Sunday, September 27, 2009

A novenario and fruits of the mercado

It’s official, soy una chaluteca! I moved into my apartment on Tuesday. As with any new apartment, there are quirks and problems to be resolved. For example, my boiler went out the first night, which resulted in me trying out the Baños la Luz, public baños, around the corner much sooner than I had anticipated. The vapor room was nice after a run, but the fully or partially nude (all-female, thank goodness) public shower room was eye-opening. It was a nice atmosphere, though, with mothers, granddaughters, grandmothers, children, and friends chatting while they scrubbed themselves down. My apartment gets the morning sun, so it heats up and stays warmer than the apartments on the other side, but apart from that, I don’t have heat, so at night I often sleep in a sweatshirt. I get five to six fuzzy channels on my old television. I’m settling into life here in Cholula slowly but surely.

I was happy to learn that market days are both Wednesday and Sunday, which meant I didn’t have to wait to fill my new kitchen with fresh produce. The market itself is permanently housed in a square-block arcaded building, but the freshest produce is brought for these market days, when the streets become lined with vendors and full of customers sniffing, squeezing, thumping, and all the while looking for better prices.

Sra. Zanella offered to take me with her on her Wednesday trip to the market. We spent two happy hours in the market, she maneuvering her over-flowing cart and me lugging my increasingly heavy shopping bag. I might have to buy myself one of those old-lady shopping carts. This trip with Sra. Zanella started to open up the market world to me. Watching Sra. Zanella in action gave me a chance to observe proper market etiquette, learn how to politely barter and move on if the price was not right, how much one should pay for any given type of produce. Sra. Zanella also showed me which stand has the freshest produce, which banana truck has the freshest bananas, even which chicken-butchering stand to frequent (“Mira, the chicken head still has feathers, and the color of the skin is just right. Very fresh, this stand kills their chickens at 5am to bring to the market”). I loved watching the woman skillfully butcher the chicken breasts, deboning, de-skinning, then thinly slicing each breast, then pounding each slice between plastic sheets to a tender, thin layer, all accomplished in about three minutes. Into the sack, along with the breastbone to make scrumptious rice. Gracias!

I am learning to be patient and search out the best price for the freshest produce. Instead of one tomato pile like at the supermarket, there are dozens of tomato piles to choose from, each from a different vendor along several square blocks. I am also learning to order by weight. I am used to picking out produce and then weighing it to see how much to pay. Instead, you order by the kilo, dos kilos, medio kilo, cuarto kilo and the vendor scoops it up and weighs it for you, adding or chucking an item or so to end up with the perfect weight. If you are searching for the exact size of calabazita for a soup or the corncobs fullest of huitlacoche, you can search through the produce yourself, but normally you end up with what the vendor scoops. This is simple stuff, just the opposite of what I’m used to. This first time, I had no idea how many carrots or green beans or onions I would end up with. Some produce is naturally heavier than others, so a medio kilo of tomatoes meant about five, whereas a medio kilo of jalapeños is going to last me over a month—if I use a jalapeño every day. Now, I have a better gauge, a gauge that I hope will improve as I continue “marketing.”

Sra. Zanella also ensured I tried a couple of produce items I would never have ventured to put in my bag on my first shopping trip. One of these was a fruit called zapote negro. These babies sat plump and heavy, yet somehow limp with their own weight of juice and flesh, a little bit like a couple of the grandmothers I saw at los Baños. Sorry for that image, but that was about as appetizing as these things looked to me at the time. The thin, wrinkly green skin was barely holding in whatever goopy, black mess lay inside. Plop! There they went, into my bag. Sra. Zanella explained that once carefully peeled, with all the black flesh separated from the skin, the fruit made a wonderful dessert with a little orange juice and a sprinkle of sugar on top. Her husband, the ingeniero José Luis Canalo, added rum to the recipe. Mmmm….maybe I will like this fruit after all. I tried it last night on its own with just a sprinkle of sugar to help bring out the natural delicate sweetness, and I must say, it was wonderful. The smooth, silky flesh nearly melts in your mouth. And the slightly sweet, mellow fruit flavor is nothing like what the plump, wrinkly looking thing suggests.

