Wednesday, October 31, 2018

tissue of lies

You have probably received them. Questions from Google asking you about a business you have recently visited.

"Does it have wheelchair access?"

"Can you buy savory portions here?"

"What was the name of the cute cashier who was overly-ingratiating?"

I must get at least ten of those a day. And, frequently, about places I have never stepped foot in; I have just Dionne Warwicked.

Earlier this month I extolled the virtues of DHL in Mexico (gimme a "d"). At least this part of Mexico. The company keeps customers informed of delivery dates and the couriers arrive as scheduled. Amazingly, even on the first delivery, the courier had no trouble finding my house.

One of my readers, George Brown, raised a very interesting Google-style question. "Do you have the ability to choose your delivery service upon placing the order? Or do both Amazons now use DHL as their default service there?"

I seem to recall a few years back that when I ordered from Amazon, I had the option of choosing a delivery carrier. But, that may be one of those self-imprinted false memories people my age love arguing about.

When I order from Amazon now, I do not get a carrier option. I learn of the carrier's name only after the order is being prepared.

When I answered George, I thought DHL might be the default carrier for this area. That is probably not true. Even though DHL has delivered the vast majority of my packages, the Mexican postal service and Estafeta have been assigned Amazon packages.

We can now add FedEx to that list.

I ordered three DVDs on 24 October. The Cheap Detective and Murder by Death -- to honor the recently-dead Neil Simon -- and Field of Dreams. That same day Amazon informed me the package had been assigned to FedEx.

There is something comforting about brand names. They do carry some gravitas. DHL with its German efficiency. FedEx with its American speed. Of course, names also bring expectations. And my not unreasonable expectation was that the package would be delivered to my door when scheduled. After all, DHL always meets that standard.

And, there I go again, telegraphing my punch. My hagiographic description of DHL was simply a 
prolegomenon to the not-so-perfect world of FedEx.

Now, before I pull out the peach box and mount it in moral indignation, I am fully aware of the dangers of inductive reasoning. Drawing conclusions from a narrow data base leads people to believe incorrectly that old canard that the perfect EU citizen has the organizational ability of the Italians, the flexibility of the Germans, the modesty of the French, the imagination of the Belgians, the generosity of the Dutch, and the self-confidence of the British.

And we know how that trope survives the truth meter. But something need not be true to be funny.

My one encounter with FedEx in Mexico may be no more accurate than that apocryphal EU citizen. I hope so.

Like DHL, FedEx sent me an email informing me my package would arrive on Monday. And Monday afternoon I received a telephone call from the delivery driver verifying my address. He signed off with a cheery "see you in 10 minutes." (All of this in Spanish, of course.) So good, so far.

The 10 minutes passed uneventfully. But I have lived here long enough to know that numbers are aspirational. Then an hour passed. Then two.

The telephone rang again. "What color is your house?" Gray and brown. But I sensed there was a bit of disorientation playing out on the other end of the telephone. So, I gave detailed instructions to get to the house.

I waited again. The next notice I received was from Amazon that the address did not exist or it was incorrect on the label. Back the package went to Manzanillo. Why the driver did not call again, I have no idea. Maybe he thought I had given him all the information I could.

Yesterday the DVDs were sent out again. Same routine. Email. Telephone call. What is your address? Second call. What color is your house?

I took another stab at directions using landmarks, like the giant antenna that is visible from everywhere in my neighborhood. I quickly abandoned that and asked where he was.

He was not certain. I asked if he knew where the new OXXO was located. Yes. That is where he was. I told him to wait and I would be there in 1 minute and 45 seconds.

And I was. Because temporal compliance is part of my nature.

He handed me the package, and I turned to walk away. In perfect English, he said: "I need a soda."

I had almost forgotten "soda" is one of those code words for tip in these parts. I turned around and just stared at him. The man who could not use directions to find my house twice (when DHL and Estafeta found the place the first time) and who failed to ever get it to my front door was now asking me for a tip.

Rather than saying that, I smiled, turned, and walked back to the house. There was nothing to be gained by having a customer relations improvement course on the sidewalk in front of the OXXO.

But I do have a solution. And this will answer George Brown's question more accurately than I did earlier in the month.

Because Amazon always informs me of the name of the carrier when the order is being filled, I will watch carefully for the name. If it is "FedEx," I will cancel the order. When Amazon asks why the order is being cancelled, as it always does), I will share my FedEx story.

Who knows? I may be spiting myself by reducing the number of carriers available and the next ten deliveries assigned to FedEx may be DHL-perfect. But when there are superior alternatives, there is no need to choose frustration. We have to do that far too often with political candidates.

Next Tuesday the DHL guy (I really do need to ask him his name; he knows mine) will be bringing three books (including my elusive Instant Pot concept book). I will enjoy telling him my FedEx tale.

At least, I will not have to walk somewhere in Barra de Navidad to get my order.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

queen anne is dying

And I bet you Stuart fans were positive that her body had been resting in Westminster Abbey for just over three centuries.

That Queen Anne is truly and certainly dead.

I am talking about the Queen Anne (two of them actually) that hangs out in my patio. It has many aliases. Queen Anne palm. Queen palm. Cocos palm. To avoid confusion with identity, let's call it by its formal name: Syagrus romanzoffiana. We played this name game before -- three years ago (bring on the guillotine).

Both of the palms in the patio are ill. I noticed the fronds are developing bright yellow spots. Lemon yellow.

That set off alarm bells. There is a bacterial infection that is fatal to palms. Lethal yellowing disease. It is not a very fancy name. But it is straight-forward. Fronds yellow. Plant dies.

Hoping I was wrong, I fell back on my One True Brain -- Google. Because the Queen Anne palm is a popular palm for landscaping, there is a lot of information available. Some might even be accurate.

The first news was reassuring. The Queen Anne palm is one of the species not highly susceptible to lethal yellowing disease. It is resistant. "Resistant" is the waffle-word used by experts. Mind you, it is not "immune." Just "resistant."

So the it-is-going-to-die tomorrow option tumbled down my list of worries. But something is causing the fronds to yellow, if not the yellow peril. That list now includes four options. Maybe.

The first is a manganese deficiency. Just like people, palms need a nice dose of heavy metal to stay healthy.

And the solution is easy. All I would need to do is spray the new foliage with a manganese spray.

Of course, the easy answer usually responds to the wrong question, as we learn from all politicians daily. A manganese deficiency can be diagnosed when new fronds are deformed or have a bronze or yellow tinge. I suspect my heliconia (the flowers that do a great bird-of-paradise impression) are suffering from a manganese deficiency, but not the Queen Anne palms.

The second suspect is the long list of creepy-crawlies that love tropical plants. Pests -- in the jargon of the initiates.

Topping that list is the palm leaf skeletonizer. That Mattel-invoking word is another of those highly-descriptive names. The caterpillar is a voracious eater. It will chomp away on a palm frond until nothing is left but the veins. What is left is a mere skeleton. Northerners know that look from tent caterpillar infestations.

But that is not the problem with my fronds. They appear to be quite healthy -- other than that pesky yellow spotting.  I examined the fronds and could see no insect or caterpillar activity.

However, the fronds are not completely free from suspicious activity. I cut off a portion of frond to take to the local nursery. And this is what I found underneath. The nurseryman did not think the caterpillar morphing in its chrysalis could be the cause of the yellow spots.

Suspect number three is the dog that didn't bark. Yellow spots may mean nothing at all. All palm fronds die. But my fronds have been dying from old age in the past without spotting up. Or maybe I did not notice it. The nurseryman did not think the spots were the normal cycle of death.

That brings us to suspect number four -- the culprit in the nurseryman's sights. An iron deficiency.

I am not so certain. My other sources indicate palms with an iron deficiency usually start yellowing or browning at the tips of the new fronds, not in the middle. And it usually strikes container-grown palms, rather than those planted directly in garden soil, as mine are.

There are two recommended solutions. First, replant the palm. That is not going to happen. These are full-grown palms that are now taller than the second story of the house.

The other solution is far easier. Fertilize with a chelated iron fertilizer.

