Saturday, December 11, 2010

Oaxaca, Mexico with a Guide from Paris, Texas


Oaxaca, Mexico has long fascinated Barbara Fendley and many others from Paris.  Its arts and crafts draw in the artistic crowd, a heavy indigenous presence attracts sociology and history majors, while archeological aficionados drool over the nearby Mitla and Monte Alban ruins. On a more personal level, one of its Rotary Clubs is a sister club to our Monday Greater Paris Rotary Club.

Several years ago, Barbara decided to learn Spanish there and soak in the culture at the same time.  She chose Becari Language School  (http://www.becari.com.mx/) for her lessons.   At first she stayed with a local family but now rents her own apartment for two months every summer. Toni Clem and I decided to pay our friend a visit.

Barbara’s most recent apartment on Tinoco y Palacios street sits next to a funeral home whose owner has befriended her.  He easily greets Paris visitors while supervising his supply of caskets on display for passing residents.  His dog knows that Barbara is good for a doggie treat every day.

After spending so much time in Oaxaca each year, Barbara is aware that the church bells ring at 6:45 a.m, the high fog horn comes from the Gas de Oaxaca truck, and that a man calls out every morning selling water.  She knows the hours of restaurants, names of waiters, best prices for handicrafts and souvenirs, where to find quality goods, days that museums close, and who makes the best coffee.   This is all very valuable information.  As guests, our only job was to pick among her daily suggestions and follow.


We began with a cooking lesson at Casa Crespo (http://www.casacrespo.com/)  where we sipped coffee around a circular table and discussed the menu.  Oaxaca is known for its subtle and eclectic moles and sauces.   Our chef, Oscar Carissosa, casually threw out suggestions for dishes with complex flavors and an occasional unfamiliar ingredient.  After deciding on the four courses, Oscar grabbed a shopping bag and we quickly moved outside for the short journey to the Pascua market.  Efficiently and expertly, he led us through a colorful maze of fruits and vegetables,  stopping occasionally to explain a new fruit or herb.  Honey bees hovered over the sweet blocks of candy and ants kept the salt dry.

Back at the restaurant, the cooking began.  We moved between the chopping table and kitchen and used blenders, fine knives, and a tortilla press.  Squash blossoms were rolled in a flour tortilla, pineapple, pork, and raisins stuffed into poblano chiles,  and flan whipped and poured into a pressure cooker. Oscar carried all of the recipes in his head  although he sent us the formulas by e-mail.   Lunch was served in courses and we ate for two hours.

Throughout the rest of the week,  Barbara led us easily through the streets of Oaxaca which has a known split personality.  One part is dedicated to the large and profitable tourist industry. The crafts are still the best in the country. Since my last visit there 15 years ago, many of the streets and sidewalks have been repaved and  the numbers and sophistication of restaurants have exploded as have the indoor and outdoor markets.  Barbara introduced us to Casa Oaxaca (http://www.casaoaxaca.com.mx/) where a Houston trained Oaxacan chef created dishes such as duck tacos and a red snapper with lemon butter and capers served over a bed of tomato marmalade - the best dish I had there.

Oaxaca’s second face is political.  The large, indigenous population  found its voice many years ago and has demanded equal treatment.  A strong teachers union holds annual massive strikes,  sometimes with large demonstrations.  The strike of 2006 caused the number of tourists  to plummet and Oaxaca is just now recovering its previous numbers.  This dichotomy is best represented at the Zocalo, Oaxaca’s central square.  While we were seated at one of the many outdoor restaurants, vendors pleaded with us to buy painted book marks, woven scarves, or handmade backpacks. Across the street, a large painted sign hung between two trees demanding “Justicia para Oaxaca - ahora y siempre” - Justice for Oaxaca, now and forever.  The two worlds of tourism and political activism slow dance together,  trying not to trip the other up. (I hasten to add that we never felt in any danger during our visit.)














We also explored the markets of Benito Juarez, Mercado 20 de Noviembre, and Artesans de Oaxaca.  Mujeres Artesanas ,(http://maroaxaca.blogspot.com/), a co-op store with a quality selection of artistic goods from all over Oaxaca, rated a second stop.  We bought movie CDs at one street fair and bilingual books at another.  With a chocoholic husband, I had to purchase blocks of chocolate from one of the many chocolate stores on Mina street.  For a traveler who prides herself on minimal purchases,  I found the beautiful and magical artistic world of Oaxaca irresistible and returned to Paris with many recuerdos de Mexico.

Oaxaca is an enchanting city made even more accessible by Barbara’s familiarity with its offerings.  It is far removed from the violence of northern Mexico and deserves a greater following from Americans.  We were lucky to have our own personal guide but even more fortunate to explore this world heritage site.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Lessons of the California Redwoods in Muir Woods


The tall, svelte redwood trees were once common throughout California’s valleys.  Because of unchecked logging, most stands disappeared. Less than five percent of the original two million acres of virgin forest remains today.  But thanks to their difficult location, the redwoods in the Muir Woods National Monument area were spared.  The trees are now also protected by Theodore Roosevelt’s proclamation making the area a national monument in 1908.

