Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Tacos and chilis, with a dash of fumes

Paris has its very Left Bank sidewalk cafe Les Deux Magots, on Place Saint Germain de Prés, where the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus sat for hours noodling their own depressing thoughts about the Human Condition, over one sip of espresso after another.

San Miguel has a famous roadside eatery too--Alex Tacos--a here-now-gone-in-three-hours culinary apparition on wheels that arrives every day but Wednesday and Sunday, at around five o'clock, on the road to Querétaro as you're heading out of town.

Not much chatter, existential or otherwise, takes place at Alex's. Folks instead sit on six plastic chairs gathered around a table, or mostly stand, to wolf down various interpretations of tacos. No one seems to have much on their mind except eating, and anyway the traffic noise drowns out any possible conversation.

Alex Tacos revving up for the evening. Tall Caucasian man on the right is Stew.
There's a bus stop and a speed bump just before you reach Alex' cart, so most vehicles are groaning  through first and second gear as they go by, creating a heady mix of exhaust fumes and the aroma of various meats, onions and chilis sizzling on the grill.

Though there are actually three taco carts, lined up about two blocks from one another, we had noticed that Alex seemed to be the main attraction, and so we took Félix, his wife and two kids there for dinner on Friday.

As soon as Alex' wagon arrives, its four or five stagehands assemble the nightly spectacle with the precision and dexterity of a crew of old circus hands: Unhooking the cart from the pickup truck, yanking it on the sidewalk, and blocking the cart's wheels; assembling the tarps and poles overhead; running a thick orange extension cord to a cooperating storefront down the street; firing up the propane under the frying pans and laying out a spread of chopped onions, pineapple chunks and sliced cucumbers, along with small plastic tubs filled with menacing-looking chilis.

In about a half hour, the smoke and aromas begin blowing in all directions and a crowd of fans assembles.

By six o'clock it's standing-room only and customers wiggle past each other and pass plates full of tacos overhead to relatives and friends on the periphery of the increasingly frenzied operation.

As it gets dark, the ghostly-white glare of a string of jumbo fluorescent bulbs flicks on. Then the hubbub around Alex Tacos takes on the appearance of a tent revival, albeit one for the gut not the soul. 

A young waiter brought several bowls of sauces of different colors and varying firepower, and chili cognoscenti confidently spooned out a glob of this one and a splash of that one, or maybe both. Stew and I tried them all, but cautiously.

Most of the menu I could figure out or had tried before. Tacos al pastor (shepherd-style tacos) contain slices of meat from a slowly rotating spit that looks like the gyros ball at a Greek restaurant. There are steak tacos along with "gringas", which seemed to be a mish-mash of various ingredients, and also  quesadillas containing cheese and another ingredient.

We ordered tacos al pastor, which were alright but not eye-popping. Then we followed with quesadillas de longaniza, (quesadillas with Mexican sausage) which were sensational and went a long way toward justifying Alex's nightly crowds. We'd go back to Alex's just for the quesadillas.

Some offerings were a bit more challenging, such as tacos de cabeza or "head tacos." According to Félix, they can contain various things, all from the whole head of a cow, including eyeballs, lips,  brains and whatever.

We stayed away from those as well as the horchata, a drink made with rice, milk, vanilla and cinnamon. Its sweetness is supposed to balance out the spiciness of the rest of the food. Yet its murky appearance in an unrefrigerated glass jar didn't seem too appealing, so we stuck with lukewarm Cokes.

Félix's wife and four-year-old girl Alondrita are not talkative types and were particularly mum that night, just scarfing down the food and smiling shyly once in a while. Other than a running commentary on the menu, Félix didn't say much either.

Mexicans don't seem to consider a taco cart by the side of a busy road much of a venue for the fine art of conversation.

Grrr: That's a damn good cucumber slice.
At the conclusion of the meal the young waiter added up the various sodas, tacos, gringas, quesadillas and what-have-you's--however there were of each--and the bill came up to approximately US$16. Not a bad deal at all.

Félix's seven-month-old boy Edgar was the most attentive yet quietest of the diners. He kept his big brown eyes at full-alert, silently checking everyone and everything that went by.

His appetite wasn't much either: Equipped with two brand-new teeth, he just chewed and gummed a slice of cucumber most of the evening.

After that, we drove to MacDonald's where Edgar cautiously slurped a teaspoonful of vanilla ice cream and promptly went to sleep in his mother's arms.


Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Flying Zucchini Brothers

After many zigs and zags earlier in the year, which left several types of vegetables shriveled, withered or otherwise dead on the ground, I'm now approaching that point so familiar to many home gardeners: the late-August glut.

This chaotic explosion of produce is an occurrence as predictable as the phases of the moon yet one that you swear will not--repeat, will not--ever happen again. 

Welcome to Lettuce Central
All it's needed is careful planning, preferably in writing and on graph paper, followed by precise planting dates, succession planting schemes and also vegetable birth control, that painful process of plucking out healthy, bouncy seedlings and tossing them over your shoulder because there is simply not enough room in the raised beds--or demand in the kitchen--for say, an unending avalanche of radishes or romaine lettuce. 

Earlier in the season we complained that someone, probably rabbits, was eating our Swiss chard, kale and lettuce. Now we have small jungle of those vegetables growing rambunctiously, untouched by any  wildlife. Truth is we probably have so much of the stuff that even rabbits are sick of it. 

I've thought about it for a while and concluded that one fatal problem with our yearly gardening offensive is excessive optimism, approaching hubris.  

A common gripe at the supermarket produce department here is the lack of vegetables common in the U.S. There are endless piles of plum Italian tomatoes, but no beefsteaks much less heirloom varieties. Those huge baking potatoes common back home never show up here either. 

So I keep donating money to Burpee Seeds for envelopes of weird tomatoes that germinate and try to put on a show but never set fruit here. At a party the other day someone explained why: Tomatoes need consistent warmth and in San Miguel, particularly in the countryside, cool nights keep the plants from setting fruit. 

At considerable legal risk to myself, on my last trip home I smuggled two giant Idaho potatoes in my luggage to see if I could make them grow here. They sat by the window and sprouted little leaves in their dimples, just like the book predicted. We waited a while longer, and Stew cut them up in pieces and planted them. 

Zilch. And Toto, what is the reason for this great baking-potato failure? This is Mexico, not Idaho. It could be the soil, temperature, too much rain or sun, not enough. Whatever: It just isn't going to happen. 

Our second biggest problem is overproduction which I'd like to blame on the inability by Félix, our gardener, to thin out volunteer seedlings (most of them come in the compost) and other surplus plants. 

In fact, Félix has a really hard time throwing away anything. Three-inch pieces of tubing, trapezoidal scraps of chicken wire, empty spray bottles, fossilized paint brushes--most everything he neatly stashes in our storage room which has turned into a recycling center with no exit door. 

And I'll be damned if his manic thrift is not often vindicated.  

"I wish we had a three-inch piece of PVC to stick in here," he'll hear me mutter, and then promptly produce precisely such a specimen that he saved eight months ago. 

"You never know," he'll say with a triumphant grin. 

With regard to vegetables he follows a similar tack. Volunteer tomato seedlings of unknown varieties are moved six inches to the right or left, but never definitively tossed. 

He often moves surplus plants to our corn patch at the other end of the ranch, to be planted in between the corn, beans, asparagus and other creatures. By now instead of neat rows of corn or beans we have motley conga line of plants sashaying here and there. 

Is this going to work? Félix has no doubts.

That is a particular problem with rampant plants like zucchini. So when one plant threatened to choke a nearby patch of arugula, which was also spreading in all directions, Félix came up with the idea of training the zucchini to climb up the hoops over the raised beds. 

Anything but pulling out the offending plant and throwing it in the compost pile. 

Now the zucchinis are slowly creeping on the bar high over the raised beds, like aerialists cautiously working their way to the other side of a circus ring. 

I maintain that we need to secure the fruit with plastic netting to keep it from breaking off and crashing to the ground when it reaches a certain size. Félix says we don't need to worry. 

Meanwhile there's all that produce to deal with. Mexican yellow tomatoes are coming in by the dozens, along with cherry tomatoes. Black Krim tomatoes are setting fruit but not ripening, probably because of the overnight cool temperatures.

Four strawberry plants produced some grape-size fruits and then quit in a huff, though their foliage is still out of control. I have no idea what happened there because this state is one Mexico's largest producers of strawberries. 

Romaine, bibb and several other types of lettuce keep popping, not matter how many leaves we cut and eat. Radishes and beets also keep appearing on our kitchen counter. We just finished a batch of terrific beet borscht.

