Friday, December 4, 2009

Scones for Marlena

This morning I was proclaimed "The Best Scone Maker in Existence" by Her High Holiness of the Roving Feast, Marlena Spieler. I couldn't be prouder. I feel like I've been knighted by the queen herself (which would be appropriate, given that Queen Liz II was coronated at the Stone of Scone in 1953.) After all, Marlena, author of about 70 cookbooks, world traveler, and superb food writer, lives in London and knows her scones.

I, however, having been raised in 1950s suburban Connecticut, know my way around a glazed doughnut, a cruller, and even a bran muffin...but a scone? They weren't even in my orbit, much less my repertoire (remember, I'm a cook, not a baker), until fairly recently.

From pastry bumpkin to scone maven; how is that possible, you ask? Two words: Sunset Magazine. In the early 90s my neighbor and friend Diane made a batch of scones that knocked my socks off. I asked for her secret recipe, she handed me a Sunset Magazine cookbook. I baked, I ate, I was hooked.

The original recipe calls for the basics: butter cut into flour, sugar, and leavening, liquid added, and a simple combination of currants and lemon peel in there for flavor. Scones made from this recipe are delicious, will allow you to win friends and influence people, and make you very welcome at pot luck parties, especially high teas and brunches.

But I'm a rule breaker, I bore easily, and I like to cook with what's on hand, so by my third batch I was using a Cuisinart to work in the butter. The currants were left in the dust as I mixed in chocolate, dried fruit, nuts and seeds, cheeses, sun-dried tomatoes, herbs - really, whatever hit my fancy and was in the house. (Not all at once, of course...but you knew that.)

Since that first fateful batch I have baked literally thousands of scones, most of them during my years managing La Casa de Espiritus Alegres Bed & Breakfast in Guanajuato, where we served a freshly baked basketful to appreciative guests every morning. House favorite: chunks of Mexican chocolate, almonds, and candied orange peel.) We also used this recipe at the much-missed Emmanuelle's Restaurant in Santa Cruz, where loyal scone hounds lined up daily to see what delicious flavor combination would come out of the oven each morning. They have been written about in newspapers, guide books, magazines, and online. Traditional? I don't know, but delicious? Absolutely.

Buttermilk Scones

3 cups all purpose Flour
⅓ cup Sugar
2 ½ teaspoons Baking Powder
½ teaspoon Baking Soda
½ teaspoon Salt (omit if you're using salted butter)
6 oz. cold unsalted Butter, cut in pieces
¾ cup Currants & 1 tablespoon grated Lemon Zest OR 1 cup Mix-In of your choice
1 cup Buttermilk
  1. Put flour, sugar, baking powder, soda, and salt together in Cuisinart and pulse until thoroughly blended. Add butter and pulse until it resembles coarse cornmeal.
  2. To the dry mix add the currants and lemon peel or other "mix-in" and pulse just a couple of times to combine evenly. Add buttermilk and pulse until dough begins to form a ball and cleans the sides of the bowl. Turn out onto a lightly floured surface and form into two discs. Cut each disc into 6 wedges and place wedges on a greased cookie sheet. Brush tops with buttermilk or cream and for sweet scones sprinkle with cinnamon sugar. Refrigerate scones at least ten minutes, or even overnight.
  3. Place cold scones in a 425 oven. Bake for for 18-20 minutes or until tops are golden brown, turning once mid-bake.
  4. Serve hot from the oven. Clotted cream, butter, and jams are all lovely with them, but they are about perfect just as they are.
*Some wonderful ideas for Mix-Ins, but only the beginning: Candied Ginger and Dried Apricots...Bacon, Cheese, and Chives...Dried Pineapple, Toasted Coconut, and Slivered Almonds...Sundried Tomatoes, Feta, Pine Nuts, and Fresh Herbs...Chocolate Chips and Candied Ginger...you get the idea.

Notes:
  1. You're allowed to use the Cuisinart only if you promise you will not overmix. You're looking for the same texture you'd get if you used two knives or a pastry blender to cut the butter into the flour, a coarse meal. This allows the rising to happen, resulting in flaky moist scones.
  2. On the same note, once you've added the buttermilk, stop pulsing as soon as the dough begins to come together. Better to turn it into a bowl or out on the board at that point and finish the mixing by hand than to overmix and risk melting the butter.
  3. If you have buttermilk around that's great, if you don't, just substitute regular milk (and yes, you can stir in lemon juice and create instant buttermilk.) I've also used yogurt (plain or flavored) and a combination of all of the above with success.
  4. The second secret to successful rising is cold scones and a hot stove. Chill the dough or chill the scones on the pan, but be sure they are cold when they go in the oven. Also, a 425 degree oven is not very forgiving, so don't walk away at the 15-minute mark. If you find that your oven is consistently browning too quickly, start out at 425 to get the rise you want and drop to 350 after 10 minutes.
So what flavor scones did I make for my special guests - the Divine Miss M, Sonia "Spielberg" Bañuelos & Little Sprout, and the lovely Vanessa?
  • Sweet scones loaded with chunks of good quality Bittersweet Chocolate, coarsely chopped Roasted Almonds, and Dried Montmorency Cherries (Left)
  • Savory scones with cubes of sharp Cheddar Cheese, minced Fresh Herbs from the garden (fennel fronds, parsley, sage), and a sprinkle of Pungo Creek Indian Corn Meal for toothsome texture, dusted with the tiniest bit of smoked paprika. (Center)
  • Reefer Madness scones inspired by the ingredients for brik a l'ouef that ended up in my refrigerator after Marlena and Sonia visited the other day: a bit of Preserved Lemons, chopped, precooked Broccoli Rabe, and crumbled Feta Cheese, brushed with a bit of yogurt and finely ground parmesan. I baked them free-form to leave the greens intact. They were exotic, fragrant, and fabulous. (Right)

The Divine Miss M with the scone platter.

By the way, I tried to find the original Sunset scone recipe online today. Following threads like In Search of the Perfect Scone and Lost Scone Recipe led me to Lemon Buttermilk Scones from Sunset Magazine. I bet they're delicious, but it's not the same recipe. I know this because - non-baker that I am - I never would have had the nerve to leave out an egg or change the amount of flour by even a tablespoon, much less raise the oven temperature by 75 degrees.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

El Tiempo Teine Alas (Time Flies)

The last time I posted here it was June and I was in Guanajuato, Mexico. I was drinking a cinnamon-scented licuado de platano, attempting to stay cool in the before-the-rains dry heat of the central highlands of Mexico and fretting over the terrible state of tourism in Mexico due to the latest news attack (er...I mean report) from north of the border. It's now November in Santa Cruz, we've had or first big storm of the season, and the leaves are falling from the big oak tree outside my door in Happy Valley. Yes, it's been a long time since I've blogged.


