Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Spirulina: The Aztec food supplement

Legend has it Moctezuma, the last emperor of the Aztecs, had an unquenchable appetite for fresh fish.  Runners relayed a daily supply of fish from the coast, as well as ice from Iztaccihuatl, to the ninth Aztec emperor.  Hernan Cortez, very impressed with the endurance of these runners, asked one of his soldiers to find out what they ate.  The soldier followed the runners to the shores of Lake Texcoco, reporting back,  “They’re barbarians; they eat green mud.”  Little did he know that in the 20th century that “green mud,” the Aztecs called tecuitlatl, now known as spirulina, would be designated the nearly perfect food of the future.

Spirulina, a blue-green algae, contains more protein per ounce than any other food.  It also contains all essential amino acids, is rich in many other nutrients, and is a natural antioxidant.   Last month I interviewed octogenarian jazz musician Larry Russell (see June 25 Charlie's Digs).  I was impressed by his prodigious memory as well as his very active life -- even still performing late night jazz.  Larry attributed both to regular spirulina consumption over the past forty years. With its origins in the Valley of Mexico spirulina seemed an excellent topic to research and share.

Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagun, from 1545 until his death in 1590, documented everything he could about the vanishing Mesoamerican culture in his "General History of the Things of New Spain", now known as the Florentine codex. The codex contains drawings of harvesting tecuitlatl from Lake Texcoco, making it into cakes eaten by Aztec warriors and runners.  In 1524 Friar Toribio de Bonavente described the Aztecs using fine mesh nets to harvest the algae from the lake, drying it in large shallow pits.  Bernal Diaz de Castillo, traveling with Cortez in 1519 described the marketplaces of the Aztecs and mentioned the highly valued tecuitlatl, “traded in small cakes in the same way Europeans traded cheeses.”  

Though there were a number of lakes in the Valley of Mexico, only Lake Texcoco was a soda lake (highly alkaline salt water lake).  The Aztecs built dams to separate the less saline lakes of Mexico from spilling into Texcoco during flood periods.  The monumental Albarradon de Nezahualcoyotl dike, was built in the 15th century and was 16 kilometers (10 miles) long, 20 meters (60 feet) wide.  Through advanced hydraulic engineering Aztecs protected their capital on the island of Tenochtitlan from flooding, maintained fresh water lakes for crop irrigation, and Lake Texcoco as a source of prized tecuitlatl.  During the conquest the Spaniards destroyed the dikes; Mexico City has been dealing with the consequences ever since.  In addition, with the disruption of Mesoamerican life and culture, spirulina disappeared from the Mexican diet. 

Africa’s Lake Chad has a similar alkalinity to Lake Texcoco.  In approximately 900 A.D., the Kanembu discovered the nutritional value of spirulina which they called dihe.  In 1940, French explorer and botanist Pierre Dangeard enthused about its possibilities but was ignored.  In 1964, Belgian botanist Jean Leonard interested French industrialists in its potential just as French scientists were re-discovering spirulina in Lake Texcoco.

The large earthen spiral settling tank (referred to in Spanish as a "caracol") one sees from the air above Mexico City was originally created by the Mexican company, Sosa Texcoco,  for the production of sodium carbonate. Texcoco’s high concentration of salts are processed by solar evaporation.  In 1969, using the caracol, Sosa Texcoco set up production of spirulina.  At the height of production, the United States reported spirulina contamination and production was shut down.

In the 1970’s spirulina became a popular food supplement, spiking in value in 1981.  By 1976 Japanese had opened spirulina production using man-made ponds.  The largest Japanese-owned spirulina production ponds are now in California. Today, most spirulina for human consumption is laboratory controlled.  Lake-harvested spirulina can be contaminated with microcystins or absorb heavy metals.

University of Maryland Medical Center test tube and animal research results indicate spirulina boosts the immune system and protects against allergic reaction.  They indicate spirulina may also have antiviral, anticancer properties.  To date human testing of these properties has not been completed. There is only anecdotal evidence gleaned from those, like Larry Russell, who believe it a miracle food.  Among other benefits, literature on spirulina touts its effect on weight control.

