Saturday, January 22, 2011

Sounds of the Street

First thing in the morning, in addition to the occasional rooster and the neighborhood lamb (I’m not kidding), is the sound of the gas truck. Actually there are 2 companies competing for business, driving up and down the streets all day long, carrying bottled gas. Mexican houses typically have a large bottle that can be easily replaced when needed, and because there aren’t accurate gauges they can run out unexpectedly the trucks circulate continuously. We’ve all experienced that with our gas grills at home—just as you’re about to eat you discover that the gas ran out some time ago and those chicken breasts are still half raw.

One truck’s attention-getting sound is a recording saying, “El Gas! Quiero el gas” (Gas! I want gas), followed by a bugle cavalry charge. This is played over and over and over, and I’m sure the driver hears it in his sleep when he goes home at night. It's totally obnoxious, and it would be the last gas company I would choose.

The other company opts for a more friendly tone--lush violins, followed by a unctuous male voice sweetly saying, "Señora de la casa--aqui tiene Gas del Lago," ("Housewife, here you have Gas del Lago," literally Gas of the Lake)  ending with "Gas del Lago--la marca de confianza" (the mark of confidence).

By the way, Mark tells me that this is butane, not propane. We use propane in Colorado because it’s usable at lower temperatures than butane, which won’t vaporize below 32 degrees.

The ice cream vendor uses a squeeze-type bicycle horn, and cries “Nieve, nieve,” (snow, which is the local name for ice cream). He is pushing a small cart with cans of various flavors. These carts are all over Mexico, anywhere a group gathers. I remember a small demonstration of people angry at the government that was going strong until the ice cream vendor showed up and the group lost focus.

The water truck shows up on our block and a guy gets out and yells “Aguaaaa!” at the top of his voice. I kept hearing it and finally looked out the window to see what was going on. For a long time I thought someone was calling his dog. All Mexican households use bottled water rather than municipal water to drink or brush teeth with. The water leaves the source clean enough, but there is so much infiltration in the lines that by the time it arrives at the house it’s unsafe.

Garbage collectors ring a cow bell, first driving up the street to announce their presence and then coming back to pick up the trash when everyone has had time to put it outside. We give them a few pesos as compensation for the incredibly messy job they do. I also separate out the glass, metal and plastic so they don’t have to go through it themselves.

Miscellaneous vehicles with loudspeakers drive by, with mostly incomprehensible announcements. The streets are rough cobblestone, and the resulting vibration combined with age and dust contribute to an incomprehensible message.

At least once a day we hear a horse clopping by, either being ridden or used to haul firewood or poles.  

At night there are many other sounds, largely people on the street talking, or congregating around a small fire, or kids setting off fireworks or playing an impromptu game of soccer or basketball. In the evenings we hear a clever little jingle—“El panadero con el pan, el panadero con el pan.” It’s a young couple selling bread (“The baker with the bread.”) from the back of their car. They drive too fast for us to catch them before they’ve disappeared around the corner.

We really have had no problems with constantly barking dogs, though a dog behind us has been a little annoying from time to time. The neighborhood dogs are in pretty good condition, though I think no dog in Mexico is spayed or neutered, either for financial reasons or a distaste for altering one of God’s creatures.

We’re also fortunate in that our neighbors have pretty good taste in music. There’s very little monotonous norteño or ranchero stuff, and sometimes we hear some pretty nice groups. One night as we were walking home from town we passed by an open window in a large house and saw 2 children playing classical piano for 4 hands in an elegant living room. But on our street the houses are much more humble, and music we hear on the street is coming from a car or a boom box.

But by 10pm or so it's quiet and everyone's gone back inside. That may change as the weather improves and gets warmer, but for the time being it's perfect for us and we have no complaints.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Street Tacos

Ordinarily Mark and I don't go out much at night unless we're going to some event. However, today for a variety of reasons we hadn't eaten anything since huevos Mexicanos at 10am, and we were both feeling a bit peckish. Mark had gone into town to pick up something for my insect bites and noticed that there was a kettle of tamales just around the corner.

When we got there, though, the kettle was gone, leaving only a little pile of ash on the street to show where the fire had been. But on the way we found a taco stand in the garage of a nearby house. The genial man was not ready to start serving, but from what he was preparing we realized that it would be tacos al pastor, made with pineapple, and garnished with finely chopped white onion and a generous sprinkle of cilantro.

