Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Christmas Mystery

As this Advent season comes to a close I’d like to share with you how I celebrate Christmas.  Many years ago a friend introduced me to The Christmas Mystery, a delightful book written by Norwegian philosopher Jostein Gaarder.  The Christmas Mystery is an Advent calendar, mystery, and beautiful story all in one -- a magical Christmas tale! 

There are 24 chapters in the book; one for each day in Advent.  The story begins in Norway with young Joachim going with his father to buy an Advent calendar.  In an out-of-the-way bookstore Joachim finds a very old, homemade calendar. The next morning, when Joachim opens door #1, a little slip of paper with tiny writing falls out of the calendar. Thus begins a story of 24 parts.  In the first chapter, December 1, the young Norwegian child Elisabet runs after a toy lamb as it makes its escape from a department store.  In the following chapter, December 2, she is joined by the angel Ephiriel who explains to Elisabet that they are on a holy pilgrimage to Bethlehem to be present at the birth of Jesus.  As they travel from Norway to Bethlehem they will also “run through time” from 1948 back to 0000.  

In each chapter the pilgrimage is joined by another participant who will be present at the birth of Jesus.  Their journey, through Europe, the Fertile Crescent, and the centuries, becomes a geography, history, and philosophy lesson.   As the story unfolds, Joachim’s mother remembers a child named Elisabet Hansen who really did disappear, many years before, from a department store in their town.  Is the Advent calendar a clue to her disappearance? How will Joachim unravel the mystery?  What will happen when the pilgrims reach Bethlehem?

It is a wonderful book to read aloud each day.  Over the years I have introduced it to a number of friends of all ages and read aloud with them through the season.  In turn they have introduced it to their friends and family.  It is as engrossing for children as it is for adults. The Christmas Mystery is available in many different editions -- all of them magical.  I hope that by December 1 of next year you will have your very own copy.  It would be nice to know if there are Digs readers sharing the Mystery.

Hopefully you’ve attended a posada or two during the past few days.  If not you still have four more nights of street posadas, culminating December 24, with the celebration of Christmas Eve Mass.  In many Mexican churches, as in Christian churches throughout the world, there will be Christmas pageants with children and live animals playing the various roles of the nativity figures.

On Christmas Eve the baby Jesus will finally appear in nativity scenes (nacimientos) throughout Mexico. In many homes nativity scenes stay in place until Candelaria, February 2. 

In Mexico nacimientos may not be limited to the usual holy family, angels, a few sheep, shepherds and wise men.  If you have been to a large market seasonally selling nacimiento figures you may wonder what possible connection some of these figures could have with the Christmas story.  At the Soumaya Museum in Mexico City there is an elaborate Mexican nacimiento.  Hundreds of figures, representing all classes and occupations, are in an enormous 19th century gilded retablo.  It represents the whole town of Bethlehem; not just those present in the stable. 

On Epiphany, January 6, the Wise Men present their gifts to the Child.  Though more and more Mexican families also exchange gifts at Christmas, it is traditionally on the Day of the Three Kings that Mexican children receive presents.  Tamales and atole is the usual food and drink.  If you don’t have your tamales pre-ordered don’t expect to find them at the last minute on January 6; you’ll be disappointed. The meal culminates with the cutting of the rosca, a large sweet-bread ring.  Baked inside the rosca is a tiny baby Jesus.  If you cut off the piece of the rosca that has the Niño, you are responsible for providing tamales and atole for Candelaria.

Christmas ends with Candelaria.  Forty days after his birth, Jesus was ritually presented at the temple.  There Mary and Joseph encountered Simeon the Righteous who had been promised by God that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah.  In the Gospel of Luke, Simeon says Jesus will be a "light for revelation to the Gentiles."  It is for this that candles, representing light, are associated with Candelaria.  Baby Jesus is removed from the nacimiento and dressed for his presentation in the temple.  Visiting a central market in the days before February 2 you can see an array of clothes available for Jesus’ as small as your thumb, or three feet tall, and every size in between.   At the mass of Candelaria, these newly dressed Jesus’ are presented.  At night the family enjoys tamales and atole, courtesy of whoever had the baby Jesus in her or his piece of rosca on Ephiphany.  So ends another Christmas in Mexico.