Having seen outings to the Muir Woods from San Francisco for years, my husband and I were finally paying our first visit.  The drive was through the densely populated bay area with no glimpse of what lay ahead.  Developments stopped as we passed through Mt. Tamalpais State Park.  But  it wasn’t until the turn-off from Highway 1 that the traffic and noise began to disappear.  Soon cell phone service stopped.   A steep, curvaceous road descended and placed us in the wonderland of coastal redwood trees - a world near the Pacific ocean but far away from the urban scene above.

The Muir Woods National Monument is on 295 acres donated by Congressman William Kent and his wife, Elizabeth Thacher Kent, who insisted that the monument be named after the conservationist, John Muir. Muir was a wanderer who studied at his own “university of the wilderness” and concluded that all living things had inherent value and deserved to live. He would be proud of the Sierra Club and the Nature Conservancy efforts today.





 Inside the monument area,  a two mile paved trail is the most popular although there are many more trails through the woods and over the hills.  Because it is an old growth forest, the trees are......... well, they’re old.  Most are 500 to 800 years old with the eldest having seen 1100 winters.  The park uses one fallen tree’s trunk to tag various human activities on  the tree rings.  It had lived over 1,000 years from 909 A.D. to 1930.  Columbus’ landing in 1492 happened two-thirds through that tree’s life.

A very clever park guide helped us appreciate the significance of the world’s tallest living organism.  Here is what we can learn from the redwoods.

1.  “Stand Tall and Proud” - The tallest redwood in the Muir Woods is over 250 feet tall but at other locations they can top out at 375 feet.  Compare this to the tallest trees in Texas such as the 133 foot Bitternut Hickory or the 140 foot Nuttall Oak.  Or better yet, compare with the smallest tree in the world  - the dwarf willow at three inches!

2.  “Live in a Cool Place” - The redwoods live in a narrow area along the coast of California.  They don’t like heat, do like fog and would never survive in Texas.

3.  “Drink Lots of Water” - They require 200 to 500 gallons of water a day -  three to seven times more than the average daily water use for Americans of 69 gallons.  The trees would be pretty thirsty in the dry summer were it not for the fog that carries moisture to the trees’ needles. Redwood creek also helps hydrate the trees.

4.  “Support Members of Your Community” - The trees do this through their root system which is only six to eight feet deep.  That sounds sufficient but it is the equivalent of a 5 foot 4 inch woman having a toe in the ground.  Since the roots are shallow, they have to spread 50 to 100 feet to provide enough ballast for the trees to remain upright and survive the winds.  Obviously, the roots will overlap and support the trees above.

5.  “Grow a Thick Skin” - Their bark is up to 12 inches thick which protects the tree from the elements.  The same tannic acid found in coffee, tea, and red wine makes the tree resistant to fire and insects.  With no susceptibility to disease, the number one “natural” killer is the wind.

6.  “Surround Yourself With Family” - A redwood cone is only the size of an olive.  Since only one in ten thousand cones grow into trees, the redwoods needed some help with fertility.  Nature provided it through burls, a dormant sprout that can be above or below ground.  The underground burls can sprout into new trees, forming a family circle.

Gratefully, the virgin redwood forests are protected.  But ninety-five percent of the redwood forests today have been cut at least once.  Only 21 percent of that acreage is owned by California and the federal government with the rest in private or corporate hands.   The challenge has been how to encourage the second-growth forest to minimize erosion, maintain wildlife and yet maximize timber production.  In the October, 2009 edition of National Geographic, Jim Able, a former industrial forester for Louisiana Pacific, describes his plan of culling the weakest and most poorly formed trees, leaving the strongest to thrive.  Some day, those saved trees will pay back the owners with huge harvests.


It was hard to look straight up at the Redwoods.  Our necks weren’t used to stretching that far.  But in the Cathedral Grove at Muir Woods, where trees circle around, it was enough to just sit and know they were with us and had been saved for our viewing.  As much as I hate to admit it, California wins the tall tree round.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Experiencing the Hammam or Turkish Baths, at the Paris Mosque


Modeled after the Greek and Roman baths, the Hammam is a form of steam bath and means the spreader of warmth. The Ottomans sowed this Turkish variation throughout Europe. They often are associated with mosques as the baths comply with Islamic laws of purification and hygiene. It was no surprise then to learn of a Hammam at the oldest mosque in Paris, France - the Mosque de Paris. Betty Swasko, Tina Smith, and I were ready for the adventure.