It's not like there isn't plenty to write about. During my time in Guanajuato there were visits by dear friends from both California and Mexico, wonderful meals and celebrations cooked and shared, even a day of horseback riding. In the final days the flurry of oh-my-gosh-I'm really-leaving activity produced enough blog fodder for many a meaty post: learning about my neighbors in Marfil, watching Lulu make the most amazing gorditas ever; hangin' with Cuchis, the dueña of the little tiendita at which I spent many an afternoon over a cold beer learning the stories of Marfil while watching the world go by - in cars and buses, on foot, horses, and burros.

And I finally tracked down the answers to all but one of my questions about the Sounds of the 'Hood, meeting (and videoing) the guy screaming Arrozzzz!! outside my window each day, even climbing the bell tower and photographing the amazing timepiece (as well as the little muchachos) responsible for the church bells that perplexed me every fifteen minutes all day and night - every day and night - during my two-month stay.
Then there was the breathtaking birthday meal at The Most Unexpected Restaurant, Ik Etsnab in Santa Rosa, a little village in the hills above Guanajuato. Picture a sleepy village on a mountain road and then tuck an über-modern glass box into the trees, staff it with a young and talented Mexican couple, and celebrate with dishes like From the Sea, complete with toasted parmesan "sand" and salty "sea foam" topped with flowery flotsam and jetsam and you'll understand the "unexpected" part.

And the mad 4-day drive home deserves a post entitled Down to the Last Drop (due to the state of both my gas tank and wallet - over and over!) that produced a photo series I call 70 MPH, all shot driving down the highway staring straight ahead with my right arm stretched toward the open passenger-side window while I raced home in time for a yearly catering gig.

Yes, it's not like there hasn't been plenty to write about: The grim fog that settled in over me once I got home and unpacked and realized that tourism to Mexico had all but stopped. My ire at the media and the ache of sympathy I felt for my friends in Mexico that followed the realization. Days and days of through-the-eyes-of-a-child adventures with my darling 5-year-old housemate, and then while he summered with grandma and grandpa the month of cooking and entertaining that ensued in a child-free home, along with all the joy (and new recipes and friends) that brought me.
A couple of exciting My Mexico Tours events here in the Bay Area. The opening of Bonny Doon Winery's Cellar Door Cafe, the brightest star in Santa Cruz's restaurant sky since India Joze and Emmanuelle's closed, to which new friend Sonia (thank you, Facebook!) introduced me. An article in the local newspaper in which I participated that had the unexpected and delightful side effect of bringing me together with my food guru Jozseph...and the alchemy that continues to develop between us since then.
Yep, there've been plenty of adventures, opinions, tastes, and ideas to share; my iPhoto library bursting at the seams; all friends warned that everyone and everything in my BIG life is now fair game as blog fodder, yet the blog block continued.

And then my dear ol' dad got sick. On August 28 he was told it was fast moving small cell lung cancer and 39 days later he died. I spent 36 of those days with him 24/7.

And that, you see, opens the floodgates, trumps all the other stories, urges me to write again. About dad, and family, and loss, but most of all about the miraculous magical mystery tour we went on for those 36 days.

The title is clear: Way To Go, Dad. Coming soon, to a blog near you.

Robert A. McNair, surrounded by Paul, Mark, and Yers Truly
Lazarus Road Trip, Eastern Shore of Virginia, September 28, 2009

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Licuado de Platano

One can't drink papaya lassi every day, can one? This is my other favorite breakfast drink, the perfect fill-me-up at about 11am.

LICUADO DE PLATANO

2-inch piece of canela (Mexican or Ceylon Cinnamon)
6 or so almonds

1 very ripe banana

1 cup Lori and Dan's homemade goat milk yogurt
, or your good local unsweetened yogurt
1 teaspoon excellent quality honey

3 ice cubes


Put cinnamon and almonds in blender first, then add banana, yogurt, honey, and ice cubes. Zap on high until very smooth.

*You really need canela (also called True Cinnamon or Ceylon Cinnamon) for this. It has a softer and looser bark than Cassia, its cousin that we usually see in grocery stores in the US, and therefore will blend into the licuado, giving it a heavenly scent and taste. Try your local Latin market.

About that pottery...Beautiful, isn't it? The large piece in the back is Guanajuato-style mayólica made by local master Gorky Gonzales. The small cup is the work of Gene Byron, a Canadian woman who lived here in Marfil from the 60s to the late 80s. Gene was a prolific artist in many forms -- painting, sculpture, designing lamps and lighting fixtures of punched tin, brass, and copper. She also painted somewhat whimsical designs on tile and pottery, many of which adorn this house, which she and her husband built. But that's another story for another day....



Sunday, May 31, 2009

Sounds of the 'hood...

Marfil is my 'hood these days. It’s a small (about 24,000 people) colonia (think precinct or neighborhood) of the city of Guanajuato. The B&B I used to manage, La Casa de Espíritus Alegres, is also in Marfil, just across the road about a hundred yards. What a difference those hundred yards make. Well, a hundred yards and a few hundred years—this house
was built in 1960s, La Casa in the 1600s.












The B&B is part of the Ex-Hacienda La Trinidad, a former silver-processing hacienda built along the Rio Guanajuato that is currently divided into a few private residences, the B&B, and in the hacienda’s former chapel, La Capilla, a kindergarten of all things. The gardens at La Casa are venerable and lush, a canopy of Jacaranda and Pirul (Peruvian Peppercorn) trees lace one's view of the sky; ivy, bougainvillea and copa de oro vines climb the ancient walls. It's absolutely gorgeous and I spent many a happy hour (and even a few Happy Hours) enjoying the beauty of Marfil from there.