The nurseryman does not speak English, and I do not know a lot of technical terms for growing plants. "Chelated" is an example. I know what it means in English. But I was baffled at what the word is in Spanish. My SpanishDict application was not helpful.

Apparently, I was successful enough to let him know I wanted some iron for the palms. He informed me an iron application was not necessary. Instead, I needed two machetes.

I thought he was going to tell me to chop off the offending fronds. I was wrong.

I needed the machetes to tie one to each tree with red string. He repeated it must be red string. Within three months, my palm fronds would be completely green.

Now, I have been the victim of Boy Scout snipe hunts, and I tend to be skeptical of anything that seems to lack  the semblance of scientific support (water in zip-lock bags stapled to patio supports to chase flies away is just one example). The best I could imagine is that the iron in the machete is supposed to transfer to the palm through its trunk.

The machete approach to healthier trees is not new to me. I have a restaurateur friend who has a large piece of property filled with fruit trees. He is constantly fighting off one pest or another.

His gardener had recommended three separate uses of machetes to cure tree problems. The tie-a-red-ribbon-and-machete-to-the-old-broke-tree was the first one I had heard. A second was sticking the machete in the ground near the trunk of a tree to cure whatever ailed it. (I suspect the iron-transfer theory must be at work there. But I really have no scientific explanation.)

My favorite was the third recommendation. One of the mango trees was not producing fruit. So the gardener took the broad edge of the machete and repeatedly whacked the trunk of the tree. When my friend asked what he was doing: "The gardener said the tree was like a disobedient child and needed to be beaten until it obeyed."

We northerners may laugh at each of these home remedies. But here is the bottom line. My friend always laughs when he finishes the story. All three times, the trees performed better.

Now, I do not know how scientific any of those tales are. But I have lived long enough to know that most of the important events in our lives leave the goddess of science mute.

I am going to look for some iron and manganese. If that does not work, I may be in the market for a spool of red string and two new machetes.

Monday, October 29, 2018

you don't light up my life

Life loves to update my essays.

Two Saturdays ago, I told you about the Moravian punched tin light fixtures that grace my patio -- and how difficult it is to change the light bulbs when they burn out (a goodson-toddman morning). With our fluctuating voltage and frequent lightning strikes, the bulbs die young. At least, younger than should.

Several readers made an excellent suggestion. Because changing the bulbs is so difficult, I should swap out the bulbs with LED lights. LEDs are expensive, but they are supposed to allow capital recapture by lasting longer than I will.

I say it was an "excellent" suggestion because I had already thought of it. On my last light bulb frenzy, I swapped out dead incandescent bulbs with LEDs purchased at either Home Depot or Sam's Club in Manzanillo. I cannot remember which.

I had actually experimented with two LED bulbs purchased locally about eighteen months. Both of them burned out within seven months. When I returned to our local light store, the clerk told me 
the bulbs lasted only a year or two. At least, they were not very expensive. That may be the reason they did not last.

But the bulbs I purchased in Manzanillo were expensive. I made certain that they were designed for outdoor use (I still think that is a factor with the short life of incandescent bulbs) and that they had no other obvious restrictions.

Installing them was difficult. They are slightly longer than the incandescent bulbs. That makes it next to impossible to use the "easy" installation method I have developed over the years. But I managed to get two fixtures set up with LED lights. That was last March. I remember because my brother helped me install the bulbs.

Yesterday I grabbed an LED bulb and climbed my ladder to discover that the first burnt-out bulb was one of the LED bulbs I installed last March. It lasted only seven months. Just like the cheap LED bulbs. Of course, the second burnt-out bulb was the same.

That means I spent the extra money for LEDs and got the life expectancy of an incandescent bulb. You would almost think the government had contracted for my light bulb supply.

It is possible that I am not buying the correct LED bulbs. A reader in Barra de Navidad installed LEDs at her house and they have lasted for years. That eliminates my voltage-lightning theory. Or, at least, calls it into question.

LEDs seem to be the answer. I just need to find the correct bulbs. And I know just where to go for that information.

Readers -- I am at your mercy.

And, if all goes well, there will soon be another essay to update.

A writer's life is always blessed.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

my beef with mexico

So, there I was, sitting in a cafe in Barra de Navidad minding my own business.

When I venture from the house, I am usually in the mood for some social interaction. But not that day. All I wanted to do was sit it the sun, sip some tea, and read The Economist.

I have come to the conclusion that some people are terrible at reading body language. Despite my obvious introverted posture at the table, the fellow sitting at the next table took it upon himself to save me from my obvious isolation.

He just start talking at me, telling me his name and where he was from. Neither of which I can recall. Not because I didn't care (a writer always cares about any detail that can add veracity to a story), but because I was still half-engaged in a story about the presumptive prime minister succession in Malaysia.

He was two sentences into his next paragraph before I caught up with him. Something about beef. Ah. He was not happy with the quality of beef in Mexico. It sounded as if he had traveled a bit in the country.

"You know what really bugs me?"

I didn't.

"The butchers here don't know anything about cuts of beef. They don't even know their proper names."

I chuckled at that. It took me years to figure out what some cuts meat were here. The shape gave me no clue where it had once resided on a steer carcass.

I responded that he had the question backward. We should  be asking why we do not know enough to recognize Mexican cuts of beef.

Jose at El Tunco has taught me a lot about both pork and beef. I have ended up using my body as the equivalent of a Chinese medicine doll to modestly point to the same portions I want off of a pig -- or a steer. Fortunately for all of us, my meat choices are not too exotic.

A lot of the mystery about Mexican meat disappeared when I ran across a very informative article by Karen Hursh Graber over at Mexconnect. Her Choice Cut or Mystery Meat? is now a regular resource whenever I am about to sally forth on a meat hunt.

The drawing at the top of this essay is hers. Or from her blog. I carry a copy whenever I am out. It makes my shopping easier.

In the past, I knew what type of meat I wanted, but 9 out of 10 times I could not find that particular cut. I should have known, just like butcher shops the world over, there is much more meat stowed in freezers than there is in the meat case.

My practice now is to ask for a cut from a region of the steer and then get the cut I want from the larger piece. When I tried buying a prime rib roast, I just received blank stares. I now know to ask for "entrecot," and we can work from there.

Omar introduced me to "bola" -- extremely tender beef. From his description, I thought it was the same cut as baseball steaks. Baseball. "Bola." You can see my strained connection. But I was wrong.

Because of Karen Hursh Graber's research and writing, I can now order beef (she also writes about pork and lamb) with the confidence of a Wichita cattleman.

Of course, I have far more hat than cattle. But, isn't that true of most of us?

Saturday, October 27, 2018

time to cook -- or get off the pot

The deed is done.

I am no longer an Instant Pot virgin. And it did not take much to push me over the edge. Just a pot of beans.

Jennifer Rose, suspecting I was stalling, told me to get my Nike on and just do it. Her suggestion was simple and elegant. I needed to cook something easy to learn the concepts of my new machine.

She suggested the bag of black beans pictured in Thursday's post. 

Open up the package of black beans tonight, dumping half of them into a colander, stashing the remainder in the pantry.
Clean the beans. Sort through them to make sure there aren't some stones hidden. Even the packaged ones from the grocery store could harbor some foreign material hard enough to break a tooth on.
Put them in the Instant Pot liner, cover with water, and permit them to repose until you arise in the morning.
Once morning has broken, and you're up and around, drain the beans, rinsing them off, and return them to the Instant Pot liner, adding water until it reached 2" above the top of the beans.
Plug in the Instant Pot, hitting the "beans" button, and adjust the time to 23 minutes, high pressure. In less than a minute, the "on" light will appear, and you need to nothing.
When the cooking process has stopped, continue doing nothing, letting the pressure release naturally. When the pressure pin has dropped, you can then open it up to admire your handiwork. A pot of unflavored beans, an empty slate upon which to perform various feats of culinary magic. You don't need no stinkin' cut of animal to make your first pot of beans.
OK. That sounded easy enough. And it included enough concepts to get me started.

Because I am who I am, I had to do part of this my own way. It was late on Thursday night when I read Jennifer's comment. Rather than let another day go by without at least trying out my Instant Pot, I opened that bag of black beans (knowing I would need them later in the day for a pork dish), and performed an express soak.

