Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Mexican party tips

The centerpiece of the celebration of the baptism of Félix's baby, Edgar, didn't come until the day after the church ceremony and took place outside the family's barebones, one-room home, in a dirt patio under cloudless skies and a huge pepper tree, with a view of the fields farmers had just started to cultivate.

The two donkeys that normally loiter in the yard had been moved somewhere but Félix's chickens, cats and dogs remained to mingle with the guests. The main decoration, over the four long tables set end-to-end and covered with white tablecloths, were strings of balloons which kept popping almost as fast as Felix's kid relatives could blow up new ones.

It was one of those "we're not in Kansas anymore" moments that hit you periodically living here in Mexico. "Aren't you glad we didn't retire in Florida?," I asked Stew. He agreed.

A stream of relatives kept wandering in--the two nieces of someone's sister-in-law whose husband is in the U.S. working, and may the Lord Jesus protect him, because we're worried and we don't know when he's coming back, and on and on.

This was not a family tree but a jungle of relations of all ages with a hundred names and stories no visitor could remember. Still, the initial awkwardness of Stew's inability to say much in Spanish, and of two non-family members sharing this family gathering, gradually dissipated.

Equality of the sexes is a long ways off in Mexico. Except for one woman, the people sitting at the table sipping beers and marveling about the wonderful weather after so many days of rain and blah, blah, blah--were all men.
How to cook lamb: First, perform a little head surgery.
Add some salt...
Close up the pot and relax. 

All the women were cooped up in Felix's impossibly tiny house, preparing several courses of food that they began to bring out with the speed and skill of flight attendants serving 180 passengers on a half-hour flight.

Let's see. There was rice; chicken; tortillas; salads of various types; stuffing of various sorts for the tacos (chopped onions, peppers, cilantro, etc.); red and green salsas.

But according to this food critic the kicker was a bowl of rich, brown mole, to be slathered on the chicken or lamb.

Moles (moe-lays) have to be the pinnacle of Mexican cooking, a concoction of two dozen ingredients in proportions that are nearly impossible to pin down because inevitably the recipe came from someone's grandmother who makes it by tossing a spooful of that, a pinch of something else and a cup of minced I-forget-what. In Oaxaca there are six or seven types of moles in circulation with names like "mancha manteles" or "tablecloth stainer", with variations for each one.

The one offered at this fiesta was not peppery but instead had a mellow, chocolate taste that was difficult to pin down probably because it was mixed with ten other things. Félix has promised to bring me a bowl of it--and the recipe.

We only stayed for a couple of hours and only one woman joined us at the outdoor table. When I went to say good-bye, all the other women were still huddled around a table inside, eating their own dinner and yakking, apart from the men. The men made no moves whatever to get more food, help clean the table much less help with the cooking. When it came time to get some beer, Félix sent his wife to the store.

The main dish at the fiesta was lamb, which Mexicans called borrego, slaughtered for the occasion almost as if for a religious ceremony, and cooked in a huge steel pot for approximately four hours. Neither Stew nor I have ever been fans of lamb but driven by curiosity, I showed up at the home of Félix's wife's grandfather and father early that morning to witness the process--or most of it.

First step, the day before, is to find a lamb, around a year old and preferably a male. According to Félix, females may look deceptively fatter because they are woolier.

Though lambs and goats are regarded as only a bit smarter than chickens, they can be arrestingly cute, downright adorable, and slaughtering one is definitely a test of your machismo. You have to look at their faces: their big, unsuspecting eyes; the ears coming out perpendicular to their heads and finally their mouths, which seem to have a perpetual grin.

Once you've done all that you're supposed to grab a sharp knife and slit their throats amid, I imagine, much bleeding and bleating. Then you skin and quarter the beast. The reason details of this process are sketchy is because there's no way I was going to watch it. I wasn't that curious.

Instead I showed up the next day, when Loreto, the 80-year-old grandfather of Félix's wife, sat under a tree, and gave Félix, his father- and mother-in-law--and just about anyone around except me--directions on what to do.

About a dozen agave leaves were scored across and lengthwise to make them more pliable. They were then placed around the inside of a steel pot about two feet high by 18 inches wide, in order to line it, with the tips of the leaves folded out over the edge.