The house I’m in now, however, is on the hill across the street and it is quite literally a completely different world up here. This house has towers of windows that provide a 180-degree view of rugged mountains, more haciendas along the river below, and sunrises over the the outskirts of Guanajuato in the east. In the eight years I worked at the B&B I had no idea that hundreds of egrets fly over Marfil every evening on their way back to the reservoir on the far side of Guanajuato. When I watch the skies here fill with spectacular cloud formations that end some lucky days with lightning, thunder, and rain, I’m reminded of the “big weather” of southwestern U.S.
By being one block up above the main thoroughfare of Marfil I can barely hear the traffic below, and instead am treated to an entirely new set of only-in-Mexico auditory treats (and some tricks) such as:
  • The distinct calls, bells, and whistles used by vendors as the pass through town. The knife sharpener is my favorite, he plays a five-note scale on his whistle—up, hold, and then down—to announce his presence. One guy goes by every day beginning at about 7am crying out a word that I cannot for the life of me understand. It sounds like “Arroz!” which means rice in Spanish, but I’m pretty darned certain I’m wrong on that one. “El Gaaaaaas!” is common as the LP truck rumbles through, and then there’s the ice cream truck that slowly rolls along each afternoon blaring a honky-tonk piano version of "The Alley Cat Song" from a speaker wired to the roof. Is that the international song for “Buy Ice Cream Now” or is it only in Mexico?
  • Children playing in the street in front of the house. I'm not crazy about the clatter produced by this year's most popular toy. It is basically just two plastic balls on either end of a string; you hold the string in the middle and bounce up and down to get the balls to click. Newbies are fine, they don't succeed in clicking the balls that often, but the older boys are really good at it, and they have big balls, it you'll forgive the pun, that make an extremely loud "clackclackclackclack" that seems to go on forever. Think dentistry tool and eardrum; just horrible. But then there are the laughter-filled evenings and weekends when the kids bounce a ball in the street and up against the big stonewall at the bottom of the garden. That one I especially love, it sounds exactly like a happy childhood should sound. When the ball gets away from them and escapes over the wall they ring the bell to come and retrieve it which gives us a few minutes to get to know each other. That I treasure.
  • The birdsong is amazing here, beginning with the 3am chatter of parrots who've set up housekeeping in a tree outside my bedroom window. Parrots in the high desert of Guanajuato, you ask? Apparently they were (illegally) bought as pets and escaped from their cages. Go parrots!
  • There are people walking, driving, and riding horses on the cobblestone street that passes behind the house and leads to a large part of Marfil that I never even knew existed. The lane passes just below the third floor window where I spend many hours working, so I pretty much hear the coming and goings of the entire village’s day. This one fascinates because I can’t actually see the road, just hear the sounds, so I imagine the stories to go along with the sounds. My favorite is the lone rider on horseback who goes down at 10 and back up a 10:30 almost every night. I’ve made him out to be a campesino who lives miles beyond here on his ranch in the hills and who comes down each evening to reward himself for his day of toil in the soil with one ice cold cerveza from the little store down the way.
  • Then there are the bells of the church just a few doors away. Since the church is so close they provide the daily soundtrack to life in this house, but I've been here over six weeks and but I still haven't figured them out. They ring on the hour, obviously, and then 15, 30, and 45 minutes after the hour are marked with a different tone. Okay, got that part. Then there are the calls to mass, which seems to happen most mornings at 8:30 and a few times a day on the weekends. That’s when they ring and ring and ring, announcing first, second, and third and final call, basically. Got that part too. But then sometimes I swear I am listening for them and they simply don’t ring. Sleeping bellman? Broken auto-chimer? Then one day the tones sounded different to me. That had me picturing someone up there 24 hours a day and when they switched shifts the tone changed. But that couldn’t possibly be true, who the heck would sleep on a church roof and ring bells every fifteen minutes all day every day, right? Then one day, when I had just about convinced myself that they were definitely on auto-chime, I was standing at the kitchen window washing dishes when the call to mass began. I looked over to see a real person pulling the rope, over and over. Theory bashed. My current thought is that it is some combination of automatic and hand rung, both of which sometimes malfunction, allowing for the missing clangs and mysterious changes in tone. Before I leave town I intend to get to the bottom of this, even if it means putting on a skirt and going to mass.
  • And just today I realized that my 'hood here, especially in the morning with all its roosters and chickens and burros, sounds exactly like my farm on Farm Town (a face book app that I am hooked on), which just delights me. When I return to Happy Valley and the familiar howl of coyotes and screech of red-tailed hawks I can turn on Farm Town any time I like and hear my Marfil 'hood.

I'm the one with the blond ponytail, Farmer Betty.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

About that flu...

A little background: One of the reasons I wanted to write a blog about the experience of driving to Mexico alone was to share the other side of the story from what we were seeing in the news in the US - the kind and safe side of Mexico. Before I left, I wrote on my website...

"I’d like to address the 'news' stories about Mexico you’re seeing on TV lately that are wr
eaking havoc on tourism in Mexico, as you can imagine. I personally think it’s unconscionable for our sensation-seeking, ratings-rabid media to portray the entire warm, welcoming, and peaceful country of Mexico as being under siege and at war. It is simply not true. Yes, the government has launched a war against the drug cartels that supply the USA’s insatiable appetite for drugs, but the battles are almost exclusively along the border towns and involve people dealing in illegal activities. Since you are not likely to be vacationing in Ciudad Juarez or purchasing illegal drugs, a visit to Mexico for you will bear no resemblance to what you’re seeing on TV."

And my trip, thankfully, proved my point. I had an absolutely fabulous time and was well taken care of by kind and caring people wherever I went.

With 'Handle the Drug Wars' now off my To Do list, I jumped into my new life in Guanajuato.

After a week or so of settling in I was ready to entertain. I invited a couple of pals over for brunch on Friday, April 24. The process of preparing the meal included visits to several little shops in my neighborhood, which delighted me. I never even knew they existed when I lived here before, and now here I was getting bolillos at the religious tchotchke store (I have no idea why they also sell bread, but I was told that they had the best rolls in town), choosing a gorgeous papaya at the fruteria, ordering a Vampiro (beets, carrots, and oranges) and a Verde (parsley, pineapple, celery, and nopal cactus) from the fresh juice stand, and meeting my all neighbors along the way.Pat and Angélica came around noon and we spent several hours together enjoying the view from my rooftop terrace, eating, talking, and catching up. Gela asked if either of us had heard about this new flu that had been discovered in Mexico City. We hadn't. She told us that the papers that morning had mentioned an outbreak of a new strain, apparently very strange and dangerous and maybe even transmitted from pigs. We shrugged our shoulders. Swine flu? No way. The day was beautiful, the company lovely, the bagels and smoked salmon delicious, and we - and everyone we knew - was well.

That night I googled "influenza Mexico" and read that Mexico had received confirmation from a Canadian lab of a new strain of flu. It was suggested that people in Mexico City not attend large gatherings, including soccer games and mass. The World Health Organization and the Center for Disease Control were involved and the words "epidemic" and "pandemic" were being bandied about. Ayyy, what madness was this?

I spent a good part of the weekend doing what I would normally do. I attended an meeting of the Guanajuato Renewable Energy Network (amazing!), visited with friends, and attended a wonderful concert of Brazilian guitar music. Most of the time things were completely normal. But when I wasn't out doing those things I was obsessively reading whatever I could find about Mexico on the Internet. My browser history for that weekend is filled with the BBC, NYTimes, Google searches, and blogs about science, Mexico, health...as well as Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations and Face Book. My in box is full of messages from friends in the hotel business reporting cancellations galore and links to articles about the flu...and all the regular fare alerts and mundane stuff too.