Finding the baths was the first challenge. At the address given, a North African restaurant overflowed into a lovely garden. A waiter pointed us toward the mosque around the block. There, a garden and cool fountain welcomed us but no baths. An elderly man redirected us back to the restaurant. Finally, inside the restaurant, behind the pastry counter, were two green and red painted doors with a sign above one stating “Hammam” and a reversible placard that said “reserve aux femmes” or women only on that day. Cautiously, we entered.

After passing though a tiled antechamber, we arrived at the register with a cashier who acted as if she had never heard a word of English in her life. Gratefully, a departing customer helped with the options and suggested a 20 minute massage for 25 Euros and a 15 Euro trip through the baths. We placed our names on the massage list and slipped on some green, plastic sandals, a far cry from the traditional wooded clogs or patens, carved and decorated with silver and mother of pearl.

There were no signs in English, or French for that matter, except a recurring one that warned us to rinse before entering the baths. Blindly, we found our way to the locker room and changed into bathing suits. After first opening the door to a utility closet, we finally discovered the shower room where an employee used hand motions to be sure all rinsed before entering the baths.

Turkish Baths are very moist and gradually heat your body by increasing the temperature in each of the three rooms. The final room can be as hot as 140 degrees. A Tas, or bucket of cool water, is provided to cool your body and a return trip to the showers is recommended before advancing to a hotter room.

Women of all sizes, shapes, nationalities, and degrees of modesty casually moved about the rooms. We bypassed the first area as the benches were full. A steam sauna sat in the middle of the second room with two elevated platforms on either side. No benches were provided but other participants were lying on the floor of the platforms with their legs resting on the wall. It felt odd but that’s what we did. We learned the reason for lying on the floor in the next room.

The third room was significantly hotter. If we stood, steam swirled around our heads. To breathe, we had to lie prone on the marble floor. Across the aisle, a few women sat in a circular pool that was too hot for us. We were quickly ready for another shower. By the third visit to the shower room, the employee had softened a bit and actually smiled at us.


It was time for our massages and we returned to the vaulted , carved entry area where four massage tables stood, guarded by old masseuses wearing the traditional hijab covering their heads. They motioned us to the tables and we climbed up. What followed was not really a massage - more of an oil rub over all parts of the body. After the heat of the baths, the almond scented oil was the perfect antidote. However, my masseuse had a distracting hangnail and Tina’s lady only worked on her shoulders and back as she talked throughout the massage and even answered her cell phone.

No one had mentioned towels but after the massage, we were dry enough to change clothes. Upon leaving, we encountered a single American woman entering the baths looking as confused as we had earlier. It was nice to return the favor and help her with the options and the process.

In a Turkish travel site, the hammam was described as “wafting steam through which daily worries and concerns cannot penetrate.” Now that we know the routine, this description would be accurate, especially on a vacation.

Paris Mosque website

Sunday, October 24, 2010

What is There To do In Mt. Pleasant, Texas



Surrounded by lakes and woods in the heart of Northeast Texas, Mount Pleasant lives up to its name as a pleasing place to visit.  Four major lakes within 30 minutes of the town limits make this the Bass fishing capital of Texas.  A Blue Bird Trail and the Sleepy Hollow Daffodil Garden beckon in the springtime.  Its restaurant selections support Texas classics such as chicken fried steak, BBQ, and Tex-Mex but for the more adventuresome palate, there’s a nice variety.  Here are some suggestions for the day or overnight visitor as well as those with a more leisurely stay.


(1) Jo’s Antiques on the Square.  This 26 year old, quality antique store has been discovered by many Dallas and Houston clients and owner Jo Campbell knows their names and interests.  Her pieces all have stories and she has a large selection of R. S. Prussian porcelain. As an added bonus, her building dates from 1894, making it the oldest in Mt. Pleasant.  Jo also has an interest in the adjoining Old World Interiors, a gift shop with jewelry and home accents.
102 North Jefferson Avenue. 903.572.3173



(2) Rodeo with a Capital R.  There’s more than one opportunity to experience rodeo here.  The Mt. Pleasant Rodeo in May draws a large crowd of participants and fans. A local company, Priefert Ranch Equipment, manufactures the widely used bucking chute, a pen that allows riders to safely mount a bull before the gate opens.  If you miss the May event, the rodeo team at Northeast Texas Community College competes with 11 other colleges and their event is in October. And children can compete in an academic rodeo held during the Titus County Fair in October.








(3) Meson del Bajio.  This is truly a hidden gem.  If a friend had not recommended it, I would never have stopped at the wonderful real Mexican restaurant tucked behind mirrored doors in a tumble down strip center. The interior is filled with authentic Mexican furniture, including some antiques and a church door now used as a table.  Owner Gabriel Lopez hails from the lovely city of Guanajuato, Mexico and is proud of his authentic fare.  My chicken enchiladas with green chile sauce were not only delicious but were presented with fresh lettuce, tomato, crema, and avocado strips.
201 E. 1st Street. 903.575.0315 or 903.201.5604

(4)  For the sweet tooth visitors, Mt. Pleasant is a treasure and will satisfy any craving.



