Sunday, July 31, 2011

The yearly cosmos festival is about to begin

Cosmos plants have sprouted by the tens of thousands and are beginning to cover even large rocks. 

Last year's display of wild cosmos flowers. 

The mostly cool, moist weather of the past few weeks has set off an explosion of vegetation all over the ranch, but the best is yet to come: Waves of pink cosmos flowers--hundreds of thousands, nah, probably millions--that will cover all the fields around the ranch for a breathtaking yet short-lived show that should begin around late September.

Before we had fenced in our land, sheep and other livestock had munched practically everything down to a stubble. But over the past two years wildflowers have returned as if they had never left, particularly the cosmos. The seeds from spent flowers blow off in all directions, to bloom next year in a geometric progression of color.

Thousands of bright green cosmos plants already have sprouted and are growing by the inch every day, covering up even large rocks. Can't wait for their show in just a couple of months.

From ennui to anomie

Six years after moving here we've discovered an unexpected benefit to living in San Miguel, besides its near-perfect climate, colonial ambience and lower living costs: Insulation from the hailstorm of news--including "news", commentaries, extrapolations, speculation, pundit-fications, fear-mongering and sheer media noise--to which Americans back home are subjected every day.

During the first several months in Mexico we felt a vague craving for newspapers and current events, a bit like withdrawal symptoms. That was supplanted by boredom with the shallow and repetitive news cycles in U.S. television news stations and most magazines.

Most recently the debt-ceiling debacle in Washington, a beat-it-to-death media riot spiced with countless and ominous what-ifs, has been pushing Stew and I toward anomie, an alienation from the dysfunctional American political process. If you live in the U.S. this latest spectacle may seem urgent and worth following; it's certainly inescapable, unless you live in a cave in Wyoming.

When you witness it from a foreign country though, even one as close as Mexico, it resembles a Third World soap opera--crude, ridiculous and incomprehensible. This disconnect is an odd and unpleasant sensation for Stew and I, who've followed and voted in elections punctually even in Chicago where the dead have been known to vote and zombies can win as long as they are Democrats.

News from the U.S. doesn't come to you naturally when you live abroad. It takes some work to keep in informed. It doesn't blast your eyes and ears constantly from newspapers, magazines, radio, television, iPhones, Kindles, and even billboards exhorting you to enjoy Coca-Cola while one of those twinkling-lights crawling message boards underneath warns you the world is on the verge of turning into total shit.

Here we have to make an effort. You log onto the Internet and check the New York Times, Huffington Post or Daily Beast, but that doesn't always work: Our wireless broadband Internet is so erratic sometimes we can't connect for days at a time. We subscribe to Newsweek, Time and the New Yorker but thanks to our equally erratic mail delivery system, we get them one or two weeks late, or two or three issues at once.  As for satellite TV, well, ours comes from Canada, whose current events and politics seem quaintly soporific compared to the endless American political circus.

Nonetheless, Stew and I used to make the effort, duly informed citizens we try to be. Then boredom set in: Obama's election two and a half years ago was an undeniably exciting event. For months the screensaver on our computer was the photo of him and his family speaking to a huge crowd of delirious supporters in Chicago's Grant Park the night of his victory. Six months later I replaced it with a portrait of Lucy, one of our dogs.

What happened is that the expected exchange of ideas, and the forging of new ones by the two parties turned into an Animal House-like food fight, with some of our political leaders looking as inspiring  as Bluto Blutarsky, and political dialogue reminiscent of his famous maxim: "My advice to you is to start drinking heavily."

Food fights are fun to watch but even they get tedious after a while; the one in Washington goes on interminably. TV news analysts, who could sort out facts and ideas for their viewers, have instead joined in, on opposing teams.

On MSNBC, Chris Matthews sounds like his underwear is on fire; the shrillness just wears you out after ten minutes. Perhaps as a foil, Lawrence O'Donnell follows with his show "The Last Word" in which he drones on with lectures that sound like Lutheran sermons. Next on the schedule is Rachel Maddow, a brilliant political analyst who unfortunately comes off as she were trying out as a comedian or a satirist, which she is definitely not.

