Saturday, March 19, 2011


These days I live in Morelia, Michoacan, Mexico.  People here and all over Mexico still eat a lot of home cooking.  There are always vendors in the streets and markets selling real food like tacos, tamales, meaty soups, corn on the cob, fresh squeezed juices, etc.  At two o'clock schools let out and many many businesses close for the main meal of the day which is enjoyed from two until four.  People go home for this meal if they can.  This is one of my favorite things about Mexico.  It has nothing to do with convenience.

I was born in 1955.  My grandparents were German immigrants in Queens who had vegetable gardens in their yards.  We went to one of their houses for the Sunday meal almost every weekend.   Other relatives were always there too.  My grandmas wore aprons and made us say grace.  That's what Mexico is like every day for many families in my neighborhood.

When I was 8 we started to move around the country for my Dad's job.  Most nights my mom cooked dinner, but wherever we lived we always had a favorite pizza place and a favorite Chinese place for take-outs, plus my dad made a good salary and liked to take us out to restaurants.  This was a treat for my mother because for her making the meal was work.   You know what I think about that?  I think my mom was bamboozled.

Cooking is not work.  Cooking is art.  Cooking is an expression of our humanity.  But somehow after WWII, a generation bought into the idea that cooking wasn't cool... that it wasn't modern... that it kept them from doing something more important.  Cooking became inconvenient.  Convenience became a big deal.  What's so great about convenience... what does it even mean?    I think it means missing out on sensual experiences that can be meditative, that add something beautiful to a day.

Take preparation of the simplest foods, for example carrots.  Carrots are a rather exciting color.  They feel smooth and cool to the touch.  They're basically long and pointy, but some have interesting variations.  It feels good to chop something that's a little hard.  It makes you think about the knife you're using.    Using a knife puts you in contact with about a zillion past generations of your ancestors and people all over the world.  That connection feels good deep inside.   When you cut up carrots you can pop a piece in your mouth.  mmm.  How did we give up all that pleasant experience for buying and ripping open a plastic bag of stubby little generic looking "baby" carrots which are sometimes slimey?  Convenience.  

Then there's the buying part.  Think how it feels to walk down the center aisles of grocery stores between boxes and jars and cans yelling at you with a million words -- a lot of them long and unintelligible.  It's unpleasant and exhausting.  Now think about the produce section where the food is piled artistically and you get to touch it and smell it and bag as much as you want.  Lovely!

I think my mother's generation was robbed, and consequently she robbed me.  I'm not saying she didn't teach me how to buy a good cantaloupe or that corn in season was a blessing.   But she also taught me one onion + one green pepper + a lb. of chopped chuck + Campbell's tomato soup  served over egg noodles = American spaghetti.  A lot of the food education she dispensed had to do with which brands were best (Hellmans for mayo, Sara Lee for chocolate cake)  and shortcuts -- how to make something that sounded hard but was really simple because it used some premixed ingredients.  The premise was that the actual making of the food was something to be shortened or avoided.  It's taken me to my fifties to realize how wrong headed that training was, how all those saved steps are sensual and fun and make me feel good.

San Juan Mercado, Morelia, Michoacan, Mexico
I am worried about Mexico though.  These days there are more and more large grocery stores including Walmarts, Costcos, and Sam's Clubs with all the same boxed stuff we have in the states.  These are shopped by the growing Mexican middle class who seem hellbent on making every mistake US consumers have ever made.

There is a fresh food market four blocks away from my house that's open every day -- the San Juan Mercado.  It's the size of two city blocks and has a few hundred independent sellers of meats, fish, produce, cheeses, herbs, and loads of miscellaneous stuff.  I go almost every day.  I come home and spread my colorful haul out on the table:  bananas and oranges and mangos and broccoli and zuchini and chicken breasts and blackberries.  Nothing has a box or a jar.  It makes a luscious display.   I can't believe other people in my neighborhood would rather drive to a supermarket.   I guess they are the first generation able to do so and it must feel the same as it did to my mom -- modern and convenient.   Good grief.

1 comment:

  1. I love chopping peppers. They make such a satisfying noise under my knife.
    Ha! I was just complaining about American Spaghetti the other day. Sorry Grandma.


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