Malnutrition is found throughout Central Africa.  In Chad, where dihe is part of the diet, malnutrition is negligible.  In 2010 the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations began administration of a 1.4 million dollar grant by the European Union to help impoverished women in Chad by increasing production of spirulina while improving control standards.  It is hoped this blue-green algae could help solve malnutrition issues throughout Africa!

I’m a convert.  I won’t be running to Veracruz in search of fish any time soon but I’m taking my tecuitlatl and hope to see a difference.  I’ll let you know.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Sun directly overhead

Today, when you step outside in central Mexico your shadow is cast towards the south -- an event that never happens in Europe, Canada, or the continental United States.  A week from today your shadow will be cast towards the north.

A largely unnoticed astronomical event will occur in Mexico City on Sunday.  At midday the sun will be directly overhead and most objects will cast no shadow. You will see a shadow if you look directly under something like a car or table. People tend to cast shadows too—at least those of us with waists wider than our feet. But most objects will cast no shadow.

This phenomenon occurs everywhere in the tropics, though not on the same day. The tropics are the part of the world between the Tropic of Cancer which crosses northern Mexico and the Tropic of Capricorn in the southern hemisphere.

The sun makes a yearly journey from the Tropic of Capricorn to the Tropic of Cancer and back again. It departs the Tropic of Capricorn on or about December 21, which is the shortest day in the northern hemisphere.  The Sun crosses the Equator on the spring equinox, March 21, and is directly over Mexico City on May 16.  It reaches the Tropic of Cancer on June 21, the longest day in the northern hemisphere.  Then it starts its return trip.  The sun is again directly over Mexico City at noon on July 28, over the equator on September 21 which is the fall equinox, and then back to the Tropic of Capricorn on December 21.

If you are in Mexico City on Sunday I suggest you go to one of the three hotels with a rooftop restaurant facing the zocalo. Plan to be there from 11:50 a.m. to 1:50 p.m.  From the restaurant you'll be able to watch a show in which none of the actors will realize they are playing a part. But they will each fulfill their role with chronometric accuracy.

You may have noticed that the flagpole in the Zocalo is a common meeting place. What tends to happen is that the party who arrives first waits in the only shade the zocalo offers, the thin shadow the flagpole makes. The line of people arcs right along with the sun moving through the sky.  Next Sunday morning the shadow will get shorter and shorter until it disappears at midday.  The line of people will have to disband.

You'll also witness the mistake the clergy in the Metropolitan Cathedral make when they ring the bells to announce the Angelus midday prayers.  They’ll start ringing the bells at 11:50, thinking that is ten minutes before midday.  If that were true during Standard Time that would mean that now, while we are on Daylight Savings Time (DST), midday would be at 1 o'clock.  However, in Mexico City we are at the westernmost part of our time zone and midday is at about 1:40 p.m.  You'll be able to confirm that by watching the shadow of the flagpole. 

Despite the Cathedral's bells being rung at the wrong time (11:50 to 12 o'clock DST), it is quite a sight to watch.  They are rung by hand by people as high up in the church's towers as the bells.  Look closely and you'll see them pulling on ropes tied to the bells.  The larger bells require two people to haul the clapper back and forth.

At least I think it's the wrong time.  Shouldn't Midday prayers be at midday?  I don’t think we should be playing around with God's timing based on a 20th century attempt to save electricity through daylight savings. Or the 19th century idea that everyone around the world should share the same minute of the hour regardless of where we live, which is what Greenwich Mean Time imposes.

While enjoying the theater unfolding before you, place your order for lunch and await the astronomical event at 1:40.  While eating -- and waiting -- keep an eye on the status of the flagpole's shadow as if it is a giant sundial. You’ll be part of a long tradition of people in Mesoamerica noticing and studying the position of the sun in the sky by looking at the ground.

Ancient Mesoamericans were great students of astronomy and mathematics and developed a very precise calendar. Calendar origins probably had a practical use. Though Mesoamerica has a dependable rainy season, inhabitants needed to know when the rains would begin in order to burn their fields at their driest.  The longer they waited the drier the cuttings would be, hence the better they would burn.  However if they waited too long and it began to rain the wet cuttings wouldn't burn well and they'd have a reduced area in which to plant.

