Monday, December 28, 2020

dream on *

Dateline: 28 December 2020, Mexico City

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (commonly known as AMLO) and Hugo Eric Flores Cervantes, former leader of the Social Encounter Party, a fundamentalist Christian party that merged with the president's Morena Party. announced in a joint press conference today that one of Mexico's historical rifts has been resolved. Mexico will now celebrate its independence with a new holiday.

Last February, AMLO announced that he was concerned that three of Mexico's most important holidays (Constitution day, Benito Juarez's birthday, and Revolution day) were not celebrated on the actual anniversary day of each event, but on the closest Monday. That had been true since 2006 because the government wanted to provide citizens with a three-day vacation to celebrate each day. (strike three)

The president had initially planned to send a proposal to Congress after the school year ended and he had had an opportunity to discuss the impact of the proposed change with educators. That did not happen because of the viral pandemic.

"Even though that proposal is still under discussion," said AMLO, "we have not been sitting idly where other Mexican historical issues are concerned. One example is the day on which we celebrate our independence from Spain.

"There have been two contenders. The officially-recognized date of 16 September 1810, the day that Miguel Hidalgo issued his storied el grito. Or 27 September 1821, when General Agustin de Iturbide entered Mexico City ending the war -- the day favored by some reactionaries.

"Even though the reactionaries lost the argument long ago, it is time we all came together to honor the fact that the ending could not have occurred without the start, and the start would have no meaning without the ending.

"So, my good friend 
Hugo Eric Flores Cervantes and I stand here today symbolically representing two viewpoints now united. Starting in 2021, Mexico will celebrate its independence starting on 16 September and ending on 27 September. It will be known as the twelve days of indepence."

Señor Flores Cervantes added: "We are simply following Jesus's teaching. In Mark 3:25, he tells us: 'If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand.' And what better way for our nation to celebrate its founding and independence than with twelve days of feasting?"

When asked if the twelve days of independence were consistent with his policy of attempting to revive Mexico's economy, ALMO replied: "When I announced my intention to move the three holidays to their true dates, I said: 'I know that it will create controversy, but those who don’t know where they come from don’t know where they’re going.' I say the same thing again."

As they were leaving the conference, Flores Cervantes was overheard to say: "Do you ever feel that some of these announcements sound more like dreams?

They do, don't they?

* -- Before you start marking your calendar for the twelve days of independence, you may want to look at the calendar for today's date.

Friday, December 25, 2020

christmas crackers

Merry Christmas to all of you on this fine morning.

It just occurred to me that for the twelve Christmas days I have spent in Mexico, I have not written about how my neighbors celebrate the day. Of course, like all cultures, each family has its own traditions. But there are themes that show up in a lot of Christmas celebrations here.

When it comes to celebrations, many Mexicans are fond of sound -- anything to blot out the serenity of silence. My neighbors started early yesterday morning with music as they cleaned up their house for the arrival of friends and family.    

I do not know Mexican music very well, so I cannot even venture a guess at how to classify it. But I did recognize one thing about it. It was loud. Loud enough that I had to turn on the subtitles of a movie I was watching because I could not hear any sound from my speakers.

A northern visitor stopped by in the early afternoon to wish me a vague seasonal greeting. We tried to chat, but the music interfered. He finally lost his temper and said: "Call the cops on them," and left in a not-so-seasonal huff -- vague or otherwise. I wished him a sincere "Merry Christmas," which must have sounded ironic to him. It wasn't.

The man of the house across the street saw our exchange and came over to talk with me when my visitor left. We exchanged pleasantries and talked about the neighborhood. He then invited me to join them for dinner around 11 that night. 
Omar also invited me to his father-in-law's house for dinner around 11 or midnight and to join in the festivities with Yoana's family.

That sounds late for dinner to our northern ears. But the tradition is to attend midnight mass on Christmas Eve and then return home to eat dinner in the early hours of Christmas Day. Some families give mass a miss and head straight to the dinner table around midnight. That is my neighbors' tradition.

As you would anticipate, the music filled the air for the full day -- and night as it would turn out. Guests started arriving in the late evening.

For the rest of the night, the music was punctuated by the sound of fireworks that shook the doors in my house. At midnight, the music switched to a celebratory four-bar coda played by the local town band at various events. (I really need to ask about it source.) At the end of each fanfare, a barrage of fireworks were fired off sounding and looking like World War Two footage of the siege missiles at Leningrad.

I had no idea how they could be lit that quickly. Around 1 I wandered across the street to at least make an appearance. I asked my host about the fireworks. He proudly pulled out his telephone to show me a video of what had happened.

They own a burn barrel (a repurposed 55-gallon oil drum) that sits on the edge of the street, Keeping with its name, a fire was burning at the bottom. In the video, a guest carries a large box of fireworks to the barrel, dumps them in, and we have our own reenactment of the finale of The Overture of 1812. The paper in the street this morning once served as wrappers for the fireworks.

And still the music played on as the guests ate, drank, and celebrated. Even with my fan on full, I may as well have stayed at the party because the music was loud enough as if I were listening at my neighbor's house. (I suspect that was the subtext of my invitation: "You may as well be here.") It finally stopped around 6, and I was able to get three hours of sleep.

Now, I am curious, as you read this account, which of two moods it put you in. Were you upset that neighbors could be that noisy? Or were you tempted to join in, if not the party itself, the celebratory nature of the gathered family and friends?

Not long ago, I would have probably counted myself in the first group. But I would have been a contrarian if I had because I play movies in my house at a rather high volume, and the list of music I listen to that requires high volumes (the fourth movement of Beethoven's ninth symphony, Handel's "Hallelujah" chorus from The Messiah, Wagner's "The Ride of the Valkyries") are not strangers to the house with no name.

Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments offers a thought device he called "the impartial spectator" (what we would probably call "objective") to help people see the world in a broader perspective. In the process, we divest ourselves of private concerns and learn to see the world free of the distorting lens of our self-interest.

I do not always succeed in doing that. I will confess that more than once last night I prayed for the party to draw to a conclusion.

But the party had its own story arc and I needed to drop my private concerns knowing full well that the people at the party were enjoying themselves -- and, with a bit of patience on my part, it would eventually come to an end. As it did.

So, here I sit on this cheery Christmas morning of 2020 knowing that my neighbors have welcomed in the day with high celebration. Tonight, I will have my own celebration of the day.

I will don my white tie (if I can still slip my newly-corpulent self into its confines) and have dinner at Papa Gallo's with two or three friends and acquaintances. If there will be music, it will be Guy Lombardo-soft and the fireworks will be provided by liquor-fueled political tempers. And, just like last night and this morning, I will be an impartial observer of cultures celebrating.

And that brings us back to where we began.

I wish you all a Merry Christmas in whatever method you choose to celebrate it.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

'tis the season to be silly

We do some silly things during the Christmas season.

That is not a criticism. Life needs a bit more silliness all year long. And, even though Christmas celebrates an important event, it is filled with unlimited possibilities to take our inner-silly for long walks.

After spending almost a full year of listening to people indulge in taking themselves far too seriously, it is time to let the silly times roll. And that is exactly what we did last night in our villages by the sea.

