Like Bringing Ice to Eskimos

Like Bringing Ice to Eskimos-

Bringing Tapatio Hot Sauce to Guadalajara

While my husband was having a “schvitz” at our local temescal (native sweat lodge), he met a man who knew of Mexicans who went to the United States and made it big-time in Mexican food manufacturing. Having gone to high school in California that was “colonia” adjacent, I had come to my love of Mexican-American food naturally and honestly. As my husband and I are of the same “Oye Come Va” era, he is also nostalgic for the Mexican food of our Brady Bunch past.

Here is a partial list of Mexican-American food that I “mule” back from the US to my casita in the sierra that is just like our mythical mamacita would have made.

 

  1. Crispy corn tortilla shells, Taco Bell Style. I have to hand- carry these as they are fragile. I fill them like they did in our school cafeteria: with ground beef. Their brittle crunchiness is music to my husband’s ears because he loves audio accompaniment to his meals. Taco Tuesday around here is a semi-ecstatic occasion.
  1. Canned red menudo with homily and tripe. When I have a cold, this is my Mexican penicillin. Somehow in my nightie I am able to cut and sprinkle upon its micro-wave readiness oregano, chopped cilantro and onion, dried chilies and lime. I have had canned food confiscated from me at the airport in Cuidad Juarez, so I live in fear that my canned menudo and I may one day be separated.
  1. Tapatio salsa picante (hot sauce). The nickname for people who live in Guadalajara but come for a weekend to their lake house or to visit the town of Chapala or Ajijic is “Tapatio,” as in “There sure is a lot of traffic on the careterra when the Tapatios are in town!” I don’t mess around with other varieties of hot sauce anymore. We are brand loyal to Tapatio hot sauce and I brought back a giant bottle from El Paso, Texas as I did three boxes of the aforementioned crispy taco shells.
  1. Giant flour tortillas for burritos. We were in downtown San Clemente, California the other month when by the murals on the restaurant I was able to identify the owner’s Mexican hometown. Mexican workers sat outside on the benches eating food instructed by the owner’s mother, who sat in the patio receiving the neighbors’ and workers’ respectful regards. The owner told us that 30 years ago, he had never had a burrito. Another US restaurateur told us he had to teach his Mexican kitchen help how to make a burrito. The first step is: get a flour tortilla the size of a cocktail table. Or, as we did one time, bring back an entire burrito from San Diego that weighed over eight pounds to eat after we had landed. We had muled not a burrito but a burro.
  1. Canned enchilada sauce. I have the secret to Mexican cooking. You must have your mother, aunts and sisters with you in the kitchen. The cooks here in Mexican restaurants are all blood-related. You need teamwork to put out the labor-intensive meals that are the hallmark of Mexican cuisine. I thank the Virgin of Guadalupe that red enchilada sauce processed into air-tight containers was invented. The kind of enchiladas we like can be found on any US neighborhood Mexican restaurant combination plate along with a tamale and rice and beans. I have made enchilada sauce from dried chilies out of necessity and cravings, and although I deserve a medal for valiant effort, it is not worth the sink full of grinders, frying pans and strainers and the stove that is splattered and stained.
  1. Ground chili powder. This is easier to find now than it was three years ago, when we first arrived and only whole, dried chilies were available in the stalls. I used to go to a little tienda (store) in Jocotopec (a nearby village) where I could only find one type of chili that was fine enough to not need straining. It took me two years to find other types of powdered chili and I swear, I found them in Mexico in the “international” section on the bottom shelf at Soriana (a Mexican-owned market) in Guadalajara. I bought one of each and used them sparingly. But because my palate needs hot spice and lots and lots of a variety of spices, when we go back to the US, I buy heaping handfuls of powdered California chili, New Mexico chili, paprika, and cayenne pepper, so I can dash away with reckless abandon. I also nab Chinese chilies in oil, Korean chili paste and super-hot Indian chili powder. I buy the giant size bottles of the chili medley for American-style chili con carne and use it as a cheat for my salsa roja.
  1. Dark chocolate. In Mexico they keep chocolate under lock and key (literally). They are in those tamper-proof cases that need a store associate to undo. Chocolate is expensive, rare and sometimes not even that good. Remember, friends, chocolate was first cultivated here in Mexico. And it still seems to be a treat only for the Aztec gods. I bring bricks of dark and bittersweet chocolate from Trader Joe’s in the US and make chocolate desserts that only the few and privileged have tasted here. For a friend’s party that was also a pre-birthday celebration, I made a lemon cake for the fiesta and a near flourless cake for her gift that she could take home. Three times I asked her if she wanted her guests to have a little taste of the chocolate cake, but knowing and missing my triple chocolate cookies, she decisively refused each time to relinquish any to the uninitiated others; she wanted to take the entire dessert home for herself. But I blithely gave them all a portion, promising to figure out how I made the before mentioned cookies that she had really desired. Previously, a different friend said of the same chocolate cookies I gave to him that he cut them into little pieces to extend the pleasure, which for him was more than romantic.
  1. Corn and cornmeal. Another gift from the geniuses of Mexican agricultural is corn. We never eat corn on the cob that is grown here because it is so darned hard! At the weekly outdoor market, I look for packaged corn that is imported from the US. We like sweet and soft corn, like they sell at the roadside stalls up the canyon from where I used to live in Santa Clarita, California, during the summertime. I can’t bring fresh produce into Mexico, but I do bring cornmeal for cornbread and for my fresh pear polenta pie. I also throw it beneath the bread I make before I put it in the oven. Mexican masa is made from corn and is used for corn tortillas or the delicious atole drinks, but is not the same. I once heard that you can get cornmeal here, but it is made for chicken feed and not great for baking.