I usually soak my beans that way. Beans and water go into a pot, I bring the water to boiling and set the pot aside for at least an hour. When I return, the beans are thoroughly soaked and ready for cooking.

As Jennifer suggested, I put the soaked beans in the liner, chose "beans" on the panel, dialed up 23 minutes at high pressure, and said "yes" when asked if I wanted to keep my beans warm after cooking. Jennifer had not mentioned that, but it seemed correct.

While the beans were cooking, I started preparing the day's soup and main course. I had scored a piece of summer sausage (Yup. The same meat your boss's wife would give you at Christmas and you felt compelled to serve it as an appetizer when they came to your Christmas party, even though you knew it had little flavor other than salt.) at Sam's Club when I was in Manzanillo. I developed the soup as a method for cooking elk sausage, usually provided by my ex-law partner. It is just vegetables with marjoram in a roux, but it is tricky to get the layers right.

The beans were going to be added to what started out as a chicken dish, but morphed into a pork rump combination that was basically Mexican with a heavy Asian influence.

While I was preparing the meat and vegetables on their respective cutting boards, I watched the Instant Pot as it built up pressure to begin the cooking cycle. That must have been about 20 minutes, even though I was not timing it. The beans then cooked for the allotted 23 minutes. The timer then tripped back to zero and started adding more time.

I thought the pot was just releasing its pressure. Thirty minutes passed and I was ready to start cooking everything else. But the timer was still ticking.

I took a closer look at the readout. And I immediately saw my first Instant Pot mistake. I did not want to keep the beans warm after they were cooked. I wanted to use them.

By that time, the pressure had been released. I opened the pot to discover perfectly cooked black beans.

I started wondering if my soup or pork dish could be cooked properly in the Instant Pot, and decided neither would work. Both dishes required constant tasting to ensure the layers were properly balanced. I do not know how that could work with the Instant Pot.

And the soup requires the addition of a roux before the sausage and potatoes are added to a browned vegetable combination. I suppose everything could be dumped in the Instant Pot at the beginning and the roux could be added after the pot de-pressurized. But it would not be the same soup.

As it turned out, today was a day for culinary mistakes. Not only did I waste time with the warming setting on the Instant Pot, the topping on my oven-baked pork dish was too dry (a healthy dose of Parmesan and extra sharp cheddar cheese could have fixed that), and because I could buy only purple cabbage for my soup the broth, which is usually clear, had taken on a somewhat muddy purple hue, as if it had just seeped out of a New Jersey chemical dump.

If I were grading, I would give myself a solid "C" for the day., But it is from failures that we learn.

My bottom like on the Instant Pot as a bean cooker is that it does what it is advertised to do. It took almost as long to cook my beans as my stove-top method does. But I did not need to pay the pot any heed while it cooked.

Rick had it right with Captain Renault. "I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."

Friday, October 26, 2018

voting late, but often

Yesterday was election day.

If you just checked your calendar to see if you somehow missed the first Tuesday following the first Monday in November, you need not to have looked. It was election day only for me.

When it comes to elections, I am a bit of a fuddy-duddy. I loved the thrill of getting up early on election day to walk down to the local grade school where I could meet my neighbors volunteering their time as guardians of the ballot box.

There was always at least one neighbor there I had not seen in months. We would catch up on what was happening on Summer and D Streets. Usually, politics never reared its warty head. Even though that was why we were all there.

In truth, I would be happy if we all met under an oak tree in the archives park to vote with raised hands. My New England blood has not been over-diluted.

All of that changed in 1998 with one of those pesky citizen-initiated ballot measures. It was sponsored and supported by the usual suspects -- and it passed overwhelmingly. From that point on, all of Oregon's elections were conducted solely by mail.

This is another of those issues where opponents were derided for the "slippery slope" argument. Voting by mail had a pilot run as a hybrid system for local elections starting in 1981. The opponents then said it would not be long until polling places were closed. Their opponents laughed at them.

For all of my snarky tone in those last two paragraphs, I was a vote-by-mail advocate. I suspect because I had grown accustomed to voting by absentee ballot during my active duty stint in the Air Force. It did not seem the least bit exotic to me. In fact, it had a soupçon of frisson to my youthful optimism.

When I moved to Mexico, I did not abandon my civic duty as a citizen of the sovereign state of Nevada. Upon application, the clerk of Washoe County has provided me with a ballot every two years at election time. This year, it arrived in the midst of a political firestorm in Washington earlier this month.

I am one of those veteran voters who has never missed an election. For me, it is a privilege to vote -- whether or not I get to participate in the social side of election day.

But, this year, for a variety of reasons, I had decided to sit out the election. I had not slipped into the same dispirited mood as George Will, but I was close.

Then, the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings happened. Polls had indicated that Democrat voters were highly motivated to vote ever since President Trump was elected. The Kavanaugh nomination brought all of that angst back to the surface.

But what happened in Washington did something I would never have predicted. It made Republican voters just as angry and motivated them to not sit out this election. Some polls show Republicans are now more likely to vote than Democrats.

Anger is a terrible reason for voting. At least, for me. Some people feel very comfortable allowing their emotions to rule their lives. I am not one of them. Anger almost always leads me to do something I would never logically contemplate.

The immediate practical effect happened in this year's Senate elections. Before the Kavanaugh hearings, most polls showed the Democrats picking up a net gain of at least one Senate seat. Perhaps, two or three. After the hearings, the polls show the Republicans picking up a net gain of two seats.

The shift happened over one weekend, and the polls have not changed since then.

For over a year, the same polls have shown the likelihood of the Democrats taking control of the house. The Economist has been predicting a 12-seat margin.

Before the hearings, the Democrats had a 17-seat lead in the polls. Within days, the lead started diminishing. This morning there is a 6-seat difference. But there are still 31 seats listed as toss-ups. That is extremely unusual with just 11 days left for campaigning.

Almost everyone is now predicting the Republicans will increase their majority in the Senate and the Democrats will control the House by a narrow margin. But there are still a lot of seats in play. And I decided to be one of the players.

If I still lived in Oregon, my vote (along with every other vote) would hardly matter. In each contested race, the Democrat candidate is far ahead in the polls. If you vote Democrat, kt does not matter. If you vote Republican, it does not matter.

Not so in my current state. Nevada has races for the Senate, House, and governor that are very close, and have shifted back and forth. The Republican candidates for the Senate and Governor appear to have benefited from the Kavanaugh bounce. Despite my feelings, anger does seem to motivate other voters.

But what motivated me to vote this year was a Rasmussen poll that was issued just after the hearings. The headline was: "As Election Nears, Faith in Congress is Up." Considering the historic public opinion of Congress, I thought that was a refreshingly novel approach.

The support numbers are not overwhelming. Just 24% believe Congress is doing a good or excellent job. Faint praise though it is, it is almost laudatory from this summer's rating of 15%. And that number has recently visited single digits.

Even more encouraging, 51% of Americans now believe elections are fair to voters, with only 33% believing they are unfair. That may not sound like a resounding endorsement until we look at what voters felt about elections in early 2016. Only 41% felt elections were fair; more voters believed elections were unfair. And that was before the 2016 presidential election.

If my fellow voters (and my Nevada countrymen) can be that optimistic, there is no way I was going to let my ballot go uncast.

However, good intentions are sometimes foiled by technology.

The Nevada ballot is huge. Well, at least, long.

Two ballots. Front of back. For every imaginable office. Senator. Congressman. Governor. A slew of legislative, judicial, and state-wide offices. City offices for Reno. Water districts, and a list of initiatives -- including excluding feminine hygiene products from the sales tax.

I spent an afternoon reading up on ballot measures and candidates. And then voted by filling in the appropriate bubble for each position.

That was the easy part. I had almost forgotten last year that getting my ballot back to Washoe County on time presented some problems.

Because Nevada is a progressive (in the common usage of that term, rather than the adulterated form used by political activists) state when it comes to elections, I had several options of returning my ballot.