There is an ancient tradition here (started, I believe, one year ago) to tart up boats in the Christmas finery of lights and blow-up toys and to then form a sail line around the bay giving the impression that John Waters had stepped in for Admiral Nelson at Trafalgar.

I missed last year's production. But people have told me it was well-boated.

The virus has affected a lot of holiday functions this year. The boat parade was no exception. My friends Joyce and Gary invited me to watch the parade from the deck of Papa Gallo's, their restaurant in San Patricio Melaque. It was the perfect place to watch the spectacle.

We could see the boats entering the bay from the lagoon. There was a first boat -- a second -- a third -- a fourth. Nelson would have praised their formation. And then there were -- no more. Just four. But four was enough, even though two of them suffered periodic wardrobe malfunctions.

My malfunctions were just as evident. I had taken my Sony NEX-6 along with my longest telephoto lens to capture the event. I also knew shooting moving objects at night is difficult. So I set up the camera as best I could.

What I could not change is the fact that, at almost 72, I find it difficult to hold my camera with its long lens steady. I discovered that to my cost while trying to shoot the Jupiter-Saturn conjunction earlier in the week. When I looked at the results of my parade shots this morning, I was not disappointed because the blurs were exactly what I anticipated to see.

The photographs add to the gravity (measured in minus degrees) of the occasion. They are just as silly as our well-spent evening. We all laughed and clapped and hooted in appreciation for the silly moments that had entered our lives. And we were the better for it.

Sure, there is a serious side to all of this. It is not a coincidence that lights are displayed so prominently this time of year. People understand the importance of light and its symbolic power.

That is why Hanukkah with its miracle of the undying flame, Christmas with its birth of the light of the world, Diwali with its celebration of light over darkness, and even the pagan celebration of the winter solstice and the return of the light are centered around the power of light.

But we take nothing away from any of that if we also allow ourselves to celebrate that which is silly -- and to draw joy from it.

I have no doubt that God laughs when we tell him our plans, but I am just as certain that our laughter and enjoyment of life please him.

Have a silly Christmas. It may be just the remedy to pull us out of ourselves. 

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

i am not the grinch

I do not do Christmas.

For me, Christmas is just a warning that another year is almost done. And it is a great time to relax without worrying about decorations, attending parties, and shopping for gifts.

Our family stopped buying gifts for one another years ago on the theory that each of us knows what we want, and we usually buy it for ourselves when we see it. It has worked for all of us. 

The only exception is Mom. She always buys each of us several gifts from whatever inspires her on her Costco trips. I am not certain what she will do this year since she has not been able to get to her second-favorite shopping establishment (Fred Meyer being her first) in months. I guess I will find out when I arrive in Bend on 27 December.

Let's just say that I am no longer a player in the gift-giving game. Or, at least, I thought that was true.

This morning, Antonio stopped by to tend my pool. He often brings his young son Enrique with him because the schools here have been shut down for in-person instruction -- a shutdown that has already negatively impacted Mexico's students, as it has elsewhere.

Enrique was shy with me when he first came with Antonio. He would not look me directly in the eye and stayed within his dad's cocoon of protection.

But he eventually discovered that I was not one of those rumored northerners who steal children's organs, and we started chatting. He now swaggers through the door with his dad and greets me as if we were fellow-AARP members.

This morning he arrived with a plastic bag in hand and presented it to me as if I had just won an oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role in Mexico.

I assumed it was a Christmas card. And it was. Personalized by Enrique himself.

As much as I liked the card, I found the envelope even more amusing. 

I know Enrique knows my last name. He laughs every time I call myself by my last name translated into Spanish.

But he took a greater (and gfr more entertaining) twist with it. 

This is the envelope.

At first, I was puzzled. I know he knows my last name is Cotton. What is with "Estif de Martin?"

I may be old, and I may be slow, but a good joke seldom misses my attention. He was calling me Steve Martin, one of my favorite comedians of all time. What surprised me was that he not only knew the cross-cultural reference, but understood its impact.

This kid is on his way to the Mexican presidency. Or maybe something good will come of him, instead.

I am certain my Mom will give me something memorable to write about this Christmas. But Enrique's gesture of kindness will stick with me for the rest of the year.

I put the card in the library as the house's sole decoration for Christmas.

May you have many moments just as memorable.     

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

putting my affairs in order

Every cloud has a silver lining. Or, at least, a well-ordered one.

At least, that it what I have been led to believe about people who have been confined to their homes in the hope they can avoid the embraces of the virus. They speak glowingly of lists made, tables tidied, and closets cleaned.

That has not been my story arc these past few months. Instead. I have been living out the same lament that Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans: "I don't understand my own behavior - I don't do what I want to do; instead, I do the very thing I hate!"

At times, Paul had a tendency to be a drama queen. I tend to lean toward underachieving. In my case, I have great intentions to do something, and then I simply don't get around to it.

Here is a perfect example. I have a file box where I keep my important documents. Tax records. Retirement matters. Car registrations. Things of that nature.

And, of course, every transactional receipt I have received in Mexico. Proof of payment for electricity, telephone, my postal box, and appliance purchases. That may seem like overkill, but the habit saved me money and time twice recently.

Last year, I had paid for my postal box, but, when a new postmaster arrived, I was billed again. Fortunately, I had my receipt, which he examined somewhat skeptically. Without it, I would have had to pay twice.

When I lost my permanent resident card in March, I gathered up all of the documents I knew I would need. But I was thrown by one request -- a receipt proving I had paid the cost of the original card. Who would keep something like that?

It turns out the who was me. I found it buried deep in my visa file. I have no idea what would have happened if I had not found it.

That is the good side of my files. The bad side is that I seldom take the time to file individual receipts when I receive them. Instead, I stack them on top of the file box.

When I had to look for the resident card receipt, I decided I was going to set aside time to organize the two-year accretion of paperwork. Not only was it prone to avalanches, it was heavy enough that a pencil at the bottom of the pile had started to turn into a diamond. After all, I had plenty of free time in my sovereign kingdom of self-isolation.

As I noted earlier, that was March. I had placed the file box and all of the documents on the patio table -- where it dutifully sat for a week awaiting my attention. Its presence must have vexed me because I toted the lot back to its original position. And did nothing more. Until today.

What kicked my anal retentive side into gear was a comment on the Facebook edition of Mexpatriate. In i'm not a hoarder -- just a prudent housewife, I showed you a photograph of my eccentrically-stocked pantry. Marge Tyler, a well-known cook here, commented that I needed a "floor/cupboard plan for that."

She was correct. What had started as a well-organized pantry, had morphed into something far short of chaos, but it was not what I had originally planned. That is what happens when four people use the same pantry without a shared purpose.

So, I pulled everything out yesterday and started over. After four hours of re-organizing, I can say the shelves are cleaner. But the organization, even with a fresh pair of eyes, ended up looking a lot like the old plan. That was not surprising. After all, the first plan was mine, as well.

But the pantry shuffle kicked me into gear on the filing pileup. If I left it untended for too long, I would one day be found in my bedroom having suffered a hoarder's death -- when the pile toppled over on me.

Organizing the unfiled papers also gave me an opportunity to look into what has turned into something resembling Pandora's Box. There were all manner of demons lurking in the files -- some I will undoubtedly share with you in the next few days.