Watching the sun's progress on its northerly route would guide farmers on when to burn their fields to be ready for planting.   

If you enjoy watching this type of natural theater, one of the grandest performances of all is going on daily until early August in the underground observatory at Xochicalco, a 45 minute drive south of Cuernavaca. For my column about that fascinating place go to http://tinyurl.com/mk3uaed. 

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Limestone in Mesoamerica – one of Mexico’s most versatile resources in still widely used today

On a trip to Todos Santos Cucumatan in Guatemala's highlands I witnessed a process that goes on all the time here in Mexico, but out of sight. I had stopped at a family-operated limestone quarry. I could see where blocks of limestone had been cut out of a thick deposit. But even more facinating were the fire pits where limestone was being subjected to intense heat in order to reduce it to powder.  I came home with a football-sized piece of fired-limestone which, for lack of a better place, I put on top of my filing cabinet.  I've watched it disintegrate into powder over the span of a couple of years.  It reminds me just how fundamental limestone has been in Mesoamerican life.

Limestone can be found throughout Mesoamerica. Mexico's mountain ranges and ridges are full of limestone. The Yucatan Peninsula is a limestone shelf. You'll know you're in an area where limestone is plentiful wherever you see a cement factory.  In fact limestone is the principal ingredient in Portland Cement, the most common type of cement used in modern construction.  In addition to being used as mortar, limestone is the basis of concrete, stucco, and grout.

It's a very soft stone when in the ground and easy to cut and shape with stone and wooden tools, which is all the ancient Mesoamericans had.  In fact it is so soft that ground water cuts through it easily, often producing interconnected caves. You can visit an extensive limestone cave system at the Grutas de Cacahuamilpa, a three-hour drive from Mexico City in the state of Guerrero. Similarly the Yucatan Peninsula is honeycombed with cave systems. Snorkelers love to explore them.

When limestone is put in direct sunlight it dries out and becomes a hard and long-lasting building material.  The longer it is out in the sun the harder it becomes. 

Architects in ancient Mesoamerica would place orders with the nearby quarry for limestone building blocks. The blocks of stone were usually the size and weight that one person could carry. Architects would request blocks that were smooth on one side for walls or floors, or smooth on two sides for steps or corners. Irregularly shaped blocks made up the solid fill of buildings.

Small pieces of limestone where heated in the kilns. The resulting fine white powder was mixed with water to become stucco. Add sand and gravel to the mix and it became similar to cement or concrete.

In areas of Mesoamerica where limestone is abundant whole buildings and pyramids were built of limestone building blocks held together with limestone cement. You’d never have seen the building blocks though. The outside surfaces were always covered with limestone stucco. They’d put powder from ground up minerals of different colors into the last layer of stucco to produce brightly colored walls. Unfortunately stucco is the least durable use of limestone and has worn off most ancient buildings.

A serious downside to dependence on limestone mortar and stucco is that it is greedy for firewood. Twelve times more wood than stone is needed to heat the fires to reduce the limestone gravel to powder. Many archeologists trace the demise of Teotihucan -- the world's largest city in 550 A.D. -- to the denuding of the forests around the city. With no forested cover on the mountains, the summer rainfall rushed down the mountainsides, untrapped by the natural aquifer inside the mountains. This in turn led to a lack of water for the city's population that may have reached 250,000. 

Powdered limestone was not just used in construction. It has also been a key ingredient in the Mesoamerican diet in the form of tortillas. Corn was the staple grain of ancient Mesoamerica's diet and continues to be so.  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, limestone powder, and water.  It is patted into the shape of a tortilla and cooked on a comal.  An additional health benefit of limestone in tortillas is the calcium it adds to the Mesoamerican diet.     

I find it elegant how a plentiful natural resource such as limestone has been and remains an integral part of Mesoamerican life.  And not just as a construction material but also as an essential part of the traditional Mesoamerican diet. 