The Sweet Shop USA  is a transplant from Ft. Worth that sells wholesale high-end gourmet chocolate. But the good news is it has a gift shop that allows all to taste and purchase their products.  For the hard corps chocoholics, a tour can be arranged if notice is given in advance.
Call 1-800-222-2269 for tour information
1316 Industrial Road
The Sweet Shop USA




Golden Gals Candy sells freshly made pecan pralines in three flavors.  Other sweets are offered but the pralines rule.
210 W. 2nd Street.  903.577.3434
Golden Gal's Candy Company








Laura’s Cheesecake and Bakery. This very popular bakery offers a nice selection of sandwiches and salads which can be topped off with a slice of one of Laura’s Cheesecakes. I was surprised to find grilled vegetables with my turkey sandwich on foccacio  bread - nice.  Their cheesecakes are well-known, having been featured in Southern Living magazine, and are shipped around the country.
Located on downtown Square, 109 N. Madison. 903.577.8177.
Laura's Cheesecake


(5)  A VERY small historical museum is located down the circular stairway in the Mt. Pleasant Public Library.  Caddo Indians lived in the area as late as 1845 and a selection of their pottery is displayed.  With its beginnings underground,  the local lignite mining industry is over 100 years old.  Monies from the Republic of Texas and the Confederacy tie this old county into Texas’ history.  And my favorite was a 1870 Teacher’s contract that paid $800 for 32 weeks of instruction.
213 N. Madison.  903.575.4180
Mt. Pleasant Public Library




(6) Dellwood Park, at the east edge of town, has long, concrete sidewalks for running or strolling, tennis courts, open areas for soccer, painted bridges and fountains - a nice place to unwind after a day of visiting.
726 E. Ferguson Ave.




(7) Super Plaza Mercado.  Thanks to the large Hispanic population in Mt. Pleasant, this well stocked grocery store features many products used for traditional Mexican cooking. Fresh and dried chiles, queso fresco, masa and Mexican pastries add authenticity to any Mexican meal.  But it is also a great place to buy fresh meat and seafood, including options such as octopus!
1210 W. Ferguson.  903.575.9449




(8) Herschel’s Family Restaurant.  From the outside, this restaurant appears to be a Dairy Queen knock off.  But inside,  sports memorabilia decorates the front room and a surprising array of animal trophies fill the large party room in back.  Locals hang out here.  The #1 combo is the most popular breakfast selection while chicken fried steak or a baked potato dominate at lunch.
1612 S. Jefferson.  903.572.7801






(9) Delia’s Salvadorian Cuisine.  What a nice addition to the food scene in Mt. Pleasant.  The family’s grandmother, Delia, began the family restaurant tradition in El Salvador.  Her grandchildren have opened one here, introducing the local population to the papusa - hand made stuffed tortilla with cheese, beans, squash or meat. Try the black bean dip or the drink, ensalada de fruta.  The family even brings back moro and marnon from El Salvador for authentic flavoring.
1406 N. Jefferson.  903.577.1882






(10) The Agriculture Building at Northeast Texas Community College.  Ok, this is just outside of town but it’s worth the lovely ten minute drive to see a building of the future.  Equipped with green screens on the windows, a pond to collect and recycle rain water, and a solar-powered electrical system, the building has earned a platinum rating on LEED, the green building certification system.  We should all take notes.
Northeast Texas Community College






Other good restaurant choices are Mardi Gras, a locally owned Cajun restaurant, Luigi’s Italian Restaurant with its famous pink sauce, and Bodacious BARBQ, a regional favorite.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Tracking a Carrot for Campbell's Vegetable Soup

The year was 1964.  My father was a farmer in Plainview, Hale County, Texas and one of the first in the area to grow carrots, potatoes, and onions. He and his brother owned a produce shed that cleaned and bagged  vegetables before shipping.  Campbell Soup Company, the world’s largest maker and marketer of soup,  had just opened a new plant in Paris, Texas.  The company’s buyers came calling and soon Walker Brothers Produce had a contract to sell potatoes and carrots to Campbell Soup (CS).  It was an exciting time in our household.  For these reasons, I was curious how a carrot needed for a can of Campbell’s Vegetable Soup traveled today and what had changed since 1964.

The ingredients for the standard Campbell Soup Vegetable Soup have not varied much since its original production in1899.  Nor surprisingly, carrots, potatoes, corn, onion, and garlic still dominate the recipe.  A gradual lowering of the sodium content has been one nod to the push for a healthier life style. None of the ingredients for this soup come from abroad - a true “Made in America” product.  Carrots from California, Texas and Ohio, potatoes from Colorado, Texas and Kansas and onions from Idaho are examples of the nation wide scope needed to maintain the raw ingredients.


