Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Spratling's Work

A terrific collection of silver, furniture and drawings are on exhibit at the Franz Mayer Museum in Mexico City right now. They are the work of William Spratling, who lived and worked in Taxco Guerrero from 1929 to 1967. Spratling led a fast paced life and he loved Mexico and its people.  As his biographer Joan Mark says, "The land suited him because it mirrored him.  It was harsh, tough, and weighted with secret sorrows."

Spratling's fame rests on Taxco's silver.  Don Guillermo, as he was known in Taxco, introduced new silver designs into the market. He also trained apprentices and valued their input in the manufacturing process.  He put Taxco on the map as a vibrant production center of world-class design.

About silver he wrote:  "The true color of silver is white, the same color as extreme heat and extreme cold.  It is also the same color as the first food received by an infant, and it is the color of light.  Its very malleability is an invitation to work with it.  It lends itself to the forming of objects in planes and in three dimensions of great desirability, objects to be done by hand in precious metal."

Helen Escobedo tells us that after sizing up a customer's ability to pay, Spratling would lead his visitor into the appropriate display room in his shop in Taxco.  He served iced champagne in the gold room and tequila in the silver room. A third room was for tourists in general.  In all three rooms the quality was high; what varied was weight, size, and type of metal.  In the exhibit at the Franz Mayer Museum you'll see a great variety of the work that came out of his workshop.  One display is of identical, equally beautiful, tea sets, one in silver the other copper.

You’ll also see Spratling’s signature furniture. His slightly reclined chairs are made of a hardwood frame with a single piece of leather as the back and seat. A low table with a stretched leather top completes the set.

The exhibit also includes some of Spratling's sketches, drawings, and portraits.  You’ll see illustrations from his book "A Small Mexican World," which he originally published under the title "Little Mexico."

What caught me by surprise, in among some personal effects, is a wallet-sized copy of Spratling's honorary doctorate diploma from Auburn University -- tribute to his multi-faceted life and personality.

It was his knowledge of architecture and skill in sketching that brought Spratling to Mexico in 1929 on a commission from Architectural Forum magazine to write and illustrate articles on Colonial architecture. In moving to Mexico he gave up the house he shared with William Faulkner in New Orleans but he had a knack for making friends with the most interesting people around.  In his article "Figures in a Mexican Renaissance" Spratling wrote of his new friends artist Diego Rivera, archeologist Manuel Gamio, and Moises Saenz, defender of the rights of Indigenous peoples.

Spratling traveled Mexico's southern Sierra Madre collecting crafts and archeological pieces on horseback and by Jeep. He also flew his own single engine two-seater Ercoupe plane.

On one occasion he piloted his plane to Alaska where he signed a contract with the territorial government set up a native jewelry production program to supplement the income of the Inuits, similar to what he had set up in Taxco. Shorter trips could be on a whim to Puebla to buy traditional "camote" candy or off to Acapulco for fresh fish.

After crashing his Ercoupe and surviving the night on a 12,000 foot peak, he gave up flying and acquired a Ford Mustang.  It was on a high-speed drive to Mexico City that he met his death in 1967.

"Taxqueños remember August 7, 1967, the day Spratling died, as northern North Americans of at least a similar age remember the death of John F. Kennedy -- they can remember what they were doing when they heard the news," writes Ms. Mark. This newspaper reported at the time that 20,000 people attended his funeral.

Taxqueña Margarita Dominguez said at his funeral: "The people of Taxco are mourning the death of a man who came to settle among us, not just as a friend, but as a brother, who for more than thirty-five years shared our pains, our bitter griefs, our sorrows, and our poverty as well as our pleasures and our deepest joys."

On your next trip to Taxco make a point of visiting the Spratling Museum in an attractive three-story building behind the Santa Prisca Church. It holds mainly archeological pieces that Spratling purchased and collected for their artistic value rather than their archeological or historical value.