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Stranger than fiction

There was a point when Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes said he was going to stop writing novels because “I can no longer compete with the daily newspaper.” The question for me is whether the true-life story of Edward Snowdon making his way to a country granting him political asylum will beat the best novel I know about the subject. That’s Graham Greene’s 1965 novel “The Comedians” which was made into an equally terrific movie starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. 

Greene set the novel in Haiti when it was ruled by President-for-Life Francois Duvalier. Papa Doc, as he was known, used the brutal, plain-clothed Tontons Macoute to carry out his wishes. Greene described them as "the President's boogey-men.  They wear dark glasses and call on their victims after dark." 

A story I heard about Papa Doc’s scare tactics was told to me by U.S. Senator Wyche Fowler (D-GA 1986-92). He said that Duvalier had a switch installed in the National Palace with which he could plunge the whole country into darkness. According to Fowler, Duvalier pulled the switch from time to time “just to show the people at every level of society that he could reach into their homes whenever he wanted."  Sometimes he’d leave the electricity off for a minute or two, sometimes for an hour or more.  In pre-Internet days this was certainly an interesting and innovative way to reach into people's private lives and let them be well aware of the long arm of their government.

Greene's story is that of the English owner of the “fallen on hard times” Trianon Hotel. Mr. Brown has had an ongoing romantic liaison with Martha Pineda, the wife of a South American ambassador to Haiti.  Their rendezvous site is the Christopher Columbus statue on Port-au-Prince's waterfront.   In a strange series of circumstances the hotelier ends up seeking and finding refuge for his friend and countryman, Major Jones, in ambassador Pineda's home.  Tontons Macoute respect the diplomatic immunity of the residence but the Haitian government refuses to authorize safe-passage out of the country for Major Jones.  In the novel Brown and Jones slip out of the embassy residence during a torrential rainstorm while the Tontons Macoute have accepted drinks in the kitchen.

In the movie it is more exciting. The Tontons Macoute are distracted by a decoy car they go chasing after and in which they find nothing.  Meanwhile, Jones makes it out of the embassy residence in the trunk of another diplomatic vehicle. 

When I toured Haiti in 1988 I turned the trip into a Graham Greene pilgrimage.  I even stayed in the Trianon Hotel (Hotel Oloffson in real life) with "gables and balconies and towers, the fantastic nineteenth-century architecture of Port-au-Prince." I requested and received the Graham Greene Suite and even enjoyed visits to the hotel bar where I met Petite Pierre -- both a character in "The Comedians" and a real-life person. 

Since Greene is not clear about the South American country Ambassador Pineda represented, I drove by both the Paraguayan and Uruguayan ambassadors' residences.  But, lacking in my pilgrimage was a sighting of the Columbus statue. I knew that during the 1986 popular uprising against Duvalier’s son, Baby Doc, a crowd had toppled Columbus' statue and rolled it into the bay chanting "He came from the sea.  Let him go back to the sea." Haiti's next head of state, General Henri Namphy, had divers pull Columbus out of the muck, and hid the statue away. 

When I went to Haiti only the pedestal was in place.  I asked the hotel owner/manager if he knew where the statue was. He didn't. Knowing I was the unusual tourist who had rented a car, he tried to drum up some business for his hotel taxi drivers saying, "Hire one of my drivers.  They’ll know where it is." 

"If one of them knows, I'll hire him," I replied. 

One by one the drivers were called into the lobby. They each admitted not knowing where the statue was.

Eventually, my small group and I set off on our own.  We went to the Hôtel de Ville (City Hall) and found a city official who spoke Spanish.  He told us he knew where the statue was but would only reveal its location with permission from the mayor. He suggested we return the following day. 

On our way down the front steps of City Hall I spotted some Tontons Macoute wearing their signature dark glasses.  I asked one of them if he knew where the Columbus statue was.  "Of course" he replied and led us into the basement.  There was Columbus behind a row of wheelbarrows, down on one knee with a broken outstretched arm, a cigarette stuck in his mouth.