It was rather surreal to be reading about one reality and experiencing quite another. I was reminded of Santa Cruz after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Then, too, what I saw on TV or read in the papers did not match the reality I saw all around me. While there was tragedy around me, and there truly was, if you turned on the television it appeared that ALL of San Francisco was on fire and slumping into the ground and ALL freeways were down. But when you went outside and looked around houses were standing (albeit filled with broken china) and people were surfing and playing volleyball on the beach. I felt that same sort of disconnect this time.

But it was still scary, how could you not be scared?

By Sunday night, April 27, Mexico City was said to be a "ghost town" with just a few people in blue face masks out. Schools there were closed until May 6, hospitals were besieged with people complaining of flu-like symptoms - most of whom were checked and sent home, and President Felipe Calderón asked people to remain calm. In the US a public health emergency was declared after 20 cases of the "swine flu" were reported there.

That night my heart ached for Mexico. How could it possibly take this other cruel blow when it was already suffering a recession largely tied to our own economic problems in the US, drug related violence, and inflammatory reports of the latter in the US news that were affecting tourism in a big - and negative - way? I was bothered by the dismissive "Well, it is Mexico, after all..." tone I noted in many of the articles I read. And I cried when I read racists remarks in the "readers comments" sections that followed very decent articles in the NY Times and the Washington Post. I wanted to scream,"Viruses don't know what a border is, you idiotas!"

Hugo Garcia, a Mexican editorialist for the Mexico City daily El Milenio, wrote "Now, like a sign of the Apocalypse, the last thing we needed -- an epidemic...What the hell did Mexicans do for the Gods to punish us like this?" I had been wondering the same thing myself, but using the words"karmic circle" in place of Gods.

And just when it couldn't get any worse, it did. Monday morning an earthquake of 5.7 struck in the nearby state of Guerrero and was felt in Mexico City. Little harm was done, but it was a huge blow to an already shaken public. You really did have to wonder about the end of the world, the plagues and all that. What was next?, I wondered. Boils, floods, and locusts?

Wait...locusts we could handle. Send locusts and we'll fry them up, sprinkle them with chile, call them chapulines, and sell them in the markets in Oaxaca. That was the one weak joke I could make in an increasingly sad situation.

Some creative tapaboca humor from Mexico City.

I started to hear from friends asking, "Got masks?" There was still not a single case of the new flu in the State of Guanajuato, and I was, quite honestly, more concerned with my mother's knee replacement surgery that afternoon (she's doing great, thanks for asking) than I was about a flu that was no where near me and that I wasn't going to catch and an earthquake that had apparently caused little damage, but I was aware all day of the gloom that hung over the country like a giant storm cloud about to burst.

I had a dinner party that night, and over drinks I asked the group (two Mexicans, one Canadian who has lived here for many years, his German wife who lives here and there, and four North Americans - one a tourist, two who own homes here, and me) what they thought about the situation. The conversation was nothing if not lively. "This happened right after Hillary and Obama were here, could they have brought it?" "Our government knows more than they are telling us." "I don't get it, why is the US media seem to be trashing Mexico so badly these days?" "It's got to be a conspiracy of the drug companies to sell us anti-virals." "Did you read the statistics of how many people die in he US from your everyday garden variety flu every year? 30-50 thousand! Who knew?"

For dinner I served Cochinita Pibil - a roasted PORK dish from Yucatán. It was fabulous.

By Tuesday school across all of Mexico were closed, sending parents who had just gotten their kids back to school after Easter vacation dashing to the video stores to stock up for yet another Spring Break. I heard from a dear friend who was to arrive the next night and spend a week that she was canceling due to fears of the flu. Another friend, who planning to spend one night with me before going on to San Miguel where he was to officiate at a wedding, was informed that the wedding was cancelled. He decided to come anyway - flu be damned! - and spend the extra days in Guanajuato. News reports started to trickle, then pour, in about a pig farm in Veracruz...La Gloria...Smithfield Hams...a little boy named Edgar...a woman in Oaxaca...factory farming...and whose fault is this, anyway?

One brilliant piece of reporting, I thought, came my way on Tuesday via Rachel Lauden, a food historian and friend who lives here in Guanajuato. It's from a blog called Junk Food Science, which sets out to debunk popular myths and get to the truth of the matter regarding food, health, and science. The piece is entitled Flu Fears, and though its numbers on this particular flu strain in this particular post are obviously outdated now, the sound information about flus and epidemics and the like is great, well worth a read. (Click here to do so.) One important point she made was the unwarranted - and unbridled - use of the word "pandemic" by the media even though the facts did not support that.

Oh, heck, what are facts to the media?

Somewhere around May 1st it began to dawn on me that while the flu was very real and deserved my attention, I was once again being taken for a ride by our out-of-control media. I began to notice that almost all articles with doom and gloom headlines had words like "likely", "might become", and "could evolve into" in them. The light came on. I stopped obsessively reading everything I could find about the flu and choose instead to wait for things to calm down. They always do.

Luckily Tobin was here to take my away from my computer for a few days and we had a wonderful time visiting Dolores Hidalgo and San Miguel. Oh, and Guanajuato. I finally did let him see Guanajuato.

We were treated like royalty at Hacienda de las Trancas while Tobin consoled the disappointed bride who'd had to cancel her dream wedding because her friends in the States were told they would face unpaid quarantine days when then returned from Mexico. (This is in a state with not one reported case of the A(H1N1) flu. 'Splain that one to me, Lucy.)

Tobin, acting like the royalty he is.

And we spent a fabulous night with my pal Dianne at her Rancho Casa Luna the most elegant "ranch" I've ever seen. Absolutely over-the-top gorgeousness wherever you look. We slept in big iron beds in the outside bedroom, I felt like I was in a set for a Ralph Lauren ad.

There's Tobin doing his Royalty thing again, this time at the fabulous Rancho Casa Luna.

A couple of good articles from the New York Times came my way during the week, one by Julio Frenk, Mexico’s former minister of health, now dean of the Harvard School of Public Health, entitled Mexico's Fast Diagnosis, in which he refers to the influenza situation as a "global challenge". That phrase resonates deeply with me. Another on May 1st had the headline "Outbreak in Mexico May Be Smaller Than Feared"; good news at last!

Yes, it was becoming clear that this flu, too, shall pass.

I have to say, I am grateful to be here during all this. I can't imagine being in California with the 24/7 barrage of "news" in my face everyday. I'd be worried sick (pun intended.) By being here I am able to balance the hysteria building in the media over the imminent pandemic sweeping the country - and then the world! - with the reality I see around me: Mexico City brought to a standstill as people took the warning to stay home seriously now slowly coming back to life, still no flu in Guanajuato, and the stabilizing of numbers of actual cases and deaths from cases across the country.