I also encourage you to treat yourself to a marvelous visit to the Spratling exhibit, titled "William Spratling, Designer; Legacy in Silver", in the Franz Mayer Museum on Hidalgo Avenue, across the street from Alameda Park in downtown Mexico City. The exhibit is open on Tuesdays-Sundays through February 17, 10:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m. Parking is available in a building adjacent to the museum. The Bellas Artes metro station is a block away.  Save some time for a meal or coffee and dessert in the Museum's cafeteria set in one of the most beautiful of Mexico's downtown gardens.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Weights and Measures

I invite you to visit a central market in Mexico. Most municipalities have one, and they are delightfully busy places. Activity starts before dawn as trucks arrive with produce, flowers, and fresh meat and continues until after sunset. Think of them as the original big box store where you can find anything and everything.

Despite a first impression of chaos and confusion, in this type of market there is order to the layout. Meat is in one section, fish another, and chicken stalls are all together.  Vegetables are in some aisles, fruits others.  Cheeses have their own section as do móle, pasta, and herbs.  There are areas for haircuts, food stalls, and seasonal items. You need a new machete, you’ll find it.  Any kind of pot or pan, dish or flowerpot--it’s there.

Standardized weights and measures are essential in setting prices in a market of this type. In most cases prices are set per unit of measure and customers are not penalized for buying in small quantities.  If the price is set per kilo, the cost of 250 grams is one quarter of the kilo price.  However, not all vendors have scales on which to weigh their merchandise.

There are a number of other units of measure which are recognized and accepted in Mexican markets.  These allow customers to comparison shop between various stalls.  As far as I have been able to determine they are amazingly uniform throughout the country.

A "cuartillo" is a unit of volume equivalent to two liters.  There are two presentations of this measuring device. One is a cylindrical tin container which looks like a straight-sided pitcher with a handle. The other is a square wooden box.  Both can be used to measure grain or beans.  Only the metal one is used to measure liquids, such as milk or cooking oil.

Half cuartillo pitchers are referred to as "medio cuartillo" and half of that is called a "puño" (a fist).  Though pitchers and boxes are clearly handmade, I've tested their accuracy using water.  Two puños equal a medio cuartillo and two medio cuartillos equal a cuartillo, in both cases filling the larger container right to the brim.

When measuring dry ingredients such as grains and beans there can be a fluctuation in the amount you get depending on how the pitcher is filled.   There’s a way to fill the container that is advantageous to the buyer, and another way that is better for the seller. When buying, set the pitcher on the ground and fill it, shaking and tapping it on the ground a few times in order to get the contents to settle into the container a bit more.   When selling scoop up the grain, brush off the excess on top, and quickly pour it into the customers bag or bucket. I call the first technique "settling" and the second "scooping."

This difference came to light under President Luis Echeverría's administration (1970-76) when the government fixed the price for both buying and selling corn. Most farmers preferred to sell their corn to middle men who paid immediately rather than sell it to Conasupo, the National Company of Popular Subsistence, who took weeks to pay. By alternating between "settling" when buying from farmers and "scooping" when delivering to Conasupo, the middlemen could make an additional profit -- sometimes 10% more.

Two other unusual units of measure found in main markets are tuna fish cans ("un atun") and sardine cans ("una sardina").  Since these items are a standard size and sold all over the country, they are a dependable way to measure small quantities.

In public markets you'll notice that some stalls are much better equipped than others.  Those selling cheese and other dairy products will usually have refrigerated display cases.   I recently asked a vendor whose market stall is right at the boundary between cheese and grains -- he sells both -- if he uses a cuartillo.  He disparagingly answered that only those who sell "en el piso" (on the floor) use cuartillos.  He sells per kilo.  I didn't ask what he meant by "floor" however I did wonder if he was referring to a pile of grain on a tarp, or to those who have their grains and beans in barrels resting on the floor instead of a fancier display counter such as his.  What was clear is that there is pride that goes along with how the merchandise is presented.

Fascinating as it is, shopping in a central market is not to everyone’s taste.  There are no shopping carts, payment is made at each market stall, no credit cards are accepted, space in the aisles is tight, and parking spaces are scarce.  On the other hand, there is little waste.  Youngsters are more than willing to carry your purchases for a tip as you move through the market, prices are excellent, and you can have a grand adventure as you shop.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Where tortillas come from

Most Mexican children are well experienced at being sent out "al madado" -- to buy tortillas just before breakfast or lunch.   Mothers give their children a special cloth in which to wrap the tortillas and just the right change to pay for them. The children go to a neighborhood tortillería where a clanging apparatus spits out hot and aromatic tortillas.

