Monday, June 27, 2011

Early or late, a surprise arrival in the garden


Adding to my confusion about the seasons in San Miguel, this morning I discovered our first asparagus spear popping up tentatively eight or so inches above the ground. In Chicago asparagus emerges in early spring, around April, as the plants awaken from a long winter slumber. San Miguel's winter, which this year came with a few below-freezing overnight temperatures, ended sometime February. Then we slid into three months of hot, dry and dusty weather. About two weeks ago, cooler, rainy weather arrived. So which season are we in--spring, summer or fall?

And now asparagus. Just as surprising, and gratifying, is that spears are coming up at all, from seeds I started about 18 months ago. Germination took two or three weeks, and months more before four or five asparagus-looking ferns finally developed. Until now they seemed unsure about life in my raised beds: Do we want to stay and prosper here? Evidently they decided in our favor.

I've never seen them but rumor has it there are large asparagus farms nearby. Still, every book I'd read warned that growing asparagus from seeds was mission improbable if not impossible. The universal advice was to buy asparagus roots, which look like spiders, except Mexican customs won't allow live plants to get through the mail and I couldn't find any local suppliers. So seeds was the only alternative.

From my experience in Chicago, one does not cut off any spears the first year, only a few the second year, and begin some serious asparagus eating in the third year.

Fresh asparagus should be a treat. There are some Mexican asparagus at the stores right now but before that most came from... Peru! You don't need to be a fanatic locavore to wince at the thought of asparagus coming from that far away.

Even if they travel by air those babies would have to get from the Peruvian farms to the Lima airport, from there to Mexico City and then transfer to a truck to San Miguel or to the grocery store's distribution center. If the asparagus travel economy on a ship they'd have to be embalmed in Peru.

Before the weather gets cold, around December, I'm going to transplant the asparagus to the beds at the far end of the property, where we now have squash, cantaloupes, corn, broccoli and beans. Whenever they decide to send up those luscious spears we'll be ready--spring, summer or fall.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Sad story with a happy ending


Though people ceaselessly praise the loyalty, intelligence and friendship of dogs no one really knows what goes on in those little canine brains. Sure, you'll hear some owners gravely aver that their little Poopadoodle peed on the rug "because she wants to get back at me" or was angry at something that happened two days ago.

But c'mon. Truth is there are no lines in the operating software of dogs for processing such complex, and useless, human emotions as holding grudges and resentments, much less plotting revenge.

If anything, dogs are masterful and natural practitioners of Buddhist mindfulness: the Poopadoodle peed on the rug because at that precise moment that's all that came into her head. When you yell at her for the mess three hours later she is not contrite or having a learning experience but instead baffled by what might be going on in your little human brain.

Just such unfathomable canine behavior earlier this week led our recently adopted Doberman, Desi, to attack and damn near kill Lucy, a white Labrador-ish female that we had adopted as a puppy four years ago. We thought Desi and Lucy would make a good pair; Desi obviously didn't agree.

Desi came to us through Save a Mexican Mutt, a group that rescues local strays and finds homes for them locally or in the U.S. He had been found lost and emaciated on the streets of San Luis Rey, a dirt-poor colonia in San Miguel.

We had been talking about getting an outside dog to guard the property and Desi seemed ideal. He's a massive creature, about 90 pounds we figured, and to our eyes a perfect specimen of the breed. After he started to eat regularly he developed a thick and shiny coat. His nose was incredibly long and his ears floppy and silky. The only flaw was a bad hacking job that had left him with a stump instead of a tail.

Desi nevertheless wagged his stump as happily and expressively as if he had a tail. We quickly discovered his incredibly sweet manner toward people which seemingly rendered him useless as a guard dog. He greeted everyone as if they were old friends and placed his huge head on your lap at every opportunity, begging for a pat or scratch behind the ears.

The only sign of aggression came when Desi ate. He wouldn't let anyone, human or canine, anywhere near his food. We've been told such obsession with food is the natural result of being abandoned and hungry in a previous life.

Desi's relationship with Lucy, and our other mutt Gladys, seemed friendly and playful. Same with Félix' own two mutts, Palomita and Luiso, who come to work with him every day.

So why did after a few months of amicable relations with everyone, human and animal alike, did Desi turn on Lucy, sinking his massive teeth on her shoulder and on one leg, almost clear to the bone? We weren't home and if Félix hadn't intervened and taken Lucy to the vet immediately, she certainly would have bled to death.

That would have been the same fate encountered by Chupitos, Félix' own cheerful mutt, who seemed to have a permanent grin on her face but which was killed and nearly disemboweled six months ago by a pack of strays that hangs around by our entrance gate.

Félix says Lucy and Desi may have been fighting over a piece of rawhide or a bone. Or did a playful rassling match turn bad?

It's just as likely Desi suddenly--and definitively--tried to settle a brewing disagreement with Lucy over dominance. Up until Desi's arrival Lucy had been the undisputed leader of the pack if nothing else because she was the biggest.

After the fact, Stew said he had noticed that Lucy, the usually lovable bully, had started to cower and hide in the house instead of running around outside. Perhaps Desi and Lucy already had had a few sets-to over who was top dog.