So tedious has become the ranting on MSNBC that on a few occassions Stew and I have resorted to the Doomsday Option: Turning to Fox News. After Obama's speech we tuned in to Hannity who asked his three guests to grade the speech by the president and House Speaker John Boehner's Republican response. Two of the guests gave Obama an "F" and Boehner an "A+": How's that for nuanced political analysis? A third guest was supposed to present the liberal point of view but kept getting shouted down and ultimately mostly covered his face with his hands.  The cumulative effect was about as enlightening as watching a panel of three seals at Sea World blowing their horns on command.

A few days before I had stumbled on Fox's Bill O'Reilly arguing that calling the Norwegian terrorist a Christian was yet another example of anti-Christian bias by the media. O'Reilly said that "no one believing in Jesus commits mass murder." Huh? Did O'Reilly miss, for example, the wars in Northern Ireland where Christians of different denominations bombed and slaughtered each other for decades? Or the Spanish colonization of America?

MSNBC's rants at least keep in touch with facts and reality; Fox News doesn't seem to suffer such constraints.

The most recent symptom of our growing anomie came Friday when we tried to watch "Real Time" by Bill Maher on HBO, usually one of our favorite shows primarily because Maher can be very funny. His panel included Eliot Spitzer, Republican Margaret Hoover and the leader of the Tea Party, an odd-looking duck with a buzz cut and sideburns that hadn't been seen on TV since the days of "American Bandstand." A discussion of the federal deficit immediately turned into an incomprehensible shouting match. 

Five minutes into it, it was click and off. 

Time to read a book.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Trail of the Indian Chapels

As one travels around Mexico, urban areas and countryside alike, the overwhelming economic and cultural power of the Catholic church is inescapable. There are churches bumping into other churches, sometimes two or three on the same block, perhaps with a convent or school sandwiched in between. The churches vary in size and splendor but none are makeshift storefront temples you find in American inner cities. Indeed in Mexican colonial skylines church steeples and domes rise above all other earthly real estate, like exclamation marks signaling the supremacy and power of Catholicism. 

Once past the initial awe at the baroque opulence of some of these Catholic temples--the almost vulgar excess of gold, precious woods, paitings, statues and other trappings seemingly intended to humble as much as inspire the faithful--some mundane questions come up. How could there have ever been enough parishioners with enough money, even at the zenith of Roman Catholic influence over the Mexican populace, to fill all these churches, much less pay for their construction and perpetual maintenance? 

The ubiquitousness of religious buildings spills over to the countryside. Out my office window I can see a small, century-old chapel belonging to the community of Biznaga. From our kitchen we can also see the impressive dome of the church of Sosnavar, a town of about 800 with not an inch of paved streets. A few miles in the opposite direction is Jalpa, hardly richer or larger than Sosnavar, with its own outsize church lording over the town and its inhabitants.

At the suggestion of a posting on the Civil List, the local expat Internet bulletin board, last Sunday Stew and I went on a recently completed tourist attraction called "Trail of the Chapels of the Indians," a driving tour of seven restored tiny chapels scattered on the countryside just outside San Miguel. Along the way you find a few other chapels and churches that are abandoned or for some reason were not included in the refurbishing campaign by the state government.

Jack Connelly, a Chicago friend who lived here for several years memorably described Mexico as a country "where everything almost works" and so it is with the signage along the chapel trail. Upon departure from San Miguel you follow shiny new signs, increasingly vandalized, later replaced by handwritten arrows on pieces of cardboard tied to trees--and ultimately no signs at all. We never found the last chapel listed on the fancy tour brochure.

Each chapel on the tour had a couple of smiling and charming young women ready with a spiel that was informative though limited to the script they had memorized. Nevertheless it was a fascinating introduction to church building in this part of Mexico; it's a shame there was only one other visitor on the trail aside from the two of us.

The chapels are tiny, and everything in them proportioned accordingly. Anyone over six feet tall has to duck to get through some of the entrances and passageways. Even the largest one couldn't accommodate more than 25 people comfortably. In the case of the chapels of Santiaguito and Guadalupe, they are located a scant 400 feet from one another along the same road. In the town of Cruz del Palmar--around the area where all signage vanished--there were three or four small churches within shouting distance of one another.