I first came upon a tortilla-making machine as an adult. I wonder what it is like to grow up with them as a child sent off to buy tortillas every day.  At first glance these machines look like complicated, disjointed contraptions, but really they are a compact, well-designed assembly line process. I wouldn't be surprised if early childhood awe over the tortilla-making machine leads to the National University's high enrollment in its School of Engineering. 

The machines are ubiquitous throughout the country.  You'll find them in small towns and city neighborhoods as well as in the fanciest of supermarkets.   The machinery is powered by electricity but the cooking is done with gas heat. In most neighborhood tortillerías the machines seem like they are always on the verge of breakdown with their covers removed years ago and their insides visible. Bicycle chains can be seen making gears turn and the conveyor belt move.  Just like something out of a Dr. Seuss book, the machines start making tortillas in the back of the store and shape, cut, cook, and pile up the finished product right at the front counter in less than a minute.

The Celorio brand machine puts out tortillas single file.  The Verastegui brand, designed for busier tortillerías, puts out tortillas which are almost side by side on the conveyor belt. It would be more correct to refer to designs rather than brands since most tortilla machines weren't purchased from the manufacturer. It's cheaper to buy parts and assemble one yourself following one of the traditional designs.   Too bad for the Celorio and Verastegui families, but that's the way it is.

The tortilla wouldn’t be possible without the ancient Mesoamaricans' discovery of the process of nixtamalization (an English word of Nahauatl origin). Corn was the staple of ancient Mesoamerica's diet and continues to be so for a substantial portion of the Mexican population.  Unless it is first nixtamalized, corn eaten in quantity will lead to debilitating diseases caused by a niacin (vitamin B3) deficiency.  Nixtalamization involves soaking and cooking kernels of corn in water and powdered limestone. This process breaks down the hull and transforms the nutrients in the kernel making them accessible to the human body.  When eaten along with beans and chile our bodies can transform the mix into protein.

Ground nixtamal becomes the dough or "masa" from which a tortilla is made. It's only ingredients are corn, lime, and water. Watch for a small pick-up truck delivering masa to a neighborhood tortillería.  You’ll see 50-kilo-bundles wrapped in a large cloth, referred to as a "maleta" (a suitcase).

At the tortillería, the maleta is put in the hopper of the tortilla-making machines. The machine presses the masa flat, cuts it into circles, and drops it on a conveyor belt where the tortillas cook. The tortillas on the conveyor belt expand and seem like they will fill up with air and pop. But they settle down by the time they get to where the conveyor belt drops the tortilla into a shoot where it comes to a standstill right on top of the tortilla ahead of it.

Tortillas made by machine have a characteristic that all Mexican cooks know about--they have a front and a back. Cooks will take this into account when rolling a tortilla into a taco or enchilada. They will make sure the inside of the folded tortilla is the weaker side, the side that bulged. 

As tortilla connoisseur Eduardo "Edy" Corona explained to me, “the machine's comal heats them more on one side than on the other.  In the machine the tortilla doesn't get cooked as evenly on each side as a hand made tortilla does."

It was interesting that Edy used the word comal to refer to part of the machine in which a metal conveyor belt keeps the tortillas moving at all times.  Comal properly refers to the flat griddle on which tortillas are traditionally cooked. Tortillas "hechas a mano" (made by hand), be they patted out by hand or squeezed flat in a press, are carefully laid on a hot comal.  They may inflate but they do so on both sides as they are flipped.

Neighborhood tortillerias that advertise “100% nixtamal” are where you’ll find tortillas made with the original Mesoamerican recipe, without fillers or preservatives.  You’ll also see a wonderful form of just-in-time movements, where vendors take orders from customers, weigh the tortillas, and make change just before the pile that has emerged from the machine is about to keel over.  And you’ll see children with their brightly-colored cloths out on their “madado”.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Dining with the Pope

Last month Bendicta Alejo Vargas of Michoacan cooked for the Pope. She honored the culinary traditions she learned from her grandmother by preparing a traditional Purépecha dinner for Pope Benedict XVI and other guests in the Vatican on December 12, the Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe. 