The project took me another four hours. What I needed to keep, I did. What I thought could be tossed was. I just hope nothing from the first slipped into the latter.

Is there a moral for all of this busy-ness? I suppose there is. Something about a stitch in time saves a horse from drinking too much water.

But morals can wait for another day. For the moment, I can feel a bit smug with myself for putting my affairs in order.

Monday, December 21, 2020

the heavens go to broadway

It has played well out of town.

The previews were well-attended. That odd song in the first act has been replaced by a standing ovation eleven o'clock number. And the stars, though aging, are at the peak of their performance.

After all of the anticipation, the show opens on Broadway tonight.

And, even though it is from another production, Sondheim caught the spirit of tonight's opening in one of his signature lyrics:

Tonight, tonight,
The world is full of light,
With suns and moons all over the place.

Tonight, tonight,
The world is wild and bright,
Going mad, shooting sparks into space.

As you already know, those metaphorical "suns and moons all over the place" are the planets Saturn and Jupiter who have been chasing each other across the sky for the past couple of months (heavenly doings). Tonight, Jupiter will have caught up with Saturn, and, to the naked eye, they may appear as one giant planet.

I would say "one giant star," as some fantastical journalists have been writing for the past month -- attempting to hitch their work to a faux star. But, even the most romantic amongst us, know planets when we see them. Planets are wanderers. Stars are not.

Because of variances in their orbit around the sun, the planets will not really be conjoined. They will remain millions of miles apart.

Our brains, though, will do the work that the planets cannot. A telescope, or even a pair of binoculars, will give you a great view tonight. Both planets should fit in one viewing, and, with a telescope, you can concurrently see the rings of Saturn, the storms of Jupiter, and their respective moons.

Here are Steve's two hints for watching tonight's conjunction.

First, find a spot where you have an unobstructed view of the southwestern horizon. The planets will be relatively low in the sky, so, you might want to combine a sunset trip with your planet-watching because the planets will slip below the horizon relatively soon after the sun sets.

As the light from the sun dims (around 1845 to 1900), the two planets will appear just above the horizon. There is nothing more you need to do than to stand there and watch one of the great shows of the heavens. A conjunction similar to this happened in the daytime in 1623. The last one visible at night was in 1226.

When the planets exit stage right, this type of conjunction will not re-occur for another 60 years, and the conjunction will not be as close as the one tonight. Like Shakespeare's two star-crossed lovers, they will separate and be gone.

My second hint is more of a warning than a hint. Weather will play a part in whether you will be able to see the event. 

When I woke up this morning, the sky was overcast, but the cloud cover has started to break up, even though Weather Underground predicts a cloudy day. If the overhead clouds clear up, there is still one potential viewing problem. Our area has had cloud formations that obscure part of the horizon. If that is true, you may not be able to see the conjoined planets set.

But I truly hope, when the planets become visible tonight, you will be able to witness this pleasant event.

This is people's theater. Tickets are free. But the experience will be based on its value, not its cost.


Saturday, December 19, 2020

it's morning again in mexico

This is my favorite season in Mexico.

That may not be saying much.

If you search past essays of Mexpatriate, you will discover I have applied that description to almost every season, month, and week of the year. It is the equivalent of earning a gold star in kindergarten -- or, worse for an actor, a golden globe.

Each season here has its particular characteristics. Summer with its Wagnerian thunderstorms. Semana santa with its life-affirming Mexican tourists. Fall when the barcinos turn the surrounding hills into a passable impersonation of Davos.

But I have a particular fondness for these December mornings as the calendar slouches toward winter, if not Bethlehem. And it is one simple blessing that makes these December (and often January) mornings something special for me.

I am not very fond of heat. I have become far more tolerant of it after living here full-time for a dozen years. But I cannot yet say I enjoy it. Whenever I travel to less-tropical climes, I drink in as much cool weather as I can.

If I had to choose a place to live based solely on weather, I would want a place where the weather was consistently 55 degrees with overcast skies and drizzle. That may be why I thoroughly enjoyed living in Oxford. The weather was a true Mary Poppins -- practically perfect in every way.

I have never seen one of my perfect days here. But that is fine because I did not move here for the weather.

For about the past week, I have been sleeping with my bedroom door open to the patio. The temperatures have been comfortable enough that I do not need a fan sleeping on top of my bedspread.

This morning the temperature was 67 when I walked across the patio to the kitchen to brew up a pot of tea. I am now drinking it while I chat with you and listen to the village come to life. Birdsong. Buses gnashing gears. Cocks challenging cocks for territorial supremacy. What I call our morningsound.

I would enjoy those sounds even if the temperature was not as pleasant as it is. In the summer, I often wake up to days that start out in the low 80s, and the mornings are just as enjoyable with their combined heat and humidity.

In one week, I will be boarding a flight to Oregon to finish up some necessary family business that was left undone during my November visit. If I had the choice, I would not make the trip.

I was about to write that I will miss these cool mornings while I am gone. But I suspect Prineville will not surprise me with summer weather. Right now, it is 34 degrees there, heading to a high of 45. Nice shirt-sleeve weather. For me, at least. And there is no snow predicted. I am not fond of the stuff.

For now, though, I am spending the morning on the patio writing and reading.

My tea has gone cold. I need to head back into the kitchen to brew another pot.

It was nice chatting. I hope you are enjoying a similar pleasant morning -- no matter where you are.

Note -- Photograph courtesy of Chuy through Susan Fanshaw.

Friday, December 18, 2020

all will be revealed

"Already, I have, unfortunately, delayed too long. I would like to see everybody please in the salon -- when all will be revealed."

Thus did Hercule Poirot summon his fellow passengers (and murder suspects) for the denouement of Death on the Nile

It is time I did the same.

Yesterday in mystery in the kitchen, I challenged you to put on your sleuth hats to discover why I did not find my just-cooked Mexican porcupine meatballs to be very satisfying. Just like Agatha Christie, I presented you with a likely list of suspects:

  • ground pork instead of  hamburger
  • arborio instead of long-grain rice
  • cilantro instead of parsley
  • omitting pan-grilled cumin seeds
  • omitting fish sauce and honey for umami
  • substituting cumin for oregano
  • adding serrano and habanero
  • the spice combination of cinnamon, paprika, and ground cloves
  • the cooking method -- my adored Instant Pot

They were all likely suspects, and everybody who enjoyed their roles as Jane Marple had a go at almost all of the suspects, just as any Agatha Christie mystery would. The discussion on the Facebook version of Mexpatriate was even more lively. I tossed out several well-disguised clues to keep the discussion going.

I was impressed not only with everyone's enthusiasm (I shouldn't have been; almost everyone enjoys solving a good mystery), but also with the mix of intelligence and wit in the responses. You are a clever lot worthy of being dinner companions. 

I will confess that these two essays drew their inspiration from Neil Simon's delightful sendup of murder mystery movies -- Death by Murder. In the denouement, the host to the murder mystery, Lionel Twain (yes, it is that type of script), chides his movie detective guests:

You've all been so clever for so long. You've tricked and fooled your readers for years. You've tortured us with surprise endings that make no sense. . . . You've withheld clues and information that made it impossible for us to guess who did it."  