I think the Mexican government, which had the impossible task of handling this storm, and the Mexican people, who have a healthy distrust of said government, did a brilliant job of keeping this outbreak very much under control. I'm very proud of them. Twenty-nine people dead of anything is tragic, but it could have been so much worse had they not taken the precautionary measures they did. I say, ¡Bravo Mexico!

What deeply worries me now that things are back to "normal" is the livelihood of the thousands and thousands of people affected by this latest blow to an already suffering economy, specifically in my world of tourism. Weddings, events, and vacations were canceled throughout Mexico for months to come, even in areas where no flu was present - Guanajuato is a perfect example. They are predicting (be careful here...who are "they"? and note that I am using the word "predicting") a drop in tourism this year of about 40%. But even if "they" are exaggerating the exact number, it will be huge in a country where tourism is the third most important source of foreign income.

I don't know who made this so I can't give them the credit they deserve, but I was sent this by several friends this week.
I know he's wearing a mask, but did he wash his hands?

My friends with businesses here are creatively coming up with projects to keep their staff busy and employed, but it's going to take clients to pay those salaries. A waiter in Mexico makes just his tips, so even if he keeps his job he needs diners in the restaurant to make a living. I'm worried about the airlines, sure, but also about the flight attendants, pilots, and the guys who wave the flashlights and move your bags at the airport. Hotel owners are in a pickle, and so are their lovely maids, maintenance staff, and bell boys. Bus drivers are losing shifts, taxi drivers too. Everyone here will feel the effects of this flu for weeks and months to come. I just hope and pray that people won't stay away for long.

From my vantage point in Guanajuato, I can tell you wholeheartedly and with no reservations that it's a great time to visit. There are still no cases of the flu in the state, there are no lines at the airport, people in the hospitality business have never been more hospitable, the peso is still hovering around 13 to the dollar, and heck, I've been telling you to wash your hands for years, so there's nothing new there.

Again, I am only one voice, but I want to speak up in hopes of balancing a little of the sensationalism and unfortunately, xenophobia, that is out there:
  • This influenza is on the planet, not just in Mexico. We all live in a big soup bowl called Planet Earth and on that planet flu strains are morphing, we keep on reproducing, and our demands on the planet are high.
  • Put these numbers you are hearing into perspective. Every year in the US upwards of 50,000 people succumb to the influenza or resulting infections. In contrast, as of May 7 there are 2371 verified cases of the A(H1N1) flu in the world, and 44 of those cases resulted in deaths. Repeat: 50,ooo vs. less than 3,000. *
  • Take what you read and hear in the news with a HUGE grain of salt. We cannot simply believe everything we read or hear, that is very clear.
I have always told people who travel with My Mexico Tours that you, the travelers, need to trust yourselves in order to stay safe and healthy and I will say that again today. Read the papers, talk to your doctor, do some research on your own, and when you feel confident and safe to travel in Mexico come on down and enjoy. It is as safe here as where you sit right now, reading this.

And before I step off my soap box, let me say one more thing:

I believe there is an opportunity in the midst of this crisis for us to all learn a lesson or two about our world and how we're caring for it...or not. We must confront the perils of factory farming, we cannot turn our heads from the absolute necessity of health care for all, everywhere, and, most importantly, I truly hope this reminds us that we are all in this together. If we would just remember this, I could consider this nightmare a blessing.

Now go wash your hands, wherever you are.

¡Viva Mexico! ¡Viva Madre Tierra!Killer Chiles Rellenos at La Sierra in Santa Rosa, a little village in the hills above Guanajuato. Let's go!!

*As of May 11, 2009, acording the W.H.O., the number of worldwide cases of this flu is 5251 with 61 cases resulting in death.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Papaya Lassi, it's what's for breakfast...

PAPAYA LASSI

2-3 cardamon pods, brought to Mexico years ago by a dear friend visiting from Milwaukee and still flavorful after all these years, lightly toasted and cracked open.
2 cups or so chunks of super ripe papaya, peeled and seeded.
1.5 cups fresh yogurt, goat's milk handmade by a friend if possible, or use a good quality unsweetened yogurt if you don't live near Lori and Dan.
1 TBS or so Rancho San Cayetano's organic honey, if you're lucky enough to have some on hand, if not you can substitute your favorite honey for now and make plans to go to Michoacán with me next March to see millions of monarchs and cook with DK.
4-5 ice cubes
Put cardamom in to blender first, then add all other ingredients. Zap until velvety smooth. Pour into tall glass and breathe in the scent of cardamon before you take your first sip.


Makes enough for 2 if you're feeling generous, or just 1 if it's all about you today.

As I wrote this recipe down I realized that it is inspired by both the late great Joan Summers, creator of the Casa de Espiritus Alegres B&B, and her husband, artist Carol Summers. Joan taught me how to pick the sweetest papaya - it should look almost like it's on the way out - and I tasted my first lassi in India with Carol. They were a great combo, those two, and so are the flavors in this flavorful drink.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

At home in Mexico

The date is Thursday, April 30, 2009. I am at home in Guanajuato. I know this because, as cooks the world over know, being "at home" means having rice, beans, pasta, onions, and garlic in the pantry, fresh fruit and vegetables in the refrigerator, some protein in the freezer, and a pot of chicken stock on the stove.

But settling into my new beautiful home in Guanajuato has also meant coming down off the thrill of The Road Trip. Writing these posts, telling the stories of my adventures, has been helpful in bringing me into the present, allowing me to process all that I saw and smelled and thought of as the road flew beneath me for almost 2,500 miles.

The stats for the trip:
  • I started the trip on Tuesday, April 7 when I left my home in Happy Valley, Santa Cruz, California at 1pm. I arrived in Marfil, a district of the city of Guanajuato in the state of the same name seven days later on Monday, April 13, at 4:30pm. Total travel time = 147.5 hours; 95 in the US and 52.5 in Mexico.
  • I started out slowly - it took me 4 full days to leave California and head east into Arizona and to the border, about 1000 miles in total, and gained speed in Mexico, where I covered about 1500 miles in 2 days.
  • I spent about $140 USD on gas.
  • Tolls in Mexico totaled $109 USD, which works out to about 7 cents per mile. For this nominal fee I had well maintained roads that were patrolled by the Angeles Verdes (Green Angels), a fleet of roadside service vehicles that prowl the highways of Mexico 24 hours a day looking for motorists in need. (They're rather like AAA except that they're out there looking for you and it's free.) There were gas stations with clean bathrooms and mini-supers all along the route, and safe and sane fellow drivers.
My observations:
  • People throughout the trip were - as I have always found in my travels in Mexico - kind and helpful. This time they were also a little incredulous that I was making this trip solita (alone).
  • There were a few times during the trip when I was afraid. They were: 1) when I thought I might have done some damage to the tire by hitting the Invisible Cement Thing, 2) the morning that I was getting dangerously low on gas while counting the kilometers to the next Pemex station, and 3) a couple of times when, while driving, I could feel my eyes drooping from the sameness, not from tiredness. Cranking up the tunes and singing along helped with this one.
  • The highlights of the trip inside Mexico were 1) the absolute zaniness at the border and the necessary "logic adjustment" that followed, 2) driving Karina the toll-taker home to Santa Ana, 3) my guardian angels Carmen and Manuel in Guaymas, 4) staying in a No Tell Motel, and 5) the delicious barbacoa outside of Guadalajara.
For the record: I saw NO narco-traficante action, no rolling heads, and certainly no police state in Mexico. (I think Anderson Cooper should be made to wear a silly hat and stand in the corner for his shenanigans in the combat suit. Reminds me of a presdent we once had.) I'm not denying that drug-related problems exist, I am saying that crossing the border and then driving 1500 miles in Mexico with my eyes wide open, I saw none of these problems. No kidnappings, no drug cartels, and no police or army personnel. (I take that back. Somewhere around Hermosillo I saw three army jeeps filled with guys in uniform heading north. It looked liked the kind of thing you see in the US - first vehicle said "First in Convoy" and the last vehicle said " End of Convoy." I have no idea where they were going or what they were doing.)

