a foodie trip

(Pre-written while in Mexico; posted safely from the US.)

I have a bizarre concept of a vacation in Mexico (at least I think it’s bizarre). I don’t visit here to see the sights; in truth I rarely make it out of my little town in northern Nuevo Leon. I don’t visit here for the shopping; shopping has never appealed to me, even while in the US. I barely visit for the socializing; I don’t actually visit relatives and old friends, don’t look up acquaintances and go to new places to meet new people. The trip to Mexico is a necessity, I drive my mother to visit my Grandmother, and then I play chauffeur to all the errands that need to be made while I’m here.

I do, however, visit here for the food. Or maybe I should say that the food is an added allure.

I live in Houston, which is a city where you can get almost any kind of food you’ll ever want. And finding good Mexican food is not a problem, even authentic Mexican food is abundant in that city. Tell me what kind you want and I can probably find a restaurant that makes a really good version of it. But no matter how good the food is in Houston, it’s always better in Mexico.

Milanesa, shrimp cocktail, hamburguesa especial, nopalitos, barbacoa, chicharrones, comida corrida, tortillas from the tortilleria, carne asada, capirotada, carne seca, dulce de frijol, dulce de leche, and so on, and so on, and so on… To me, a trip to Mexico is a trip that revolves around food.

I have my favorite places, from the Mom and Pop restaurants in town that are open whenever the owners feel like opening to the more business-like and bigger restaurants in larger neighboring towns where the bill tells you how much you own in Pesos and in Dollars (based on how much the dollar is that week).
Then there’s the carnicerias (butcher shops) where you can pick up cooked meats including barbacoa and chicharrones. I’ve found barbacoa in Houston, but haven’t been able to find a place that makes this kind of chicharron. And there’s no tortilla that tastes as good as the ones that have just been picked up from the tortilleria (hot off the tortilla press, as it were).

My mother smiles indulgently as an order a hamburger here — made with fried ham, white queso fresco, avocado, and bacon as well as diced lettuce, a grilled ground beef patty, and a toasted bun. I’ve found only one place in Houston that has something close to that sandwich, and it’s still not the same. Milanesa here has that crispy yet tender flavor that makes me crave it and ensures that it’s one of the first things I indulge in when we arrive. In fact, I order some from a local restaurant on my first day here. The raspa place in front of the plaza makes the best corn in a cup — fried corn on the cob, they cut off the kernels and put them in a cup, add mayo, lemon juice, cream, and picante sauce, then stir. Trust me; it’s much yummier than it sounds. Breakfast has been chorizo con huevo (Mexican sausage with eggs) or machacado or huevos con salsa, always with homemade flour tortillas.

My grandmother made us tamales, and cooked me a dish made with nopales for dinner one night. We’ve had simple lunches that have been no more than flour tortillas and sliced avocados, and elaborate dinners that included homemade refried beans and roasted chicken and steak and other things. And that’s just the stuff I remember.

The funny thing is that I don’t actually gain weight while I’m here. The truth is that, while I do indulge in favorite foods and treats, I don’t eat as much or as often as I do when I’m in Houston. So it evens out.

Still, I do look forward to the food every visit. And I don’t think that’s going to change any time soon.

Follow the Mexico tag for all posts in this series.

a family tragedy

Paloma Cruz

(Pre-written while in Mexico; posted safely from the US.)

For all that I’ve spoken and written about the overwhelming fear in Mexico (the part I visited) and my knowledge of the violence happening in the surrounding areas, for some strange reason I never really expected to be directly affected by it. As if I thought I could come down here, to the middle of a drug war (with an emphasis on the “war” part) and not be touched by the reality of it.

That’s not the case.

Let me preface this by saying that I know that I have members of my family who are less than reputable. We keep contact to a minimum, but family is family. We can’t choose them. My family is not me, and they are not representative of myself and my siblings.

Today we got a call that two uncles were tortured and killed in Tamaulipas (and I won’t name the exact place in this blog). Both were my father’s brothers. Both were estranged or semi-estranged from my branch of the family. Both are dead.

Reports are sketchy right now. There are lots of rumors and not enough facts.

One uncle, the youngest brother, I hadn’t seen in nearly 15 years. I knew which town he lived in (recently) but there had been no contact at all. And, because of the type of acrimonious relationship he’d had with us, I never missed him. But I’d never heard of him being involved in anything illegal, never been told that he’d started associating with that kind of activity. I don’t want to believe that that was the case. For some reason, it all still seems unreal.

The other uncle, the second to youngest of my Dad’s brothers, was my uncle twice over (he was also married to my mother’s sister). Yes, two brothers married two sisters. He and my aunt had four boys and a girl, children who are my closest relatives (DNA-wise). He had served time in an American prison for… something (I don’t remember what) and came to live in Mexico after being released. I had heard that he was actively involved with illegal activities, that he was making money by being an errand boy, or something low-key like that. In other words, not a solid citizen.

I remember my Dad helping out his youngest brother by putting up the money to start a business in Rio Grande, and the business failed. My father put a great amount of effort to try and help his youngest brother to find something that would suit him, something at which he’d be a success. But one failure followed another, followed another. Eventually, my uncle decided he didn’t need my father’s help (or got angry because my father refused to keep signing checks on failing ventures) and he just left and fell off the grid. He wouldn’t call or return phone calls. And he never visited my father, even in the eight years my father was in a nursing home with Parkinson’s disease. As I said, we were not close.