And did I mention Swiss chard? This morning I espied a bucket of it sitting on the kitchen floor, which means it's on the menu tonight--again.  

Stew keeps talking about the health benefits of Swiss chard as if it were a wonder vegetable. 

And I keep thinking: Boy, if the stuff is half as good as he says, we're both going to live to be at least a hundred and twenty. 


Thursday, August 9, 2012

You call that a garden?

Midlife crises evoke dreams of a new career and in my case, about fifteen years ago, of becoming a  landscape designer. After a few night courses at the Chicago Botanic Garden, a tentative verdict about my abilities came back from the teachers: I had a good eye for plant combinations but needed to double down on the "plant lists."

That meant not only memorizing hundreds of plants but also their common and Latin names and their characteristics such as height, girth, foliage, flowering, growth habits and so on, before trying to design anything.

The rock garden at the foot of the back terrace, with the back
curtain of Virginia creeper. 
It's a bit like learning to cook. You need to become thoroughly acquainted with the taste, texture and appearance of the different ingredients, and what goes with what, before you throw them in a pot, light up the stove and call your friends over for dinner.

Memorizing lists of any kind, though, has never been my forte so the prospects for a blooming career in landscape design wilted early on.

That of course didn't stop me from buying dozens of gardening books, particularly those dealing with "xeriscaping" or low-water gardening in desert areas.

But again, translating glossy pictures into a real garden has been more difficult than I ever imagined and my expectations have diminished accordingly.

For starters, seven-and-a-half acres is an awfully large palette unless you're a countess in England with a platoon of born-again serfs at your disposal to plant and nurture your creations. Our man Félix is as diligent a gardener as they come but the gardening challenges here are too much for one man.

During the nine-month dry season, anything you plant is going to struggle until it's firmly established and until then you have to make regular rounds with fertilizer and a watering hose.

Even if you rely on a four-inch well, a diesel pump and an irrigation system--which would contradict the principles of xeriscaping--you ultimately have to resign yourself to the fact that in the middle of February, a desert landscape looks pretty fried.

The next step is to rationalize and rhapsodize about the beauty of a dusty, fried desert landscape. In other words, to get used to it.

Welcome intruders: Don't know what these guys are or where
they came from but they look beautiful backlit
by the morning sun. 
When the annual rains come though, chaos ensues  and frustrates whatever notions you have about design, control and which plants go with what. Flowers of all sizes come out of nowhere; climbers embrace trees and cacti. Even the somnolent cacti sprout flowers and fruit on their own and surround themselves with small offspring.

I have valiantly tried to retain a bit of order in a few areas of my garden. One is the rock garden at the foot of the back terrace, now covered with Virginia creeper, large rocks, succulent ground covers, buganvillas and several kinds of cacti.

That and another manicured area have helped me retain some of my gardening self-respect. I can tell myself the ranch is not just a seasonal jungle, running amok when the rains start, a free-for-all of wild flowers I've never seen before punctuated by several varieties of rapidly spreading grasses, their delicate plumes swaying in the wind.

The spectacle in the rest of the garden is both reassuring and humbling.

There's no way Félix is going to win a battle against nature, which ultimately decides what goes where.

I thought the contrast between sturdy cacti and willowy
grasses would be stunning. It was, until Momma Nature
dropped a ton of cosmos and other flowers in between
to "ruin" my clever design. 
A weedy yellow flower climbing up a woody huizache bush, almost completely covering it, may not be anyone's idea of meticulous landscape design but I'm not going to get in the middle and try to referee that rumble.

Even my efforts to spread some wildflower seeds a reader gave me are inconclusive. I spread the seeds alright, but I forgot what they were so I don't know if I had anything to do with the million flowers sprouting all over the place, or if the show, again, came free of charge from nature.

The ornamental grasses are spreading so fast that it looks as if I planned their handsome appearance. In fact I just planted a few and the wind took care of the rest by spreading their seeds in all directions.

What started out as one two or three plants of penisetum
grass has turned into a phalanx, steadily marching alongside
 one of the outside walls. 
Stew's bees seem grateful for the flowers and so do the mice and rabbits and other critters that run around the land, which now have a place to hide from the huffing and puffing noses of our dogs.

Out the office window I just spotted a small bird the size of chickadee but with bright yellow and bright plumage, perched on the plume of one of the grasses, feasting on the seeds. Who would have thought?