Let me sum this up: My experience driving alone from the US border to Central Mexico was absolutely delightful. I felt completely safe. I was looked after and well cared for by everyone with whom I had contact. The coffee in the ubiquitous OXXO markets was terrible, but that is really my only complaint. I'd do it again in a minute. And I will, in June when it's time to go home.

Okay, off the caja de jabón and on to life in Guanajuato...

Dear Faye was here for the first two days and plenty of time was spent learning all the rules of a new house: when to pay whom, which keys open which locks, where to put the garbage, how to turn the lights on, etcetera.
We rested, we read, and on Faye's last day in Mexico we spent a glorious late afternoon in downtown Guanajuato on the rooftop terrace of Alma de Sol, my pal Hugo's B&B, then had a wonderful dinner overlooking the Jardín Unión, the main plaza of Guanajuato. Over Frito Mixto and Osso Bucco at an Italian place called El Frescatti, we looked down upon the bustling town as the marvelous cacophony drifted up to us: Mariachi, Ranchero, Norteña, and Spanish-style troubadours in Renaissance garb (Estudiantinas) all played at once, seemingly oblivious to each other as they belted out everything from De Colores in six-part harmony, the crowd swaying and singing along, to El Mariachi Loco, a song that Hugo always rewrites in the moment to tell my story: "Esta gringa loca quiere bailar, esta gringa loca quiere cantar." (This crazy gringa wants to dance, this crazy gringa wants to sing. And he's right!) It was a glorious only-in-Guanajuato evening made even more special by sharing it with Her Fayeness and Hugito.
The next day I dropped Faye off at the airport and officially began my two months living in Guanajuato. As I said, the way I feel at home in a place is to fill the larder, so I went straight to the grocery store. I figured I'd take the toro by the cuernos, as it were, so I went to the newish behemoth grocery store that had grown on the hill since I left in 2003 and I perused every single aisle to 1) learn what people eat here (or, at least, what the store owners believe people eat here), and 2) figure out what I and the people I planned to entertain would eat here. One thing that never fails to impress me in Mexico is the enormous variety and quantity of yogurt products available in the markets. This is just a corner of the yogurt department:


Over $200 USD later (an enormous sum to spend on food in Mexico) I had jamon serrano (think prosciutto), arrachera (a thin cut of beef very popular here for grilling) and chorizo of two types in the freezer; goat cheese, Oaxacan string cheese, and Parmesan cheese in the reefer; papaya, mangoes, bananas, limes, tomatoes, onions, and lettuce soaking in a disinfectant solution in the sink, wine in the rack and sparkling water chilling, and enough nosh-type goodies in the house to handle snacks for drop-in guests. My Full Larder = Happy Heart syndrome had been addressed and its needs met. The temperature outside was a dry 90 degrees Fahrenheit and I haven't lived through an East Coast winter since 1989, but it's clear to me that this drive comes from a deep-seated need to know that if we get snowed in I can feed us all for a week.

The stock pot simmered away. I started calling people, telling them that I was town, making plans. (If a cook knows she's home when the pantry is stocked, a caterer knows she's arrived when the first dinner party is scheduled.) I met a friend who makes goat's milk yogurt so I bought some and started making myself a papaya lassi for breakfast every morning. (Absolutely delicious. Just needed a pinch of cardamom and I found some yesterday.)

On Saturday I went to a "tea party" where I met at least fifteen new-to-me North American women who moved to Guanajuato since I left in 2003. After lunch I spent a good hour chismear-ing (Spanglish for gossiping) with two older gals whom I met on my second day in Mexico in December 1994. Sunday afternoon I attended an excellent concert at the Gene Byron Museum across the street from my house. Wonderful accessible jazz music played by four darling young men, all students at the University of Guanajuato. Cuarteto Obsidiana, The Obsidian Quartet. Later in the afternoon I visited with the younger crowd in town at a BBQ at El Fusilado, a way cool mescal bar in Valenciana. A full weekend.

That night a cool wind began to blow. And blow. It had been very warm, 90s, so it was a welcome respite. I slept with the bedroom door open to the garden to enjoy the breeze and the view of the mountains. I the morning it was still cool and breezy and the room was littered with bright pink bougainvillea flowers. Gorgeous.

Ignacio the gardener came by that afternoon for a couple of hours to pour gallons and gallons of water onto the parched earth. I was sitting at my desk writing and watching him outside when I began to hear...thunder? No way, not in April; this is the dry season before the rains begin in June. But Guanajuato is laced with tunnels (it's a mining town, after all) so I figured they were working on a new tunnel and I was hearing the explosions of dynamite, a common sound in Guanajuato.

But it got louder and the sky turned a steel blue and suddenly it began to pour. Big time. Like run-madly-through-the-house-closing-doors-and-windows pour. By the time I hit the third storey it had changed to hail and I was being pounded with little pellets of ice. I grabbed my camera and tried to catch a few pix of this amazing phenomena. (Note the hose that was dropped mid-watering as Ignacio ran to get out of the storm.)

And I'm thinking, Yahoo! If we get "hailed in" I'll be able to feed the neighborhood for three days!

Some photos of my lovely casa...







Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Camino de Guanajuato

Monday, April 13 was Day #7 of the Road Trip of My Dreams and turned out to be the final day as well. Yes, gentle readers, by the time you've finished reading this post I - and therefore you, vicariously - will have arrived at our final destination of Guanajuato, Guanajuato. And once I have completed the process of blogging forward through the past I can get to the real reason to have a blog: pontificating on all manner of subjects about which I know a lot or a little. But, first, back to the past...

