Flavor of Language
Three years ago, when Magda Bogin '73 started Under the Volcano, a yearly program of writing master classes in Mexico, she didn't imagine how it would grow; she just wanted to organize a single retreat taught by "some of the best writers around." The idea for another program, Cocinar Mexicano, was similarly straightforward: to offer cooking master classes taught by local experts. Held in the rural village of Tepoztlán, an hour outside Mexico City, Bogin's programs attract writers and cooking enthusiasts from the United States, Mexico-and beyond.
The cobblestone streets and adobe houses of Tepoztlán are situated beneath two ancient volcanoes. Thanks to its remote geography and the determination of its residents, the town retains its much-prized traditional character-and an ancient culinary tradition. Bogin describes the local farmers as "fierce" about growing only heirloom varieties of corn from seeds they have saved themselves, ensuring authentic flavor and unmodified ingredients for Bogin's cooking classes.
A translator, author and editor, Bogin taught writing at Columbia University for eight years. In 2003, she was ready for a change when a friend suggested creating a writing retreat at Bogin's second home in Mexico. She immediately called her former SLC writing teacher Grace Paley, who enthusiastically signed on, joined by Columbia colleague and novelist Maureen Howard. Fiction writers Jessica Hagedorn, Russell Banks and Sandra Cisneros later followed.
But the secret to Under the Volcano's success is the quality of the people who participate. In reviewing applications, Bogin looks for writers who have attained a high level of mastery. The writing "has to feel literary, be deeply committed to language and have something worthwhile going on in the storytelling." Once classes begin, participants "are astonished to find themselves in the company of such avid, sophisticated fellow readers and listeners."
At first, Bogin didn't realize how much her workshops recreated the atmosphere of her writing classes at Sarah Lawrence. She credits Paley and former don Jane Cooper with inspiring her to become "someone who takes my students more seriously than I think they are ready to take themselves."
Bogin's cooking program, Cocinar Mexicano-meaning "to cook Mexican"-was born of the need to feed her writers. The program's success resides with its master chefs, village women who teach recipes that have been handed down for generations. Workshops are timed to coincide with Mexican holidays and incorporate participation in local festivities, and the proximity to Mexico City enables what Bogin calls "curated dining" with the country's most innovative chefs.
Excited by the high-quality work and exchange of ideas, participants in both programs inevitably create an extended network beyond the retreat, swapping recipes and drafts of their writing via e-mail. Back home in New York, Bogin, too, is inspired; like her master chefs, she continues to experiment with ideas and create "recipes" for future retreats. The newest? A fusion called Word of Mouth, a master class in food-writing.