Maybe I'll send pictures of the ranch to the teachers at the school of the Chicago Botanic Garden and credit their fine instruction for all this beauty.

Problem is they really had nothing to do with it and neither did I.


Monday, August 6, 2012

Not easy being brown

Breakfast in Mexico brings the first of many disconnects from reality. A slinky model, her belly taut as a snare drum, stares at you seductively from the box of Lala skim milk, her skin and other features so fine--so Caucasian--she could be the spokesmodel for the Norwegian Lutefisk Council.

Sorry, you have to buy a carton
of Lala milk to see the rest of
the model. 
At a rack by the checkout lane of the local supermarket, faces on the covers of soap opera and celebrity magazines clamor for attention, usually through a display of implausibly voluptuous white women, their  hair in more hues of blond and light brown than Miss Clairol ever imagined.

Yet the cashiers, baggers and particularly the flaneros--those hapless scrappers out in the parking lot who want to wash, wax or watch your car, offload your groceries or at least guide you out of your parking spot, all for a tip of ten or fifteen cents--don't look anything like magazine-cover Mexicans. 

On television, one of the most respected news anchors is Univision's Jorge Ramos who may be a clone of CNN's Anderson Cooper. They both have earnest clear eyes (Cooper's blue, Ramos' greenish), white skin, gray hair and feather-weight builds. 

Ramos is a top-shelf journalist. Yet when the end of the world comes on December 21, as predicted by the Maya calendar, I'd prefer a wide-eyed, brown-skinned indigenous-looking  newsreader with beads around his neck to lead me to the Final Countdown.  But I bet we will be watching Ramos instead. 

Mexicans come in all complexions and features, from tall, Western European types to short, cinnamon-skinned folk, whose everyday language may not be Spanish but one of some 20 indigenous tongues spoken in Mexico. 

In its constitution Mexico proclaims itself to be a "pluricultural" enterprise and indeed Benito Juárez, a national hero--Mexico City's airport is named after him--was a full-blooded Zapotec from Oaxaca. 

According to the government, indigenous folk make up only ten to twelve percent of the population. But venture into the streets of San Miguel, Mexico City or any place in the country for that matter, and you will see a much higher percentage of brown faces and only a sprinkling of Lala models, Jorge Ramos look-alikes or blonde soap opera starlets. 

Judging from my travels through Mexico, Mexicans tends to be short, round-faced and broad-nosed,  with slightly elongated eyes, brown skin and stubbornly straight, jet-black hair. 

That last indigenous trait is no doubt what propels sales of two-liter jugs of gel to young Mexican guys, some brands with the holding power of Liquid Nails, as they battle to coax their locks into swirls, mini-Mohawks and a myriad other confections--anything but lie flat like it naturally wants to do. 

Yet advertisers and retailers bring us a world that is exactly the opposite of reality, and they segment the market accordingly. 

In Mexico, Walmart has two distinctly different supermarket lines. Superama, a Whole Foods wannabe, has hand-scripted signs explaining the virtues and provenance of their upscale produce and a fancy bakery, all better to attract clients armed with iPhones and aviator sunglasses who then take their groceries to a parking lot jammed with BMWs, Chevy Suburbans and other fancy wheels. 

At the other end is Walmart's Bodega Aurrera, a distinctly down-market operation. The customers tend to be brown-faced, women load their double-wrapped babies on the carts along with the groceries and they arrive in muddy pickups or on foot. The bakers spend their days flinging tortillas and bolillos, the ubiquitous Mexican rolls, rather than flaky croissants or Italian pastries.

As a further reminder this is not Superama, San Miguel's Bodega Aurrera abuts a wide channel, wishfully called an "arroyo" or "creek" which in reality serves as a giant sewage ditch carrying who-knows-what from the city to God-knows-where out in the countryside. 

Don't ever accuse the Waltons of not understanding the nuances of the Mexican market. 

In a perfect Mexico, brown faces would rule magazine covers, advertising and packaging, and celebrate the look of most Mexicans.

But the realities of "aspirational" marketing dictate just the opposite.

Buyers are thought to want to look and live like the lithe young woman on the Lala milk carton or the bouncy yuppies on the movie house spots for Telmex, the telephone company. Brown means to be poor or backward, and no one wants to be that.

No matter how unfair, perverse or removed from the real world, that upside-down formula seems to be what sells, or at least what governs advertising in Mexico.