Sunday, June 29, 2008

A Tale of Two, no, Three, no, Four Comidas

Do I hear FIVE??

We have just emerged with chile stained fingers from another round of fiestas and their attendant comidas. The big, really big fiesta time is, of course at Christmas. Two or more weeks of visiting, eating barbacoa, mole and sopa seca de arroz.

The impetus behind this semi-minor round of parties on the carnitas and mole circuit here was the end of the school terms. These are not celebrated in an "efficient", North of the Border way, like all at once, but extended over as long a period as possible to extract maximum enjoyment.

This period of fiestas and comidas also falls during an optimum time, when the "Summer People" (as I call them) have come for a visit, "del otro lado", that is, taking time off from their jobs in the U.S. to come home. The Summer People are really the local people, but those who went north to work and improve their fortunes. Some have been gone from here as many as 18 years.

Our fiesta and comida schedule started a week ago last Friday, on the 20th of June, with a Mass followed by a big tent party in celebration of a a pair of kids who had attained their third birthday. There were carnitas, soda and beer, then later, cake (which we didn't stay for.)

Last weekend, the Fiesta Circuit ratcheted up: Friday night we went to a pre-graduation/birthday pig pickin' at the house of Rubén and Isabel. The affable mechanic Rubén gave us a warm welcome, then filled our bowls with heaps of pozole. We could have had carnitas instead, but it seemed prudent to avoid those meaty morsels a couple of hours before bedtime.

Saturday evening brought a change of pace and of tastes; an expat party. Susan D invited us at to a birthday party for her husband, Doug, at their lovely new house. That was principally an expat gathering. Guests contributed a wide array of tasty dishes dear to us, the extranjeros. I brought a sort of Cheese and Salami Pizza Bread and a jug of Ginger Beer.

Restored by this contact with "home base", we launched into the Sunday final stretch with renewed vigor.

But a minor social crisis loomed over us. Both my wife, Susan and I had separately accepted invitations to two different comidas a half mile or less apart. We gave the original one priority, and enjoyed a terrific mole made by Señora Carmelina, as well as a tasty sopa seca de arroz. That was at the house of young Sra. Irma and her husband Sr, Ramón, just down the street.

By eating wisely (for once!), then excused ourselves with thanks, to walk up to our second fiesta at the house of Sra. Paz and Sr. Daniel. We made it inside even as freshet of rain broke upon us. We were greeted by more salutations and familiar faces, including those of Rubén and Isabel. I accepted a beer, but Susan couldn't eat anything. Various guests came and left, and then our hosts seated themselves in front of us, and we learned the various family relationships of people we knew and those new to us. This subject requires long and laborious study to fully grasp, assisted by a Cerveza Corona or two.

La Señora Paz made sure that we didn't leave her house empty handed. After we went out and admired their garden, she brought us a substantial bowl of mole de pollo and arroz, topped with a few tortillas.

Now we can rest from fiestas and comidas, with the exception of next Saturday, when we will fire up the charcoal grill in honor of El Día de La Independencia de Los Estados Unidos, and welcome back our neighbors, Geni and Larry.

Then we have a month to prepare for the fiesta and comida we will host for the community in celebration of our two years living here and in appreciation for their amiable kindnesses. It will be a pizza party plus. No mole. I leave the making of that to the cocineras expertas.

For you ladies, here are instructions from another website as to "How To Dress For A Mexican Fiesta". You can take these with several granos de sal.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

¡Menudo Free Delivery!

Our ranchito in Michoacán, México gets quite a few vendor vehicles serving the area with bread, tortillas, fruits and vegetables, cleaning supplies, and groceries in general. They usually have taped spiels (Sometimes intelligible, more often not) accompanied by music. It's very charmingly old fashioned.

Just now was a first for me. I heard the music and announcement of a loudspeaker. I went out to see what it was. Our landlady, Sra. Chucha, was buying menudo de becerro (Calve's tripes in chile broth) from another woman who had it in a large pot in the trunk of her car. The customers bring their own containers. The actual tripe pieces, rather gray and unattractive, sat off to the side in a large bowl. I don't know what it cost, as it didn't ignite my appetite. I didn't particularly like the smell, either. But it was the first time I'd seen Menudo Free Delivery out here in el campo.

My previous posts on "Confronting Menudo" are here.

(Today's menudo wasn't as attractive as that in the photo above.)

Monday, June 02, 2008

The Chicken Dance, Part 3

The Management of this blog regrets to inform its readers that there will be no Chicken Dance in this episode. There will, instead, be a Bull Dance.)

After passing the carved portals of the Salon Diana, showered with confetti, we stood in awe at the upper tier of the site. Along the wall to our back was the small kitchen, which would somehow feed and assuage the thirsts of an estimated 500 guests. While waiting, the visitors could snack on churros, papitas (delicious thick potato chips), or nieves y helados. With the exception of the nieves seller, who was limited in range by his cart, the others wandered about freely in the venue, mingling with the merrymakers, and keeping starvation at bay. We bought some papitas.