What type of marketing plan were church authorities following when building a string of tiny churches so close to one another? The answer appears to be "none." According to our guides, these mini tabernacles were not built by the church but by families for their own use and that of their employees. Why not pray at the chapel already built by the Joneses just on the other side of the fence?  Well, evidently that would be like grilling your hot dogs on their BBQ. In addition, building your own mini church, complete with a miniature bell tower, was a way of flaunting your faith and wealth. 

The exteriors of the chapels reflect an indigenous aesthetic and craftsmanship. One of the young tour guides talked about neo-classical design, but that may be a bit of a stretch. In fact the nave-to-steeple proportions don't seem to follow any patterns or rules, and the lines are often crooked, no doubt owing to a combination of age, settling and primitive construction skills. 

That crudeness, though, is precisely what gives the chapels their arresting beauty and charm, particularly in the heavily decorated interiors. The paintings are not the work of budding Michelangelos, but Indian artists who went at it with far more fervor than artistic training or experience. In one church the ceiling over the altar is filled with chubby, clumsy angels blowing flutes and stroking violins and representing the artist's vision of heaven. Artwork could get a little subversive too: One ceiling included images of the moon and the sun that may have more to do with indigenous cosmology than anything in Christian scripture.

As with any old temples or monuments, one can just sit back and imagine a handful of people 150 years ago fervently praying for deliverance from an illness, or expressing gratitude for good fortune or sorrow at the passing of a dear one. 

Maintenance was the responsibility of the families who built the chapels which means that many were abandoned or turned into storage sheds when properties changed hands or times got tough. One miniscule chapel, opened in 1865, is in ruins and filled with hay, bats and swallows. Some of the chapels also were looted over the years, so the altar decorations today are of recent vintage, like pictures of Pope John Paul and plastic babies that are supposed to depict the "Holy Child". In other cases the renovation and painting was so heavy-handed the exteriors have lost their ancient feel.

This tour partly explained the abundance of churches in the countryside. These mini temples were  built by wealthy individuals or families to celebrate a happy event or merely show off their wealth, rather than as a result of a campaign by the Spanish church to evangelize, indoctrinate or subjugate native Mexican populations.

Ironically, either way the result was pretty much the same.  


A niche in the Capilla de Guadalupe, the first one on the Trail of Indian Chapels. 

[Above and below]: The chapel of San Isidro Labrador.


[Above and below] This tiny chapel which is abandoned and now used for storing animal feed, was built by a mason named Pedro García, and opened in August 1865, according to a carving on the stone over the door. The entrance is about five feet high and the interior could not accommodate more than a dozen people. 


[Above and below]: This mesquite door is original and so is the lock and key mechanism which still work.  The interior of this chapel could not hold more than 20 people. 


[Above and below]: According to the legend on one of the walls of the heavily decorated Chapel of San Mateo (above and below), construction began on August 11, 1867 and the chapel was finished about two and a half years later. The sign also mentions that the total cost--including masonry work, painting and the blessing--came to 234 pesos. 

One of the more interesting features of most of the chapels were the "Calvarios"--or "Calvaries"--which were like mini-churches that held small wooden crosses, personal items and other mementos of people in the community who had passed away. Even today, local folk come to the Calvarios to ask permission from their ancestors before having a community celebration. Unfortunately, many of these Calvarios have been looted and now stand empty. Some chapels had an additional and smaller Calvario (or "Calvarito"), about the size of dog house.  
A mystery chapel, not on the tour, atop a hill.

[Note to any fact-checkers who may read this: I didn't take notes so some of the names of the chapels included in the captions may be wrong. In fact we may go on the trail again this coming weekend to sort this out and see some of the chapels we missed.] 

Friday, July 22, 2011

Try the smut soup

Huitlacoche soup will be a hit at your next dinner party as long as you stick to its original name derived from Nahuatl, a Mexican indigenous language. American corn growers call huitlacoche, a fungus that develops in some ears of corn, "corn smut" and treat it as a pest. Other folk call it "corn fungus", which hardly makes it any more appetizing. Some geek at Wikipedia felt compelled to trace the Nahuatl etymology of huitlacoche and made things much, much worse: Apparently it means something like "hibernating excrement."