On Thursday morning, my friend Mauricio and I went for an early morning bikeride to the west of Cholula. We passed through several small pueblas that made Cholula look like the big city, yet each with their own beautiful church and packs of street dogs. We rode on dirt paths, rocky and broken down roads, down roads entrenched by the recent rains (the rainy season in central Mexico came late but with gusto, saving some of Puebla state’s bean and corn crops but also resulting in flooding and all the accompanying problems). I felt like I had been introduced to mountain biking without my knowledge or permission. But it was fun, and definitely worth the thirty kilometer round trip to get a taste of the campo, passing through cultivated fields, meadows covered in late summer wildflowers and stables housing horses, sheep, cows, and shiny, proud and incredibly large roosters. We reached Santa Isabel Cholula, our westernmost destination, and a gorgeous view of Popo, resulting in the pretty picture at the start of this post. Thank goodness the cloudy weather and sprinkles passed to grant us the picture perfect view. On the way back, we stopped through Chipilo, a small Italian community where everyone keeps cattle. The community produces fresh cheese, cream and yogurt. I want to come back and see if I can sniff out cannoli.

After a long but satisfying morning bikeride, a big brunch was in order. This egg dish hit the spot. A corn tortilla on bottom, two fried eggs smothered in salsa roja, topped with jamón, strips of pepper, fried plantains and crema. Another sweet, savory, spicy, creamy lip-smacking masterpiece. Oh man, I love brunch.

Friday morning I was inspired by my amazing breakfast the day before to create another, more simple Mexican breakfast, huevos a la Mexicano, eggs any style with tomato, onion and cilantro accompanied by salsa verde, my favorite. Healthy, colorful and idiot-proof, a perfect way to christen my new kitchen. Maybe the eggs themselves—so fresh they still have chicken butt slime on the shells—made the breakfast so satisfyinly eggy. They didn’t stick around long enough for a photo shoot.

Despite finally getting my kitchen somewhat supplied, I didn’t find much time to cook this week. I blame it on the amount people have been feeding me, not something to complain about. While shopping in the market on Wednesday, Sra. Zanella ran into an acquaintance. Turns out her mother-in-law passed away at the ripe age of 102. I took her invitation to the mass the next evening as an open one, especially since Sra. Zanella and her husband have dubbed me their sobrina (niece) and have instructed me to tell everyone else the same. Heck, I was just representing the family. I am learning more about the customs surrounding death and burial. The night of the death, family and friends velan (literally, to hold a wake over) the deceased until the misa del cuerpo presente and the burial the next morning. The altar is kept in place where the vigil or wake was held, with a wooden cross taking the place of the coffin. The novenario consists of nine days of masses and gatherings of family and friends in both the church and the home to mourn the recently deceased. Music, communion, prayer and rosaries are conducted in variations, but always with ritual significance. Finally, on the ninth day and after the final mass, the congregation follows the padrinos of the cross who carry it to the cemetery to be buried along with the deceased. I attended the mass Thursday night, and Sra. Zanella went with me to a gathering in Conchita’s home Friday evening. Once again, a tarp covered an outdoor patio of the home. An altar was set up with black and white draped curtains serving as a backdrop. In the center, the wooden cross lay covered in rose petals. Flower arrangements and candles surrounded the cross. As the metal chairs filled up, a speaker welcomed us and started the first rosary of many to follow. These were interspersed with popular hymns accompanied by guitar. Finally, after the last rosary of the night, the padrinos de la cruz slowly lifted the cross in intervals as we repeatedly implored for the Virgin Mother to pray for her, “Ruega por ella,” until, finally, it rested upright. We all then passed by, kissing the cross, some sprinkling it with the rose petals piled on the ground, many crossing themselves. The level of community support and participation was beautiful. I felt as though we were all joining our voices to push away solitary grief and mourning—how isolating these emotions can be. But with an entire community uniting to help the family remember, mourn, and aid this loved one in passing through Purgatory to Heaven over the course of nine days, the grief seemed to disperse, shared by many instead of shouldered by a few.

