We’re not quite nose to tail yet, are we?

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Google eating bulls penis in Korea if you want to see strut-eating at its worst where a parade of culinary scalp hunters eat something they consider to be so out there, the only way they can do it is via a series of dissembling jokes. This self-consciousness masked by bravado does such a disservice to foods which might appear odd to them and possibly terribly threatening to their sexuality, but are pretty basic bitch elsewhere. Clarissa Dickson Wright talked about the popularity of penis as a lunchtime street food in London in her TV series, Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner so it seems like we’ve become estranged from animal parts that remind us most of our own bodies. Organ meats can appear pretty visceral on the butchers slab but we’ve never seen our own human equivalents so there’s a corporeal disconnect on some level which may make it easier to cook and eat some parts of the animal than others, irrespective of how they actually taste.

I first ate bulls penis (hwangsoui seong-gi 황소의 성기) in Busan in the early eighties when I was a teenager staying in this southern Korean seaside city where my father was working. Based at Haeundae Beach where a smattering of international hotel guests were pandered to with tuna club sandwiches and neutered versions of local cuisine, I was constantly in trouble for roaming the streets, meeting local teenagers and playing hooky from the roster my parents had set. Starving hungry from hiking up Jangsan Mountain where we’d dare each other to annoy the soldiers who patrolled the fenced-off minefields, I’d snub the hotels five restaurants, return to the town, and slurp up bowls of goodness knows what from the hawker stalls along the promenade.

Chosun Beach Hotel, Busan
Chosun Beach Hotel, Busan

Having visited before, I was accustomed to eating meals where the ingredients were unknown and we were often invited into the homes of the locals my father worked with to eat, but that night we were served bulls penis it wasn’t much of a challenge to identify what was on the menu. Perched on a bench, sweating in the oppressive humidity of a late summer evening, what initially resembled snipped-up, flayed eels soon came into sharp focus. A bulls penis can be more than two feet long and cooks usually split along its urethra then slice the two halves into thick coins; diners can expect to be presented with an organ whose tough visceral membrane has been removed and then washed out as carefully as good chitlins are. Seen scaled up, you can appreciate a dick in all its hydraulic glory and marvel that erectile dysfunction isn’t more common in animals as well as humans. Mine still had part of its sigmoid flexure attached and the entire organ had been sliced longitudinally then boiled in a tenderising chili-infused stock before getting the hot coal treatment.

The dissection and boiling was bold but fresh penile tissue will contract and shrivel up when it hits the heat of the coals  and without that tenderising bath you’ll end up with a dog chew. As a prelude to the bulgogi which was the main event, a pot of burning hot coals had already been slotted into a hole in the centre of the table  and five or six penes were placed inside special cages that resembled lacrosse sticks. These rested on the coals and the basting sauce was mopped onto the meat using a brush with bristles as long as a hippies ponytail.

My penis wasn’t served with a garnish of culinary philosophy. There was no menu detailing chef’s conversion to nose to tail eating and the locals simply ordered, waited, then ate and nobody patted themselves on the back for being daring. I didn’t feel adventurous; the only thing I will not eat as a matter of course is porridge no matter how artfully it is presented because it is the devils work as far as I am concerned. The penile flesh was smokey hot, patched with char and packed a hefty, gluey bounce and fightback in the mouth. I chewed and chewed, I chewed some more and then I swallowed. A good eater should always swallow.

Penis is not a culinary treat by any stretch of the imagination. Even ten hours of cooking will fail to produce anything better than a brutalised gummy bear but texture is important to Korean diners. What I do share with these guys is a carelessness about eating the bits that make others blanch but I’m not referring to that daft nonsense where culinary scalp-hunters go in search of the most outrageous and rarest meals so they can tell you all about it via Buzzfeed or Vice. This always seems to other the cuisine of the nations concerned in the process and I really don’t want to do that.