On Facebook, I asked one of the guest sleuths, who was getting very close to solving this minor food mystery, to remember her Aristotle. Go back to first principles. What would be the first question a good cook would ask before preparing a meal for himself? Or, more accurately, what would I ask? Because that is the answer to the mystery.

Agatha Christie loved diverting her reader's attention to the extraneous. She would then pull out one obscure inference and build her climax around it.

Just like I did. My hint was: "Almost everyone likes porcupine meatballs."

The answer is not in the ingredients added or omitted nor in the cooking method. I neglected to tell you that two Mexican friends thought the dish was perfect. One asked for seconds. The other for thirds. From an objective standpoint, the food was fine. (Even though I think the addition of either rice vinegar or the fish sauce-honey mixture would have improved it.)

With my first bite, I knew immediately what I had failed to do. I had not asked myself: "Why are you making meatballs? You have never liked meatballs."

And that is true. I cannot tell you why, but I have never been fond of them. I have had all sorts of meatballs throughout the world. Swedish meatballs. Meatballs on pasta. Lamb keftedes in Greece. And in all manners of soups.

Perhaps, the more important question is posed by Marcus Aurelius. "Of each particular thing, ask: What is it in itself, in its own constitution? What is its causal nature?" To paraphrase the emperor, why on Earth do I not like meatballs? They are an international culinary first principle.

I remember asking Susan, a one-time girlfriend, why she did not like the taste of something. I do not remember what it was. But I do recall her answer: "You are too analytical. I just don't like it." 

It turned out that she eventually did not like me, either. And she had a long list of analytical reasons to support her opinion.

But, in the matter of the meatballs, I will steal her first answer. I just do not like them.

And thus is our mystery solved. I am just going to have to live with the realization that no matter how I cook them, meatballs are always going to be a flat experience for me.

Thursday, December 17, 2020

mystery in the kitchen

Several readers have asked me to write about some of my food disasters in my kitchen.

I have had more than a few. My lunch this afternoon was a perfect example.

To make my telling of the tale a little more interesting, I will sprinkle clues here and there as to why my Mexican porcupine meatballs are not going to go on my Things To Try Again list. It will be up to you to crack the mystery.

Almost everyone likes porcupine meatballs -- those orbs of ground animal flesh spiked with rice. And like all meatball recipes, they are a perfect stage to experiment with the sauce they swim in. Traditionally, they are flavored by a subtly-seasoned tomato sauce. But I have had them in beef gravy, barbeque sauce, and even a well-executed wasabi-ginger topping.

Because my kitchen is in Mexico, I try to add some Mexican flavors to take the meatballs where no meatball, in this case, has gone before.

Most porcupine meatballs start with hamburger, long-grain white rice, and parsley. I altered that trio with ground pork (because Mexican pork is superb, especially ground), arborio rice (the type you would use in a good-quality risotto), and (of course) cilantro. Eggs and onion rounded out the meatballs.

For the sauce, I decided to wander down tomato lane. I had just found some vine-ripened romas. Usually, I cannot find flavorful tomatoes here. These looked delicious, and would form the basis for the sauce. Along with a serrano and an habanero. I said the dish was going to be Mexican. Or Mexican-ish. 

Herbs and spices would pull the dish together. Oregano and tomatoes are a natural combination here in Mexico, as they are elsewhere. But I wanted to use some spicy paprika, cinnamon, and ground cloves to complement the pork, and oregano is not the best companion with those spices. Instead, I opted for the Mexican staple -- cumin. (Had I really thought out this dish, I would have added roasted cumin seeds to the meatball mixture.)

For some reason, this seemed to be the perfect dish to cook in my Instant Pot. Like most new small appliances, I used my Instant Pot once or twice a week when I first bought it. It has now sat orphaned on a kitchen shelf for several months -- for no particular reason. So, I pressed it into service this afternoon.

Urvashi Pitre, the queen of Instant Pot cooking, taught me an umami trick. When cooking with pork, the addition of a mixture of fish sauce and honey will add that elusive fifth taste. I considered adding my own umami mixture (worcestershire sauce and fish sauce), but I let the moment pass unrealized.

A half hour later, I was tasting my first sample of Mexican porcupine meatballs. There is no hiding the fact that I was disappointed. They were not quite a culinary disaster, but they were not a success, either. The best description? The dish was a bit flat.

OK, culinary sleuths. This is your opportunity to shine. You have a list of clues and a mystery to solve. Why did I not like my meatballs?

One additional hint. Agatha Christie readers should see right through this.

The page is yours.


Tuesday, December 15, 2020

i'm not a hoarder -- just a prudent housewife

Last night around midnight, I needed something to eat.

I had not eaten much for dinner. Just a handful of keto-inspired pepperoni and parmesan snacks I baked up for myself. I had not been very hungry.

The real hunger hit me after about two hours of reading. Because I had planned another two hours of reading, I decided to search the kitchen for something quick. 

The refrigerator was bereft of leftovers -- with the exception of some freshly-made salsa mexicana and a salad dressing I had put together that evening. But a salad did not interest me.

Instead, I went to the place where I go when the need for a quick meal arises. My pantry. There were plenty of options. I finally decided on a can of pork and beans dressed up with two slices of thick bacon, two serranos, some cherry tomatoes, scrambled eggs, and lots of onion. Plus a big dollop of my salsa mexicana.

The combination hit the spot. Maybe too well. After about a half-hour, I put down my Kindle and drifted off to sleep -- where I dreamt of zombie weddings with Illuminati subtexts.

The sight of my pantry reminded me of a Facebook comment fellow-blogger Gary Denness (he of The Mexile fame) wrote the other day dealing with pantries. In the midst of a Brexit discussion, he reminded Brexiteers that one of the reasons Britain joined the European Common Market was to alleviate food shortages that had plagued Britain since the end of the Second World War.

He also recounted a story that when Margaret Thatcher was seeking the leadership of the Conservatives in 1974, she had been subjected to what the British considered to be a "dirty trick." According to her biographer Charles Moore, Mrs. Thatcher had been interviewed by an obscure magazine, Pre-Retirement Choice. She commented that she was following her mother's war-time practice of buying food and linens for future use. She bought them when they were on sale with an eye to avoiding inflation and the impending sugar shortage.

Her political enemies turned the interview into a political bludgeon. In 1970s Britain (whose economy was teetering on third-world aspirations) was a place of food shortages. Her enemies styled her activity as hoarding -- which was one step lower on the social scale than being a child-molester.

I had just arrived in Britain (partly because of Mrs. Thatcher leadership challenge) and found the upheaval a bit charming from my American perspective. After all, my country had just toppled a president for something a bit more risible than slipping an extra can of sardines out of the White House mess.

But it was not the politics that interested me as much as the list of the cans the newspapers found in her cupboards when Mrs. Thatcher invited reporters into her kitchen to prove she was not a hoarder. Here it is, as reported by The Daily Express:

  • Eight pounds of granulated sugar
  • One pound of icing sugar "for Christmas"
  • Six jars of jam
  • Six jars of marmalade
  • Six jars of honey
  • Six tins of salmon "to make salmon mousse"
  • Four 1lb. cans of corned beef
  • Four 1lb. cans of ham
  • Two 1lb. cans of tongue
  • One tin of mackerel
  • Four tins of sardines
  • Two 1lb. jars of Bovril
  • Twenty tins of various fruits
  • "One or two" tins of vegetables '‘but we don't really like them from a tin"

As the daughter of a grocer, she came across as a defender of the middle class against the ravages of inflation families faced every day. Her ultimate defense was a home run: "I'm not a hoarder -- just a prudent housewife."