Benedicta, a Purépecha herself, has received numerous cooking awards and currently serves as a chef and instructor at Morelia's Culinary School.   In addition to the honor of meeting him personally and receiving his blessing, she is particularly thrilled to have prepared a meal for the Pope who is her "tocayo". 

"Tocayo" is the marvelous Spanish word that gets us around the awkward situation of addressing someone who has the same name as ours.  We can call that person "tocayo".  And when referring to him or her we can replace that person's name with "mi tocayo".  In most cases our tocayo is of our same gender, however there are cases of names that are similar for women and men -- with an "a" on the end for women and an "o" for men. 

For the Pope's dinner Benedicta prepared "corundas naturales",  similar to a central Mexican tamale. The corunda is traditionally more moist than a tamale, triangular in shape and wrapped in a corn husk and tied with a trademark knot.  For the second course she prepared two types of móle, rabbit and cheese.  The cheese móle was prepared with a kind of chile "que no pica" Benedicta said. I smiled when I heard her say that -- is there really such a chile? 

For beverages Benedicta prepared tamarind and sesame "atoles", flavored corn-based drinks.

The whole meal was prepared in the traditional Purépecha way.  The organizers of the event shipped the volcanic-stone metate (grinding stone), huge clay pots and a comal (a griddle on which tortillas are cooked) to Rome. They shipped stones for the hearth. They even shipped over Michoacan firewood.  Before setting off to the Vatican herself, Benedicta received word that the pottery had arrived in good order.  In her luggage she carried most of the ingredients she would need; however she purchased the rabbit meat at a butcher shop in Rome.  

A marvelous aspect of Mexican cuisine is that it has not changed much since the time of the Conquest.  UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, has recognized this by naming it to its Intangible Cultural Heritage List. The same meal Benedicta prepared for Pope Benedict XVI and other guests had certainly been prepared in Michoacán in the late 16th century.  The non-Mesoamerican ingredients in Benedicta's dinner were few. Cheese is of European origin and tamarind and sesame seeds are both of African origin and used extensively in Asia. They probably arrived in Acapulco on ships from Manila shortly after 1565.  

European food of the 16th century was very different from the food today. Food historian and Mexico resident Rachel Landau tells us that a European court meal of that time would seem strange to anyone accustomed to today's Western cooking.  Dishes of that time period "might include blancmange -- a thick puree of rice and chicken moistened with milk from ground almonds, sprinkled with sugar and fried pork fat."  Accompanied by "fava beans cooked in meat stock sprinkled with chopped mint or quince paste, a sweetmeat of quinces and sugar or honey.  To wash it all down, we would probably drink hypocras, a mulled red wine seasoned with ground ginger, cinnamon, cloves, and sugar."  

According to Landau it was in the mid 17th century that the European diet became similar to what we know today. This is quite unlike Mexico's cuisine which has stayed the course through the centuries.

The dinner celebrating Our Lady of Guadalupe Day at the Vatican was also unusual in that the Pope rarely attends large dinner parties. In fact, such is the fame of the Pope eating alone -- especially breakfasting alone -- that Cuernavaca artist of English origin, John Spencer, made a piece of sculpture he titled The Pope's Table.  Mounted on the base of a treadle sewing machine, the edge of the table has arches allusive of those in the Colosseum in Rome, with intricate sculpture rising up as a spire from the tabletop.  Characteristic of Spencer's quirky and whimsical sculpture, the pedals connect to a circle of bells to call for service.  

I haven't been able to find out how many people attended the dinner Benedicta prepared. She made 600 corundas and 700 handmade tortillas, both white and blue tortillas.  None were left over.  

And did Benedicto enjoy his tocaya's concoctions?  From the kitchen she couldn't see for herself, but she reports that members of the Michoacan delegation told her he liked the corundas and the cheese móle -- the one with the chile que no pica.