I made this list in slight fear that others around me here would oppose my loosey-goosey interpretation of Mexican cooking and raise their wooden spoons against me. (I have been bruised on Youtube for a US bought slow cooker for my bean cookery because it was not locally sourced.)  If I can withstand grease splatters, I can withstand their righteous commentary. That’s me. I’m a hybrid rebel. It rankles me to live without, especially when my dominating appetite dictates. When they inspect my gourmeteria-like suitcase at customs, I have to defend my pantry against the inspection guards, so I am ready to do it on Facebook, too.

I have learned from living in Mexico, if I want to keep my culinary traditions and keep expanding my repertoire of good things from my kitchen, I have to start from scratch, improvise, search relentlessly, go without, or bring it back in my suitcase. My husband groans every time I request extra luggage on our airplane manifest to fit my grocery shopping. But then I present him with something that tastes like it did when he was studying for his Business Econ exams at UC Santa Barbara all the levies are forgiven, all the strained shoulder muscles are allayed and forgotten under the wizardry of an Old El Paso Super Stuffer taco with Tapatio hot sauce licked from our fingers.

Note: When you are moving your household goods to Mexico on a menaje de casa (import tax free), you cannot bring food or spices on your shipment, but you can bring your sauce-splattered Mexican cookbooks, lovingly used comals, well-seasoned parillas, indispensable burr spice grinders, high-intensity blenders, well-worn mortars and pestles to outfit your little cucina Mexicana.

Secret Ventilation

Secret Ventilation

Two years ago, in December, my husband looked at the great big pile of things that I was taking to our beach house rental and said, “No you don’t. We’re not bringing all that stuff. Why are you bringing two upright fans?”

Then the next night, our first in the rental, I directed one of the fans on him as he worked at the dining room table. The ocean breeze was stiff and somewhat cold on the covered porch, the space right next to the sand, a few feet from the bombastic shore waves, but somehow it did not penetrate into the front room, where if I had not had that whirly-gig making passes at my husband’s sweaty pits, he would have been completely miserable.

This summer, we took a rental that was supposed to have air conditioning. It was not working. We did not complain to the property management person. He contacted us later and said that the next renters were very hot and bothered about the broken toilet, the lack of hot water and that the air conditioning was not fixed.

He admired our stoicism and invited us to buy a unit in the complex because, “You’re the kind of neighbors we want here.”

It is currently August, and although the rainy season is usually cool, our highland neighborhood must have taken a playbook from the coastal towns, because it is humid and hot this year.  

Like many people here, we do not have air conditioning. I know of one couple that put air conditioning in their house, and have heard rumors of another who is going to put a few units in the home they are building , but for the most part, most people just keep their windows and doors open (sans screens in very many) and think frosty thoughts.

When my across the street neighbor first came to visit, she noted, “Why don’t you have ceiling fans? You are going to suffer.”

My answer was similar to my many others. It was the same answer I had when she saw I had no oven, no garage door opener and no water filtering system.

“It’s because it is a rental.”

I have learned to think how to solve temporary problems. We are used to being nomads, and just like a gypsy woman weaves her treasures into her skirts, I bring along my own weather modifying devices. I can’t chance that other rentals will see to my every need. I know for certain if I pretend everything will be in working order, I am would be as foolish as I would be to think that I could beat the roulette wheel at Monte Carlo.

So that is why in every room, and in our great room two, there are fans. We move them around depending on the direction we wish to fashion them and they rotate to give, at least one of us, a breeze that comes and goes. We ache for more complete satisfaction, but for now that is only a fond memory.