Mailing it was risky. I love the Mexican mail system. But it can be painfully slow at times. And I did not want to risk having my ballot arrive late.

But Nevada offers two other seductive options. I could either fax it or I could attach it to an email. That sounded great.

Then I remembered I tried doing that last year. Both options require scanning my ballots. No problem. I have scanners.

When I put the ballot on my flat-bed scanner, it was far too long. My scanner is 8.5 X 11. The ballot was easily 20 inches long.

So, I tried my portable scanner that allows documents to be fed through. Only part of the ballot would scan. I discovered why when I tried modifying the custom setting. The maximum length is 14 inches -- for legal-size documents.

But, I was not about to quit. My telephone has a nifty scanning application. I have used it to deposit checks in my bank account and to copy insurance documents for reimbursement. After trying various options for an hour, I gave up. The ballots were too long for that scanner, as well.

Two years ago, I took my ballot to a local paper store because a friend told me the store had a large-bed scanner. It turned out "large-bed" was 14 inches. So, I did not even bother this year.

That left one option. I could vote at my local polling place in Manzanillo. At least, that is what I called it yesterday. You might call it DHL.

Usually, DHL is just a delivery service for Amazon orders to my house. Two years ago, I had a tax document that needed delivery to the IRS office in Sacramento within a couple of days or I would have been subject to one of those niggling interest problems (slipping a mickey to the feds). I used DHL, and the affidavit arrived just as advertised.

I gathered up my completed signed-and-sealed ballot and took it to the main DHL office. I am convinced that DHL hires its staff from a Netflix casting call. They are charismatic and good-looking. The young woman who greeted me could have been a guest star on Hecho en Mexico.

I handed her my ballot. She requested identification (as any good election clerk should). With the swipe of my credit card, she slid my ballot into a DHL envelope that is scheduled to arrive in Reno on Wednesday.

Some may argue (and some did in Oregon concerning the requirement to put a stamp on a mailed ballot) that the $712.82 (Mx)* I had to pay for the DHL service is a prohibited poll tax under the 24th Amendment.

It isn't. It is a convenience. Without it, I would be sitting in Barra de Navidad with a completed ballot and having no place to go. That is why free people extol the market.

Lenny Bruce, as he often did, summed it up well: "Communism is like one big phone company. Government control, man. And if I get too rank with that phone company, where can I go? I’ll end up like a schmuck with a dixie cup on a thread.”

Instead, I have done my civic duty. It will be up to the rest of the Nevada voters to see if we concur on the same candidates.

Either way, I will be counted amongst those who have a positive view on our electoral system. As contentious as it can be, that is what living in a democratic republic is all about.

Fortunately, I am not going to end up with just thread and a dixie cup.

* -- About $36 (US).   


Thursday, October 25, 2018

bean there, done that

Getting names right is important.

For millennia, philosophers and their lesser kin, writers, have wrestled with the concept of true names. Whether language (especially the language of naming things) is a system of arbitrary signs or whether those words have an intrinsic relation to the things they signify.

Homer gives us the classic example when Odysseus lies about his name to the Cyclops, setting up one of classic literature's great puns. Odysseus then allows his pride to override his good sense, and discloses his true name. That is unfortunate for him and fortunate for us. He gets himself into a lot of trouble, and we have the pleasure of watching him make it safely home to the virtuous Penelope.

I imagined Odysseus sticking his sharpened stake into Polyphemus's eye this afternoon. I have spent too much time waiting for my concept book to arrive before I test drive my Instant Pot.

That, of course, is just an excuse. There is no real reason for me not to just whip up a pot of beans using its pressure mode.

I always have a couple bags of dried beans at the ready. In the past, I have also had a pot of cooked beans in the refrigerator. I need to revive that habit. Beans are a cook's utility player.

And so I thought I would. Cook up a bag of beans.  I pulled a back out of the refrigerator, but realized I needed a piece of pork to cook along with them. There was some bacon in the refrigerator. That would usually suffice, but I wanted a more substantial piece of piggy. Perhaps a piece of rump.

So, I headed off to El Tunco #2. My butcher always has good suggestions. And he did today, as well.

But a pile of freshly-sliced bola tempted me. Up north, it would be the same meat as a tip roast. When cut thin like this and cooked quickly, it is one of the tenderest beef cuts available in Mexico. I use it for stir-fry and French-dip sandwiches (when I was eating bread).

The beef trumped the pork. And, though it is possible to flavor beans with pieces of beef, it is not my favorite. Looking at the bola in the case gave me an entirely different idea.

I was going to make carne con chili rojo.

And, no, I did not get that wrong. I was not making chili con carne -- the dish I once thought was quintessentially Mexican, but is not. Well, sorta not.

Chili con carne is about as Tex-Mex as a food can be. The origin of dishes is always difficult -- as we discovered in whipping up dreams with fajitas.

The dish we know as chili con carne has Mexican roots, but it is almost as unknown here as a chili burger -- a Los Angeles invention -- is in Mississippi. Initially, chili con carne appears to have been a working-class meal amongst Mexicans in southern Texas and northern Mexico. Even though the connection is not certain, its roots seem to be related to a dish made by every Mexican grandmother -- carne con chili rojo, meat with chili.

The classic dish is made with braised chunks of meat stewed in a spicy chili sauce. Like most foods for home kitchens, it is simple and tasty.

But I was not interested in a classic dish. I have eaten it several times in restaurants. What I wanted was something new.

My plan was to cook each step in the Instant Pot. I could brown the beef using the sauté setting, remove the beef and prepare the chili salsa. Once that was done, I could return the beef to the pot, and pressure cook the whole thing.

But I ran into a problem. The beef is far too thin to go through that process. It cooks in about 15 seconds on a grill. It certainly does not need pressure cooker treatment.

Then, there was the salsa. Because I like experimenting with my sauces, I need to plan out how to layer my flavors as I add them. If the salsa is in the pressure cooker, I cannot adjust the flavors during the cooking process.

The pressure cooker function on the Instant Pot may have a possibility as the home of a good boeuf bourguignon, but that will be another day.

As for my carne con chili rojo, it turned out perfectly. My salsa included grilled tomatoes, garlic, and chilis (serranos and habaneros) along with onion, homemade hoisin sauce, rice vinegar, and wasabi. Cooked in a wok. I told you I like fusion dishes.

I also scored on some young asparagus. To keep my fusion theme going, I decided to try one of my favorite green bean combinations. Ginger. Garlic. Blistering. Soy sauce. After all, almost anything a cook can do with green beans, he can do with asparagus. They turned out just as good as the meat. And were a great complementary companion.

Omar and my friend Ozzie are blessings when it comes to food. Most of their friends have no interest in new foods. If it does not fit in a tortilla, they will pass.

Omar and Ozzie like Mexican food. It is what they have eaten all of their lives. But they are  also perfectly placed to be my best food critics.

They gave my Asian version of this Mexican classic, a thumbs up.

In this case, no matter what its name is, it was a success.

Now, for those beans -- 

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

amazon throttles english

Even the best of us fail. Now and then.

This week, it is Amazon's turn.

Several of you have asked me how my experimenting with my Instant Pot is going. It isn't.

Before I started tinkering with it, I decided to buy a book instructing me on the cooking concepts of this new contraption. So, I turned to Amazon.

The choice of books was easy. Almost everyone agreed on which book to buy. And it was available on Amazon. That was two weeks ago.

Amazon and DHL (the designated carrier) have an excellent package-tracking system. I always know where my package is, and when it will be at my door.

My book was supposed to arrive a week ago. There was nothing unusual about the delivery window. But something odd happened along the way. The day my package was supposed to be in Barra de Navidad,the tracking system showed it was still in Florida -- with no updates for almost a week.

So, I was not too surprised when the following notice showed up: "Due to an error with the carrier, your shipment has been returned to Amazon. We will replace the order at no charge to you."

Wow! Because of an error in shipping, Amazon is going to send me my book free. Now, that is customer service.

My joy did not last long. There was another sentence: "If the items are not available, we will refund the purchase price."

Hold it. "Refund the purchase price?" I thought I was getting my book "at no charge." Those sentences are contradictory.