After that, seemingly every part of the lamb was placed inside the pot: the head (eyes, teeth and tongue included); all other cuts and also the entrails in a plastic bag. The only condiments I spotted were a couple of handfuls of salt, a handful of oregano and a bunch of chiles. Mes amis, this was not Julia Child at work.

Finally, you fold the agave leaves over the whole thing, light a wood fire underneath, and sit back for four hours or so, tip a few beers, or several, and talk about fútbol.

I was proud of my own sangfroid during this culinary event, particularly witnessing the more anatomically vivid portions of it, like the lamb's tongue hanging over the side of its mouth, while someone tried to split the head with a machete.

I further impressed myself when I cut into a piece of the lamb later during dinner. It was very moist, almost greasy, and it didn't have the gamey taste I expected. In fact, it was fairly tasteless, no surprise given how few seasonings went into the pot. I imagine that according to the logic of Mexican cooking  the seasoning is supposed to come from the moles or other sauces you pour over the meat.

Stew wasn't impressed: He thought the meat was greasy, tasteless and downright disgusting. And since he is the one who does all the cooking around here, I guess we're not going to have lamb anytime soon.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Marching orders for new Catholics

In countries less Catholic than Mexico--practically all other countries except for the Vatican--baptism may be an initiation rite into a particular Christian group. Here it's more like an admission ticket into society, so intertwined are Catholicism and Mexican culture.

In and around San Miguel there are churches everywhere you look, decorated with statues of Jesus and saints, usually in various states of torment, along with the ubiquitous image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, its maternal gaze offering hope to people crumpled on the pews here and there, pleading for help with their own personal travails.

On other days, however, you may spot a radiant girl wearing a tiara and dressed in yards and yards of satiny fabric, emerging from the dark church interior after a mass celebrating her Quinceañera, a coming-of-age event for 15-year-old girls. Or it could be a First Communion or a wedding, all of it accompanied by the joyful pealing of bells. Like Hallmark cards, the church is there no matter what's the occasion.

Edgar, I pronounce you a Mexican Catholic
Mexican Catholicism is not limited to the churches. There's an elaborate shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe, decorated with twinkling lights, in the waiting room of the San Miguel bus station. December 12, her feast day, is practically a national holiday though the government insists it doesn't recognize any one religion.

Religious processions are not quickie strolls around the block, but epic productions that go on for hours and sometimes days, and may involve cavalcades of studly cowboys wearing their finest sombreros and waving banners signaling where the come from; veiled women chanting and praying; and young people carrying litters on their shoulders with statues of saints or small shrines. A hopelessly out of tune band may serenade the pilgrims. On Good Friday, the somber processions and panoply effectively shut down San Miguel, as they do on the far more cheerful feast of St. Michael the Archangel, the city's patron saint.

Next month the pope will be visiting a few cities near here and is expected to attract hundreds of thousands of fevered visitors from all over Mexico. The previous pope, John Paul II, showered Mexico with such special attention that Mexicans venerate him as if he had already been canonized.

Sociologists and other cynics may argue Catholicism is a showy but hollow spectacle here, or that the percentage of baptized Mexicans has dropped from the high-90s to the mid-80s over the past 30 years--still a formidable market share--thanks to insistent prosetalyzing by Mormons and evangelical sects.

Despite trends and other realities, even among the poor baptism in Catholic Mexico is a major blow-out, calling for a fiesta with decorations, barbeques, music and rivers of beer, that go far into the night and often beyond the apparent financial resources of the family.

So our past weekend was mostly consumed with the celebrations surrounding the baptism of Edgar Felipe, our gardener Felix's two-month-old. We were invited in the dual roles of guests of honor and chauffeurs to drive the clan to the church in our pick-up and station wagon. At six o'clock on a Saturday night there was no other way for the family to get to the ceremony held in town, at the Church of San Antonio. I also multi-tasked as photographer.

It turned out to be a mass ceremony involving some 75 babies and a few late-bloomers as old as six or seven, and one definitely reserved for poor families. Any kind of middle- or upper-class finery was missing in this crowd; the dress code seemed to be strict working-class casual, including some tank tops and sneakers. Wealthier folks, Félix explained, have their own private baptisms, photographers and receptions afterward.