Having studied early modern Catholicism yet being Protestant myself, this experience really brought home the importance of these rituals of mourning for Catholic families for the first time. For me, Purgatory always has been a metaphysical place to contemplate from an academic and intellectual perspective, a concept crystallized in the early modern period that lent its poetry and prose a dimension of doubt and angst, an idea that justified the purchasing of masses and indulgences to reduce the time of family members in such a state—and another way for the rich to display their advantage over the poor by being able to do so. Yet that night, I recognized the belief of those attending that the novenario—these prayers to the Virgin Mother to intercede on behalf of this old woman—were helping her pass through the limbo of Purgatory to the glories of Heaven, in the care taken to properly follow ritual, in the united voices of those gathered, in the words of thanks by the family for every participant’s aid.

After everyone passed by the cross, we returned to our seats to be treated to café de olla (coffee prepared with canela, Mexican cinnamon—a softer loose-bark variety with a more subtle flavor—clove, and piloncillo—Mexican dark brown sugar, hard-packed into cone shapes), pan dulce, galletas, and homemade tamales. A humble yet satisfying meal made to thank the participants. Another relative, Sra. Luz, invited both Sra. Zanella and myself, her "sobrina," to mass the next day. Once again, I went to “represent the family.” The padrinos brought the cross, blessed by the padre at the door, to the front of the church, a few more formal hymns were sung, and the padre offered communion.

Sra. Luz came to ask if I was going to join them at the casa. Of course! This time I wasn’t taken off-guard by the offer. Sra. Luz and I walked around the block to their casita, home-altar still in place but with clothed tables and chairs set up for the meal. Family members, a few of whom I now knew, brought out tortillas, frijoles, salsa verde, and mixiotes, this time de pollo, with rice. They sent me home with a few to give to mis tíos, hence the photos.

But finally, on Friday night, it was time to use some of that beautiful, fresh produce. I had some tender baby squash begging to be eaten, so I found a recipe that used as much of the vegetables I had on hand as possible—calabazitas mexicanas, or baby squash stewed in tomatos, peppers, garlic and onion. This variation called for jalapeño, roasted chile poblanos, and elote (corn). Having fresh corn, I decided to go for a completely from-scratch version. I husked, boiled, and de-cobbed the toothy, white corn, roasted my chile pobanos over my remaining gas burners and set to chopping veggies with no chopping board—whoops, on the “to purchase” list. With my cupboard still sitting on my counter instead of hanging on my wall, it was an effort in coordination. But at last, I had a warm, moist, tender vegetable dish to enjoy. The roasted chile poblanos and garlic gave the dish depth and, along with the jalapeño, a bit of heat that only made the steaming plate of stewed vegetables all the more satisfying. They were even better reheated the next day.

Calabazitas mexicanas
I cut my small baby squash in fourths or halves. I like to be able to tell the focus of the dish. I also like my baby squash, already incredibly tender, a little undercooked.

3 or 4 medium baby squash, cut into medium cubes
3 or 4 romano tomatoes, diced
1 white onion, minced
3 poblano chiles, roasted, peiled, deveined and cut in strips
1 can of corn
1 jalapeño, minced
1 garlic clove, minced
1 tbs. oregano, or 2 stems of epizote
olive or canola oil

In a frying pan, put oil on to heat. When heated, add the garlic. Wait until fragrant, then add the tomato, onion and jalapeño. Let ingredients soften a little, add salt to taste, chile poblano strips and corn. Let season, then add a little water, then the baby squash. Let the mixture simmer until the baby squash become soft. Turn off the heat and add the oregano. Let it sit a few minutes before serving.

Monday, September 21, 2009

First days, Part II

Thursday I headed to Cholula, a smaller colonial city built right on top of pre-Columbian ruins on the western outskirts of Puebla. The puebla is an independent municipality—actually the oldest continually inhabited city in all of the Americas, since 500 BC— that is now part of the conurbation of Puebla, in other words, has become part of one continuous urban area, much like Dallas-Fort Worth. Although there is a ton left to see in Puebla, I was feeling antsy to start getting settled. Living out of a suitcase gets old after awhile. I also had no idea how to go about finding an apartment, what to expect to pay for rent, or what kind of life I could establish in Cholula.  