I have noticed a trend in these notices. In an attempt to spin a bad situation, the English language is pummeled. In the process, an understanding customer ends up confused -- or fuming.

I think what Amazon meant to say was this.

"The carrier we chose to deliver your book has damaged the package and its contents. They are idiots, but we are responsible merchants.

"We know that you paid for the book already with your credit card. But your book is ruined. Rather than charge you for a replacement, we are shipping you  you the book you already paid for. There will be no additional charge -- as if we needed to say that. What are we going to do? Ruin what you wanted and then charge you for it? We are not the government.

"If we cannot find a replacement, we will reimburse the charges on your credit card. We are nice people, but Amazon is just starting to show a profit. We are not so crazy that we would just throw money away.

"By the way, if you had bought it on your Kindle none of this would have happened. What were you thinking?"

I just checked the status of my order. According to Amazon, I purchased the book yesterday (rather than two weeks ago), and it is being prepared for shipment. That does not engender a lot of hope. It almost sounds as if Putin is doing Amazon's record-keeping.

Rather than waiting for the book to arrive (between 5 and 8 November), I may start experimenting with something easy in the Instant Pot. Jennifer Rose suggests beans. That sounds like a good idea. Cooking beans while we dry out from the Willa rains may be therapeutic.

When the book arrives, I can try something more exotic. Like rice.

I may ruin a few joints of meat, but I promise not to mangle the language. 

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

wasting wishes

I have been here before.


So, I should have not been surprised that it happened again.

Now and then, Chronos is kind enough to hand me a lump of time I can do with as I choose. Frequently, it happens while I am in airports waiting for a connecting flight.

Let's assume I have just stumbled off of my 16-hour Cathay Pacific flight from Los Angeles to Hong Kong. I wander up to The Wing lounge, treat myself to a rain-head shower, and then eat a lunch that is barely the temporal side of transcendent. I still have nine hours until my flight to Sydney starts boarding.

So, I snuggle into a leather club chair, hook up the chargers for my electronic equipment, and start reading while enjoying a pot of green tea as only the Chinese can make it.

And I feel lucky. Even though I am retired, the demands of running a house (and simply enjoying life in Mexico) intrude of my reading and writing schedule. I always dream of lining up a couple of newspapers, National Review, The Economist, a book of poetry, a biography, and maybe even a novel. Every writer (and reader) yearns for those borderless frontiers.

Then, I squander them. Almost always.

Before I started my walking regimen a couple of years ago, I had no trouble sitting and enjoying a book or two for hours on end. Studying in law school was a snap for me. As was researching and writing briefs to the supreme court.

No longer. After about twenty minutes of reading, I need to get up and move around. The same is true for movies, I can no longer sit through one without interruption. And, once i get up and start moving, I keep right on walking.

In airports that is a perfect combination. Terminals always make great walking spaces. The Hong Kong airport is especially good. I can then return to reading when the sitting mode switches on.

Yesterday, I was looking forward to a full day of reading. Hurricane Willa's rain was heavy enough that exercising was out of the question. So, I wrote an essay to you -- and then started reading. For 20 minutes.

What to do? Then, it hit me. Instead of walking, I would indulge my primary passion. Cooking.

Since I returned to the healthy diet crew, I have been eating a lot of soups. Not only are they healthy, but they offer a cook endless creativity possibilities. After all, if it can be eaten, it can be turned into a soup.

Today, I decided I wanted something simple, but elegant.

Our tomatoes here are pathetic when it comes to taste and texture. They are primarily grown for export (the type of tomatoes you find in Safeway are ubiquitous here). Thick-skinned. Dry. Perfect for shipping, but lousy as a food item.

But they are what we have. I bought a couple pounds specifically for soup. That was the easy part. What I wanted, though, was a layered soup that would make me fondly remember the time I took in preparing it.

I decided on two balancing primary flavors. The acidity of sour orange and the subtle sweetness of French tarragon.

So, I 
sautéed the tomatoes with onion, shallots, garlic, celery, serranos, a habanero, the zest of a sour orange, tarragon, and a little tomato paste, and ran the whole combination through my food processor before combining it with chicken stock.

While it was simmering, I balanced the orange and tarragon with small layers of oregano, thyme, and cayenne pepper. The trick was to add just enough flavor to subtly alter the mix without overpowering the two primary tastes.

Not all of my soup experiments work. This was one of the successes. In fact, I would put it up against the soups at my favorite Florence restaurant, Enoteca Pinchiorri.

If you doubt me, stop by and compare. I am always up to the challenge. It was worth the three-hour preparation time.

And because I am a patient man, I was able to slip in one-third of my daily walking before midnight appeared.

I guess the moral of all this is that we often do not really want what we wish for in life. I say I want time to read uninterrupted -- when what I really want is the time to enjoy the moments I am given.

For some reason, I need to re-learn that lesson regularly.

Maybe because I enjoy experiencing it anew each time. 

Monday, October 22, 2018

reading out the storm

Willa is coming for a visit.

And I do not mean the mother of the little red-headed girl that was my neighbor and stole my nine-year-old heart.

This Willa is a modern Guabancex. For the past week, a storm system has been evolving off the coast of southern Mexico -- going through the usual metamorphosis of depression to tropical storm to hurricane.

We have not had many hurricanes this year on the Pacific coast. But Willa may make up for our slow weather season.

It is now a category 4 hurricane -- and at the upper range of a 4. 155 mile per hour winds.

Several friends have sent me email and messages asking if there is any danger of Willa making a visit here.

With hurricanes, there is never any certainty. But Willa appears to be making her plodding 7 mile per hour journey north at a healthy distance away from us.

That healthy distance will not exist for others in Mexico, though. Tomorrow afternoon, she is predicted to take a gradual right turn and crash into the Mexican mainland coast somewhere above Puerto Vallarta. If that category 4 status holds (or increases), Willa's encounter with civilization will not be beneficial.

What we are getting here is rain. Lots of rain. But that has been true for the past week. October is turning out to be our local storm month.

A testament of how infrastructure has improved in the short time I lived here is the fact that after hours of rain, we still have electricity. The first year I was here, power would often fail at the first sprinkle.

But this is no time to be sanguine. Another storm -- Vicente -- is on the way. I had not paid much attention to Willa because its storm cone had never put our coast at risk.

Vicente is a healthy tropical storm puttering around in the Gulf of Tehuantepec. Unlike Willa, its storm cone is heading right toward us. Probably arriving here early Wednesday morning.

Currently, its winds are 45 miles per hour. But there is a lot of warm water for it to cross before it gets here, and that could feed its fury.

All of that is speculation, though. The National Hurricane Service has issued no warnings. Like many of its predecessors, Vicente could run out of steam before it arrives.

So, I will sit inside and read. Trying to get my exercise walking in the street right now would be like jogging in Venice. I could walk on the upstairs terrace, but, in the rain, it may as well be an ice pond.

And I can dream of that little red-headed girl.

What was her name?

Sunday, October 21, 2018

bienvenidos, benito -- y adiós

When Italy's 1999 transition date from the lira to the Euro grew near, Italian housewives marched in the streets banging pots.

They were not celebrating the impending arrival of a Brave New World of Currency. They feared that their household budgets would be eviscerated in the change over. That switching from a multi-digit lira to a fewer-digit Euro would somehow affect the amount of food they could buy each day.

It turns out they were correct -- for a lot of very complex fiscal reasons. As a result the Italian electorate is agnostic about the Euro and the European Community.

Something similar may be afoot here in Mexico.

It has been less than two months since the Bank of Mexico issued its new 500-peso note featuring the face of President Benito Juarez in a pleasant blue shade (money makes the words go round). It has been something of a scavenger hunt finding them here after an initial onslaught.

When the new note was issued, the Bank stated new notes (50, 100, 200, and 1000) would be issued during the next five years and the current notes would be taken out of circulation. At least around here, the old 500-peso notes are not disappearing. I see more of Diego Rivera's ugly mug than Benito Juarez's stare.

Looking at that list of denominations for the new notes, you may notice something is missing. There is no mention of the 20-peso note (the doppelganger of the new 500). And there is a good reason for the omission.