Eating low on the hog was, and is something that I give little thought to, and not because I was a massively over-privileged and precocious food brat. It was simply how we cooked and ate, probably because I was nurtured in such a way as to expose me to homely cooking in different parts of the world and when I came back to Blighty I didn’t go back to the kinds of food other British children in my neighbourhood ate. It’s hard not to feel a certain loftiness about the nose to tail movement because thus it ever was with us. My Midlands relatives would certainly not think it appropriate to praise a child for eating black pudding, liver, tripe, scratchings and faggots, haslet or cow heel in that affected way you see now, but we’d get a clip round the ear if we left any of it. Nor would my broad tastes be regarded as anything other than expected by the Mexican people who took my catholic appetites for granted because it was simply unthinkable for a small child to exert any kind of control or influence over the family diet. This didn’t mean that they neglected our palates, far from it, but spiritual and religious attitudes towards nourishment and gratitude precluded fussiness.

Try turning down a bowl of menudo after someone has slaughtered their animal, broke its carcass down, cleaned miles of intestines then turned some of them into a soupy bowl of stew. Its eating was as communal as the slaughter, an act of reconciliation and thanks, driven by hunger and crowned by a sense of communal satiation. Waste was fiscally and morally unthinkable and superstition came into it too: in northern Mexico our housekeeper’s mother strongly believed that discarded leftovers, tossed carelessly on the ground ‘for the chickens’ would poison it for crops forever more.”Dios lo sabrá,” she’d scold me when I left a few scrapings on the plate and off she’d go to hunt down a scrap of tortilla to mop the plate with because the marriage of two leftovers in one meal turned it into a sacramental act.

So I don’t differentiate between high and low and I abhor snobbery in food. I don’t congratulate myself when I find something to cook from larder sweepings because it has always been this way. Delicious is delicious but I know that for some people, cooking with offal is a bigger deal, and believe me, there is no implied criticism contained in that statement, just a desire to shine a light on some of the animal parts that in the UK, you might not have encountered before.

I’ve enjoyed pots of chicken necks slow-braised then given a few minutes to blister under a grill, the flesh rubbed with aromatics for a final flourish; and assorted lights, viscera and skin of various critters have been fried, boiled, roasted and stewed then served up. Gelatinous pigs tails with blistered skin and soft as silk meat were served up on street corners near to the small units where the Guadalajaran glass blowers plied their trade. Thrust into a charcoal brazier until they ran with fat, these bronzed little corkscrews were placed inside a corn husk in order to catch the scalding hot drippings. If you’ve read Laura Ingalls Wilder, you’ll know this part of the pig is fought over and damn right it should be but curly tails are far more fun for a child to eat than their straighter brethren although better chefs than I have rhapsodised over the latter. Either way, the fact that the skin covering a pigs tail remains in place (unlike oxtail) means that each sticky-lipped bite contains a perfect ratio of skin to meat to partially broken down tendon and cartilage. Ask your butcher: they can get tails, necks and other bits for you, and they are usually super cheap.

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There’s plenty of porky adventuring still to be had if you’re doing the Disney thing in Florida. Keep on driving north of the Disney complex where neutered interpretations of world cuisine threaten to kill gustatory curiosity and you’ll enter the classic Deep South. Stop at a country store and there on the counter will most likely be opaque jars full of murky red liquid where pickled pigs lips float and bump against the plastic walls. That spooky red liquor they float in isn’t blood by the way, it’s red dye which for some reason is traditionally used. Slightly bloated like all floaters are wont to be after a few days of immersion, they are less disturbing than you’d think in this age of plastic Hollywood trout pouts; basically what Babe the Pig would look like after a few months wed to a Kardashian. Regarded as a classic dive bar snack in Louisiana and immortalised by rappers VP and Breezybee in their 2014 rap, “Pig lips, boudin and chips” the eating of them is encoded within the DNA of many southerners who know to create a tension between chaw and crunch by matching them bite for bite with the jagged shards of potato crisps. Bash the bag of chips on the counter first, then bung in the lips and give the bag a good old shake. It’s working class panko, basically and if you can bear the idea of a pickled egg inside a packet of crisps, this isn’t that much of a leap, truly.