Immediately after throwing my bags in my hotel room, I went to the tourism office to get a map. On a whim, I asked about apartment rentals, although I had seen signs all over the city on the drive in (apparently they built a ton of new apartments right next to UDLA, la Universidad de las Américas, so the students moved out of the center of San Pedro Cholula). Turns out the director of tourism’s parents own rental apartments. And a bakery. And a dance academy. Alejandro, the tourism director, is the instructor (my first class is tonight).  At first, I was disappointed to see some dimly-lit, pretty charmless apartments, a little run down but clean. But then my sense of adventure took over and I thought, well if this is what living in central Mexico is like, then I’m going to take it in stride and make this tiny apartment with its tiny kitchen livable. It wasn’t that bad, but not great for 2000 pesos a month (about $150…my sense of what’s “expensive” has already shifted). I decided to take my time and look around.

The next departamentos I looked at were far, far worse. Two-room pieces of crap with broken plastic tile floors that made you feel poverty-stricken the instant you walked inside. I had to fight myself to feign interest and be polite to the wonderful woman showing me the different options. Also, I wanted to keep this connection because her family owns the Cholula equivalent of a funeral home, a sterile concrete space, almost garage-like, but with coffins parked along the walls instead of cars. They also arrange velatorios (wakes) and funerals. I knew she would be a great resource, but she wouldn’t end up being my landlord.

My new friend Mauricio, the owner of a nice local restaurant, took me jogging a couple of mornings ago to show me a public track. With the highlands climate, the early mornings are around 60 degrees and absolutely perfect for running outside. The track is on the other side of the Great Pyramid with the Iglesia de los Remedios on top, the most famous church of all the churches of Cholula. What more iconic symbol for this city than a colonial church on top of an overgrown pyramid, the largest pre-Colombian pyramid in the world, dedicated to the god Quetzalcoatl? As we jogged up the stairs, I definitely felt the altitude, but was determined to prove I was still in decent shape despite the week’s worth of Mexican food, beer and tequila. 

From the pyramid, we had a fantastic view of the smoking Popo, one of two active volcanoes that separate Puebla valley from the Mexico valley. To his right is the mountain la mujer dormida, so called because the peaks look like a reclining woman’s profile. Mountain boobies! After a lap around the track down the other side of the pyramid, it was back, back up to the church at the summit. I thought it was only fitting to offer the measly two pesos I had in my pocket at the altar of the iconic church of Cholula as a way to start of this year. Don’t want to leave anything to chance.


After our “run,” it was back to el mercado for a late morning snack at one of the restaurant stalls. As you walk by the various stalls, wrinkled old women in blouses, skirts and aprons squawk at you, waving blue tortillas in the hope that you’ll take a seat at their picnic table. I ordered a quesadilla con huitlacoche. There are baskets of this corn fungus in basically every produce stall in the market. There was no getting around knowing exactly where my delicious meal was coming from, in other words. The ears of corn are covered in these grey-black growths, which are considered a delicacy. 

To the left, flor de calabaza. To the right, raw huilacoche

Ingredients for delicious quesadillas

The woman told us she cooks the huitlacoche herself, I think with lemon, salt, and some seasoning. I’ll have to order it again to investigate. The corn fungus, or truffle, if you will, turns very black when cooked. The woman takes the blue masa (dough), kneads it a little before putting it in her tortilla press. Then she tosses it back and forth to get the right thickness before putting it on her oiled grill. After flipping the slightly browning tortilla, she places stringy white queso to melt on the tortilla. Next comes the juicy, black huitlacoche and later the salsa of your choice (salsa verde, por favor!). The quesadilla is folded in half, with a few good pats with the spatula to make sure everything gets nice and melty, then handed straight from behind the grill to you, sitting at your table beneath her like a worshipper at the cheese-and-tortilla altar. I guess you could call it an “open kitchen.” The quesadilla was delicious, once I got my head around the fact that I was eating fungus, and not the mushroom kind like Mauricio. It dripped black juice down my chin and my fingers, getting under my fingernails. The mild flavors of the tortilla, queso, and earthiness of the huitlacoche were delicious. Definitely comfort food.