My other uncle, the one with the colorful background, was frequently in some sort of trouble. For the first twenty years of my life, the only grandkids on my Dad’s side of my family were my siblings and those cousins (with the close DNA). My Dad made sure they had enough money for rent and food and school, while their father was in prison or “away” somewhere or just plain not working. We all grew up in the same cities, the same towns, in the same schools, with the same relatives. And, while we should have had a similar childhood, we were worlds apart. They were raised to resent us (because we had more and wouldn’t share, my aunt would frequently tell anyone who would stop to listen) and we learned to resent them because any time we wanted something new my Dad would tell us we couldn’t have it because it would make our cousins feel bad (because they didn’t have anything).

But I should point out that it was my uncle, with the colorful background, who checked up on my grandmother (his mother-in-law) at least once a week to make sure she was OK. When my grandmother was ripped off by a cabinet-maker, it was my uncle who handled getting the authorities involved so my grandmother could eventually get a full refund. He was the one who made sure that a cousin of his who had appropriated some of my father’s things (shortly before my father died) gave us monetary restitution for the items in question. And, after my Dad died (actually, once my Dad was diagnosed with Parkinson’s), he never asked us for anything, never imposed, never brought trouble to our doors. He did that a lot when my Dad was alive and well, when my Dad could fix things or be the face and the voice for the family. And I give him credit for making sure that didn’t happen again once my Dad was unable to take care of things.

The stories being told about their deaths include that Mexican officials or members of a rival organization killed both uncles at one of their homes. We’re told that my aunt was there and wasn’t killed because her husband shielded her from bullets. Other stories say that she was locked in another room and spent the night listening to her husband and brother-in-law being tortured, then killed. We’re not certain what actually happened. What we do know is that both uncles are dead.

We’ve been trying to reach my cousins (none of whom live in Mexico) to find out the truth of what happened. So far we haven’t had any luck. We want to know what happened, how my aunt is, what happens next. We want to know if the family is safe.

My mother worries about going to visit her sister in a town where beheadings and shootouts are an everyday occurrence. And she worries about telling my sisters about the deaths because she doesn’t think it’s safe for them, and their families, to travel here for the funeral. She especially worries about my GI Joe brother, who would come in confrontation mode and, she thinks, talk himself into trouble via attitude.

I don’t disagree with her on any of this. And that’s saying something, as I sit in a place where I think it’s too dangerous for my siblings to visit. I know that my mother is very scared right now. I know that we probably won’t be going to the funeral (reprisals against family members are common, even if they aren’t involved in… whatever). And I know that two men I’ve known my entire life are dead, and all my father’s siblings are now dead. And, no matter what my relationship with them, I mourn their passing and feel rage at the way they died.

Follow the Mexico tag for all posts in this series.

Daily log, March 8 — exercise again

I had an intense workout with my trainer this morning. Two days of exercise in a row is something I tend to avoid, and judging from how sore I am, something I will avoid in the future as well.

My ADD is showing, I’m getting tired of meeting with my trainer. Not because I don’t like him or because I don’t want to exercise, but I don’t like having the commitment of getting up early to meet him. I want to option of sleeping in.

Of course, that commitment is the reason I made the contract. It was a trick, something I knew would force me to go to the gym regularly. I strive to make my appointments, I strive to get my “homework” done. I don’t intimidate, but I do embarass. I don’t want to admit to someone else that I’m so weak, so lazy that I can’t see an exercise program through.

And that is how my trainer is earning his money.

9 AM — breakfast was a turkey frittata with green peppers, onions, broccoli slaw and cheese on a whole wheat tortilla. Very yummy.

11:30 AM — I didn’t have a midnorning snack.

3 PM — I had a very late lunch. Pei Wei’s chicken lettuce wraps. Lunch with my brother.

4 PM — I didn’t have a midafternoon snack.

8 PM — I was in a cooking mood and tried a new recipe for tuna cakes. The batch made eight, and I ate two of them for dinner. Yummy yummy yummy.

{{Written on my iPhone}}

Daily log, March 7 — a long workout

I went to the gym and had the full workout today, on my own. Even though I woke up late and had a million things to do today, I got up and went to the gym to do a full workout. That means at least 1 1/2 hours at the gym, with an hour of that being for cardio.

My mother made fun of me when I got home, saying that she thought I wasn’t coming home. I normally don’t go to the gym on Sunday because my mother is at my apartment, but that’s a bad habit I need to break. Let’s see if this continues.

Of course, getting a late start means I didn’t leave enough time for breakfast, or a midmorning snack.

12 PM — I had two McDonald’s double cheeseburger and an order of fries. I know, even one order of fries doesn’t sound like a diet. But I am counting my calories, and the fat, protein and carbs I consume. I’ll be fine… famous last words.

8 PM — dinner was leftover shrimp lasagna my mother brought over.

{{Written on my iPhone}}

Daily log, March 6 — a new toy

I bought an elliptical machine, used, from a garage sale. I know the previous owner and she never used it. It’s practically new. It’s the newest resident of my living room.

It’s this great thing, a combo elliptical and cycling machine that looks completely out of place in my apartment. It looks too metallic, too big, too incongruous in my brown and green-themed apartment. It just doesn’t look like it’s me.

Now let’s see if I actually use it.

10 AM — breakfast was a pork sausage/ground turkey and egg burrito on a whole wheat tortilla. I added shredded cheddar, broccoli slaw, mushrooms, onions and peppers.

11:30 AM — I didn’t have a midmorning snack.

2 PM — lunch was a turkey burger, homemade, with cheddar cheese, creamy Dijon mustard, and a bunch of banana peppers.

4 PM — I didn’t have a midafternoon snack.

6 PM — for an early dinner I had a sweet onion chicken teriyaki sub from Subway. No cheese, no mayo, on Italian bread, with lots of spinach.

{{Written on my iPhone}}