Whatever. Huitlacoche is considered a delicacy by some gastronomes, and has been rechristened  "Mexican truffles." It bursts out of the tip of some ears of corn and at close inspection looks like overgrown or mutant kernels which when crushed are jet black. Like so many delicacies, you wonder what possessed someone to try it for the first time.

[Somewhere in Central Mexico, ca. 1510:

"Gee, María, why don't we try the unappetizing growth on this here ear of corn."

"Great idea, José, I'll mix in some chiles and stuff tacos with it. You go first, though, and if you croak I'll feed it to some goddamn Spaniard."]

Maybe the Nahuatl people were very hungry or adventurous. Maybe many of them died from eating all sorts of weird things before discovering huitlacoche. Then again truffles also look pretty disgusting-- and you need a French pig to find some varieties--yet are considered the ultimate in culinary sophistication.

Despite its status as a Mexican delicacy, we've never seen it on the menus of San Miguel restaurants except for Don Félix Tacos which in our opinion is the best and most authentic Mexican joint here. It's located in a residential area at the edge of town, opens only on weekends and is staffed with uncles, aunts, cousins and even a 10-year-old nephew of Don Félix.

The latter is the most recent addition to the crew. Emilio has his own starched white waiter's jacket with his name embroidered on it, and his brown eyes are almost as big as his smile. Probably half the gringo customers offer to adopt Emilio but he doesn't have any time for cutesy-poo stunts. He is all business as he brings the appetizers on a tray that next to him looks as large as a flying saucer, and later tries to haul away some of the dirty dishes one at a time. The last time we ate at Don Félix, Emilio was battling to uncork a wine bottle; an uncle had to finish the job. When Emilio gets tired or bored he  discreetly retires to the kitchen and sits on a ledge under the sink.

For me their best dish is an assortment of seven different tacos, stuffed among other things with chicken; a spicy Spanish sausage called chistorra; a couple of types of meat and usually at one end of the plate, a taco filled with huitlacoche. I've had the huitlacoche a few times and found it tasty, though hardly something that would make you lean back and pat your stomach in delight.

In our garden this year we planted two types of corn. One was supposedly a Mexican sweet corn that turned out to be gooey, not too sweet and inedible. Our gardener Félix took a couple of ears to his family and they agreed it was awful.

The second type of corn seeds came from an American friend and it turned out quite good, except half the ears so far have been filled with huitlacoche.

Last time we visited Don Félix we brought a plastic bag with huitlacoche to ask how to cook it, something the owner was delighted to explain--and then some--though all his recipes were of the on-the-fly variety, as in a handful of this, a chunk of that plus chiles and onions. A woman in the kitchen separated and washed the large, mushy huitlacoche kernels for us.

So on to Google to find a recipe with more precise measurements and instructions than Don Félix' family concoction. Stew tried it and the result was a deep-black, thick and delicious soup. Though the recipe said to use fresh or frozen huitlacoche, we've never seen the latter.

So tell your guests it's Mexican truffle and corn soup and they'll be impressed. If someone asks where it comes from, play dumb and by all means don't get it into the fungus or excrement part of this story.

HUITLACOCHE is pronounced something like "weet-tla-coach-aye." And while you're at it, remember that the singular of "tamales" is "tamal," not "tamalee"; and that the "h" in "habanero" is silent, so it sounds like "ah-bah-nay-roh" not HAH-banero. Your guests will be either impressed or annoyed by your culinary and linguistic pedantry.


RECIPE for Tomato and Huitlacoche Soup. ("The Mushroom Lover's Cookbook and Primer" by Amy Farges)

1/2 cup dried black beans soaked or 1 1/2 cups of drained canned black beans
6 cups of light chicken stock or canned low-sodium chicken broth
1 cup shredded cooked chicken meat
1 cup fresh or frozen corn kernels
1/2 cup fresh or canned tomato puree
4 scallions, trimmed and thinly sliced, green and white parts kept separate
1 large Anaheim chile, with or without seeds, or other chile, stemmed and thinly sliced. Stew used           poblano chiles, which are smoky-tasting and not too hot
1/2 cup (2 oz) of huitlacoche
1 tbsp of olive oil
1/2 cup loosely packed fresh cilantro leaves
1 tbsp fresh lime juice
Kosher or sea salt, freshly ground black pepper