So much so that I went back the next day to try the quesadilla con flor de calabaza. This time, she cooked the squash-blossoms on the grill with salt before adding them on top of the wonderfully melting stringy cheese. The flowers also had a subtle flavor, and retained a bit of a fibrous plant texture that made it difficult to keep entire flowers from sliding out into my mouth when I took a bite. She really loaded that thing up. While watching an exchange between the goddess of the quesadillas and a young guy in charge of her refrescos delivery, it dawned on me that I could do some research on the market, a la Tsukiji (a food and culture professor of mine wrote a fantastic book on Tokyo’s fish market. He got deep into the economics of the place as well as the customs and workings of the market. This observation of how the refresco-delivery system works on credit is about as far into the economics as I’m going to go—I never did take that introductory economics course). So part of my plan is to visit the market at different times and hopefully almost every day, getting to know the vendors and how the market operates. I’m going to be there every day anyway to get produce, meat, beans, fish, you name it, to cook at home. I love that the market is my most convenient option, as opposed to the Superama at the outskirts of town. I’m a romantic about my food I guess.


Sundays are market days here in Cholula. The streets surrounding the market that are normally empty save for normal foot and car traffic became pedestrian-only extensions of the market. Tarps covered whole blocks of streets, and tons of vendors lined both sides and the middle of the street. Organized chaos. Shouts of “¿Qué vas a llevar?” and “15 pesos por medio kilo” rang out from stall tables, or merely tarps spread out on the sidewalk. Other vendors strayed from their stalls, carrying small amounts of their offerings and winding through the crowd in hopes of finding additional customers. I was a little overwhelmed at first, being pushed around if I walked too slowly, soakin in all the sights, sounds, and smells and trying not to look like a deer in the headlights. But it was also nice to be treated just like everybody else, being prodding into buying this or that. 

Bananas, plantains, red bananas, small bananas, all kinds of bananas, apples, prickly fruits, tomatillos, tomatoes, chives, herb after smelly herb, peppers, dried chiles, dried camarones, huitlacoche, fresh nopales de-spined with rapid knifework, fish heads chopped up and weighed, chicharron (pork skin) crunched into pieces, bread torn and offered to sample, the food offerings and action were endless. Not to mention the underwear, shoes, clothes, batteries, kitchen sponges, toys, grains, rice, even dirt being sold. I was dying to buy something, but no kitchen yet. I’ll have to wait for next market day to really get into the action. Although I did sample some grasshoppery-looking bugs cooked with lemon and salt. An acquired taste, but not bad, really. Like a healthier, meatier potato chip.


So what does $192/month rent get you in Cholula, Mexico? After some scouting, an adorable two-bedroom apartment off a central garden with exposed tile and wood beam ceilings, white walls, wood furniture, trim and doors, a kitchen with blue tile counters, a back patio to wash my underwear and a parking spot for my nonexistent car. Oh yeah, it also includes utilities and internet. So maybe my floors are the same cheap plastic tile kind, like every other apartment I looked at in Cholula, but they are all in one piece and I’m thrilled. I’m starting to feel very home-makery, which is a little sad for someone twenty-two years old. But I think everyone enjoys the experience of setting up their very first apartment after college. I spent the few days waiting to move in strolling through the feria in the zócalo. The feria comes to town once a year for the biggest festival in Cholula on September 8th. The tented stands sold blankets, bedspreads, ceramic-ware, candies, pirated CDs, and the same kitschy fair crap you see everywhere. But I enjoyed comparing prices and buying beautiful blue and white painted bowls for my kitchen at a $1.50 or so a pop. I even bought a gardenia yesterday, which is now sitting in its sad plastic bag of dirt waiting to be potted in my new (old) apartment. They’re finishing up some work on the wood, and I move in tomorrow (fingers crossed).