The one exception to the plain attire were the babies and young children to be baptized, all dressed in sparkling-white outfits, including knit hats, some resembling tiny baseball caps, for the boys, and Amish-like bonnets for the girls. One girl's dress had bunched-up fabric on the back to resemble the wings of an angel.

The room where the pre-Baptism orientation was held was equally no-frills: The basement of the church, with the participants exceeding the number of folding chairs and spilling out on to the street. The preacher was not a priest but was described as an "assistant" or lay helper to the real parish priest who was otherwise occupied upstairs with a special Quinceañera mass.

Rather than an introduction to the Catholic faith--in effect marching orders for new recruits--the talk was a bumper-car ride through Scripture with no clear direction. We heard about the Good Samaritan; a woman who had seven husbands; warned about the dangers of homosexuality and lesbianism, followed by repeated admonitions to lazy husbands who drink too much to straighten up and stop being such jerks.

It was only toward the end that the lay preacher brought some linearity to his presentation by focusing on the seven sacraments of the church, which few in the crowd seemed to remember. Two sacraments deal with death, he explained, baptism because it brings us out from the death of original sin, and last rites, when we are, hmm, really dead and headed for either heaven or hell. I had never heard that spin on the sacraments.

The preacher had the earnestness and fervor of a honest tent preacher and peppered his talk with a couple of off-color words and jokes the crowd seemed to appreciate. Otherwise the orientation went on and on, even as the crying and shrieking of restless babies grew louder, adult eye lids became heavier and folks shuffled impatiently in their seats. No matter: The more the noise rose, the louder the preacher preached.

Finally he quit, after almost 90 minutes of exhortations, and distributed yellow passes proving the parents had attended the lecture and were entitled to have their babies baptized upstairs.

The actual baptism in the church was conducted by a middle-aged priest whose weariness helped me appreciate how hard it is to be a priest nowadays, when demand so far outstrips personnel. This man had just conducted a mass for a giggly 15-year-old girl and her family; probably celebrated a mass or two in the morning; sat through a string of confessions and perhaps some pastoral counseling, all the while trying to think of a sermon to deliver in the masses awaiting him the next day.

And now he faced an assembly line of bawling babies waiting to be relieved of their original sin and officially welcomed into the Church.

This he did with amazing efficiency and even a bit of elegance and ceremony. He started down on side of the nave, up the middle aisle and down the other side, imparting a five-second blessing on each infant. After that the parents lined up before the baptismal font, with the the godmother carrying the baby and the godfather holding a lit candle handed to him by an usher.

At the font, the godmother was asked the name of the baby, who was baptized by the priest in all that it takes to say "in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit." Next. Much to his credit, bald-headed Edgar Felipe must have been the best-behaved participant, either sleeping or grinning at anyone who looked at him.

After the baptism the priest did another tour of the church and showered more blessings, with free-lance photographers darting to and fro, capturing the moment and distributing business cards to the parents in case they wanted to buy the pictures.

It was all over in about 40 minutes, an amazing display of taut liturgical choreography. The crowd dispersed, and the priest fled, probably to the rectory to have a double shot of tequila.

Felix's family climbed aboard the Stew and Al Limo Service and headed home, to start working on the baptism fiesta the next day. That would begin at 8 a.m. with the preparation of a roast lamb, and continue well into the next morning.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Looking for home

About a week ago an e-mail from a good friend arrived saying she was looking forward to "coming home", meaning she was coming back to San Miguel. The word "home" struck me as a bit strange, for she is not Mexican, not by a long a shot, but a true Texan, who sprinkles her drawl with "y'all's" as predictably as some of our Canadian friends finish their sentences with "eh?"

My Texas friend and her husband have been in San Miguel longer than we have, probably eight or ten years, but have hardly sworn off Texas or the U.S. They have children and grandchildren in Houston, and recently spent quite a bit of time there for medical treatment.

Other American acquaintances here claim they have, physically and mentally, abandoned the U.S. except for collecting Social Security checks. In the words of one woman, "I don't give a shit what happens in the U.S. as long as I keep getting my checks."