Fuentes is right—sometimes real life is crazier than fiction.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Fashionable floor-cleaners

Street vendors in Mexico have an uncanny ability to show up with just the right product at the right time. They walk between cars stuck in traffic selling snacks. In a rainstorm they appear with umbrellas. Vendors at Teotihuacan have that knack too—they show up with rain ponchos as storm clouds approach.  

I was at Teotihuacan last month with a group from the Pontifical College Josephinum in Ohio.  The seminarians and their dean thought they could make it to the top of the Pyramid of the Sun and back before the rain started.  They miscalculated.  Those without rain gear returned to our bus drenched. Seminarian Mark Simpson arrived wearing a brand new hooded pullover. He'd bought it from one of the vendors he encountered on his way back to the bus.  When I complimented him for being dry he told me how inexpensive it had been and added "but people are sure looking at me differently."

"Of course they are," I said. "You are wearing a mop!"  Yes it was a perfectly fine and attractive sweatshirt, but it was made of a thick cotton cloth known in Mexico as "jerga"  (pronounced "hare-ga"). Its telltale design is an off-white base with orange and black stripes. Teotihuacan's vendors keep the sweatshirts in stock to sell right after rainstorms knowing all the while that only their foreign clientele will buy them.  Every Mexican recognizes the cloth as that used for mopping floors or as a doormat to wipe their feet upon entering a house or building.   

You’ll find the cloth for sale in hardware stores right next to brooms and mops.  It comes in 25-meter bolts, 50 centimeters (20 inches) wide, and is priced by the meter.  Take a one-meter-long piece of jerga, poke a hole in the center, drape it over the handle of a floor squeegee (called a "jalador" in Mexico) and it becomes a 50 by 50 centimeter mop.

A less and less frequent scene in Mexico is of long -- sometimes 4-meter (12 feet) piece of jerga folded in half and attached to a jalador. The user then swooshes the mop in a figure-8 motion, mopping a wide expanse of tiled floors. If you get a chance to see that happening, perhaps in an airport terminal, a hotel lobby or a hallway in a government building, stop and take it in. It’s like watching a well-rehearsed dance on the part of the cleaning-staff person.

You also see people cleaning a wide swath in Mexico with a broom. This is common when sweeping or raking leaves in gardens, on pavement, or on cobblestones.  The broom is known as an "escoba de varas", literally a broom of sticks. It is made of dried meter-long weeds the consistency of tumbleweed but straight.  These weeds are frequently sold door-to-door in upper-scale neighborhoods. That’s the part of town with gardens large enough to make use of escobas de varas. 

The stiff weeds are tightly tied to a broomstick to make a two-meter long broom.  These brooms are held almost parallel to the ground, allowing a large area to be swept. 

Perhaps the grandest performance of sweeping I've ever seen was in Guanajuato's Jardin de la Unión one morning while breakfasting in an open-air restaurant. I watched the park's caretaker line a circular depression in the pavement with several sheets of newsprint. He moistened the edges of the paper to form a tight seal between the paper and the paving stones.  He then picked up a palm frond he kept hidden behind a hedge and used it the same way a gardener would use an escoba de varas.  With a single pass around the parks' walkway he swept every fallen leaf onto the newsprint. I watched how he flicked even the smallest and most delicate blades of the frond to move the leaves. When he finished sweeping he returned the frond to its hiding place, folded the newsprint and contents into a tight package, tucked it under his arm, and departed.  It was a show of skill, grace, and humility deserving to be performed across the street in the Juarez Theater.

Escobas de varas and jergas are giving way to manufactured mops, brooms, and rakes.  Recently I saw one glimmer of hope for the escoba de varas on a street-sweeper's cart in Mexico City's Alameda Park.  It looked just like the classic broom made of sticks, but each length of "twig" was made of plastic. I asked her where I could find one.  Her answer was it was given to her along with her cart by the city government.

I've looked for such a plastic broom in stores but haven't found one. If among the readers of the Digs there is a plastic products designer, you now have an idea for a sure-sale item.  Just say "thanks to Charlie for passing along the idea." 

And fashion designers -- jerga is probably one of the cheapest types of cloth around.  Warm too.  Just don't try to sell your jerga-based creations in Mexico.