Having gone to bed so early last night (I had no internet connection and one can only watch just so much opera on TV...) I was wide awake at 5am. Well, at least, I thought it was 5am. For all I knew I may have crossed into a new time zone by now and then there was the elusive (to me, anyway - just ask my Monarchs and Diana Kennedy tour group!) Daylight Savings time change that had apparently taken place in Mexico over the weekend. But you know what, who cares about any of that when you're on a road trip? You drive while the sun is up and you hope to be safely holed up in a hotel room by the time it goes down. Ya, basta, throw the watch away.

Based on the maps I was using (which turned out to be terribly out of date) it looked like I had about a 12 hour drive ahead of me to make it from Mazatlán all the way to Guanajuato, and my supposed 8-hour days were already taking me 10, so I figured I'd best get going. Quite honestly, I wondered if it was wise to try to do this entire drive in one day, but I figured I'd give it my best shot and we'd see how far I could go.I hit the road just about sunrise, this time following the coast southeast toward Tepic, and from there up into the central highlands of Jalisco (think tequila and mariachi) and then almost directly west to Guanajuato. I called friend Faye in Guanajuato to tell that I hoped to make it today but certainly not until evening.

The route from Mazatlán, Sinaloa to Tepic, Nayarit, was a relatively new toll road, so I tooled along nicely. I had filled up the tank the night before, so my only stops were for intake and output of coffee and to pay the tolls. Quite honestly, I don't really remember much about this part of the trip, so I'm guessing that the road signs weren't quite as funny as they had been (or I was getting used to them?) and the scenery was pretty much like it was the day before: dry but with a tropical twist (in that there were bananas and papayas and cars parked under palapas), fields of corn, mango orchards, and a road that went virtually straight ahead for as far as the eye could see. I was mostly just trying to make good time while driving safely, singing along to old radio shows I'd done that I had loaded on to the iPod (cue up Pink Martini, Holly Cole, Joan Osborne, Dixie Chicks, Dolly Parton, Emmy Lou, Feist, and more...) But oh, that Dixie Chicks song! It was hitting me where I live, quite literally.

I made a commitment to myself in 2003 to play the Chicks on every show I ever do after they were nixed from most country stations in response to Natalie Maines saying, upon our invasion in Iraq, that she was ashamed of her fellow Texan then-President Bush. As far as I'm concerned you're welcome to agree or disagree with her hasta las vacas regresan a la casa, but for an entire block of radio stations to decide to censor the airwaves like that? No way. So I figured I'd make my own little bit of a difference once a month on KZSC by making sure they were given airtime.

Back to today's soundtrack... the song the Chicks were singing was "Godspeed" from their excellent album entitled "Home". (I wish I knew how to link to it from here, but just go buy the CD if you don't already own it. It's all good.) This one song was written by Radney Foster and is a sweet lullaby to a son. I don't have a son, but I do have a wonderful 5-year old housemate named Jess who is one of the very brightest lights in my well illuminated life. And okay, I admit it, sometimes living with a 5-year old is a challenge, but I adore this little guy and I miss him something wicked when we're apart. I hadn't had much time to think about home and Happy Valley since I'd left, but when this song came and I heard their gorgeous harmonies singing "Godspeed, little man. Sweet dreams, little man. My love will fly to you each night on angel wings. Godspeed. Sweet dreams." it hit me with a wallop just how much I love him and how hard it was going to be to be away from him for two whole months. Made me all teary-eyed I got that "open hearted" feeling in my chest. Here's the reason why:
Jess, a.k.a Jackie Brown, Tooter, and Bug. Pretty cute, eh?
Oh, hey, hi, Jess. Howya doin'?

Okay, back to the trip. I was making great time. I hit Tepic before 9am. Had I more time I would have stopped just to see it. Nayarit is a state populated by Huichol and Cora indigenous people about whom I know very little and am eager to learn more. Maybe on the way back...there is a Sunday market I'd like to see.

The road from Tepic to Guadalajara was epic, as my friend Harlan would say. We climbed and climbed, then dipped and dove, over what looked to be volcanic mountains. Gorgeous! As I reached the central highlands I saw in the distance the purple clouds of jacarandas in bloom - first of the trip - and passed acres and acres of blue agave, the steel-blue spiky type grown for making tequila. A whole new world lay before me.

By this point I had switched over to listening to podcasts I'd downloaded to Most Beloved iPod. Coverville for ideas for the radio show, and The Splendid Table, which was, in fact, just splendid. I especially loved the February 28 show on Mexico, don't miss it! It provides such an informative and happy antidote to the "news" about Mexico you're seeing on TV. And the episode with the wonderful Steve Sando, El Señor de los Frijoles of Rancho Gordo in Napa, CA, on March 28 was great too.

The road was flying beneath me, I was almost to Guadalajara and it was only 11am. Those new tolls roads really made a difference. That, and not taking the turn off to the town of Tequila. Yes, I, gentle reader, I took the road less traveled by and that made all the difference...
...about lunch, that is. Because I was making such good time I decided to stop at the fabulous little restaurant I had discovered in 2002 while working with Bon Appétit on their May 2003 Soul of Mexico issue.

Vicente, my dear friend who was our driver for most of that rather grueling 28-days-and-22-shots-in-18-different-locations road trip, had dropped the rest of the team off at the airport in Guadalajara early that morning and now just he and I were going to drive out to the coast and meet them in Puerto Vallarta in time for the "Shrimp in Sayulita" shot the next day. It was a sweet day of travel and communion between two good friends - no pressure, no egos, no worrying about the light and shadows - just us pals on a road trip in a country we both love. Vicente, bless his soul, had his priorities in order when he suggested we stop for almuerzo (late hearty breakfast, more like our lunch) before we set off into the mountains and from there to the coast. It was a very good call.

After we left the city but before we hit the mountains we saw this place on the side of the road serving lamb a million different ways in a restaurant familiar (family-friendly, casual restaurant) and we both immediately knew, "This is the place." We stopped, we ate, I had that out-of-my-skin-excited feeling I get when something is so good, so pure, so real. I had dreamed of returning to this nameless house of culinary wonderfulness ever since.

I had a very clear picture in my mind of where it was - just outside of the city in the foothills just before you begin the climb. No name, but hey, who needs a name? I'd know the place from a mile a way, it was that good. As I made my descent and approached the outskirts of the city I started looking on my left...and there it was! La Fogata, The Bonfire! Borrego Al Pastor, Birria, Barbacoa...it was all there, just as I'd remembered it.