 We'd wondered if there was a neighborhood taco stand but hadn't noticed one until tonight. In many Mexican neighborhoods there will be always one or more entrepreneurs who will bring out tacos or tamales or other fast food to serve to hungry people at night. They may have day jobs and may only be open a few nights a week--like on the weekend, for instance--and this is how they supplement their income.

When we were in San Cristóbal de las Casas last spring we learned that on Wednesday and Saturday nights one could find "red light tamales," so named because when they were available there would be a red light bulb in front of the house with a woman standing over a huge kettle of steaming hot tamales. In the distance we could see many red lights all over town.

We went back about a half hour later and brought home 7 tacos--4 for Mark, 3 for me--and devoured them without taking time to photograph them. They were delicious and just what we needed to take the edge off our hunger. (I promise a photo next time--honest.) They were 5 pesos apiece, served with a delicious grilled onion, 4 or 5 slices of cucumber, a small plastic bag of sauce, and a half lime to squeeze over them.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Three Kings Day

Today, January 6, is Three Kings Day, when Mexican children receive their gifts (rather than on Christmas, when we do). So this morning the neighborhood was serenaded by a new drum kit from a nearby house, and on the way to the studio I met a mother and young girl with her first bicycle, training wheels and all. Mom was explaining how to push the pedals, but the little girl seemed to prefer pedaling backwards because it was so much less work, something we can all sympathize with. All over town there are kids with new bikes, or radio-controlled cars, or skateboards, dressed up, with big smiles.

This is the end of the Christmas season in Mexico. The decorations are coming down, and the temporary creches made from cardboard and palm fronds left over from the nightly posadas are being cleared out in the neighborhood. There are fewer and fewer fireworks and cohetes, thank goodness.

At one point this morning one of the workers at the Jesuita building came in to announce that in about 10 minutes everyone would gather in the office downstairs for the traditional cake and hot chocolate. The cake, called Rosca del Reyes, is like an oval coffee cake, decorated with maraschino cherries and strips of candied fruit, and it contains 3 small dolls that have been baked into it. Anyone who gets one of the dolls has to contribute to a party on February 2, so there's a lot of poking and prodding of the cake (and good-natured joking) to try to see where the dolls are. One doll was discovered by the Maestro (who oversees this entire building dedicated to the arts) and another by one of the women in the office, but when we left there was still a chunk of cake and one doll undiscovered. (Unless someone tucked it in his or her cheek, which is what Derli, the director of the print studio, suggested.)

The Maestro made a short speech in Spanish, most of which I didn't understand, and then we went back to work. I have to say, the chocolate was excellent, but the cake was more like bread with a sugar crust than what we would consider cake. This is what we've found with Mexican pan dulce, that it's sweet in name only.

Mark met me in town at 2pm for comida at a pleasant restaurant on the Plaza Grande. La Surtidora is an institution on the plaza, having been in place since 1916. It's a common sight to see people on the outside tables having coffee or a snack, and local gringos often linger there after dinner for a dessert or drink.
An orderly crowd of children and parents

As we were starting to walk home, we realized that the top of the large round fountain with the statue of Vasco de Quiroga in the center of the plaza was covered with Three Kings Cake, and that the sidewalks were full of kids and their parents lined up waiting for a slice of cake and a cup of hot chocolate. It was very orderly, with no pushing and shoving, and the kids were obviously pretty excited.
The entire top of the fountain was covered with  the cake

Running with cake
 More photos from today here.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

New Year's Eve Party

Through our connection to Frida Elizonda, whose dog we took care of while she and her boyfriend went to the beach over Christmas, we were invited to her mother's house for New Year's Eve. In Mexico, Christmas Eve is for family, but New Year's Eve is for friends as well as family. Frida's mother Hilda lives about 100 yards from our house, so it was an easy commute.

Mark and Milagrito
"Milagrito" (Little Miracle) is a 9-month-old spaniel, a cross between a cocker spaniel and a springer spaniel. She's small but mighty, and she was fun to have around. She will be a nice little dog when she grows up and stops being a puppy.

We were asked to bring a dessert, and since blackberries are so fresh and cheap in the mercado I decided to do a blackberry cobbler in the cast iron skillet I brought from home. However, Mark wanted to make a cherimoya mousse from a recipe he saw on the Internet a few weeks ago. Cherimoya is a delicious tropical fruit that he's loved from the first bite. The recipe required unflavored gelatin (as in Knox), but we weren't sure if we could find it here. Turns out it's sold in bulk in grocery stores, at the same counter where ham and chorizo are sold.