My landlords are a nice older couple who love to chat. We'll get along great. Sra. Senela is apparently a fantastic cook (her husband tipped me off). She also has three full libretas of family recipes from both his and her side. She offered to help me learn to cook la cocina Mexicana. Both of them starting jabbering away to me about different little mountain towns where they still uphold the “true pre-colombian” customs, as well as about a million different dishes and drinks from the region. Sra. Senela brought out a bar of chocolate from Oaxaca. This authentic chocolate is made of only cacao, sugar, almond and vanilla. It looks like solid hot chocolate mix, which is fitting, because that’s exactly what it is. You crumble it up and mix it with water or milk in a big olla. As Sra. Sanela described, you rotate a wooden molinillo (blending tool) back and forth to create great volumes of chocolate-colored foam to about the same volume as the liquid underneath! I tried a cold version of the drink later in the feria. The woman who sold it explained that this version was made with the chocolate, water and corn masa. It was good, with a very basic chocolate flavor and slightly sweet, with a touch of grit of the chocolate powder remaining in the foam.


Today I started scouting out churches. I had decided awhile back that joining a church, maybe even a bible study group, would be one of the best ways to become part of a community. I also thought it would open up a different window into my research on death, mourning and remembrance. So I set off early this afternoon with a tourist map of Cholula in hand, starting with the churches (out of the sixty-plus) closest to my apartment. I couldn’t even find the first one, but I decided to keep walking and look for the next one on my route, Santo Ecce Homo. I noticed that the church was full, with people standing outside the open back doors. I worked my way inside the back of the church. The modern chapel of this seventeenth-century church immediately struck me. The interior is fairly simple, with sky blue walls, medium-light varnished wooden pillars, tons of glass windows and beautiful crystal chandeliers. This in contrast to the elaborately decorated and gold-encrusted interiors of most early modern cathedrals, dimly lit through stained glass or no exterior lighting at all. It felt like a living, breathing community church. Especially with all the babies crying and toddlers venturing out of the pews into the main aisle. I also really enjoyed the level of the congregation’s participation in the mass, as the padre asked them (us?) questions during his sermon. 

I only realized at the end of the service that I was attending a funeral! A large portion of the congregation lined up to give their condolences to the surviving family members. I knew he was talking about la muerte as I walked up for some reason! As I passed through the church gates, a young woman holding a baby invited me to join the family in their home. Now, I know that she was just saying that to every José and María passing through the gate, but I decided this was an incredible opportunity and exactly the kind of thing I’ve been looking for. I was a bit nervous as I walked slowly down the street following the crowd, really doubting whether this was appropriate, if I would be disturbing the family and friends who had lost this loved one, if I was prepared to really throw myself in. But this year is about pushing my boundaries, so I convinced my feet to keep moving, one after the other, until, a few blocks later, we arrived at the family home. Two tarps, bright pink and blue, were strung between two modest homes. A long table with metal chairs was set up in the shade beneath. The table was full, but the rest of the crowd just waited patiently across the street. I struck up a conversation with the woman next to me, Sra. Angeles, and told her I was looking to join a church. She didn’t look at me like I was a crazy gringa, just asked where I was from in the United States. As the other mourners emptied their plates, said their goodbyes and left to do whatever else was left to do on a hot Monday afternoon, my compañeras said “Vamonos” and we went to take our seats at the table.

 Everyone friendlily greeted me, seemingly pleased I was there, and we began to chat about what I was doing here. Everyone assumes I am a student at UDLA nearby, but I happily respond that I don’t have to take a single class, I’m just living here. The family served us mixiotes, stewed beef on the bone with spices and onions wrapped up like presents in parchment paper and tied up with a string, with rice. The dish gets its name from the Maguey leaf, which is traditionally used to wrap up the meaty bundle. Now, parchment paper is often substituted. Everyone served themselves from the corn tortillas, beans, and salsa verde on the table. I thought it was interesting that the family members, as far as I could tell, were the ones serving their friends and neighbors. They were very attentive, as if we were the ones who needed the comfort of home-cooked food. As we enjoyed our meals, another woman asked me if I had a Mexican novio yet, and started to point out the single men (and some married men with children!) at the table. It was nice to laugh, it definitely dispersed any awkwardness I felt. Carlos commented that laughter helped with the stress of grief. That’s something I can definitely agree with. Sra. Angeles and I exchanged numbers, and she graciously said I could visit her “pobrecita casa” whenever I wanted. I felt elated as I left the table, not exactly the way you should feel leaving the family home of a difunto, but I was happy that I had stumbled into exactly the kind of experience I’ve been hoping to have in Mexico. I thought to myself, here we go, death and food, starting with a funeral and mixiotes.