In my father’s time, individual field agents kept track of the progress of a crop.  It was important to them whether it rained on Charlie Walker’s carrots 400 miles away.   Today, buying is more centralized, uses computer quotes and is often completed with larger purchases from huge farmers who can grow, clean, cool, and send the produce.  Frozen and dried vegetables have also become a part of the process.

But there are still some individual carrot growers such as Tommy Jendrusch and Rick Harbison in McAllen, Texas who use their 1400 acres to sell vegetables  to Campbell Soup and Gerber’s. Over the last 20 years, hybrid varieties of carrots have at least doubled the yield and increased the carotene and color.  Their fields now have GPS coordinates and are numbered so that each load of vegetables can be traced to a specific block of land.  The Paris plant likes buying from these Texas farmers as the transportation cost is less and minimizes their carbon footprint.

The contracted carrots from the Rio Grande Valley farm are loaded in bulk onto a refrigerated truck maintained at 35 degrees and shut with a bolt seal to protect the integrity of the load.  The load is shipped to Paris and then quickly unloaded at the plant.  A devise called the “sputnik” crawls into the truck with a conveyor belt that gently pulls in vegetables from the lower part of the truck opening and delivers them to a second conveyor belt to be washed, sorted, and diced.

A giant vat is used to mix the ingredients according to a traditional recipe with modern technology directing the amounts needed.   Computers also monitor quality control as the soup progresses.  Soup is poured into individual cans and cooked.  The cans are made on site by the Silgan Container Company which also reduces transportation costs.  The classic labels made famous by the painter, Andy Warhol,  are last to be added.

The amount of soup made each year is determined by the customer and is called historic numbers.  Campbell’s, obviously, prefers cold winters and as an employee noted, “we’re not fans of global warming”.

A significant change from years past has been the packaging.  The standard pallet contains 170 cases but customers such as Sam’s, Costco’s and other club stores,  ask for and get different numbers of cans under the shrink wrap.

After canning, cooking, and packaging, the soup is ready to ship.  Campbell Soup allows its customers to use their own trucks or trucking companies to transport the soup. Many other manufacturing companies will limit access to  two or three trucking companies.  CS does not sell directly to the grocery stores.  Trucks deliver the pallets to distribution centers.  Our carrots could end up in any of the eleven near-by states served by the Paris plant.  We’re almost exactly in the middle of this territory which minimizes transportation costs for the customers.

In the end, our carrots were well traveled - by truck  from the farm field to produce sheds, the CS plant, distribution centers and grocery stores and by car to your home.  The price of gas has to affect the cost of the soup.  CS plants then must  use technology and efficiency to keep the cost of their soup lower.  This translates into more business and eventually, more jobs.

The basic process of making and transporting soup and its ingredients hasn’t changed that much over the last 46 years.  The trucks are now refrigerated,  bigger, and more efficient.  Technology directs the process today.  Produce is no longer raised on the Texas Panhandle but it still comes from American farms.  I can’t pretend that the carrots in the soup are from our farm but I’m happy to know some American farm children can still  make that claim.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Mexico Celebrates Two Anniversaries in 2010


On a recent trip to Oaxaca in the far south of Mexico, I saw a countdown clock. On that day it was 21 days, five hours, 13 minutes and 35 seconds until September 16, 2010 - the 200th anniversary of Mexico’s Independence Day. A second celebration will take place on November 20th as the 100th anniversary of the Mexican Revolution. President Calderon declared 2010 as the “Ano de la Patria” or “Year of the Fatherland” for Mexico. Countdown clocks are in each state capital. I needed a quick review of Mexican history to understand the two celebrations and our neighbor’s roller coaster ride to the modern era.

In 1810, Father Manuel Hidalgo called for Independence from Spain in a shout out from his church in Dolores which is referred to throughout Mexico as “El Grito de Dolores”. After initially fighting each other, a strange alliance of Mestizos (mixed blood) and Indigenous people with the Creoles and other Mexican ex-royalists finally prevailed. The fighting was not pretty with rebel heads being hung on the outside of a granery in Guanajuato. It took 11 years to get to a “constitutional monarchy” in which General Iturbide became the First Constitutional Emperor. He didn’t last long and was deposed by our very own Santa Anna. In 1824, a constitution modeled after that of the United States was adopted.

Throughout the next 80 years, Mexico was a punching bag - constantly harassed and invaded. From 1846-1848, four American campaigns entered Mexican soil which included the occupation of Mexico City in 1847. This resulted in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that gave Texas, California and New Mexico to the U.S. for $15 million. When Benito Juarez suspended interest payments on loans to foreign countries (except those of the U.S.), France took the lead among the European nations and also captured Mexico City in 1861, placing Archduke Maximilian as second Emperor of Mexico. As French troops started to withdraw, Mexican Republicans moved in and executed Maximilian. Benito Juarez returned to power and governed until his death in 1872.

Porfirio Diaz won his first term as president in 1876 and literally ruled for eight terms. He suspended freedom of the press, dissolved local authorities, and enforced a “pan o palo”, “bread or beating” approach toward his followers. Even though he did bring in money for the country by foreign exploitation of Mexico’s wealth, only the upper crust benefitted.

