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.


  1. Lauren:

    I can't tell you how much I enjoy reading your work. You write with an effortlessness that is enviable. Your photographs illustrate your story very well, and are interspersed just the right amount to retain the narrative flow but provide more depth to the story. Thank you very, very much.

    Tio P.

  2. Thank you! How I do love having an uncle with great taste ;) No, really, I appreciate your comment. Thank you for spending the time to read my "blogito." After a year of cooking and eating la cocina mexicana, maybe one day I'll have something to teach you in the kitchen. One can only dream!

    Besos de México,