With a view of the Iglesia de los Remedios atop the Great Pyramid, here ends the realism-novel-like version of this blog. I promise to fight my tendency to be long-winded in the future. 

Sunday, September 20, 2009

First days...

Today marks week one of my year in Mexico. I promise this blog will not be a play-by-play of “My Life in Cholula,” as that would more than a little tedious, but a lot has happened this first week, so bear with me and my semi-linear narrative. I’ll be more creative in the future. And just a warning, I’m going to break this into two parts. Part I includes Lauren landing in Puebla, Mexico with a lot of questions and not really any answers. Where am I going to live? Who are going to be my friends? What the heck is safe to eat? Am I going to get mugged? What am I going to do with my time? And a great one that several people have asked, why Puebla? 

I arrived at Puebla’s international airport last Sunday night. I was relieved to see Andrés de la Concha waiting for me when I passed through customs, baggage claim, and security. Andrés is Emily Simon’s friend from elementary school and has been such a great resource while preparing to move to Puebla. Andrés willingly offered tips and advice on the drive to my hotel. This advice, however, included warning me off of all street and market food, salads or strawberries, and anything that couldn’t be boiled, peeled, or roasted. Given my love of discovering food off the beaten path, I was dismayed. Thankfully, I soon discovered that many of Puebla’s restaurants are nothing more than small, basic operations offering the same variety and more of all the tempting food offered by street vendors, and for the same prices. I was also relieved when Andrés clarified that I would be able to eat something green during this year, but only by preparing salad and other produce myself by first soaking them in water with disinfecting drops.

I started Monday morning with a wonderful breakfast of huevos toluqueños, scrambled eggs on top of a corn tortilla, all smothered in salsa verde, crema, grated queso fresco and avocado, a perfect combination of cream and spice. 

Afterwards, I explored Puebla’s centro históricoWith the preparations for la Día de la Independencia on the 16th and for the grito at 11 pm the night of the 15th, I was happy to discover that while I am one of only three non-Mexicans I have encountered so far, I was far from the only tourist.* Mexicans from all over Puebla state had traveled to the capitol city to experience the grito from the state palace. The zócalo was full of workers setting up stages, vendors selling clappers, balloons, whistles, light-up headbands, anything and everything in the colors of la bandera and visitors snapping photos and soaking up the anticipation and atmosphere. 

Tuesday morning, the ladies from Georgia I met the day before (the other two non-Mexicans) invited me to tag along with them to Mexico City for the celebration. When a sixty-something year old woman tells you to sack up and be spontaneous, you have no choice but to say what the heck and go for it.

While waiting to meet Carol Anne and Laura for the bus to México, I enjoyed the festive atmosphere of the zócalo and tried chiles en nogada (chilies in walnut sauce), a dish supposedly created by some nuns in Puebla in the late 19th century to commemorate la Día de la Independencia. The red, white, and green dish is only offered from late-summer to early October.

Chiles en nogada is a dish of contrasts, balancing disparate flavors, textures, and sensations. In other words, it sounds like a terrible mess when described. A chile poblano is stuffed with a picadillo (mixture) of candied fruits, nuts, meat and spices, then fried and topped with a creamy walnut sauce, pomegranate seeds and cilantro. Before I tried it, I was tempted to believe the nuns must have picked the ingredients paint-by-numbers style, just to end up with a dish with the colors of the Mexican flag. I was prepared to not really like it. But somehow, the combination of sweet, nutty, creamy, savory, and spice works. On top of that, each bite offers contrasting textures: the pop of a juicy pomegranate seed, a layer of fried breading soaking in creamy yet gritty sauce, a layer of slippery, roasted pepper, and a stuffing that sometimes melts in your mouth, sometimes crunches when you bite into a nut or piece of dried apple, and sometimes requires some chewing when you find a hunk of meat. You have to eat the whole thing just so your mouth can figure out what to make of it!

