Wednesday, June 30, 2010

All tied up in a pretty package

Between a wedding and a death, traveling internationally and a trade show for work, there was Tchaikovsky by the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center. The soloist Mikail Simonyan was mesmerizing.

The two biggest trends at the fancy food show seemed to be ‘local’ and ‘smart foods’ (aka, foods to prescribe to cure your ailments). And lots of truffles, though that trend has been riding high for a few years now.

Pastificio dei Campi, and Italian pasta company from Gragnano, has gone to great lengths to connect the pasta makers with their customers. Their website features a 'total tracking system' where you can enter the expiration date from your box of pasta and see not only when it was made, but when the grain was seeded, the date of harvest, the faces of the farmers and the field where the grains were gathered, and where the mill and pasta factory is located via google earth. The packaging is really nice- all in boxes (several different serving sizes) with a cover that slides off for easy opening and closing. Their goal was to make it easy for chefs to open a drawer under their station and reach into the pasta box and grab what they need. Though I'm not sure how practical the commercial kitchen idea is, it'll work great for the hope cook who doesn't want to use an entire box all at once.

I also got to meet Susannah Trilling, from Seasons of My Heart in Oaxaca, Mexico. They produce mole pastes and chili jellies. She published a great book back in 1999 about Oaxacan food, which is now out of print. I'm glad I asked about it- they have a stockpile of copies, so I'll be able to get some.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Le Salto de Nogada

In the sky there was a
deep causeway of black, brightening the white.
The rain was coming.
It blew and blustered and wets itself into rivers in the streets.

We traveled into the country in a car resembling a sewing machine.

It bobbed its way unevenly down the rocks and stones.
We passed eucalyptus trees and cacti,
a small town and the road we were supposed to turn on with
patayas for sale in leave covered baskets,
dogs sleeping or wandering, children holding their parents hands.

The end of the road: a car graveyard. And two confused guards at its gate.

The second day we attempted the same journey, though we made the right turn.
The buena vistas and burros and curious construction made up for our map reading skills,
which were more of a conversation than an outlined directive.

We waved at everyone we passed, and they waved back. We shared the road with
cows and seemingly impassable puddles, but our sewing machine forged on.
We stopped and played charades with a man
to make sure we were headed on the right path
and he implied that our car wouldn’t make it,
to which we responded as if his logic was also in a foreign language that we didn’t understand.

Over a cow grate, down a steep, uneven rocky path that continually brought us to the left:
the end of that road lead to two men and no visible waterfall.

It would be a twenty minute hike on an unclear path.

We thought about the wedding in a few hours,
thought about that decent that we were not sure we could ascend
stopped to stretch, smoke and pee,
and decided that we had seen enough.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Happily caught in the rain.

We spend the day yesterday in Ferria de Tula, a small village nearby. Oswaldo’s family friends that live there have been caring for the sheep that are going to be the main course at tomorrows wedding reception. Their lovely seven year old daughter Lluvia and several of her friends tagged along with us as we walked through the town. Apparently the phrase ‘uno, dos, tres, queso’ when taking a photo is not in common practice here, so I had the kids in stitches.

As it happens every day around 2pm, it started to rain, but this daily rain was a bit heavier than we expected. As we took shelter in the gazebo opposite the church, the rain picked up and turned into hail. The temperature dropped and we could see our breath. In the deluge we kept warm by huddling together in a big group hug. It was a great experience- old and very new friends all cuddled into a big mass, with Gleb, the biggest man among us, bearing the wind at his back.

When the sky cleared, Lluvia and I wandered off up to the church, which also was the local school. During the revolution it was partly destroyed, but the damaged facade by the entrance didn’t prevent it from being used and cared for. Inside the main hall and the school off to the side were colorful and well cared for. Lluvia gave me a wonderful tour, pointing out all of her favorite things. I didn’t understand most of it. Occasionally she would ask me a question, but after my apology she would continue on, leading me by hand up another staircase or into yet another room.

The group of us here for the wedding is growing by the hour as people continue to arrive. Some old friends and I set out this afternoon to see a waterfall nearby, but the road was nearly impassable by heavy rain. We somehow got off course and the rocky road ended at a junkyard. The rain continued to fall so we turned around, feeling satiated by seeing enough flowing water on the road, and went and had lunch.

