick up a new skill, think about enrolling in a TRAIN class—there are more than sixty teachers to choose from, and more being added every day. You can take a cooking class like Lopez’s, learn to play an instrument, or even pick up some new dance moves all while supporting artists at a time when they need it most.

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One of Morgan Miller’s photos of Appalachian songwriter Spencer Moore. See more like this in the Real Folk Exhibit.

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