In 1910, after more than 30 years of this dictatorship, an interesting coalition of Francisco Madero, General Victoriano Huerta, Emiliano Zapato, Pancho Villa and Venustiano Carranza came together to chase Diaz out of the country. This is the second celebration in Mexico on November 20th - the 100th anniversary of what is called the Mexican Revolution. All these men were to die in the next ten years as the new rules were sorted out and a second constitution adopted in 1917. It wasn’t until 1934 that Mexico got its “Honest Abe” in the election of Lazaro Cardenas who gave Mexico a chance to get back on her feet. Cardenas brought back organized labor and instituted land reform. He also did an amazing thing - he stepped down after his official six year term had ended - a tradition that continues to this day.

Mexico’s long lasting political party, PRI, began in 1929. Until 2000, it almost singlehandedly directed politics across Mexico. However, Vicente Fox broke the mode of sitting presidents selecting the next presidential candidate. He was elected in 2000 from the PAN (National Action Party) as was Felipe Calderon in 2010. Today, Mexico is a fully functioning democracy with three viable political parties.

In the evening of September 15th, President Calderon rang a bell, waived the Mexican flag, and shouted out “Viva Mexico” for the 200th time since the original “Grito de Dolores”. He presides over a very different country today. Newsweek recently selected Mexico as the 5th best place to live in the world among large countries. It notes the extensive young workforce, strong educational system, and generous infusion of monies from outside Mexico continue to make this an inviting place to reside. Its biggest PR problem is the perception abroad of a criminal state which prevents tourists and businesses from coming to Mexico. But for now, we should be happy for our neighbor’s dual celebrations. It’s been a hard road to travel.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

An Authentic Indian Wedding in Garland,Texas




India is a long way from Paris - a minimum of two flights, often more, and 36 hours of traveling. One doesn’t go to India for a week-end. But wouldn’t it be nice to just travel to Dallas and “be there”. We did just that recently at the wedding of our son’s friend, Amit Agarwal.

Amit’s father, Mahesh Agarwal, moved to Paris in 1978 to work as a hospital medical lab tech. He returned to India in 1979 and brought back his happy and outgoing wife, Usha. Both their children, Sonika and Amit, were born at McCuistion hospital and educated in the Paris school district. (Sonika is general manager of La Quinta Inn in Sherman and Amit is a physician.) With the help of a temple in Dallas, the children were raised Hindu but had many Christian friends. It all seemed normal to them.

Amit’s fiancĂ©, Nima Patel, is also a physician but she was born and raised in the Indian community of Garland, Texas. In her childhood, Nima was surrounded by other children whose parents had immigrated to America. As one friend noted, Nima could go to any of her neighbors homes and borrow ghee, a clarified butter used in Indian cookery. It all seemed normal to Nima.

When Amit and Nima married, the wedding festivities recreated the feel of an Indian wedding even though it was held at the special events center in Garland. Unfortunately, we missed the Friday festivities with the traditional line dancing. But we arrived bright and early on Saturday morning, ready for the scheduled 9 a.m. wedding ceremony. No one had told us about Indian Standard Time (IST). It should have been obvious from the small crowd that 9 o’clock was only an approximate time.

The groom, his family and friends approached the center from the hotel across the street. In our Garland setting, the hotel and special events center represented the groom’s and the bride’s homes respectively. Gratefully, an Indian guest advised us that if we were with the groom, we should be walking with his family. We crossed the parking lot and joined the dancing Agarwals.

The group followed a white pick-up that pumped out Indian music as a lone drummer hammered out the beat with gusto. Dressed in a safa, a traditional red turban, and red and gold wedding attire, Amit rode a white horse covered in brocade. He was shaded with a red cloth umbrella held by a follower. Most of the women were dressed in their sparkling saris and the men, including Amit’s Paris friends, wore the traditional kurta pajamas. Because of the continuous dancing, it took the procession an hour to cross the parking lot to the entry of the civic center.

The bride’s family and friends were there to greet us and Nima and Amit were soon lifted high to receive flower garlands. The crowd entered the ceremonial room where a stage held the thrones for the bridal couple and chairs for family members. It was a casual time as we waited and visited with Rashmi Patel, a former resident of Paris. At the correct spiritual moment, the ceremony began with the bride’s ten attendants entering individually, holding a single flower, and wearing identical saris.





The bride’s maternal uncle (known as the mama) escorted her as she was carried in by family friends on a palki or holy carriage. A Brahmin priest conducted the Hindu Wedding Ceremony in Sanskrit. Few Indians understand this ancient language but all are familiar with the process.