Currently I’m sitting here as Karen’s old friend Shannon is practicing the hymns she’ll be performing at the wedding. Gleb, her friend from her days in Russia who is a wildlife photographer, will be ‘shooting’ the wedding. Oswaldo’s sisters and family friends are cooking the food and the wedding cake. I’m impressed by the level of personal engagement of everyone involved in this wedding, and am really looking forward to seeing it unfold over the next day and a half.


A 4 hour bus ride through every little town between here and Guadalajara and I've arrived. Karen & Oswaldo, and Olga and Gleb from Russia- we had a fantastic time helping get ready for the wedding, running around in the rain, eating tacos, drinking michelada's (a blend of beer, tomato sauce, lemon, chilies, salt, magi sauce & clamato (if you'd like)). It's a beautiful little town in the mountains and we're staying in the central square, near the cathedral that they're going to be married at on Saturday.

The photo of the woman in red is chopping pork cheek meat for tacos, which we're eating in the next photo. The best are the crispy tacos- they fry jalapenos in oil, then wrap them in corn tortillas and fry them again. Then she cracked them open, filled them with carnaza (pork cheek meat), beans, cilantro, chile sauce and lime.

Now, we go to see the flock of sheep that Oswaldo & Karen bought 6 months ago. This is their last day- tomorrow they will be slaughtered for the evening's reception.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Bang Bang y Bling Bling

The Festival of San Pedro here in Tlaquepaque begins on June 12th and is celebrated nightly until the 29th. I had read about it, but didn't put two-and-two together when I was woken by random loud bangs at 2am. Fireworks, I'm presuming, though I couldn't see them. It's so quiet here at night that they seemed especially loud, and someone nearby seemed to have a bumper crop and was in a particularly celebratory mood.

I visited the Museo del Premio Nacional de la Ceramica Pantalenon Pareduro this morning. It's considered the largest museum in the area of traditional Mexican ceramic art. I lucked out in meeting a guard that took me through the whole museum explaining the regional differences. The collection is very impressive- each piece is a winner of a previous years' national competition. As it happens, this week is the judging of this years competition and many of the competing artists are in town.

They had work from the nearby state of Michoacan, which is identifiable by it's figurines, images of death and devils, and bright colors. Also represented was work from Oxaca, which is fired in presumably a reduction kiln and is all black in color. The details were amazing. Also from Michoacan was the tradition of large elaborate pineapples that function as serving vessels for drinks. Most notably was work by an artist named Avalos Guerrero Abel, whose hand-built, intricately carved vessels were innovative and very impressive. He pushed the media to a level I haven't seen before. My friendly guide mentioned that she had met him for the first time the night before and she was gleeful like a schoolgirl. She told me that he had adjusted the lighting on his pieces as if he were a god descended from the heaven providing light for crops. I was touched by her appreciation for the work and the artists- it's fantastic to be in a community that holds such reverence for it's craftsmen.

Afterward I took a bus into the central district of downtown Guadalajara, whose charms are not immediately visible. It's very big, crowded, loud and dirty. However, the focus on public art and appreciation of it is visible everywhere if you look for the layers beyond the advertising, which is impressive for a city of its size.

I came across a temporary wall with art on it, covering up another mural underneath. I couldn't figure out exactly what was going on (why the first paintings were covered up) but the state of decay and the amount of interplay of the people that put those holes there was intriguing.

In some ways, Guadalajara reminded me of Calcutta, except the two cities have very different histories and are on different trajectories.

I had read about a famous place for pork tacos but never found it. My search took me to an area full of jewelry shops. On one side were the real deal shops, replete with many police officers standing around with big guns. On the other side was a newly built multi-layered mall that had all the cheap shiny bling bling things (and a public bathroom!).

I went to the highly recommended Cultural Institute, whose permanant collection is focused on Orozco, a painter and muralist who was active from the mid 20's through the 60's. His work was very interesting, and they provided a lot of insight into how he was responding to politics and the world around him as his work progressed. The center of the Institute was a series of very large murals painted in a church-like building. He was exceptionally talented, and if you ever get to Mexico City, be sure to look up some of his many public murals there. His work got increasingly dark as time went by- he moved away from realism and his work became more abstract, and often violent to reflect what he saw happening in Mexico. I particularly liked this passage from a grouping of his 1945 work called 'the Truth':

"The pathology of human condition that he depicts in this series is grotesque and abhorrent. Tyrants, matrons, buffoons, devils, headless women covered in mud, jackals, scorpions and other 'fauna' are used by {the} creator to "clarify more the words of the tribe," specifically one, the word 'truth,' which has been so degraded and perverted. From that muck and purification, the artist suggests a redefinition of this essential term- to fix the word, Confucius would say- so that we may again understand each other as a society and civilization."