Not being real familiar with gelatin in any language, it was a total experiment for both of us. We made a few alterations to the recipe based on what we could find and hoped for the best.

Mark's cherimoya mousse
Not only did it gel properly, it was the hit of the party. People came up to us and raved about it, and we've had at least one request for the recipe. Unfortunately I don't think we'll be able to reproduce it at home, due to a lack of the main ingredient. We see cherimoya only very occasionally in Salida--in fact, just once at Wal-Mart and once at Safeway.

Old Man 2010 ablaze
The party was composed of Mexicans and a few American spouses, and everyone ate and drank until just before midnight, when we all adjourned to the yard to "burn the old man,"  the old year. He represents all the bad things that happened during 2010, and I guess one can put notes in his pockets with one's personal bad things to be burned with him. What we didn't know, and which caused great hilarity, was that he was filled with fireworks that went off as he went up in flames. Everyone exchanged air kisses and wishes for "Felicidades," and "Feliz Año." Shortly thereafter the party broke up and we walked the short distance home.

One couple we met were from Santa Clara de Cobre, the copper-working village south of Pátzcuaro. James Metcalf and Ana Pellicer are copper sculptors with international reputations. She is quite a bit younger than he is (he was born in 1925), and describes herself as "first his student, then his lover, now his wife." He moved to Santa Clara in 1966 from Paris, and was, to hear them describe it, instrumental in creating the industry that has put the village on the artistic map.

When he arrived the villagers were only making cauldrons by hammering them into a mold and then rolling the edges. He introduced them to the technique of raising, or hammering a flat sheet into rounded shapes that could become closed vessels like vases. In the intervening years the village artisans have created a unique art form that has made them famous. Unfortunately there have been hard feelings, as so often happens in Mexico.  Cristina Potters has a nice interview and photos of them on her great Mexico Cooks! blog that you can read here.

When they return from a trip to the US later this month we've been invited to visit them at their studio. I'm looking forward to it.

Our street after midnight, New Year's morning

Christmas Eve

I apologize for having fallen behind on the blog. (We've been having too much fun, I guess.) So I'm going to catch up with a couple of new posts.

We picked up a few things on Christmas Eve at the organic market—home-made pasta, smoked cheese, a very nice baguette, some cookies, and a loaf of multi-grain bread. Then we pressed on to the mercado for fruits and vegetables for the next few days. We weren’t really sure what to expect about closures for the holiday, so it seemed prudent to stock up.

Apparently everyone else had the same idea, because the mercado was more crowded than ever, and that’s saying something. It was a real scrum, with people packed into the narrow aisles, almost unable to move forward. We struggled to find carrots, green beans, potatoes, juice oranges, papaya, cherimoya and chico mamey, which we now learn should be called chicozapote. I don’t think the vendors will appreciate the distinction, so we’ll continue to call them chico mamey. Regardless of the name, they are completely delicious.

Here’s a photo, with a mandarin orange for size comparison. There are usually a few small dark seeds, unlike cherimoya which has many seeds.

The flavor has been described as similar to a pear (though I’ve never tasted a pear this sweet), with a slightly granular texture. We first tasted it in Chetumal, on the border with Belize; the vendor told me it was “like honey,” and she was right. These come from Nueva Italia, in the Tierra Caliente region of Michoacán—lower in altitude, much warmer, and not very safe for travelers. This is where marijuana (mota) is also grown.

After loading up with produce we went to Merza, a small supermarket near the plaza, for a few staples and a bottle of wine to bring to a Christmas party. It was also jammed, but fortunately the management had installed a couple of temporary checkout counters to accommodate last-minute shoppers like us.

Being overburdened with weight and pretty tired of the crowds, we hopped on our combi and rode home in relative comfort.

This is the statue of Gertrudis Bocanegra, the namesake of the Plaza Chica (formally La Plaza Getrudis Bocanegra), the heroine of the Independence. She looks like a woman not to be messed with. Nearby were a couple of abandoned cowboy boots. There’s a story there, I'm sure. And then there was the single white high heel on the floor in the mercado.

Christmas Eve dinner at our house was poblano chiles stuffed with a mixture of bacalao (salt cod), tomatoes, capers, onions, and a bit of chiles manzanas (apple chiles, very picante but also very flavorful), warmed in the oven and served over white rice, with fresh green beans. Bacalao is traditional for Christmas Eve in Mexico as well as in many other cultures, plus we love the stuff.

The poblano was extremely tasty, though the kitchen cleanup was extensive. A price worth paying, we both agreed.