In Arizona, I would hear the soft hum of the compressor come on and I would often say out loud. “Blessed air conditioning. What a sainted person it that was who invented air conditioning.” That was then.

Here, I have given two fans to the women who help me in our home. They were overjoyed by the gift. They sent me pictures of where their airy sentinels stood in their bedrooms. They sometimes remind me that when the air is damp and torpid, the nights are made better by their fans. It had never occurred to them to buy one or maybe they could not afford it.

As one said (in Spanish), “It’s the solution.”

Here are my suggestions to you why you need to round up lots of fans before you come to Mexico or at least, have no mercy and buy all that you can use when they come into stock locally.

The hottest months in Mexico are before the rainy season: April, May and the beginning of June. The first two years we were here, our local Walmart sold out of fans before the season heat wave. Even where we were from in Arizona, I could not buy fans once the back to school items were put out.

I checked this week at local Mexican Walmart. My heart skipped when I thought I saw fans in stock. No, they were only large bass speakers. As a kid, I often mistook the Sparlettes truck for the ice cream truck. I am delusional when it comes to cooling devices.

If you are coming to Mexico, I would say scour all your local stores doggedly during the time fans are available because you will need variety of them. Plug them in if you can. Some make as much noise as a jet airliner. If you buy them online, which I have done, because there is more selection, read the reviews closely. The question should be posed: can I sleep next to this fan?

For myself, I also chose medium height, sleek, chrome fans to go with my chrome round end tables. They looked so elegant and blew a lot of air, but were not quiet companions. Those fans were left behind.

Buy what you think will suit your Mexican décor. I always have soft and cool pastel walls, so my fans have blades that blend well with those colors. I have a fan that was one of the first things I bought for our house in Arizona; beautiful, tall and with a stem like a bamboo pole and blades colored like striped wood. It stood next to our ornate bar then and now stands next to my ornate mirror.

A grey, plastic Vornado may do its job just right, but it doesn’t look quite right next to the cut giant, tropical leaves of my monstera plant in my great room. But if it is what you have and what you trust to create the venturi effect when it is mated with another, you should bring them down. You will enjoy their company like never before.

Most expats live on their terraces this time of year. We don’t because of the mosquitos and flies that spoil all the fun when the rain burst out revitalizing the tropics. But when we do go out for an extended period, we portage the fans out with us. In Arizona, you can escape the heat (somewhat) if you are in the shade. Here the humidity follows you doggedly. And so we accompany ourselves with our doggy-like fans. (Meaning no offences to my dog babies, who we truly love, but we are attached to our fans in a more practical way.)

Our rental has a minimal kitchen and no stove vent; only a hole in the ceiling above the stove’s cement hood. Attracted by the light bar we installed above the heating elements, the night insects make their way down this chimney and find their way into my cook pots more often than the scent of chicken with chili paste and basil rise to meet the traveling moon. So our fans work as our stove vents. Unfortunately, the plug closest to the stove is already occupied. For instance, if I put the hot water kettle on and then decide to heat up something in the microwave, both shut down. What that means is, I have to use another outlet, and the fan that works as our stove vent is far away, just scattering the aroma of Thai pork with mint rather than sending it out to where the palms sway overhead. Also consequently, I work with only the ambient light of the room to guide my cuisine.

Hence, you need to think about will you need a fan to be permanently situated on the floor or on furniture? Do you need something light to tote around and follow you through the day when needed? Do you need it only occasionally and will it be convenient to store? Do you have a fan that is the fan of your dreams? Then buy siblings. Because of their shape and size, putting them in checked luggage down the road will be agony.

On our nearly yearlong road trip through Mexico, I had packed fans. I used a small 5” fan next to where I applied my cosmetics, so my makeup would not melt before I left the bathroom. I clipped a 12” fan to the desks and tables that served as my husband’s desk.

And now when we travel through Mexico for vacation, expecting hot weather, and always by the beach, I bring our upright fans. (Did I tell you we have a van?) We have learned that if a place has air conditioning, it most likely will only be in the bedroom. So, what do you do? Sit and sweat on the couch all day?

Living in Mexico has forced me to think and plan like a prepper. What if the air conditioning in the rental is just all noise and hot air? We have faced this, multiple times. You can leave where you are staying and head to the cooler highlands or you can lug the fans that you packed into your temporary home.

It may seem that I am fan crazy. You might be right. When I was single, I had in my library, a turquoise vintage fan that did not even work. But it looked so cool sitting on top of my National Geographic magazines from the 1940’s, which were on an old wooden crate that I still have today. I have a cool illustration of a fan that I have placed in my husband’s office. It sure looks like I’m a fanatic of fans.