In many ways, my mother is an American version of Margaret Thatcher -- especially in having a well-stocked pantry for the vagaries of the future. The America I grew up in did not have the national food shortages that post-war Britain had. America has long been an exporter of food to the rest of the world.

But, our kitchen always had a supply of about six months of food to tide us over natural or economic disasters. And they did occur. As a child of the Depression, her instincts often crossed the border into hoarding.

I now live in a country that has long aspired to grow enough food to feed its people. It has been an unrealized dream for every Mexican administration.

The first problem was the number of mouths to feed. Between emigration and the fact that Mexico's birthrate has been lowered to an almost-replacement level, the demand side of the equation has been mostly resolved.

It is the supply side that is the problem. Even with the most innovative new agricultural procedures and with irrigation projects causing the desert to bloom, Mexico cannot produce enough of its own food. But international trade (especially through NAFTA) helps fill that gap.

And that is why my pantry is filled with cans (both Mexican and foreign) that help tide me over on midnight raids to the kitchen -- or when hurricanes close the local stores -- or when I run out of pesos for the month.

Mom has taught me well. Because, for all of our food abundance, it is sometimes good to be a "prudent housewife."

Monday, December 14, 2020

seeing life through new eyes

Reality is a tricky thing.

What each of us perceives as the "real" world may vary wildly. A Buddhist, a Baptist, and a Baháʼí will look at the same event, and see it quite differently. Our faiths, our biases, our fallibilities all inform how we view and think about our existence.

The philosophical divide between "facts" and "truth" is just one example. When Professor Jones, in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, tells his students, "Archaeology is the search for fact. Not truth. If it's truth you're interested in, Doctor Tyree's Philosophy class is right down the hall." 

Oddly, that is the same defense Peter Morgan, the screenwriter of The Crown, made when the British Culture Minister suggested the series should include a disclaimer on each episode that it is fiction, not a documentary. Morgan admitted that the very nature of the series requires a good deal of speculation and fiction. After all, no one is taking notes when Queen Betty and Prince Phil are discussing their romantic desires behind closed doors.

So far, so good. But he then went one step further by concluding he believed what he was portraying was essentially true.

Facts always suffer in the arts. The artist is trying to convey something deeper than a mere recitation of facts. Even photographers manipulate their framing to convey a purpose beyond what can be seen with the eye.

That is true for all of society. Ministers. Spouses. Children. Politicians. We all try to marshal and manipulate facts for our own purposes. 

But there is a tiny portion of life that theoretically relies on facts. The scientific method is designed to make some sense of the material world by making an observation; formulating a question; forming a hypothesis, or testable explanation; making a prediction based on the hypothesis; testing the prediction, and then iterating the result by using the results to make new hypotheses or predictions.

The fundamental assumption in science is that no question is finally answered. The greatest limitation is that the method's scope is limited to matters material. It will tell us a lot of facts, but it can never explain a daughter's love or a Shakespearean sonnet. In other words, science, by its very nature is a stranger to philosophical truth.

I thought about that on Saturday. Saturday is one of the two days Dora stops by to help me clean the house with no name. (Wednesday is the other. If you are like me, whenever I hear a comparative, I fixate on what the other half of the comparison might be, and I lose focus on what I am reading.) She brought her 10-year old son Leo with her. My friend Ozzie had stopped by to help me trim my palm fronds.

I was sitting at the table in the patio finishing up my Saturday communique to you when I looked up at the eave of one of the pavilions on the upper terrace. Something darker than the ivory paint was hanging there.

For most of the summer, Jan Golik, a reader of the Facebook version of Mexpatriate, has been regaling us with the tales of Baggy the Bagworm. If you do not know what a bagworm is (or even if you do), it is the caterpillar form of a moth. Most butterflies and moths are most interesting in their adult form as they flit through our lives. But the bagworm moth is at its best in its caterpillar stage.

Caterpillars are nearly at the bottom of the food chain as they wander around munching on our landscaping. Some have developed rather nasty stings that make scorpions look domesticated. The bagworm goes one step further.

It disguises itself as a bit of natural detritus by first spinning silk and then attaching dried plant parts, sand, or lichen to the silk. The intended result is to look about as appetizing as an Oxxo sandwich.

Because I had spent so much time this summer being regaled by Jan's stories, I thought I had my own personal bagworm. Now, that theory was a bit implausible. Bagworms usually attach themselves to a plant for easy access to food. And any bagworm attaching itself to the eaves of my house would be far from food and on its way to an evolutionary cul-de-sac.

Applying the scientific method, I had made an observation, asked my question, formed a hypothesis, and made a prediction. What I needed to do now was to test my theory. So, I climbed the stairs to the upper terrace and stood below staring at it.

I was a little disappointed. It was obviously not a bagworm. It was too thin.

So, I iterated my conclusion. If it was not a bagworm, what was it? And why was it so still. Dora and Ozzie saw me looking up and came over to see what I was looking at. They offered their own hypothesis. "Es una hoja." It's a leaf.

That was plausible. It looked like one of the dried leaves from my cup-of-gold vines. They blow everywhere when they drop.

Leo then joined us. He looked puzzled when Ozzie told him it was a leaf. Leo then asked a question that reiterates the reason a child was chosen by "The Emperor's New Clothes" to point out the emperor was naked.

"What is a leaf doing up there?" Indeed, why. And how could it possibly be stuck on the eave.

Leo's question caused me to look at whatever it was with a new perspective -- without the expectation that I was looking at a leaf. The solution was then simple.

"It's a butterfly," I announced with a little too much smugness that I hope was disguised in my terrible Spanish. All three looked at me sceptically. Having announced my hypothesis, I used Dora's broom to create a small breeze.

The leaf morphed into a butterfly, spread its wings, and floated to another eave that would offer some solitude from these three pesky and officious beings who were intent on disturbing its siesta.

That the butterfly was not a leaf is a scientific fact, and its ability to disguise itself as a withered leaf no tastier than a well-disguised bagworm is also a scientific fact.

What science cannot tell us are the deeper truths of butterflies. Why they play different roles in different cultures -- the minions of Satan in some, the protectors of lovers in others Or why the very sight of them can change a mundane morning into a moment of magic that can then morph into an essay. Poetry can never answer the questions posed by poetry.

But poetry may help science in that quest.That may be what T.S. Eliot meant when he wrote in "Four Quartets":

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

For me, that passage has always echoed the Shaker hymn with its reminder and promise:

'Tis the gift to be simple,
'tis the gift to be free,
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be

The scientific method, just like poetry and art, often leads us back to where we started and allows us to know that place for the first time. 

And somet
imes we find ourselves exactly where we ought to be -- having peace at the center.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

living in place

"Where are you off to now?"