A friend contacted me yesterday to ask how long the 20-peso notes would be legal tender -- or was it just a rumor they were being phased out?

I responded I had not heard that news. And, then I remembered the Bank's announcement about the new notes. The 20-peso note was missing.

A quick bit of research refreshed my memory. There is no secret.

The Bank openly announced it will be phasing out the 20-peso note in favor of the 20-peso coin. Most of us have seen one or two of those coins over the years. But they are rare. According to the Bank, they will be far more common.

Today, I talked with a couple of merchants who are hoarding every 20-peso note they receive in payment. And the reason is simple. Here, the 20-peso note is the change draft horse of small shops. Waiters rely on them for tips. Street vendors for payment. It is the Valentina sauce of currency.

I have already heard murmurings that the Bank is up to no good. Whenever currency changes, Mexicans get nervous. Neither the government nor the Bank has built a reputation of trust when it comes to fooling around with banknotes.

The Bank included one other tidbit in its late August announcement. It will be printing a new note -- a 2000-peso note -- if “such a bill is required to satisfy user’s needs.”

When I mentioned that to the merchants, they looked worried. They could not explain why, but their gut instincts may have been similar to what Mexican economists have been discussing for the last two months.

The 2000-peso may be bad news for two reasons.

The first is not surprising. Most nations have been considering phasing out their highest denomination notes in an attempt to stymie illegal activity. The goal is to transition to a cashless society.

By considering a 2000-peso note, Mexico is effectively saying it does not want to use its monetary system to handicap illegal cash transactions.

But, the possibility of a new note -- with a face value twice the amount of the current largest bill -- is also an admission that Mexico is suffering from years of monetary inflation. Larger bills simply recognize the reality that in the ten years since the notes were last revised, Mexico has suffered a 51% accumulated inflation rate, with a commensurate 34% reduction in purchasing power. During the same period, average wages barely changed.

The publication of a 2000-peso note will simply be a public acknowledgement that household budgets are not keeping pace with the cost of basic needs. And like those Italian housewives, Mexico may doubt the value of its own currency. 41% of Mexicans currently do not earn  a daily wage adequate to not buy a daily food basket. And, without an offsetting increase in productivity, raising wages will only decrease the purchasing power of the peso.

The combination of inflation and the preference to pay cash will almost certainly lead the Bank to determine there is a "need" for a 2000-peso note. It will be interesting to see how the public reacts.

Housewives bang pots for good reasons.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

a goodson-todman morning

I can tell you a lot about yourself if I know your theory of design.

There are two schools: people who believe form follows function, and those who believe function follows form.

Then there is the Mexican school where form and function seem to have, at best, a nodding acquaintance.

Before you get your knickers in a knot, yes, I am fully aware that all absolute statements incubate their own seeds of controversion (just like that sentence). Evidence of one contrary example makes the assertion logically false; though it still may be true.

But let's skip the theoretical stuff. Obviously, some event has tumbled into my day to start this design rambling.

When the Mexican-French Canadian architect designed her dream house (the house I now own), she included a number of details that were modern, but accessorized with an eye to Mexico's history. In that, she was a true disciple of Luis Barragán.

The most obvious examples are the Mexican hanging star light fixtures made of punched tin or copper. There are 13 in my house. Small.  Medium. Large. Just like McDonald's.

Here is a quick historical aside. I have always associated the hanging stars as being one of those quintessential Mexican designs. It turns out, like a large amount of designs here, the stars were an acquired heritage. (Just as the tiles and ceramic designs of Puebla were "borrowed" from China and Moorish Spain. We will talk about that one day.)

The stars are a German or a Czech or an Austro-Hungarian creation. Depending on where you want to stick Moravia at any period of history. Today it is part of the Czech Republic. In the early 1800s, it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

And that is when the stars were created as part of a geometry lesson in a Moravian church school. The design spread through Europe and was eventually associated with the celebration of Christmas. (I know. It sounds a bit apocryphal to me, as well. But we will run with it.)

Mexico adopted the design. The concept can be seen here at Christmas in gold-foil-adorned papier-mâché stars hung outside homes. The multiple points give them away.

But, the hanging star light fixtures are far truer to the original concept. And still very Mexican. Craftsman here added a new twist by making the stars out of metal rather than glass, and then punching holes to render a rather gauzy light punctuated with bright stars. They add a certain sense of mystery to my home at night.

The stars were one of the features that attracted me to the house design when I first saw it. But a scorpion hides in every blossom.

Each fixture has a light bulb. And, as is true for everything in life, they die. And I have to replace them. It is one of the few house chores I dread. I would rather wash windows.

Do you remember "Beat the Clock?" It was one of those Mark Goodson-Bill Todman production game shows that populated nighttime television starting in the 1950s.

The concept was simple -- and devilish. Contestants were required to perform seemingly-difficult tasks within 60 seconds. I always thought the writers must have been graduate students at the De Sade Institute of Applied Psychology.

That is exactly how I feel about changing the star light bulbs. I grab a new bulb, stick it in my pocket, and wrestle the ladder into position.

The first time I was faced with this chore. I was baffled. I could not figure out how to get to the light bulb. I thought there must be a release of some sort.

I was wrong. The entry is a brilliant solution. One point of the star lifts up. I thought the process would then be easy.

I was wrong again. One of the oddities of electrical wiring in Mexico is what I call the "dangling receptacle" -- a light socket that hangs loose. You see it everywhere.

That was what I discovered when I opened the star. Up north, the socket would have been secured with screws at the top of the fixture. But not here. The socket hung in suspension.

The opening allows the entry of only two fingers. When I tried to unscrew the dead bulb, the whole socket just twisted around and around. I discovered if I pressed the socket to the side of the fixture with one finger on my left hand, I could use a finger on my right hand to try to unscrew the bulb.

Getting the bulb out is the easy part. Putting the new one back in is the problem. Trying to screw the bulb into the socket only pushes the socket around. It is like trying to feed a reluctant baby smashed squash.

All of this, of course, would leave me a loser on "To Beat the Clock." 60 seconds usually morphs into 60 minutes -- or more.

It took me two years to figure out an answer. Not that it is The answer.

Because the stars hang, there is a length of electrical wiring between the ceiling and the top of the fixture. Lifting up the fixture drops the socket. If I can feed enough wire, I can move both the socket and the light bulb out of the hinged door and replace the bulb. When I am done, I just reverse the process.

That still takes about a half-hour for each bulb. But it is better than the full hour required in the past.

Unfortunately, that option does not always work. The stars are not uniform. Several of the fixtures have an angle that prevents the socket with a bulb to either come out or go back in. For those, I use the old two-finger I-have-nothing-better-to-do method.

The function follows form school would have stopped me long ago by pointing out the whole conundrum could be resolved by modifying the sockets to be stationary inside the fixture.

But what would be the fun in that? I could not write about it, and you would not have the opportunity to stick your own fingers in the comment socket.

The next time a bulb dies, I should invite you over to be part of the Beat the Clock crew.

Until then, like Bud Collyer, I am "hoping that next time may be your time to beat the clock!"

Friday, October 19, 2018

whipping up dreams

"My favorite Mexican food is fajitas."

That apercu was from my friend Doug. We were discussing the local restaurants when the conversation took one of those cul-de-sac turns.

I have long had a love-hate relationship with fajitas. I think I dug into my first fajita in Olympia in the 1980s. Dos Hermanos, if I remember correctly. I fell in love with the blend of grilled beef and vegetables in their secret sauce -- all wrapped in a tortilla.

And then I got sick. Every subsequent time I ate fajitas, I got sick. And I have no idea of the root cause for the bizarre reaction. Because I enjoy good food, I was willing to put up with the occasional bout of St. Helens nausea.

But that was not what caught my attention with Doug's romantic infatuation with fajitas. It was his reference to "Mexican food."

One of the joys of the internet is having the equivalent of the Library of Congress at our fingertips. Gary, my American-Canadian restaurateur friend, and I often have our personal mini-pub quiz about the origin of things considered quintessentially Mexican.