1. Place beans in small saucepan of simmering water. Cook uncovered until tender, about 45 minutes. Add hot water to keep the beans submerged. Drain.
2. Combine the chicken stock, meat, corn, tomato puree, whites of scallion, chiles and beans in a medium-size saucepan over high heat and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer for 15 minutes.
3. Stir in the huitlacoche. Add the cilantro, lime juice and scallion greens, and simmer for 2 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

Serve hot with some tortilla strips over the soup.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

On the pulque trail

The pulque madonna of Sosnavar

Slowly emerging from her house, which is almost totally buried by dense vegetation, Doña María Ascensión at first seems like an apparition, a latter-day Virgin Mary coming out of a grotto to meet a supplicant. As she comes nearer, though, hers is not the ever-youthful face of a saint but a leathery one  crisscrossed by a myriad lines that tell of old age and a hard life. Saints and holy virgins don't wear tennis shoes either. It's impossible to guess her age and it would be very rude to ask.

Doña Ascensión does not promise visitors eternal salvation but the relief provided by her own homemade pulque, a milky liquor that she sells for about a dollar a quart. Drink enough of the stuff and your head will be heaven-bound far quicker than by saying a rosary. Pulque also benefits the body, she assures me, by "strengthening the blood" and staving off anemia. It's a boon to both your body and mind.

What put me on the trail of pulque was not the search for a quick buzz but another one of Stew's culinary experiments, this one a "Loin of Pork Pulque," from The Whole Chile Pepper Book, by Dave DeWitt and Nancy Gerlach. The recipe gave the option of substituting tequila but we opted for authenticity. Besides I'd heard of pulque but didn't know what it was. I'd be a small adventure.

The no-name pulquería
Stops at the supermarket and a couple of liquor stores yielded embarrassed grins and quizzical looks: We don't sell the stuff and why would you want to drink it anyway? A clerk at the MEGA supermarket suggested a pulquería near the Ramírez food market; maybe if I brought an empty bottle they would sell me some.

Pulquerías are cantinas devoted to the sale of the stuff and they tend to be rough-looking establishments sometimes with ominous names like "Sálvate si puedes," or very roughly translated, "Save yourself if you can."

The pulquería by the food market had the most ominous name of all--none. Its cafe-type doors are as ancient and battered as the rest of the building, and it doesn't open until late in the afternoon. It's truly a rough-looking joint out of a Western movie. But then pulque is not a highfalutin liqueur the president of Mexico would serve at a diplomatic reception. In fact today pulque is consumed mostly by poor people wanting to forget their miseries, particularly when it's doctored with additional alcohol.

A dark pool of aguamiel at the core of an agave.
Pulque is made from the core of large and mature blue agaves that are practically endemic in the area around our house, along with mesquites, huizaches, prickly pear cacti and other desert plants. Around Doña Ascensión's pulque factory most of the agaves, which are normally erect and proud, are now hacked off and its leaves pushed back to reveal the dark pools of aguamiel, or "honey water," in the middle, from which the pulque is made. She has been in the business for about 20 years, so she has sacrificed a lot of agaves along the way.

It's a process of fermentation, rather than distillation, of the aguamiel. Its origins go back into the fog of Mexico's ancient history, when it was considered a sacred drink sipped by the upper classesThere's no need for any expensive equipment but the finished product has a very short shelf life, maybe a week. That's why it is not sold in bottles or cans and sales of pulque plummeted when canned beer was introduced in the 20th century.

Doña Ascensión was not too forthcoming about her production methods, no matter how much I prodded her. From what I could tell, she fermented aguamiel by adding a certain amount of finished pulque. She proudly insisted she didn't add alcohol to her product. Given that it's basically a homemade hooch, the alcohol content of the stuff varies widely though in its original form it's about as inebriating as wine.

Despite her age and wrinkles, and nearly toothless smile, Doña Ascención projects some really tough vibes. Her eyes are small, her lips tight and with one hand on her hip she seems like the type who'd kick a rowdy customer in the balls just as easily as she'd sell him a jug of her product.

While we were talking a customer approached her across the low stone fence surrounding her house and handed her an empty mug, which she refilled inside and brought back in a very businesslike transaction, as if it were a Slurpy at a 7-Eleven, all for six pesos or about forty cents.