It was a Canadian friend I had not seen for almost a year. He had just arrived in Barra de Navidad and was convinced that I must have some exotic trip planned. Winter is usually when I leave Mexico to explore new places.

But not this year. With the exception of two more trips to Oregon in the next three months to help Mom and a Vancouver to Tokyo cruise planned for September, my dance card is empty.

He was surprised to hear that I had grounded myself. Or, rather, that the virus had. 

When he asked if that bothered me, I thought for a moment and honestly answered: "No. I have plenty to keep me amused staying around this area of Mexico. I spend most of my time in my house on the patio or in the pool."

I thought about that conversation this morning while eating breakfast and reading the newspaper on the patio. As much as I enjoy travel, I have come to appreciate the simple pleasures of my life here.

I bought the house with no name almost exclusively because I liked its Barragánesque design. Simplicity. Introverted. And those glorious straight lines that create the myth that life is more ordered than it is. With my green tea and those lines highlighted in the morning light, I could almost imagine myself in Tokyo -- or Madrid.

If the current vaccine program turns out to be as effective as the scientists are predicting and the public is hoping, it is not unlikely that I will be sailing from the shores of Vancouver to Hokkaido in just over nine months.

Until then, I can (and will) be content with the simple pleasures of my patio.

Saturday, December 12, 2020

heavenly doings


If you have been confined in your house because of the virus (or even if you have been out partying every night), I have free tickets for a show that is worth seeing.

And you do not need to drive anywhere for the performance. All you need to do is walk outside and look up.

The show comes in two acts. The first will be the largest meteor shower of the year, know as the Geminids. Each December Earth passes through a cloud of dust and rocks left by a -- well, no one is quite certain. Maybe the remnants of an asteroid or a comet flameout. Think of it as space garbage.

The source is not as important as the result. When Earth passes through the cloud, all of that prosaic material is turned into poetry. Flaming poetry. If you are fortunate, you may even see the rather rare (but often unseen) sight of a meteor during the day.

Some of you will have already noticed the uptick in meteor activity. Earth entered the cloud on 4 December and will exit it on 17 December. But the really big shew (as Ed Sullivan would have it) will be on the night of 13 December (around 8:30 or so) and into the morning of 14 December.

The scientists who calculate the potential number of meteors that can be observed in one hour must be related to the government economists who estimate annual economic growth. They tend to be a little too optimistic.

The numbers I have seen in the science publications (rather than the popular press) are as high as 120 per hour. 60 is more common. 60 seems about right, based on my own observations each year.

The usual tips apply. 
  • Find a dark place with as little artificial light as possible that also affords a wide view of the sky from horizon to horizon.
  • Lie on your back. It will give you a broader field of fire -- or observation, in this case.
  • Let your eyes adjust to the dark. That will take about 30 minutes. You will then be able to see the faintest of lights in the sky.
  • Do not look at your telephone. The light will reset your night vision to almost zero.
  • Take a loved one with you. This is an experience not to be enjoyed solo.

That will be act one of Heavens on Parade.

Act two has been building expectations for months. Saturn has been trying to catch up with Jupiter in a race filled with Oedipal overtones (Saturn being Jupiter's son in Roman mythology). 

On 21 December, Saturn will draw close enough to form a "conjunction." Not the grammar type (you know: and, but, or, for, nor, so, yet), but the astronomical sort. 
An astronomical conjunction occurs when planets appear incredibly close to one another in the sky because they are lining up with Earth in their respective orbits.

Those models of the solar system we saw in grade school really are accurate. The planets line up on a single plane. No one knows the real reason why. The theory is that all of the bodies in our solar system formed from the same disc of matter. The planets merely adopted the faded shape of the disc for their orbits.

The exception was Pluto -- with its eccentric elliptical orbit playing catastrophic dodgeball with Neptune. But, having been demoted (it already was a minor Disney character), Pluto is no longer a planet orbit exception.  

The popular press has overhyped this conjunction as "Christmas star" because the planets will be so close together as to appear as one. But that is not true.

The two planets will be as close together as they have been since 1623, but there will still be a discernible space between them.

The 1623 conjunction was not the first for Jupiter and Saturn. A series of major conjunctions of Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars in 6 and 5 BC may be the explanation for the "star" the eastern wizards followed as part of the Messiah story. The timing is plausible.

Just as a side note, the biggest festival on the Roman calendar was
 Saturnalia -- the worship of Saturn with gift-giving, revelry, feasting, and role reversals. When Christianity was recognized as an official religion (rather than as a target to promote further hagiographies), one of the first thing the church did was to substitute Christmas for Saturnalia. Like most hostile takeovers, the form changed, but the old substance remained, though role reversals seem to be restricted to teen-parent switcheroos in the movies.

To give the pagans their due, 21 December coincidentally is the winter solstice. Toss in a dose of astrology, and the crystal set will be ready for a true Yule (used in its original pagan sense) -- or maybe even the first day of Festivus with its Airing of Grievances.

So, there will be a lot to think about on the evening of 21 December as you look up at what is simply two planets who have crossed each other's paths, like Shakespeare's "star-crossed lovers," while spinning around the sun.

Whatever construct you build around that event, don't miss the simple poetry of creation.

And that loved one who you took to the Geminids show? Hook up again. It will be a good night to look at stars in each other's eyes after watching them in the sky.  

Friday, December 11, 2020

two turtledoves, and a --

I am living the Twelve Days of Christmas.

Not the theological count between Christmas and the appearance of the magi on Epiphany, but the song. In the religious tradition of my youth, such concepts as advent, lent, and Epiphany existed in some far-off intellectual realm inhabited by such exotic beings as Episcopalians, Catholics, and Methodists. But they were foreign to me.

Not so with the Christmas carol. I can recall singing "The Twelve Days of Christmas" at a school assembly when I was in the first grade -- along with a lot of messiah-centric tunes. It is that song, or part of it, that I am now living in the house with no name.

As far as I know, I have not been visited by ten lords a leaping, even though I often see that number of northern tourists a drinking. And the six geese a laying have  been reduced to four in my neighbors yard. I suspect it was a matter of economic redundancy.

The house with no name is now playing host to an avian nursery. I told you about the untimely death of the fledgling ground dove two days ago in fowl deeds. Having lost one child, mother ground dove is back on her nest in the cup-of-gold vine. And there is another rock dove a sitting on a nest in the tangle of a second vine.

I had no idea that doves were this prolific. I suppose they have to be. They occupy a rung on the food chain ladder that is just above krill. It is probably good for all of us that raccoons, cats, hawks, and young boys find them such easy targets. Otherwise, we would be neck-deep in them -- along with rabbits.

Two years ago, a pair of Eurasian collared doves set up housekeeping in one of my Queen Anne palms. It was the usual breeding cycle. Nest. Eggs. Two nestlings. Two fledglings. Lots of bird poop. And then everyone was gone.

But not for long. Within a month, the same pair (or another) set up their little hot-sheet motel again. Two more teenage doves eventually left home.

I do not know how many doves have popped out of that nest and into the sky. Maybe five or six broods. But the breeding pair is back again.

Months ago I took down the nest because the frequent bird eliminations were dissolving the paint on my staircase. That did not dissuade them. Eurasian collared doves are survivors. They even tried driving out the ground doves that were so bold with their territory.