The program guided us as the bride was accepted into the groom’s family and both received blessings of the gods and families. Since the service took some time, pistachio and rose petal ice cream were served to guests around 11 a.m. As the newlyweds received more blessings and gifts, we were directed to the next room for a light, vegetarian meal. We visited with an Indian guest who explained the use of the matchmaker in India whose emphasis is on uniting two families rather than just the couple. Finally, our bride and groom returned to the hotel in a horse drawn carriage where the groom’s family welcomed them with more gifts.


The evening dinner event was much less traditional and had many more attending. At least 600 guests listened to friends of the bride and groom tell stories. (In India, a wedding could have 4,000 guests.) Amit took some gentle kidding about his country accent but there was also admiration for his having experienced a more traditional American childhood in Paris. Nima’s ten attendants were all Indian friends. Amit’s friends were an incredible blend of small town Texas who had accepted him into their fold. I felt proud of our community and its openness to the children of a very different culture.

The dancing continued that evening with music from the Punjab region - the favorite in all of India because of its strong beat. (Think Bollywood.) Usha was the star dancer. Thanks to our Paris friends, Chris and Swati Prakesh, we learned to rythmically lift our shoulders while holding our arms in a U shape. Joe and Agnes Xavier also joined the dance floor movements. My shoulders were sore the next day!

I’ve never been to India. But for one special day, I experienced its ambiance, heard its language, ate its food, moved to its beat. And I was reminded again that the joy of a wedding is universal, to be celebrated in whatever form it takes.


Thursday, July 29, 2010

Cooking Class in San Miguel de Allende - Taking the Fear out of Dried Chile Peppers




The truth is this - I’ve always ignored recipes that required dried chile peppers. The dusty, shriveled chiles in the supermarket appeared old and tough. Apparently, water would revive them but I never tried. Enter Marilau Ricaud, mistress of Mexican Ancestry Cooking School in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, who promised to take the fear out of dried and fresh chiles . We signed on to learn the basics of Mexican salsas. Please note that this translates into sauces and not the chunky salsas we use for toppings or dips.


Marilau is proud of the contributions that Mexican ingredients have made to the world’s cuisine. Until the Spanish explorers returned from Mexico to Europe, there was no tomato sauce in Italy, no Swiss chocolates, and no green bell peppers (which are really poblano peppers grown in European soil). But it is the native chile peppers that have most influenced the world through traditional Mexican cooking.

Fortunately, the mysteries of dried and fresh peppers resolved as the lesson progressed. Marilau shared some basic Mexican recipes which were cooked according to prehispanic techniques. She also included two that had been handed down in her family. One of her grandfathers was French and a baker and the other hunted and cooked wild game. Marilau had been immersed in food since infancy.

At the beginning of the morning, we took notes of the rules of chile pepper salsas before starting to cook.

Never make a salsa with two different kinds of fresh peppers.
Never make a salsa with fresh and dried chiles together
You can mix dried chiles in a salsa.

Most recipes were amazingly simple with all having only 6 to 10 ingredients. The dried chiles’ oils had to be developed by toasting on a comal or flat griddle on top of the stove until the chile’s odor was released - less than two minutes. It is then soaked in warm water or other liquid before mixing with the remainder of the ingredients. After years of unnecessary angst, dried chile peppers’ mysteries were revealed.

A blender was essential as all ingredients were tossed together at some point of the process. Having only cooked Tex-Mex, I was surprised at the variety of flavors used. - whole cloves, cinnamon stick, marjoram, and thyme. Liquids included chicken broth, orange juice, and cider vinegar. Mexican sour cream had to be used as the American kind would curdle. (BTW, Mexican sour cream is available at our Wal-Mart.) And Mexican manchego also differed from ours with Gouda a viable substitute.


Marilau continued to educate us as the lesson progressed. Mexicans don’t flavor with fat. The main purpose of a chile is to spice the dish and weather and soil can affect the heat You can always add heat but never cut it. Since much of the heat of a chile pepper is in the seeds, it’s best to remove those before cooking. The discussion reminded me of the challenge our local Campbell Soup has in making a consistent Pace Picante Sauce or Salsa. They have to buy “heatless” jalapenos in order to tone down the spice.

At the end of the morning session, there were a few more instructions.

Dried chiles can’t be overcooked.
Dried chiles thicken the sauce

Never cook with olive oil
Never serve with wine - The Spanish forbade the production of grapes and olive trees because they wanted to protect their monopoly for the home country. Consequently, traditional Mexican recipes and meals don’t use these ingredients. Her suggestion - serve with beer.

We got to sample the six distinctive salsas made that morning with more directions on when to use each. The Salsa de Chile Ancho was the most versatile as it’s the familiar red sauce topping for enchiladas, chilequiles, meat, rice or even fried eggs. But the Salsa Morena reigned for pork, duck, chicken, turkey or brisquet.