And it was just as good as I remembered it. (How often can you say that?) I ordered up a plate of barbacoa, chunks of tender lamb wrapped in maguey leaves and cooked over a wood fire, home made tortillas, a pile of cactus and tomato salad on the side, and served with a steaming cup of the consomé, the broth that is created as the meat cooks. Only one thing was missing and that was easily remedied, "Una cervesa, por favor."

I did my best to make a dent in the giant plate of tender meaty goodness, then had the rest wrapped up to take to Faye. This was a dining experience that begged to be shared, and I knew she'd appreciate it. One quick cup of cafe de la olla (coffee boiled in a pot, usually with a little cinnamon and often with way too much sugar - today's wasn't bad) and I was back on the highway. Not for long, however...but I'm getting ahead of myself.

I remembered from a folk art-buying trip with Joan Summers years ago that there was a periférico (beltway) around Guadalajara and I was quite certain I wanted to take that rather than drive straight through the center of Mexico's second largest city in the middle of a work day. This was my decision even though my memories of the trip with Joan included driving around and around and around the city on said periférico until we all started singing "Oh did they ever return, no they never returned....they will ride forever on the periférco de Guadalajara, they're the gringos who never returned." But heck, that was over ten years ago, the roads and signage were clearly better now. It didn't even bother me that on the map I had it looked like the beltway had a piece missing that I was going to need because my own experience this morning had already proved to me that the roads were better than what the maps showed. And hey, I'd driven in Mexico long enough to know that "maps" and "Mexico" only belong in sentences with the words "don't always work in" in them.

So on I drove, headed straight to where the periférico abruptly ended and the rubber hit the dirt. I am not kidding and I took this picture to prove it. This was taken literally five minutes after I had been barrelling along the big six-lane highway at 65 mph.
So...it really did just end just like it showed on the map. Hmmm. I was suddenly on dusty back roads in the southeastern reaches of the city of Guadalajara. I called Hugo in Guanajuato, whose mother is from Guadalajara and I figured would be able to help, I followed my nose and my maps (now trusting them again...big mistake later!), and then I did what I learned to do on that trip with Joan in '96, I hired a cab to lead me out.

My hero Ramón took me the last two miles that I would have never been able to negotiate by myself, during which time we passed this fabulous piece of art painted on a wall. I renamed her Nuestra Señora de los Gringos Perdidos (Our Lady of the Lost Gringos) for the day.
He stopped the cab just shy of the highway, I gladly paid him the $30 pesos he requested (about $2.30 USD) plus some extra, and he pointed me toward Guanajuato. I was back on track and only a few hours from Guanajuato - yes! Except that there were no signs for Guanajuato. There were signs for Mexico (the city), Lagos de Moreno, Aguascalientes, San Juan de los Lagos - plenty of options, but none of them Guanajuato. I called Hugo again, consulted the map again, then I figured I'd just do the derecho thing and go straight ahead. Sooner or later there would have to be a sign to Guanajuato, right? (If anybody is keeping track of how many times my logic had failed me on this trip, now would be a good time to tally things up before the number gets too high.)

You know how you hear "Most automobile accidents happen within 25 miles from your home."? Well, I think we should add to that "On a 2,000 mile trip you get the most desperately lost within 25 miles of your destination." Maybe we relax a little too much? Maybe we get cocky? I'm not sure what my was excuse this day, but once I reached the outskirts of León, which meant I was less than an hour from Guanajuato (and it was only 3pm! Que milagro!), and therefore officially in territory I "knew", I became so completely lost that I thought I might never find my way out. Bonnie Raitt singing Blind Faith's "Can't Find My Way Home" instantly came to mind and stayed there.

In hindsight, I realize that I probably wasn't lost at all, just taking a ridiculous route right through the center of this big city at rush hour. The sign had said León so I followed it. But I didn't really want to go to León, I wanted to go around it and on to Guanajuato. Well, that was not to be, so I took the "scenic route" through every stoplight, past every strip mall, and past at least one example of all of the USA's worst "restaurants": McD's, BQ, KFC - you name it and León has at least one.

The irony here is that the song Camino de Guanajuato (The Road to Guanajuato, by José Alfredo Jimenez) is one of my all time favorite Mexican ballads and one that has worked like a charm to make me friends all over Mexico. Everybody loves to hear la gringa loca belt out "No vale nada la vida, la vida no vale naaadaaaaa..." (Yes, that really does mean "Life is worth nothing." Think of it as the ultimate existentialist bar song). It also touts in the second verse, "bonito Leon, Guanajuato" (beautiful León, Guanajuato). Well, I am here to tell you, gentle readers, if there is a part of León that is bonito, it was not evident to me today.

Somehow I finally emerged on the east side of town, closer to Guanajuato, and began to recognize where I was. On my left was the gas station where Carlene and I had gone for help the day we bought the purple plastic dragon see-saw for the twins and got two flat tires in one day. Over there was the Costco where I spent so many days loading carts with frijoles charros (cowboy-style beans, mmm!), turkey bacon, milk, beer, and endless rolls of TP during my tenure at the Casa de Espíritus Alegres B&B. Yes, the worst was over and I was almost home.

But not until I took one more wrong turn. What is it with road signs in the state of Guanajuato? I swear, I just followed the signs to Guanajuato and the next thing I knew I was headed back into the nightmare I had only minutes ago gladly left behind. No way. I circled back and soon was on the last stretch to home. I pulled up to the house I'd be sitting for the next two months in Marfil, a district of the city of Guanajuato in the state of Guanajuato, right about in the geographical center of Mexico. The house is just across the street from the B&B where I'd spent so many years and it definitely felt like coming home. I'd made great time, arriving at about 4:30pm - hours before I'd expected to, and hours before Faye expected me! Luckily Nacho the gardener was working and he opened the big wooden door into the garden for me. And oh, what a garden! The house was locked up, but I cared not, I was happy to be right where I was. I sat on the patio in the shade of the tiled roof, popped myself a cervesa bien fria (ice cold brewski) and sat back to soak it all in. A 10-foot tall white plumeria in full bloom. The brightest-ever red-headed bird, which I later discovered was a vermillion flycatcher. The pealing of the bells from the red church steeple up the way.
What a day. Up at 5am, beautiful toll roads where I didn't expect them, and dirt roads where I was sure they'd be highway, I'd revisited the site of one of my fondest Mexican culinary memories and not been disappointed, I'd been lost but now was found, the 12 hour trip had taken only 10, and now I was home. Bed or no bed, it was time for a siesta. I lay down on the grass in the garden was out in a minute.

At last, we're back to the present! Well, at least we're off the road and in Guanajuato. From here on out I plan to post to this blog on a more regular basis, like once or twice a week. (Insiders in Bloglandia tell me that this is how it's done, and intend to follow their lead...if I can.) If you've made it this far with me I invite you to subscribe to this blog so that you'll be notified when I post something new.

Welcome, bienvenidos, to My Mexico.