Crown Fountain at Chicago's Millennium Park
For our part, Stew and I are drifting toward a twilight zone of sorts regarding what we regard as home. Recently we spent a week at a Mexican beach with friends from Chicago and their tales from that city  sounded as distant as a weather report from Finland. Former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel is doing well in his reincarnation as Chicago mayor. Good for him.

At another dinner with Chicagoans on Thursday we heard that breast cancer had finally claimed Maggie, the wife of former mayor Richard Daley, about four months ago. Stew and I hadn't heard.

Indeed, the Chicago section of our Rolodex has gotten pretty thin during our six years in San Miguel. E-mails from our friends come farther apart until they stop coming altogether, though a few friendships have been instead nurtured by distance. Former co-workers report on the travails of the Chicago Tribune, where I used to work, though I no longer care that much--as long as my pension checks keep coming.

We try to follow American politics but even then the time we can tolerate listening to Andrea Mitchell, Chris Matthews, or even the far mellower Brian Williams, also is shrinking. We regularly cut off newscasters in mid-sentence, out of disgust or just boredom.

The Republican primary, as seen from a leather chair in Mexico, looks like a foreign-language clown show. Amusing one day, bizarre the next, but ultimately irrelevant, particularly when news bits about the race arrive in a thick soup of micro-analysis, punditry and speculation, lately seasoned by CNN with an electronic board that looks like a giant iPad, with John King touching one corner or another to take viewers from Las Vegas to Columbus, Ohio and back. Babble, babble all the way.

Who knows? Who cares? Where's the damn remote?

But in spite of the growing disconnect between us and our former base we haven't developed enough roots in Mexico to call this "home" either, as our friend from Texas does.

Our house here is great, a hybrid of Mexican decor and American gadgets, surrounded by a beautiful landscape and a perfect climate (though it's been clammy and miserable now for three days running).

We designed the house specifically to our needs and tastes, to be our "forever" home, or at least our home for the foreseeable future. Any more we tune out Americans fretting about house resale values because Stew and I haven't thought of selling or going anywhere, certainly not to back to the U.S.

Friends in San Miguel--really good friends--are more numerous than we ever had in Chicago, and a singularly interesting, well educated bunch. Gay and straight couples and also singles, the only thing in common being that they are old--not as "old friends" but as in Social Security-old. Yesterday we bought a desk-size appointment calendar at Office Depot to jot down all our social comings and goings.

This busy circle of friends, though, is like a fish tank filled with familiar English-speaking guppies from the U.S. or Canada. It's understandable because relatively few of our friends speak Spanish. Some are not really interested in Mexico-type things either, beyond colorful handicrafts and an occasional plate of tacos, and are happy to remain perpetual tourists in this place they call home.

I have made a sustained effort to insert myself into the Mexico all around us, but have not  made much progress. I speak fluent Spanish, but it's Cuban Spanish, as different from the Mexican variety--and as easily detectable by the locals--as a Mississippi drawl would be in Boston. My Spanish gets me directions and a general understanding of what is going on, but so far hasn't taken me to the "mi casa es tu casa" phase of mixing with Mexicans.

My height--six-foot-three-inches--puts me about eight inches above any Mexicans around. That, if nothing else, creates a glass-like barrier around me that I haven't been able to break.

A good part of the problem too is the reticence and privateness of Mexicans, who are invariably polite but not likely to invite you to go dancing at the next fiesta. Two weeks ago a friend from San Antonio and I went to a big fiesta at Sosnavar, Félix' home, and we were fascinated by the lack of fun among the participants.

There was a traditional dancing group with bright costumes who went through all the motions precisely, but there were no cheers, clapping or other encouragement from the bystanders who stood by watching the spectacle as impassively as if they were watching mesquites blooming.

I could imagine that if we had we been in Puerto Rico or Cuba there would have been much spontaneous whistling, clapping and instinctive booty-wiggling and soon the performers and the spectators would have blended into one raucous conga line.

Most of the noise at some of these fiestas comes from a steady volley of firecrackers, beginning at 6:30 a.m. Some of the participants may succumb to booze as the day wears on, but that's not exactly what you'd call fun. 

I'm not giving up. Next weekend is fiesta time at La Biznaga, the little town next to us to which our ranch technically belongs. I'm determined to stay throughout the entire show and find out what if anything I am missing. Also, we contributed $500 pesos to the fiesta fund last week so the least I can do is go watch and eat.