After all this research and talk about pulque, I can't precisely describe its flavor or punch because I don't drink alcohol. Duh. I dipped and licked my index finger in the two-liter bottle I bought from Doña Ascensión and what I tasted was a creamy liquid, the consistency of evaporated milk, with only a vague trace of alcohol.

That also made it impossible to know for sure how the small amount of pulque the recipe calls for--a quarter cup for a 4-pound pork loin--really affected the taste of the finished dish.

My guess is that it didn't make much of a difference. The recipe called for a combination of ancho, pasilla and chipotle chiles that gave the pork a really mellow, sweet taste that wasn't particularly firey. The chiles probably overwhelmed the pulque. It was delicious.

Doña Ascensión told me she was the only producer of pulque producer and that buyers came from several miles away, though I suspect her business is not strictly legal. The second time I visited she hesitated and said she didn't have any stuff to sell. It was only after some talking and having her picture taken--which she seemed to enjoy--that she relented.

"Let me go inside and see what I can find," she said.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Fire in the patio

At least until winter returns we have set up our breakfast headquarters in the front patio. It's a setting almost too pleasant if such a thing is possible.

When the house was built we had connections built in from the amplifier in the living room to  speakers in front patio and the back terrace, controlled by a cheapo selector box from Radio Shack. Until recently we also had a purple finch nest hidden in a trumpet flower vine that has completely covered the wall by the gate though it hasn't yet started to bloom. The chirping of the mother finch and the babies clamoring for food made any piped-in music unnecessary. That stopped about ten days ago when the chicks flew off.

The patio is also flooded with flowers and greenery, and literally dozens of hummingbirds constantly dive bombing a sugar-water feeder hanging from the big Japanese privet tree in the middle of the patio.

One unfinished piece in the patio was a fire pit for which we had installed a propane gas connection. It was supposed to be an easy-on, easy-off affair, controlled by a gas valve, just as seen in some garden magazines that also show elegant women in slinky dresses standing by, sipping champagne.

Our fire pit didn't exactly work out that way. It came out better and without the extra cost of champagne.

We asked our iron worker Gustavo--the indispensable herrero who has built furniture, light fixtures and countless other metal things--to create a fire pit roughly based on a picture we had seen in a magazine.

Don't tell anyone but Mexican herreros have an uncanny ability to reproduce any object you show them, including designs no doubt copyrighted in the U.S. and Europe, for a fraction of the cost. Like most other developing countries, Mexico is a hotbed of piracy and knock-offs, from movies and CDs to furniture.

Our fire pit was not a complete rip-off though. We changed it enough to give it a plausible claim to originality and us a measure of self-respect.

The design is supposed to evoke the shape of a tulip with three rounded petals. Gustavo made it with hammered metal which he gave a rusted, copper-like finish. It rests on a flat base that sits on the flagstone sidewalk around the garden. The finished product is about 18 inches in diameter and about the same in height.

Our design called from a grate on which we would put a layer of red volcanic rocks through which the festive flames from the gas burner would poke through. Visitors would say, "Ahh, isn't that nice!." Not exactly, as it turns out.

Problem is that a regular burner, of the type that Gustavo installed and which you find in a kitchen stove, doesn't work. Even when we adjusted the air intake to make the flames yellow instead of blue, there wasn't enough oomph to the flames to create much of a show.

For that you need a special fire pit burner with smaller orifices that forces the gas the flames higher. Mail-order from the U.S. those guys would cost about $100, plus S&H and Mexican customs, and we weren't sure they would work with propane. Gustavo had made the whole thing for about US$400 and an additional $150 for just a new burner didn't make any sense.

So on to Plan "B": Burn pieces of scrap lumber--we still have a pile of it left from the construction of the house--and use the burner just to light the wood.

The reconfigured pit has bigger flames and lets off a pleasant smell of burning wood. The metal of the pit gets quite hot and takes the morning chill off. The only drawback is that periodically we have to take it apart and scoop out the ashes at the bottom of the bowl, which we spread on the soil in the patio.

Our fire pit is a "Good Thing" would declare Martha Stewart, who is turning 70 and a grandmother at the end of the month. A very "Good Thing" indeed.