This time they dispensed with a nest and just used the crotch where a palm frond joins the trunk. Whenever I would walk by on the upper terrace, I could see their dovey sneer as if to say: "You're not my dad."

Homelessness has not minimized the doves' fecundity. Two fledglings have now advanced into their teen years. They spend almost all of the day on the frond that was part of their un-home, occasionally making brief flights, but always returning to see what is in the refrigerator.

I am easily amused. But they provide something else. A bit of Christmas spirit.

After all, who can claim that he actually has two turtledoves? And I will bet there is a partridge around here somewhere.

Perhaps mother rock dove would be willing to cross-dress for the role.

Thursday, December 10, 2020

faulty faucets


I should consider a career as a bureaucrat. Roads and Streets, I think.

Of course, I will not do that. I am far too content in my life of retirement. But I am certainly qualified for the position.

Last October, I invited Tracye Ross of Crazy Cactus to give me an estimate on painting my house (painting the dead). While we were inspecting what needed to be painted, she noted that one of the faucets on the upper terrace was dripping water. Before I could say fau
lty washer, a plumber arrived and installed a new faucet that seemed to stop the dripping ooze.

Well, it didn't. Our water contains a lot of extraneous substances, including various salts. The wall started looking like the Alvord Desert within weeks and was colored by the rust and pond scum that must have been lingering in the pipes. 

Tracye sent another plumber to the rescue. He took off the new faucet and looked at the pipe. When he looked up at me with that same look of pity and resignation that doctors show just before announcing: "I am afraid it is the worst," I knew this was not going to be good news for my newly-painted walls.

He suspected that there was a crack or hole in the pipe inside the wall. That would mean gouging out the plaster on the wall to replace the offending pipe.

That was last summer. The pipe remains exposed only for one reason. Tracye wanted to wait until the rainy season passed by before repairing the leaky tiles on the upper terrace. She would deal with the wall then.

And how is that similar to my imagined stint as a planner at Roads and Streets? We all know that being successful in such a position is to plan the re-paving of roads just weeks before Sewer and Water decides to lay new pipe. The newly-paved roads are dug up, the sewer and water guys do their thing, and the roads get re-paved. Just like my wall.

I am in no real rush to repair the wall, but repairing the leaky tiles is a priority before the rains return. And that will not be for about another six months.

So, we will all enjoy a relaxed Christmas, and deal with these two projects sometime in January or February. By that time, something new will occur here, and I can dig it out and have a third painting of my walls.

Digging up roads is merely tax dollars. Continually painting my walls is just my pension being put to good use.

Wednesday, December 09, 2020

fowl deeds

I love a good mystery.

When I lived in Britain, one of the first plays I saw in London was The Mousetrap -- Agatha Christie's contribution to putting tourist bums in seats. Despite knowing the play's limitations, I went because I had seen most of the Agatha Christie works that had been filmed. And Then There Were None actually made me a bit anxious when people would leave a room claiming they would be "right back."

Each morning, I bring my computer out to the patio table to chat with you. Instead of finding an empty table this morning, I discovered -- a clue. Several clues, really. There were seven feathers massed together in the center of the table. As if some devil cult had been performing its rites outside my bedroom door. 

I discarded that possibility as unlikely. But, why were they there? And what had happened?

Having asked the questions every mystery writer asks, I went into Hercule Poirot mode. The feathers were easy to identify. Six of them were pinions -- wing feathers that provide lift for flight. The seventh was a lighter body feather.

The source of the feathers was just as easy to identify. They were dark brown with a tinge of reddish-brown at the tips. They had once belonged to a ground dove. And based on the small size of the feathers, it was a very young ground dove.

With a quick look around, I found four more pinions on the patio floor and three on the stairs that lead to the upper terrace. That would indicate whatever happened to the fledgling rock dove occurred over a wide area of the patio.

I get very few points for detective work up to this point. There are two ground dove moms that have been sitting on eggs in two of my four cup-of-gold vines. I would occasionally see one of the chicks that was too large for the nest, who would hide in the tangle of the vine while I did my landscaping cleanup.

That fledgling is no longer hiding in the vine. It is possible it has flown off, though the avian detritus on the patio would indicate other possibilities. So, what are those possibilities?

Agatha Christie would have a quick answer. It was murder fowl. Some unknown being dispatched the young dove.

The strewn feathers are certain evidence of a struggle. The little dove thrashing so desperately to avoid the clutches of her attacker that she shed her newly-developed flight feathers. The body feather shows that the predator had a tight grasp on the little dove's body.

What was missing was the body. Mystery writers have great fun by distorting the corpus delicti rule into a mythical "no body, no crime" outcome. But murders are occasionally prosecuted without the discovery of a body. The case is merely difficult to prove. Not impossible.

Now, to the question of who was the predator. Who would remove the body? To what end?

We are without clues at this point. A cat would be an obvious culprit. I saw one slinking through the neighbor's garage last night.

But it could have just as easily been a raccoon, a hawk, or a coatimundi. I will give the opossum a pass. If the crime was egg theft, he would be heading the police line-up.

On pure speculation, I would arrest Señor Gato, though I lack probable cause. And cats are notorious for not breaking under interrogation. They usually blame the dog, and dogs will admit to things they have never done because their first ancestor was Catholic.

But I have a far different theory. Based on the same set of facts, and putting Occam's Razor to an eccentric purpose, I have a theory.

Having heard that my house was a nursery for ground doves, a wandering wizard slipped onto my patio last night in the faint glow of a waning crescent moon -- a most propitious time for matters magical. He coaxed the young dove to the patio table with his witty wizard ways ("Do you come here often?; "What's your sign?"), held out his wizard staff, and -- poof! She was transformed into a hairy hobbit who would go on to star in an interminable series of films that make some viewers ask: "Why couldn't this be about something interesting? Like a fledgling ground dove."

Now, I do not know how scientific my alternate reading of the clues is, but I am certain Agatha Christie would lobby for the police to confiscate my computer before I did further damage to her work.

But, if this really was a Christie parody, I would have withheld the most important clue until the salon denouement when the identity of the murderer is revealed. I am not going to do that for two reasons. First, I find the technique to be nothing more than reader manipulation. Second, there is no revealing clue.

This is not a contrived novel. It is musical comedy. No. It is not that, either. It is as Elliott ironically retorted in ET: "This is reality, Greg."

And so it is. Of course, Christie gets the last word because it is true. At least, for that ground dove nest, then there were none.  

Tuesday, December 08, 2020

"eating chili peppers could add years to your life"

Not all news is bad in the newspaper today.

That headline about chili peppers has put a bounce in my step. My consumption of chilies now has two justifications.

First, they add layers to almost every food. Nacho, the cook at Rooster's restaurant in San Patricio Melaque, and I have experimented with my love of chilies over the years. One of our favorite creations is a pancake filled with jalapeño, onion, and bacon -- called, of course, pancake de Estiv. (The oatmeal with 
jalapeño, onion, and bacon was not quite as successful.)

Second, if I play my peppers correctly, I may end up playing the real-life role of Same Jaffe in Lost Horizon. Just by continuing my daily consumption of Mexico's best agricultural product.