Chalupas with salsa verde or salsa roja, pulled chicken, and queso. 
Chalupas are popular street food for September 16

This year marks the 199th anniversary of the independence of Mexico, and everyone is incredibly excited to begin preparing for the bicentennial, meaning more crowds, despite the rain forecast, and therefore more security. After dinner, we ventured into the streets to join in the fun. We waited to pass through metal detectors, and finally, we were at the heart of the celebration. We arrived to the jam-packed zócalo just in time to watch an incredible visual effects show that used the Palacio Nacional as a screen! The three-dimensional effects, lights, and fireworks show symbolized Mexico’s proud history, ending with VIVA MEXICO! flashing across the façade. Definitely made waiting in the rain standing amongst 800,000 of your closest friends a lot more entertaining. Exactly at midnight, President Calderón emerged, waving the Mexican flag. He delivered the grito in a booming voice. After each phrase, the crowd chanted VIVA!! The call and response format was really incredible and moving to see this sea of people chanting with so much hope and pride. I definitely had chills. After the final repetition of Viva Mexico! Viva Mexico! VIVA! VIVA! VIVA!!, Calderón rang the huge bell and everyone cheered as more fireworks followed almost dangerously close above the crowd.

While my Georgia friends decided to call it a night, I was fortunate enough to meet two British girls spending their last night of a ten-month around the world trip in Mexico and two Mexican guys. We chatted and walked down the street, where the party was never ending. Vendors sold confetti and cans of foam. I got completely soaked with foam when I got into a battle with a little boy. His mom donated some confetti to my cause, but to no avail. I definitely lost the war. Finally we made it to Plaza Garibaldi where dozens of mariachi groups of all different styles from all over Mexico gather. It’s basically just a concrete patio where you can drink outside and pay the mariachis to play whatever you want. But all the ingredients to a really great time: live music, alcohol, friends and family, and the cool outdoors. Partiers gathered around their band of choice, singing along and toasting VIVA MEXICO! Antonio and Fernando treated us girls to micheladas, an entire liter of beer poured into a large movie-theater size Coca Cola cup with lemon and salted chile powder around the rim. Some micheladas come with various unidentified red salsas, but this version came with Clamato. My kind of drink. It reminds me of my mom’s “bloody beers.” Tequila shots shared with a family standing next to us eased the walk home around 4am. It was a little eerie walking past hummers and tanks filled with Mexican soldiers in full gear driving down the empty streets to prepare for the morning’s parade.

Nine am came early, when families started lining Cinco de Mayo, the street outside our hotel and the main parade route. We had a great view of the military parade from our fifth-story room. I now have a very thorough grasp of the range and extent of Mexican military uniforms and face paint. Not only was the entire military on display, there were also choreographed fly-overs by helicopters, jets, cargo planes. The marina even had their inflatables and men in full scuba gear! I couldn’t help but chuckle at this particular display of sea power. After the parade, the zócalo filled up with families and food vendors. Everyone was having a blast, bouncing pencil shaped balloons around and getting in the last canned-foam-attacks. Antonio showed the British girls and me around the city before we all headed back to wherever the heck we were going. I didn’t think I would end up visiting Mexico City so early in the year, especially after hearing so much about the big, dirty, dangerous city. But I had a great time, and I am so glad I didn’t miss out on the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The city was full of beautiful sites, the national celebrations turmoil-free, and the people kind, polite, and genuine. 

Part II comes tomorrow, the part where I actually start figuring out where I’m going to live and stop pretending like I’m on vacation. It also includes eating corn fungus quesadillas, bugs and foamy chocolate, squalid apartments, picturesque apartments, the only church on top of a pyramid and a smoking volcano. A lot of firsts!

*The grito de Dolores is the battle cry first given on September 16, 1810 by Miguel Hidalgo y Costillo. The grito is repeated every year, given by the president from the balcony of the Palacio Nacional in Mexico City. Each state governor also gives the grito at the exact same time, 11 pm the night of the 15th