We all know that tomatoes, corn, and chili peppers were originally from Mexico and were spread around the world by the Spanish and Portuguese. But, what about the coconut? Asia. Mangoes? India. Those fantastic flamboyan trees? Madagascar. Limes? Maybe Indonesia. Possibly, southeast Asia.

But there are also plenty of foods that were considered to be Mexican where I grew up in the Pacific Northwest. Most of my friends still believe that the chili con carne is as Mexican as Salma Hayek. Of course, it isn't. I suspect it is that Spanish-sounding name that does it. Chili con carne, that is. Not Hayek. That is a German name.

That is why I was a bit surprised to discover that fajitas are no more Mexican than was Lyndon Johnson. Well, maybe a bit.

The flaw in food history is that most dishes were not created one afternoon in a specific restaurant. We know peaches Melba was created by Auguste Escoffier at the London Savoy Hotel to honor soprano Nellie Melba. Or that Caesar salad was cobbled together by Caesar Cardini in either San Diego or Tijuana (giving some credence to the claim the anchovy-flavored dish is actually Mexican). Or that the recently-stirred-up Caesar cocktail was given to us by a restaurateur in that culinary capital Calgary to celebrate the opening of an Italian eatery.

But, they are the exceptions. Most foods have their roots in some provincial kitchen, and the most arduous Holmesian endeavors will never disclose them.

The history of fajitas is not that obscure. The earliest mention of the name is in the ranch land of southern Texas in the tough times of the 1930s. Texas ranchers would give their vaqueros (Mexican cowboys who helped create the myth of the American cowboy) the portion of slaughtered cattle that could not be marketed. That included the hide, the entrails, the horns, and trimmings from the skirt steak -- giving them the ingredients for head barbecue and tripe stew.

The vaqueros would grilled the otherwise tough skirt steak trimmings into something that was not quite as reminiscent of shoe leather. "Fajita" was the name of the grilled strips of skirt steak.

In 1969, an Austin meat merchant, sold the first fajita (similar to the dish we know) at a fast-food fair booth. T
hat same year, restaurants in Texas had fajitas on the menu. It took some time for the dish to become popular. But, it spread through Texas, on to Arizona, through The States, and other countries.

So, Doug was not entirely wrong. The vaqueros were simply cooking beef strips as Mexicans had in the northern Mexican states for years. But what the vaqueros ate bears as much resemblance to contemporary fajitas as a grilled peach resembles peaches Melba.

I am not certain I had ever made fajitas at home. And that surprised me. It is a rather simple dish to prepare -- most of the time being spent in slicing and mincing. And, because there is no such thing as an "authentic" fajita, I could indulge my culinary creativity.

So, off to Hawaii, my favorite grocery, I went. The first thing in my basket was a packet of oyster mushrooms. They would add body to the dish. A couple of habaneros. Four serrano peppers. Red and yellow bell peppers. Garlic. Red onion. Tomatoes. And some whole-wheat tortillas. (If I am going to eat carbohydrates, I want my digestive system to fight for them.)

I considered using firm tofu as my protein, but decided against it. I am not extremely fond of its texture. (They have that same feel in the mouth as avocado and papaya. I would prefer to pass on the experience.) Instead, I stopped at the butcher and bought two chicken breasts.

Sauces are the canvas where cooks develop their art. I wanted mine to be simple. Fresh lime juice. Cumin. Coriander. Hot smoky paprika. And a healthy dash of ghost pepper chili powder.

But something was missing. I inventoried the ingredients on the preparation table. What was it? There was something that would add umami to the meal. And it was not there.

It finally hit me. One of my favorite tastes with fajitas is sour cream. And I felt the frustration I often feel when I want an ingredient for a dish, but it is just not available.

When I moved here a decade ago, I discovered sour cream was unknown. There was crema fresca, a thinner and less-cultured version of sour cream. But it did not have the robust flavor of sour cream that fajitas require. (There is a Mexican product, crema agria, that is almost indistinguishable from sour cream. I bought some in San Miguel de Allende. I have never seen it here.)

I wish I could remember who taught me this trick (I suspect it was that doyen of cooking Leslie Harris de Limón)
, but it is possible to create sour cream from crema fresa with two simple ingredients. Lemon juice and a dash of salt.

The devil lies in that innocuous "simple." For years, finding a lemon in my part of Mexico was like finding privacy on the internet in Red China. (I know. I have tried.) Now and then, it might happen. But it was rare.

There was a reason for that. Mexico has long been one of the world's largest producers of limes. But, it was also once a major source of lemons -- for export to The States. Lemons, unlike limes, were not part of Mexican cuisine.

And then the market collapsed. More accurately, the trees collapsed. In the 1930s a plague killed most of the lemon trees in the United States and Mexico.

The trees in the United States were re-planted. And, as is the case with protectionist administrations, FDR put a staggering tariff on lemons from Mexico in the false hope of protecting American farmers at the expense of American consumers.

Because Mexico did not need lemons for its internal consumption, the lemon trees were not re-planted here. Some economists credit the lemon tariff as one of the justifications for Mexico nationalizing American, Canadian, and Anglo-Dutch oil companies. Mind you, a very small part. But, it did leave a sour taste.

It is now simple to buy lemons where I live. Alex, at Hawai, is one of the best Mexican businessmen I have encountered in our area. He knows his customer base (northerners in the winter and Mexican middle-class shoppers in the summer), and he caters to them. He is a man with a business plan.

And lemons are one of the items that now appear regularly at Hawaii. In a large box next to the cash register. They are not cheap, but they certainly add new possibilities to cooking. That always justifies the expense.

Hey, Steve. Weren't you telling us about a sour cream recipe?

Yup. Let's get back to it.

I bought a carton of crema fresca (450 ml) and a lemon. The crema fresca went into a mixing bowl, I squeezed in the juice from the lemon, and whisked for about three minutes. Almost immediately, the curdling effect of the lemon juice caused the crema to stiffen.

When I was done whisking, the result was not quite as thick as standard sour cream, but it was thicker than the crema in its natural state. I added a dash of salt and put the concoction in the refrigerator to cool.

When I tasted the scoop on top of my amazingly-layered fajita, I knew my mission was accomplished. It was not exactly like northern sour cream. But that was not my goal. I wanted a taste similar to sour cream to give me more flexibility in cooking. And I found it.

Having whipped up one of the best fajita dishes I have ever tasted, I can now move on to other projects. There is no sense in ruining the memory by trying to replicate it.

Doug, fajitas are not my favorite food. But, thanks for giving me the idea on this dish. We need to talk more.   

Thursday, October 18, 2018

i'm ready for my close-up, señor algodon

Woody Allen is a genius at character development.

The plots of his films are most often gossamer. But his portrayal of the human condition is always witty -- and bittersweet. Tales of who we think we are. And how the rest of the world sees us.

Jasmine Francis, the eponymous main character in Blue Jasmine, is a perfect example. We meet her on an airplane flying to San Francisco. She is sitting next to an older woman she does not know.

Her opening lines are like any normal small talk on airplanes. "
There was no one like Hal. He met me at a party and swept me off my feet. 'Blue Moon' was playing. You know 'Blue Moon?'"

But her chat quickly morphs into a rambling lost-soul monologue that continues as Jasmine follows the woman to the luggage carousel, and ends only when the woman walks away with her family.

When her son asks her who Jasmine was, she answers: "
I was sitting next to her on the plane. She was talking to herself. I thought she said something to me. I said, 'What?' But she couldn't stop babbling about her life."

Anyone who has spent much time on airplanes could tell tales of their own travails trapped in a tube with the corresponding secretary of the Logorrhea Society.

I thought of Jasmine this week while reading The Oregonian.

I almost never read personal advice columns.

For a lot of reasons -- primarily, the questions that are asked often have the distinct odor of being composed by a group of office pranksters in the office cafeteria. Or they sound like something you might overhear standing in line at a 7-11. Seldom edifying. Almost always prurient.

Now and then, though, a headline grabs me by my forelock. This one did. "Brother's girl a 'boredom missionary.'"  "Boredom missionary" is a bon mot I have occasionally used myself. So, I had to read the question.

There is no way I can paraphrase the question. The voice is far too personal. Here it is in its full glibness.