Fortunately, I’ve been able to find most of the required peppers in Paris although the dried, smoky chipotle peppers were purchased at Central Market in Austin. I’m grateful to Marilau for opening up a whole new world of ingredients. She has permitted me to post one of her easiest fresh pepper recipes on my web-site - www.thetravelinggene.com - which I hope you’ll try. For the dried pepper dishes, you’ll need to be brave or take her lessons.




SALSA VERDE

3/4 lb tomatillos - be sure to take paper husk off first
1 thin slice of white onion
1-2 serrano chiles
1 bunch of cilantro (8 stems)
Salt to Taste
1 to 1/2 cup chicken broth
1 TBS vegetable oil or lard

Put all ingredients in blender except the oil. Blend until pureed.
Heat the oil and add the pureed ingredients. Cook salsa for 15 minutes.

This sauce is good for everything in Mexico! It can also be used for a soup by adding vegetables and/or chicken and more broth.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

San Antonio de Padua - How an Italian Saint Joined us in the Streets of Guanajuato, Mexico


We were happy to be there - a girls trip with Paris friends. We rented a three bedroom house with a rooftop terrace for $500 a week near the central market of Guanajuato, Mexico. The weather was almost perfect with warm days and cool evenings. The city has been designated a World Heritage site because of its lovely colonial architecture dating from when Guanajuato produced one-third of the world’s silver. Thanks to the diversion of most traffic below the city, many plazas, streets, and callejons (paved pathways) were without vehicles - perfect for strolling.

Our itinerary was unexpectedly altered at 6 a.m. on Saturday, June 12th. Loud firecrackers booms are often heard here in the morning to celebrate birthdays. But at this dawn, a volley of explosions saluted the day, followed by the sounds of an advancing band down the small, steep callejon in front of our house. Close behind, religious banners, singers, and contrite parishioners paraded down the mountain, filling the street directly below our balconies.

It was the saint’s day for the near-by San Antonio de Padua chapel. San Antonio is a beloved saint across the continents. Portuguese by birth, he joined the Franciscan monks in Italy where his powers of preaching were recognized by his title “Evangelical Doctor”. Our own San Antonio, Texas was named in his honor and Italy claims him as their patron saint. (As we age, we should call upon him often as he is also the patron saint of lost things.) He died on June 13, 1231, a date that was now being celebrated in our hood in Guanajuato 779 years later.


A room on the street had been converted into a small chapel where mass was celebrated over loud speakers. Then the festivities began with large pots of soup and tamales offering free fare to any who asked.

Neighbors gathered and visited. They smiled at us as the only gringos on the street. We danced with an old, tilted woman who smiled sweetly at her four partners. Another lovely woman answered our questions and encouraged us to participate throughout the next two days of celebrations.




After an afternoon siesta, we opened our front door and stepped into a street filled with Chichimeca Indian dancers - replete with feathers, body paint and ankle bands of nuts from the Ayoyote tree. It took our breath away. Guanajuato was originally inhabited by one of the nomadic Chichimeca tribes who maintained a fierce resistance against the Spaniards for longer than most.
They were primitive, painted their bodies, and ate only game, roots and berries. Most have been assimilated although a sliver of the population (.26%) can still speak the indigenous language. Many of their descendants were joined by other tribes in Mexico to provide authentic dress and dance for San Antonio’s day.













I talked to Rosa Maria Hernandez Maya, a 65 years old Indigenous woman, who had been dancing since she was five. Her father started the dance group in Mexico City and they still travel throughout Mexico for performances. Ironically, we were told the shields used by the dancers were to protect the indigenous people from the religion of the conquerors and a common name for the nuts used in the dancers’ ankle bands is hueseros de friar or friar’s bones. Neither sounded welcoming to the new faith nor the present celebration.



On the opposite end of the street, a popular morality play was being performed. Actors dressed as the devil, young maiden, prostitute, drunk, farmer, cowboy and others battled with a bull character. Children laughed as the bull attacked the drunk or when the cowboy lashed his whip. We were helped with the drama’s meaning by Mariano, a native who currently works in Alabama, but who returns to Guanajuato every year for this festival. He explained that in the end, all characters die except death itself - represented by the devil.











The next morning, the festival was taken out into the streets of Guanajuato with a parade to the Templo de la Compania de Jesus where another mass was to be celebrated. More Indian dancers had arrived from different tribes. Members of the San Antonio chapel participated. Women in white dresses carried the statue of the baby Jesus, men in white and black supported the statute of San Antonio de Padua, and individuals proudly displayed banners and small statutes.

They were joined by a band or two and 12 different drum and bugle corps composed of fathers and young sons. It was all quite colorful and loud.







That afternoon and evening were too crowed for us and we explored other parts of the city. The next morning was blessedly quiet with no awakening booms. Streets were clean and people returned to a normal morning’s work.

No guide books mention this festival and few tourists were present. While not community wide, the celebration was large by neighborhood standards. And for us temporary neighbors, it was a magical festival - one of those unanticipated experiences that travelers dream about - a merging of the past and present, the sacred and savage, the young and old.

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