Below, the vast cavern sloped down in gradual tiers. I'll make a wild estimate that it is at least 50 meters wide by 150 meters long, with a ceiling ranging from 3 meters to 15 meters in height. (Please, don't hold me to this.)
I'll also wildly estimate that there were 50 to 75 long tables, each capable of holding 8 guests easily. The folding chairs were notably comfortable.

The Pastel de Boda stood on a pedestal at the far end of the hall. It was unusually spare and elegant. I assumed that the caterers had a few full sheet cakes in reserve, as that cake wouldn't serve more than 35-50 guests.

María made sure to point out the location of the baños, down and to the right of the Pastel de Boda, in their own semi-subterranean crypt. I had to be careful to duck my head when stepping down under the low hung lintel. Inside, the facilities were basic but clean and functional.

Enough statistics.

We were entertained by a small but wild band, who played the loopy, merry, even frenetic music; the tuba holding down the bass line, while clarinets, and brass instruments wheedled and noodled the manic melodies in a crashing cacophony of cymbals. I was somewhat reminded of the tone and tenor of Klezmer music.

A beefily built jóven held a small set of bulls horns at waist level and made a show by dancing a repetition of tight steps as the band and banner-waving women circled, keeping up with his macho display. They moved from outside to the Salon, where the women's increased efforts to "capture" him finally succeeded and "ensnared" him with long scarves or cloth streamers.
Dr. Freud would have enjoyed.

We took seats at a table in the upper tiers, far from the blasts of the band down by the Pastel de Boda. The table was set with a paper tablecloth, adorned with two miniature, wooden donkey or ox carts, each holding a green potted plant. Napkins nested in a little "tiara" servilletero. There were tortilla baskets with little lace rings around the waist. Very sweet.

Waiters began to fan out into the hall; first distributing cervezas, 2.5 liter bottles of Coca o Fresca, then plastic bowls of lightly pickled sliced vegetables. These were carrots, potatoes, jícama, onion, a very little chile, and the Número Uno Coveted Prize: Pickled Chicken Feet! That was as close as we got to a Chicken Dance, due to our premature departure. I willingly gave up my chicken feet to Sra. Chucha, who greatly enjoyed them.

Hot, foil wrapped stacks of tortillas came and were duly nested in the dainty baskets. Then unwrapped corundas of an unusual yellowish hue and a coarser than normal texture. Heavy but good.

After we toasted each other with our Coronas or Victorias, filling up on corundas, nibbling pickles and chicken feet, glomming an extra, unclaimed bowl from an adjacent table, the main course began emerging from the kitchen.

At first, the distribution system was made of of enthusiastic volunteers, forming a "bucket brigade" and passing plates one at a time from hand to hand.
Points for good will, points off for inefficient use of personnel. :-)

Then waiters took over, carrying several plates on the large, round pot lids; then they caught fire, loading up an entire table with plated food and schlepping the whole table down into the hall. ¡Bravo!

And the band played on, a loud, weird, disharmonious cacophony. We were content to sit as far away as possible.

Our main course arrived: "Churipo", as it is called locally, does not fit the classic definition of churipo, but that's what it was and is here; a very simplified stew of beef in red chile broth, without vegetables. We've had it similarly prepared at La Fiesta de La Virgen de Guadalupe, here in Las Cuevas.

We also had a very simple sopa seca de arroz. Surprisingly, after eating one serving, half the stodgy rice, and two tortillas, we were full.

I was running out of energy, so we said our good-byes, leaving the chicken dance and a slice of Pastel de Boda to the lucky and hardy majority who stayed. Our companions started divvying up the table favors; the tortillas in the basket, the oxcarts with plants, and we settled for the plastic napkin holder.
Estuvo una boda inolvidable, y les agradecemos por la experiencia.

(Now, I don't have to ever do it again. Unless the children of friends are getting married.)

Just one last thought: what do the newlyweds do with all those nut and candy dishes that they received from 500+ guests?)

This just in: I was searching for ways to use capulines, a sort of small wild cherry, and I came across this "paper" written by Robert V. Kemper of SMU,, Dallas, Texas, on "FOOD IN TZINTZUNTZAN, MICHOACÁN, MEXICO: TRADITIONS AND TRANSFORMATIONS", with intriguing references to geographical locations such as Sanabria and Chapultepec, two places which which we are quite familiar.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

The Chicken Dance, Part 2

On arriving at Tzintzuntzan, we easily found parking near the Presidencia. The siren's song was a taco stand, wafting tempting smells of onions and sizzling beef from across from where we'd parked. Little Alejandro was already hungry, so he, María, Amparo and Socorro each ate a few (about 3 each) tacos. With hindsight, I now realize that they knew something we didn't. To survive a big fiesta, you fortify yourself in the early stages.

We then strolled onto the beautiful church grounds amidst gathering wedding guests and slow-moving strings of guided tour groups.

Then we waited. The Padre had not arrived yet. After about 30 minutes, I went back to the gate to a tienda de abarrotes (small Mom 'n Pop grocery) and bought some cacahuates enchilados and a delicious "Doblón" snack cake to tide me over. It would be several hours before we'd eat again.

The Padre arrived, and he blessed the congregation, sprinkling all with Holy Water. La Misa proceeded well, with a chorus in the loft. It turned out to be a sincere and enthusiastic group of young mariachis. The wedding was an emotionally moving experience for me, as it always is. The whole ceremony lasted less than an hour.

We then gathered outside again to wait. The wait was made interesting by conversations I struck up with the mariachis, and with a young man, originally from Puebla, who's worked in Seattle for many years. We chatted variously, especially about pulque, its varieties and its health benefits. He claimed that his abuela lived to the age of 133, crediting her longevity to daily pulque consumption.

Una jarra de pulque

The Pulque drinkers

After perhaps 30 minutes, we left the church grounds and ambled along the streets of Tzintzuntzan to a small building, probably a tortillería, across from the PRD (a political party: "Partido Revolucionario Demócrato") offices, where chairs and light refreshments awaited us.

Then we waited. A long time. About 2 hours. It felt like more.
Time passed like inspecting lentils for pebbles.

Studying the surroundings. Cardboard wall partition to the right.
Chatting about making pizzas.
Going to the semi-open
baño at the back of the still under construction building.
Wandering out to the street for relief from the occasional fumes of insecticide drifting in.
Looking at the several attractive women among the various others waiting.
Going out for snacks. (see below.)
Turning down offers of Tequila being passed down the line by our gracious hosts.
Another store, across the street, held more waiting guests. They also waited in chairs along the sidewalk.

After more waiting, the newlywed's party finally arrived, banners waving. While everyone else went to the Salón de Eventos La Diana, we walked the 6 or 8 blocks back to our car, in order to pick up the gifts.

Vendedoras with large baskets of pan dulce walked by, and we bought a few breads to hold off increasing hunger. I bought a largish flat brown bun that was too coarse and dry to eat without some beverage in which to dunk it.

Farther along, we were saved by a stand selling hot freshly cooked chicharrones—fried pork skins). They are in large, curly pieces and delicious with or without a dash of Valentina Salsa Picante. Hunger was relieved.

Good sense prevailed and we drove back streets to within one block of the Salón Diana. Maidens showered us from their baskets of confetti as we entered the impressively carved doors of the Salón. The huge interior, large enough for a livestock exposition, was beautifully decorated with festoons of white "stalactites" joined at the junctures by hearts. Far ahead in the semi-gloom I could see table after table. There may have been more than 50 long tables.

There were also several pre- main event diversions, which I'll discuss in "The Chicken Dance, Part 3"

The Chicken Dance, Part 1

I've said it before: you have to be strong to party with Mexicans. They have the fiesta thing down, while we extranjeros feebly struggle to keep up. Fiestas seldom happen as one off events. No, they at least come in pairs and more often than not, series of parties over a week or two.

For example, we'd been invited to a small family get together on Friday at the home of our neighbor, Sr., Jesús O. and his wife, Praxedes. Only 15 or 18 guests, family and friends, gathered to celebrate Sr. O.'s Día del Santo.

It was a nice, quiet, family affair, with home made mole de pollo y arroz, the ubiquitous 2.5 liter refrescos bottles, and some cookies and bread pudding that I'd made. Our tablemates and I conversed on Las Vegas, Nevada, its attractions and its downsides.

Ah! the first Cocteles Margaritas I'd ever seen served at a local party made an appearance. (It's those gringo influences, learned al Otro Lado, infitrating La Cultura Mexicana.) I will say, however, they were done in a distinctively local interpretation, served in vasos plásticos deshechables.

Later in this intimate gathering, our amiga, María de la Luz B. asked if we'd like to go to a dance the next day, in Tzintzuntzan. I didn't understand at first, thinking she wanted me to dance with her. If so, she was joking, as I have a well-deserved reputation for two left feet. Our landlady, Sra. "Chucha" B., seated next to me, further explained that there was to be a wedding at Tzintzuntzan on the morrow, and that we should attend. The big draw would be the performance of La Danza de Pollos.
Wow! The Chicken Dance???

I was, of course, intrigued. They sank the hooks deeper as they skillfully played the line, with mentions of The Cerveza Dance and the Dance of El Torito. The clincher was that these dances were unique to Tzintzuntzan (only a few miles away over the ridge or a bit longer by highway) and not available here, in Las Cuevas.

Who could resist?
"O.k.", I declared. "¡Estoy convencido!"

We made plans to pick them up for a ride
at 10:15 Saturday morning to the mass, scheduled for 11:00, and after to the festivities. (No one really believed that we'd really leave at such a ridiculously precise time, but we all went along with the concept.)

At 10:20 Saturday morning, Sra. Chucha was ready. María and son were not to be found. We rode down the street to the highway, turned towards María's house, and found her by el vado, walking towards us, with Sra. Amparo and her daughter, Socorro. After turning around, we stopped in front of the house of Sra. Lupe, one of Sra. Chucha's many sisters, and offered her a ride. The van was able to comfortably carry all as we'd put in the rear bench seat earlier in the week.

By 10:35, we were off towards Tzintzuntan's venerable churches, set in a lovely area of
ancient olive trees.