Someone else suggested that inbreeding, very common among poor people here who cross animals indiscriminately for dog-fighting or for sale, may have created a animal that was beautiful but came with a few genetic short circuits.

Whatever and who knows: Desi had to go or another fight would ensue. If not that, he would get to one of our three cats, which he constantly stalked through the glass doors. Lucy and Gladys, and Félix' two mutts, regard the cats with total disinterest, as if they were potted plants. The cats are equally disdainful of the dogs.

Fortunately the woman who runs Save a Mexican Mutt offered to take Desi back immediately. She will put him through a three-week training program before placement in the home of someone with no competing pets who wants Desi.

Initially I felt sorry for Desi; after several weeks we had bonded and I loved his soulful eyes and his gentle, attention-seeking style. After I saw what he did to Lucy though, I realized I had no choice but to get rid of him and even thought of putting him to sleep. I'm glad it didn't come to that.

In the end it all worked out well for everyone, particularly Desi, though we have no explanation for his behavior. Lucy is on the mend but still a bit spooked and walking with a slight limp. She is probably grateful for her good luck except I'm not sure she can understand what being grateful and lucky is all about.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Bugs in your tacos

A tantarria perched on Félix' finger.

Tantarrias gathered on a mesquite.


The redoubtable Félix, our gardener and fountain of information on all things Mexico, two days ago showed me these gorgeous bugs which had just appeared on our scraggly blackberry bush. They looked a bit like cockroaches except for the precise and intricate markings that resembled some sort of Moorish mosaic or a design on the shield of an African tribesman. Félix informed me they are called "tantarrias" and they live mostly on mesquite trees.

Moreover he said matter-of-factly that they are considered a delicacy by folks in Hidalgo, a state southeast of here. "But not by me," he added. We've talked about foods and cooking and I've noticed that Félix, or more properly his wife Ysela who does all the cooking, seldom stray from conventional tortilla, beans and chile type of fare.

I checked on the Internet and once again Félix was right. He has such sharp and observant mind that in another place and time he could have been a naturalist or biologist instead of a gardener with a sixth-grade education and an uncertain future. Such are the tragedies and waste poverty brings about.

Along with chapulines (grasshoppers), escamoles (ant larvae) and huitlacoche (a fungus that grows on corn, known in the U.S. as corn smut) tantarrias inhabit the more exotic corners of Mexican cuisine.

Some marketing genius has rebranded huitlacoche as "Mexican truffles" and escamoles as "Mexican caviar," based not so much on taste but on what they look like on your plate.

After years of complaining that Mexican grocery stores don't carry this or that ingredient or vegetable to make some Italian or Indian dish, Stew and I are coming to the conclusion that perhaps the most logical solution is to use local ingredients and concentrate on Mexican cooking. It's a culinary adaptation of the Serenity Prayer, about accepting things one cannot change.

Even then one has to fight the "yuk factor" when it comes to eating insects and cancerous-looking fungi scraped from deformed ears of corn. Or for that matter, "tacos de cabeza," or "head tacos" stuffed with some sort of brain matter extracted from the steaming skulls of cows and sold as a delicacy by street vendors in Mexico City. Eyes and cheeks also are considered yummy.

Ever since we got Canadian satellite television Stew and I have become fans of "Iron Chef America," in which two teams of chefs are given a "secret ingredient" to create, along with other meats and vegetables of their choosing, five or six dishes, each more exotic than the last.

The show is all very haute cuisine and has raised or lowered, somewhat, the threshold of what we consider too disgusting to eat. There are all sorts of carpaccios and tartare meats, which are raw but marinated or otherwise seasoned. One time someone served the entrails of sea cucumbers, a vile-looking worm-like marine animal, and in another show the brains of squab, which are baby pigeons before they learn to fly. The judges had to suck the brains out of the little squabs' heads.

After not long the show almost becomes an addictive sort of culinary voyeurism or pornography, showcasing improbable feats of cuisine performed by very experienced and talented chefs. You feel curious and intrigued but not enough to attempt cooking and eating some of that stuff.

Except I'm a 63-year-old Cuban and I just can't go on eating black beans and rice and pork roast with garlic for the rest of my life. Or in the case of Stew, Iowa-style meat and potatoes. One must learn, grow and diversify, no?

So I have sampled beef carpaccio in Mexico City and tacos stuffed with huitlacoche at a local restaurant. I can't clearly recall the taste of either one, except it wasn't bad. Tensing up, closing your eyes and screwing up your face is not the best way to fairly judge the taste of a dish. I may try both again, maybe with some breathing exercises or tranquilizers beforehand. The ant larvae? Let me think about those.

These late stirrings of adventuresome dining, however, won't lead me to a plateful of tantarrias or chapulines. The one recipe for chapulines began with a mound of grasshoppers which one had to prepare by first pulling out their heads and legs, presumably while still live and squirming, as is the case with crabs. The tantarrias also required dismembering and using ingredients like lye and some sort of disinfectant. I didn't get past the first few lines of the cooking instructions for either critter so if you're interested you'll have to do your own research.

As for the tantarrias, I need to find out if they are liable to kill my mesquites. If that's the case, out they go no matter how beautiful or tasty.