Meanwhile, the U.S. is not about to let go of us. Stew is working on our federal taxes and last week we received, via email, our absentee voter paperwork from Chicago. I know, I know, voting for Democrats in Chicago is like endorsing pasta in Rome, but somehow as a loyal U.S. citizens we feel that's the least we can do.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Here come the bees, honey

Ready for occupancy
Unless the vagaries of Mexican Time interfere, later this week we should be getting a three-pound package containing approximately 7,000 bees, ready to buzz under the direction of a queen bee. The latter is traveling from Veracruz in her own separate little jewel box-like container, while the rank-and-file bees are coming from a beekeeper in San Luis de La Paz, about an hour from here.

One of the wonders of San Miguel is the plethora of organizations, causes and hobbies, from bird-watching to midwifery and photography. No doubt a large part of the reason is that so many foreigners here are retired, with time on the hands to pursue new or long-postponed avocations. But it also reflects the expats are an active, clever and curious bunch, not the stereotypical geezers in rocking chairs waiting for the sun to set.

Robert Lewis, the head of the local  beekeepers
 group, attaches a wax sheet to one of the frames 
that will go in the beehive. The frames have very 
thin wires running across that are heated lightly 
by connecting them to a car battery. The heated 
wires melt the wax sheets slightly which then
 become attached to the wires.  
So several weeks ago Stew joined the local bee-keepers group, which meets regularly to discuss plans, order supplies and solve problems. Happily, some of the members are Mexican locals, a departure from the all-gringo membership typical of so many local organizations.

Although beeswax and honey are supposedly the ultimate outcomes of apiculture, Stew says that's not his motivation. It's got to do with plain curiosity and bringing more bees to our land to help pollinate the fruit trees and other plants that are just beginning to flower. That's a good thing. I don't see Stew and Felix setting up a roadside stand to sell jars of honey, or donning granny outfits and making candles in the garage.

For now the arrival of the bees is shrouded in considerable mystery, like an occult science, which may be  largely the  result of, hmm, lack of knowledge. Stew bought a copy of  "First Lessons in Beekeeping," a slender book first published in 1917 and still considered the most authoritative on the subject, and got a copy in Spanish for Felix.

Problem is neither one has finished reading the book and 7,000 bees, and the queen, are due here in a couple of days. I imagine the bees' arrival being like thousands of hyperactive little Martians--which have to be fed and housed--landing on our ranch.

Just in case, Stew also has ordered a beekeepers hat and a smoker contraption to help resolve any misunderstandings, though he's been assured that the bees come on in peace: They are not prone to sting unless provoked because they die as a result.

Bees landing on the flower of a
prickly pear cactus
Stew and Felix already installed the beehive, including slide-in wooden frames with wax panels. The cost of this project so far is US$100 for the wooden box, made by a local carpenter; $110 for the nucleus swarm of bees about to arrive, plus $7 for the queen bee and five "nurse bees" to help the queen launch this incredibly complex colony.

The box carrying the queen and its "court" will come with a lump of sugar "candy" for food during the trip from Veracruz. The other 7,000 schlepper bees come attached to four of the wooden frames which are inserted into the beehive.

Upon arrival they have to set up a feeder  with a high-octane mix of half sugar and half water, to help the bees survive until flowers and other sources of nectar start blooming in our ranch. The prickly pear and organ cacti, and peach and apricot trees already have flowers and are being dive-bombed by the local bees. Next the huizaches are supposed to bloom, followed by the mesquite trees. With each wave of blooms the bees produce a different type of honey, with Mexican mesquite honey the most prized of all.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. The queen is supposed to start laying eggs right away, triggering a constant cycle of life and death in the hive, as the original bees die off and are replaced by new ones. We're not likely so see either honey or wax for about a year.

By then we will need another container above our hive to collect the honey, in addition to having to exchange the original frames and beeswax panels for new ones. Someone in Dolores Hidalgo is supposed to extract the honey for us.

Questions abound and they will be resolved only playing along with the queens, the nurses and the worker bees. This is a Stew and Felix project which I'm determined to watch from a safe distance-- though I admit to being extremely curious.

Check out the amazing UTube we received from Bill Barnes: