Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Adios, Mexico

Yesterday we took our daughter to the Mexico City Zoo and among the vendors I noticed something new for us: stacks of some sort of meat looking edibles covered in a bright red powder, and next to these balls of some kind of food, about the size of a tennis ball, also covered in an almost neon irridescent red dust.

Questioning one of the vendors we learned that what we thought was meat was in fact grilled horse flesh, served with wedges of lime, while the food balls were made of tamarind, the pod fruit frequently used in sauces, candies and soft drinks this side of the border. The red substance covering both the horse meat and the tamarind was chili powder. And if the idea of spicy, savory tamarind balls doesn´t appeal, there were also tamarind balls dusted with sugar.

Mexico is a feast for the eyes and the belly. There´s something new around every corner. But it´s a country that stirs mixed emotions. The zoo is a marvel, absolutely lovely with its broad walkways and lush foliage, a place where one can easily lose oneself and forget entirely that it is surrounded by one of the world´s largest and most polluted metropolises.

Just a few blocks from this idyllic setting, where groups of uniformed school children romp and giggle, the sidewalks are jammed with vendors desperate to make a buck. There is barely room to pass in the crush of humanity. Pedestrians are pushed into the paths of buses and automobiles.

While we were visiting, the magnificent Belles Artes museum, originally commissioned by the dictator Perfirio Diaz to mimic the monumental architecture of Europe, was mounting the biggest exhibit ever of the radical artist Frida Kahlo. The line to enter was a block long. Meanwhile, at busy intersections children without shoes or parental supervision are performing cartwheels for motorists, begging for a peso or a few centavos.

We´ve come to regard Mexico as a bit schyzophrenic. For instance, there is no monument to Hernan Cortes, a conquistador first but arguably the man most responsible for organizing Mexico as a modern state. Mexico celebrates its Indian heritage and revolutionary struggles. Almost every city and town has a street named for the insrguentes. But the state also finds almost any excuse to call out the riot police with their body armor, helmets and shields, and to mount military checkpoints on the highways, where machine-gun toting soldiers stand vigil next to tanks and armored vehicles. And to what purpose?

And still, flags fly at half-staff on the death of Swedish film director Igmar Bergman.

The mood of the country manages to be ecstatic and repressive at the same time.

Mexico retains third-world problems while also supporting a construction boom. The state does not completely educate it´s children: paid schooling only runs through the sixth grade. Still, one can only be impressed with the rootedness of Mexican culture and sense of national pride. In its foodways, Mexico is still and always has been about corn. The tortilla is every bit as much a national symbol as the proud eagle with the squirming snake clutched in its beak.

A few images stand out: At a small, almost deserted restaurant near our hotel in Oaxaca, we were served goat cheese wrapped in a leaf from the hoja santa plant. Hoja santa typically is used as a cooking herb. The large, heart-shaped leaves have a sharp flavor of citrus and anise. What a surprise, and a revelation, to see it prepared this way.

On our drive into Amanalco, in the winding, pined covered hills west of Mexico City, we frequently passed small groups of people hailing us from the side of the road. They whistled as we approached, plastic buckets at their feet. These are the mushroom vendors, we learned, displaying their finds fresh from the forest.

In Valle de Bravo, we first learned of cecine de res, a kind of salted but still fresh beef that is sliced in terribly thin, rectangular pieces and displayed in the market in large mounds that look like edible building blocks. I still have the sharp scent of smoke and burning charcoal in my nostrils from the market in Oaxaca, where an entire hall was devoted to grilling beef. We will miss our breakfasts at the Mayordomo, where we lingered over cups of hot chocolate and baskets of sweet breads.

For our last meal together, our friend Ninfa prepared a small feast showing a more modern, cosmopolitan Mexico. There were fresh fillets of salmon, perfectly roasted with dill from the garden; chicken cooked in a light stew with cashews, chili peppers and ginger; lightly steamed broccoli and carrots; white rice with peas.

But on the table as well, like a phantom heartbeat of Mexico´s past and future, was the obligatory basket of warm tortillas. Always tortillas. Always.


MA said...

Ed, I hope you had a fabulous time, I have certainly enjoyed reading about your travels. Thanks for posting while on the road. Did you eat those horsemeat things?

I am making the bean recipe tomorrow morning. Got beans fresh from the CSA this afternoon. LeCrueset is on the stove ready to rock in the morning before it gets to 100 degrees.

Your devoted fan,

Ed Bruske said...

MA, did not eat the horsemeat. Too early in the morning. I've got it on my list for next time.

Enjoy the beans, and don't forget the corn bread...