But for those of us following the Christmas Mystery, it is only December 20.  Elizabet, Ephiriel and their fellow pilgrims are in Tarsus in the year 238.  Will they make it to Bethlehem in time for the birth of the Child? 

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Christmas flavors

The holidays are underway.  Stores are crammed with seasonal ingredients to make Mexico’s traditional holiday dishes.  A trip to a central market fills your senses with the smells and colors of this favorite time of year.  Unlike north of the border where Christmas essentially ends on December 25, the Mexican Christmas season will extend until Dia de la Candelaria on February 2nd, Candlemass Day.  In between there are many special feast days with their own traditional foods and customs.

December 16th is the beginning of nine nights of posadas.  The reenactment of Joseph and Mary’s Bethlehem search for an inn (posada) is celebrated in small towns and urban neighborhoods throughout Mexico. Some posadas are modest, others quite grand.  In many an image of the Virgin Mary, accompanied by a statue of St. Joseph, leaves the local church on the night of December 16th

Although an event especially designed for children, many adults participate.  In some posadas a child dressed as Mary sits atop a burro led by a young boy dressed as Joseph.  Accompanying children may be dressed as shepherds, wisemen, angels, even King Herod.  The procession passes through the streets singing songs celebrating the Virgin.  At homes along the way the children sing and beg for lodging.  Those inside the home sing traditional replies and send them on their way.  Finally, at the house appointed for that night, the people inside welcome the saints or their diminutive representatives. If it is the saints from the church they will remain there until the following night when the posada resumes from that home. 

After the saints have been carefully lodged for the night, celebration begins.  Hot ponche is served to all. A syrupy, sweet drink, it combines many seasonal fruits as well as sugar cane and cinnamon.  If the “innkeeper” can afford it, sweet tamales accompany the ponche.  For the children there are also piñatas with toys and candy.  Though considered a great honor to house the Virgin and St. Joseph for a night it can be an expensive proposition! 

The posadas continue each night until Christmas Eve when Mary and Joseph return to the church and the nativity scene where the birth of Jesus is celebrated in a special mass.

Christmas Eve dinners don’t usually start until late in the evening and extend until the wee hours of the morning.  For some the dinner will be simple tamales and atole but, depending upon the economics of the family, it is usually a more extensive meal with a number of dishes particular to Mexico.

Perhaps the most unusual of Mexico’s Christmas dishes is romeritos.  Romeritos are an essential part of Mexican Christmas and Lenten cooking and by now huge baskets of romeritos have appeared in the markets.  Though some think the romerito is related to rosemary, it is in fact a wild herb, one of many quelites.  Quelites are the edible, tender parts of wild (though in some cases now cultivated) plants.  Quelites can be buds, flowers, shoots or even new leaves. The word quelite comes from the Nahuatl quili-ti.  In ancient times romerito grew in the swampy areas of the lakes of the Valley of Mexico.

In addition to romerito, there are many other quelites common to the Mexican marketplace and kitchen.  A sampling of those found in the market include the delicious verdolagas (Mexican watercress), flor de calabasa (squash blossom), and hoja santa (used for seasoning and tamales).  Quelites, generally high in nutritional value, are frequently gathered from public land. 

Though the romerito itself has a distinctive, pleasant peppery flavor, it can be hard to detect in the traditional Christmas Eve dish that includes so many other ingredients.  Tender poached romerito leaves are mixed with nopal, nuts, and chiles, served over fried patties of potato and dried shrimp, and covered with a spicy mole.  It’s my suggestion that before trying to prepare this complex dish you sample it to be sure you like it enough to have it on your holiday table.  Some say it is an acquired taste.  I’ve had it every Christmas Eve for 37 years and I’m not there yet.

Another popular Christmas Eve dish is bacalao a la Vizcaina, the base of which is salted cod.  The cod requires several days of soaking and draining.  If you skip that step it will be unbearably salty.  Cod was probably brought to Mexico by Spanish sailors.  Bacalao, in one form or another, is a celebratory dish throughout the Spanish and Portuguese world.   