That, a bus ride back and a nap find me ready to seek out some small place nearby that has reportedly transcendent guacamole and margaritas. The sun is setting and the bang-bang of fireworks are starting. This is my last night in Tlaquepaque- tomorrow: to Talpapa in the mountains.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Muy Sabroso, estoy lleno.

It took me a while to wrap my tongue around the name of this little town that has been swallowed by Guadalajara, Mexico. Tlaquepaque. (Tlah-kep-pah-keh). The taxi driver asked why I wanted to stay somewhere so quiet and I stumbled through the little spanish that I know to explain that I was actually looking forward to it. He asked "Why not go to the Downtown {Guadalajara} and dance all night?" It's a curious question, indeed, since the main city (the second largest in all of Mexico) is famous for it's mariachi musicians, hat dances and nightlife.

I was attracted to Tlaquepaque because it's an historic artisian community, with good food and a smaller neighborhood feel. After meeting the husband and wife who own La Casa del Retono I felt immediately comfortable. She gave me a list of restaurants and dishes to try and a key to my quiet little room in their historic building, once home to a famous craftsman. It's modest, and slow- presently I'm their only guest all week- and I won't argue with the guide books' description of the garden being 'uninspired'. It's charming, though, and the stone and brick construction in close quarters with trees, potted plants and a water fountain is pleasant. The owners have a young child that keeps their hands full. And an old, blind dog named Benji that sleeps wherever he pleases, most often in the middle of the walkways.

I was intrigued by her recomendation for a dish called 'Chiles en Nogada' at a Restaurante El Patio, a few blocks away. With it's origins in the neighboring state of Puebla, Chiles en Nogada consists of poblano peppers stuffed with 'picadillo' (a mixture of ground meat, aromatics, fruits and spices) and covered with a walnut-based cream sauce. Usually topped with pomegranate seeds, it envokes the colors of the Mexican flag and is considered a representation of their independance. Today, the kitchen must have been out of pomegranate, but it was no matter.

The texture of the ground meat stewed with fruit and spices and the roasted poblano chile was very nice. At first I was questioning the slightly sweet flavor of the sauce, but I enjoyed how it paired with the the occasional hint of spice. I couldn't tell where exactly that spice was coming from, but it was filling and delicious.

I lucked out with a patient waiter (though I wish he would have silenced the busboys' kissing noises). He showed me how to squeeze lime juice and sprinkle salt & chile powder over the sliced jicima and cucumber that he brought out as an appetizer. He also brought me a sweet 'Mexican coffee' with cinnamon, sugar (a bit too much for my black coffee loving palate), a twist of orange and a dash of rum. I was happy.

I was asked three times if someone was joining me, a frusturation I haven't endured since traveling in Spain, but felt as though it was indeed a table for two: a bee took to my cucumber/lime appetizer and spent most of the meal resting on the side of the plate. A few times a bird rushed past my head, and it occured to me that the restaruant only had a roof and walls on two sides. The weather is so temperate here they don't need to enclose the space.

Eslye told me that I can get good tacos and fried bananas in the main square during dinner time. I saw the vendors setting up their carts and the smells were exciting, but I don't know that I have any more room in me after such a filling lunch so late in the afternoon.

I only briefly explored some of the many stores that sell traditional art. It's slightly confusing that they use the same currency symbol $ as in the US, but it's actually in pesos. Logically it's very easy to do the math (the exchange rate is about 11 pesos to the dollar), but I still feel conservative when looking at something priced at $80 regardless of my logic. I'm sure I'll get over that by tomorrow. I saw many colorful, simple still lives in brightly painted frames, day of the dead figures with glittery gowns and skeletal grins, bicycles made of wire with pesos for wheels and a lot of beaded jewelry. I also saw several stalls selling Mexican wrestling masks, which look hillarious hanging from hooks en masse.

The travel time here was shorter than I expected, and it's only two time zones away from home.
I'm looking forward to gaining my footing after a full nights sleep. Tomorrow: downtown Guadalajara, with it's catedral, museums and food.