I long ago realized that journalists (and especially headline writers) understand very little about their trade when reporting on matters scientific. When scientific studies are released to the public, newspapers, and especially television, will start brandying about claims that sound as if they should be on late-night infomercials.

You know the type. "Drinking red wine cures heart disease." "Fat causes diabetes." "Buying knives with names that sound Japanese will improve your cooking to the point that your guests will believe Wolfgang Puck works in your kitchen." Well, maybe not that last one. But you get my point.

The article in today's newspaper, whose headline announces "eating chili peppers could add years to your life," promises quite a lot more than the actual study delivers. I will give the headliner credit for that precatory "could" rather than the over-hyped and expected "will."

The American Heart Association recently issued a study that synthesized data from a number of other studies in several countries. The conclusion was that regularly consuming chili peppers is "associated with a 25% reduction in death from any cause." The study specifically examined the effects of chilies on heart disease and cancer, finding that chili-chomping "may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease by 26% and cancer by 23% compared to people who never or only rarely consumed chili pepper." 

That sounds good until you notice that the promised result of spicing up your diet has now migrated from the headline's "could" to the scientific "associated with" and "may." 

Why the difference in language? It is not until the end of the article that we discover what we all should know about these studies. The news media always promise more than what the scientific studies actually provide.

The report's senior author, the delightfully named Dr. Bo Xu, is quite clear in what should have been the second sentence of the newspaper article. "The exact reasons and mechanisms remain unknown. Researchers cannot conclusively say that chili pepper consumption can lead to a longer and healthier life."

Of course, they can't. Dr. Bo Xu is simply repeating the scientific maxim that correlation does not imply causation -- a maxim every journalist who writes about science should be required to write 10,000 on a chalkboard before writing his first story on science. Just as journalists who write about law matters cannot distinguish between a "not guilty" and an "innocent" finding.

Like almost of these studies, it concludes with "more research is required."

Two years ago, a chili-eating contest was held in Barra de Navidad. The organizer of the event was promoting his products made from home-grown chilies. Some of them very exotic.

When I met with the organizers last year to plan that year's events, we decided the emphasis was wrong. We wanted to advertised how chili peppers can enhance food, not how "dangerous" they were for the frat-boy gulping set.

I love the taste of chilies. Each variety has a completely different taste that pairs well with different foods. Gelatin with mango and serranos. Roast pork and habaneros. Chicken enchiladas with jalapeños. The possibilities are almost endless.

As for me, I am going to follow the study's admonition to continue my own research. The study indicates that if there any life-extending benefits in eating chilis, the subject would need to eat chili peppers at least four times per week.

If that is true, my daily consumption of two or three chilli peppers may mean that I am still going to be downing habaneros sometime in the late 2090s. 

I may yet be cast in Sam Jaffe's role.

Monday, December 07, 2020

mexican sty pie

Almost every cuisine has one. A dish made from yesterday's leftovers.

Hash. Pork fried rice. French toast. All had their origins in repurposing food from the day (or more) before. Most have now become dishes in their own right (even though pork fried rice prepared with fresh rice does not quite work).

A week ago, I was thumbing through The Oregonian when a recipe headline caught my attention. "Mexican shepherd's pie." I am always on the outlook for new food ideas. And the incongruity of a Mexican version of England's signature leftover dish had possibilities. On its face.

As is often the case, the recipe did not live up to its title. The only thing Mexican in the list of ingredients was the addition of a small amount of chipotle chilies.

But the idea was fascinating. What would a Mexican cook do with the building blocks of Shepherd's pie? The combination is rather simple. Mashed potatoes, meat, an array of readily-available vegetables, and a roux-based sauce. Certainly those elements could be translated into something that echoed fiestas and clear, blue skies.

Here we will stop for a short anecdote. Somewhere in the 1990s, my friend Hilary and I were dining in a pub in northern England. I had developed a certain fondness for shepherd's pie during the years I lived there and on subsequent annual visits. So, I was happy to see shepherd's pie listed on the pub's chalkboard.

When it arrived, Hilary insisted on taking a bite. A look crossed her face combining disappointment and disgust with just a hint of moral indignation. "I thought so," said she. "This is not shepherd's pie; it is cottage pie."

And that is how I learned that this dish takes its name from the meat inside. If it is lamb, it is shepherd's pie. If it is beef, it is cottage pie. Having been mommed on the topic, it was a lesson I would not forget.

It is very difficult to get lamb in my village. And I was not particularly inclined to use beef.

The meat almost chose itself. Mexican pork is some of the best pork I have tasted in the world. It often tends to toughness, but in its ground form, it would be a good starter for my re-designed Mexican dish.

If lamb lends its character to shepherd's pie, my pork version could logically be called Mexican sty pie. And so it is.

I briefly toyed with the idea of swapping out the mashed potatoes for something else to serve as the equivalent of the pie's crust. I am not very fond of mashed potatoes.

Because I have corn meal, I thought about using it for the crust. But this was not going to be a tamale pie (even though that may be a good idea for the future). By default, I whipped up a bowl of mashed potatoes.

The trick to dressing up John Bull as Pancho Villa was going to be found in the vegetables. They were a far easier choice.

I had a lot of them on hand. Peas, carrots, onion, garlic, corn, and bell peppers. For a Mexican touch, I added tomatoes, black beans, a couple of those small zucchinis that put their northern giants to shame, habanero, serranoes, and chipotle. If I had had a chayote or two on hand, I would have added them. I have always considered the vegetables to be the most important part of the pie.

Then came the sauce. Because it is roux-based, it will not mix well with all spices and herbs. But it worked perfectly with oregano and a large dose of cumin -- two of the standard Mexican flavors. I also browned the pork along with fried whole cumin seeds.

When my friend Colette was in the catering business, she would refer to yesterday's process as puttery -- a dish that consumes time. And I did putter yesterday. From the moment of the first strip of peel came off of a potato to setting the dish on the counter to set after its staycation in the oven was just over two hours. Had I used leftovers, it would have taken no more than a half-hour.

The result? It looked delicious.

But, as is everything in life, looks often lean to deceit. The flavors were well-layered. More importantly, they complemented one another. But even with the chilies and the cumin, it lacked any zip.

This has happened to me before. I tend to like the idea of a food far more than I like the food itself. The building blocks of the dish tend toward nursing home food. Trying to tart it up does not change its basic nature.

When Hilary completed her tutorial on the naming of things, I reached for a bottle of HP sauce -- the traditional accompaniment to shepherd's (or cottage) pie. She looked me in the eye, and with a tone that she very well may be concealing a derringer in her purse, informed me: "When I make shepherd's pie for you, you will not do anything so common as put HP sauce on it. That is the equivalent of pouring tomato sauce on filet mignon."

I used the sauce anyway. I do tend to be contrary.

After the first taste of my creation yesterday, I remembered there was a bottle of HP sauce in the refrigerator. The sauce did not help improve the dish at the pub with Hilary. Nor did it help yesterday.

And today's moral? I love fusion food -- combining tastes from different countries and regions. But there are times when national dishes do not translate well to another culture's traditions. Yesterday's venture was a perfect example.

Now, how about that tamale pie I mentioned earlier? Maybe with a Korean or Thai twist.