Guajolote con Mmle poblano (see 12/6/2011 Digs) is another ubiquitous Christmas Eve dish.  By now you'll probably need an antidote to the rich and savory dishes of the night.  Jicama  (Nahuatl  xicamatlla) salad is a Christmas favorite.  Sweet and savory recipe variations are available.  The jicama with its crisp apple flavor combines well and is a welcome contrast to some of the heavier Christmas plates.  

Cidra (sparkling cider), ponche, or other spirits accompany this gala meal. In between attacks on piñatas, sparklers (luces de bengala) are lit by children – perhaps to recreate the star leading the Wise Men to Bethlehem.  

This is just the beginning of the holiday celebrations.  Pace yourself; you’ll still be celebrating until February 2.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The turkey's pre-Columbian history

Our two northern neighbors recently celebrated their respective Thanksgiving days.  In both Canada and the United States roast turkey is the main dish and even the symbol for these annual feasts.
Surprise! The turkey, like the poinsettia of last week's column, is another of Mexico’s many gifts to the world.

Unlike other cradles of civilization, Mesoamerica had few domesticated animals.  The only domesticated fowl were the muscovy duck and the turkey.  Signs of turkey domestication in Maya sites such as Cobá dated about 100 BC to 100 AD. The signs include the construction of animal pens, healed long bone fractures in turkey bones found far from natural habitats, ritual burial, and the presence of large quantities of egg shells. Turkey bones have also been found as musical instruments and tools. 

Unlike today’s large-breasted and mostly grounded birds, early turkeys were strong flyers able to reach speeds of up to 90 kph (55 mph) for short distances. They could run 25-50 kph (15-30 mph)! This would have been a very lean and tough bird. Though turkeys were used by pre-Columbians for meat and egg consumption, there is good evidence they were prized primarily for their feathers, not their meat.  Like the shearing of sheep, one can pluck the feathers from the turkey and they will regrow.  Early Spaniards wrote about half-naked turkeys wandering around.  Feathers were used to make clothing, decorative headdresses, and weapons. Turkeys fed a maize diet became more desirable for their meat.

There were a number of varieties of turkey but even more Mesoamerican names for this prolific bird.  In 1941 Lawrence B. Kiddle claimed in an article titled “The Names for Turkey in the Modern Mexican Dialect” that he had found thirty names for the turkey – 26 still in use!   Even stretching etymology, the Inuit only have 20 words for snow.  Guajolote or pavo are currently the most common names though in some places it is still called ave de los ricos or bird of the rich.  

Some varieties of native turkeys were more resistant to domestication but could still be caged and were prized for their bright plumage.  Even today the Yucatan native ocellated turkey can be seen wandering through the ruins of the ancient cities such as Tikal, Toniná, and Bonampak.

For the pre-Columbians turkeys also had religious and ceremonial significance.  Archeologists have found buried remains of whole turkey skeletons, headless turkeys, even turkeys buried alongside humans.  By some accounts the Aztec turkey god, Chalchiuhtotolin  (nahuatl for jade turkey) was one of the nahuals (animal manifestations) of Tepeyollotl, a major Aztec god.  Tepeyollotl is more typically depicted in his nagual manifestation as a jaguar.

The Spanish returned to Europe with this new food where it quickly replaced the difficult-to-eat peacock on European banquet tables. Each ship returning to Spain was ordered to take five male and five female turkeys.  It is likely the Aztecs had also used the turkey as a banquet dish and that Cortez himself may have enjoyed turkey mole on a visit to the royal palace. 

Mole (from the nahuatl mulli, molle or chimulli describing an indigenous sauce usually with a chili pepper base) comes in all colors and all flavors.  In any large central market you can see the blaze of colors of prepared moles.  Outside of Mexico the best known mole is the legendary mole poblano originating in Puebla in the Convent of Santa Rosa.  Poor nuns panicked when they were surprised by the visit of the archbishop (or was it the viceroy?).  They pooled their meager resources (including chocolate) into a sauce, killed an old turkey, prayed a lot, and then served the first guajolote con mole poblano to great acclaim.   Because mole poblano contains some European ingredients it is considered an example of mestizaje cooking. 
Guajolote con mole poblano remains a favorite Mexican dish.  No Mexican wedding is complete without it.  There are hundreds of variations of the recipe and some recipes contain no ingredients not available before the conquest.  It is a dish particularly enjoyed at Christmas.  ¡Buen provecho!.