My brother wants to know what I think of his girlfriend. I don't like her. It isn't actionable dislike -- she isn't controlling, criminal, or abusive -- but I find her boring and worse, a boredom missionary. No hobbies, doesn't watch any TV shows, thinks fandom for anything is stupid, and doesn't have a team (in any sport) that she supports.
Our plans to do a panic room, see a dumb movie or eat at the weird new fusion place are all "a bit silly." Instead she just wants to do dinner at some place deemed nice and an indie movie about sad people being sad -- fine if that's her thing, but she never seems to enjoy it, or anything. She doesn't even like animals!
I have dodged my brother's question, but he is pushing. The best I can think to say is that she is unobjectionable and has lovely hair (tried to ask about that -- she just washes it, "that is a bit of a silly question"). I can do the old "she makes you happy" dodge, but pretty sure my brother will see through that. Plus, do I owe it to him to point out that she obviously loves him but doesn't share an interest in anything he enjoys and probably won't want to do any of the big-adventure-stuff holidays he has always planned? Or even get the Great Dane he has wanted since our childhood dog died?
On the other hand, he has picked her, maybe a life of gentle boredom is what adult bro is all about? I just don't know. I think if she didn't do this passive roadblock of disapproval about things she considers silly -- like,  all fun stuff -- I could appreciate her other qualities more. As it is, she just exists as this big buzzkill in my head.
-- A Bit Silly 
It really does not matter what the advice columnist had to say. Though, it was nearly as vapid as the question. But it does raise some interesting perspectives on how people deal with the world.

As much as I like Anne Lamott's writing, we do not share the same temperament. Her 
idea of everything running smoothly on an airplane is that: "A) I not die in a slow motion fiery crash, or get stabbed to death by terrorists, and that B) none of the other passengers try to talk to me."

That is not me. I am one of those people who loves meeting strangers on airplanes. But I am not a Jasmine Francis. When people begin fading, I quickly retreat to The Economist on my telephone.

Both Jasmine and "A Bit Silly" are representatives of a class of people we all encounter. On the surface, they appear to be almost narcissistic -- the rest of the world revolves around their experiences. And that impression is magnified when, like Jasmine's, the conversation has been slicked down with alcohol.

That last element is a common detriment to conversation here on the Mexican Pacific coast. Alcohol flows faster than opinions about cheap tacos.

But, something these days is getting in the way of enjoying rational conversations. And I am not talking solely about politics -- though it is usually the most glaring furnace-feeder. Conversations about restaurants or airlines or even the weather can reduce people to Serbians and Bosnians. If the topic has an element of opinion, the tone soon escalates to ethnic cleansing levels. Whether on message boards or in person.

I suspect narcissism and alcohol are not the causes, though, they are certainly contributing factors.

The problem Jasmine and "A Bit Silly" have is that they are far more interesting in making their point than in listening. And I mean really listening to what the other person said.

I taught a rhetoric class when I lived in Salem in the 1990s. On the first day, I would introduce the concept of persuasion with: "You cannot persuade anyone to do anything unless you actively listen to what they say and respect their point of view."

As an exercise, I would ask people to raise their hands which side of difficult issues they supported. Abortion was usually my first choice. Sometimes, capital punishment.

I then picked a person from each side to sit in front of the class. If a person was pro-life, I asked her to state why she believed in the pro-life position. The listener was then required to state what the first person had said.

No one could do it on the first try in the years I taught the course. No one. Inevitably, the re-statement would be what the listener wished the other person had said. It was inevitably some straw man argument.

When I asked them to try again, occasionally it improved. But, in about 40% of the experiments, the other person could not respect the other person enough to actually simply re-state what the other person said.

I run into that experiment writ large every day here in Mexico. But only with people who are expatriates or tourists. The reason I do not hear it from my Mexican friends is complicated -- and I am not the best person to write about it. Though, that is not enough to stop me from taking a stab at it in the future.

Mexico has been my sole home for ten years now. At least, I am in the tenth year of living here.

Because tourists and expatriates are people, there has always been tension on the message boards and at social events. People have opinions. And they state them. And, sometimes, people get upset that other people actually have differing opinions. I will not bother trotting out that famous Bill Buckley quotation.

Some people believe matters have deteriorated recently. Even though there were Obama-haters during my first eight years here, people think the Trump-hate is of a different degree.

I am not certain. All I know is that it is very difficult to have rational discussions these days about almost any topic. In fact, tables overturned in the temple are not an unusual occurrence.

It does not have to be that way. Here are a few modest proposals. Do with them as you wish. You have nothing to lose but your rage.

1. If we are discussing a serious topic (immigration, religion, whether ground beef can ever be properly folded into a taco) and you want to persuade me with your argument, put down the bottle. Alcohol is great at lowering IQs, but terrible at enhancing logic.

There is a reason participants in presidential debates are provided with water rather than tequila. Though, I must confess the debates over the past twenty years might have improved with a pitcher of margaritas on the podium.

2. Please listen to what the person who is talking with you is actually saying. It is a difficult exercise. While listening, just keep repeating in your head what is being said, rather than trying to come up with a political-commentator-inspired snappy retort.

3. And that is another thing. Use your own logic. And your own words. We have been bombarded with the reductionist ravings of the Rush Limbaughs and Rachel Maddows for so long that we think that is what social intercourse is all about.

I have had several discussions recently where the person I was talking to could only repeat the party line without any personal filtering. In his case, it was the MSNBC propaganda machine. But I have heard the same lack of individual thinking from people who watch Fox.

That is the classic appeal to authority fallacy of rhetoric. If I do not accept the authority of the person you are citing, you are simply treading water. Your personal logic is a far better tool to persuade than relying on academic hacks like Robert Reich and Larry Kurdlow. Accepting the king's coin comes at a price.

4. If you want to talk politics, talk politics. Most political discussions quickly devolve into personality rantings. If the person you are talking with says he agrees with your assessment on a politician's personality, move on. There is nothing to be gained by repeatedly atempting to capture ground you already occupy.

5. Maybe it is just as well to avoid personalities altogether. Politicians have positions on issues. That is what is important. But that often requires facts that are not immediately available. Isn't that why we have conversations? To learn new information. If you want to waste time on whether a politician has a big butt, I suggest spending your energy on the Kim Kardashian site.

6. Take responsibility. Facebook has become the beacon of unthinking posts. Someone sees something a friend has posted, and, without any analysis of what the piece says, will re-post it under their own name. (That behavior is not new. Just think of the number of emails forwarded to you that fall into the "Jehovah's Witnesses will be frightened away from your house if you spray Windex on the front door.")

If someone responds to one of those posts with: "Did you just call me a communist/fascist?," the defensive response is: "Well, I only published it because I thought it was funny. I didn't mean anything by it."

I have a rather tough skin when it comes to politics, but if someone calls my mother a "racist, women-hating bigot," I am going to call them out.

The best answer is to stop publishing all of the hate-filled screeds. They are not just offensive; they have no persuasive power. Most of us learned in kindergarten that tantrums do not get us what we want. Apparently, a lot of people never learned.

If you want to sound like screaming monkeys dipped in turpentine, be my guest. Just don't be offended when exposed.

So, there are six simple suggestions. I have to confess I am chuckling as I write this. I know it will do no good. My advice about listening (
"You cannot persuade anyone to do anything unless you actively listen to what they say and respect their point of view.") sounds almost naive. Like Canute willing the tide to obey him.

Maybe no one wants to persuade anyone of anything. If that is true, it is not just sad, it is dangerous.

Earlier this year, our local message board started a thread about the animosity Canadians felt toward Americans because of some of President Trump's comments -- and a subsequent loathing of Canadians by Americans. I asked a Mexican friend who is a waiter what he thought of the controversy.

He smiled and said: "Look. We don't care what you think of each other. You are all the same to us. Walking piggy banks."

He probably has summed up the whole thing better than my long rambling. Honesty usually does that.

In the end, it really may not matter at all. We northerners are a small minority here. And our internal bickering is of no consequence to the Mexicans.

As my friend said: "Knock yourselves out. Just leave your wallets."