Want to try lips? It’s not easy to buy them ready-pickled in the UK but if you are US-based, you can order online from the Pickled Store. These aren’t Johnny Come Lately pig lips, the Pickled Store say, so don’t mistake them for a postmodern version all lubed up with irony so as to allow them free passage through your gullet without the triggering of cultural and class insecurities. These haven’t been fiddled with by a young buck of a chef seeking to make their mark on the world by introducing a new crowd to a reinterpreted old faithful. Your gorge will have to cope with their defiantly unreconstructed nature although their congruence with our own animal parts plays a role in ensuring good animal husbandry, surely? It’s harder to countenance animal cruelty when you identify with said animal unless you’re vegan and don’t believe in eating them at all, in which case this post is probably not for you. The company have been making their pigs lips to the same recipe since 1933 and their customer testimonials lay bare the love we all have for certain foods, no matter how peculiar they sound to others.

So will the nose to tail movement result in pigs lips moving out of the country store and gas station and onto our (higher-end) plates? Will ex-bankers running food trucks suddenly see the labial light? My money isn’t on bulls penes becoming the latest trailer snack in the UK, that’s for sure but pig lips and tails? They should be. It’s possible that the popularity of crispy pigs ears and porky heads on plates has groomed us to eat the other facial features solo. And I’m definitely comfortable with betting £50 on the likelihood of barbecued pigs tails becoming more popular over here.

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Caldo de carda

So where else do they eat animal penes?

In Jamaica, cow cod soup is bull penis is stewed with bananas, rum and peppers and is used as an aphrodisiac.

In Bolivia, caldo de cardan is similar and is also a popular hangover cure.  The soup takes its name because it is believed a bulls penis is similar to a cars drive shaft. Lengthy braising (ten hours +) concentrates the broth and helps develop taurine, it is believed, before beef, chicken and an entire lamb rib alongside boiled egg, rice and potato are added.

Malaysians eat beef torpedo soup to increase male virility. The thick and spicy broth is spiced with fennel seeds, cinnamon, garlic, and cloves and diners can enhance the symbolic potency of the dish by building it up with more bones and tendons.

A North African recipe serves the penis cut cross-wise, scalded, skinned, drained then boiled and sliced. Aromatics in the form of onions, garlic and coriander flavour the flesh as it is slow fried in oil and then added to vegetables, then braised for another couple of hours.

Yemeni Geed has chopped peppers, tomatoes and cumin and saffron added to the braise. The Yemenite Jews eat Gulasz z Penisa, a stew made with ram or bulls penis, too.

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Back to my [French] roots

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Pêche à Pied | Plage de Mousterlin Finistère| Pierre Guezingar /Flickr

In my early teens, I taught myself to cook using a battered copy of Julia Child’s Art of French Cooking then refined my techniques with Richard Olney’s Simple French Food as the children came along. I already had hundreds of American and Mexican cookbooks but some ancient prejudice inside me kept whispering that until I had mastered the basics of French country cooking, I had no business regarding myself as a formed -and informed- cook. I roped in the local librarian after she enquired why I had kept Child out on permanent loan and she began to recommend other, less well-known authors whilst encouraging me to read recipes in the original French. One of her recommendations found its way onto my own library of cookbooks when she decommissioned it from her shelves and sold the book to me for 20p. This was Geraldine Holt’s French Country Kitchen and it soon became part of my culinary motherboard. Holt’s ability to marry traditional regional French recipes with her own inventions, the latter inspired by the Midi and its ingredients and techniques, encouraged me to stray from the strict edicts of la cuisine Française but only after I had grasped its tenets.

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I used to spend large parts of the summer in Brittany, either on holiday with my warring parents or staying as a houseguest of Caroline who I met on a Brittany Ferry crossing to St Malo and became firm friends with. Caroline lived near Paimpol, a small fishing town with its own fleet of boats and locals who gathered seafood from the nearby salt flats and marshes where we also learned to windsurf. The dark grey mud of the marshes teemed with oyster shells, tiny fish eye-sized cockles and turgid winkles, all of which we were instructed to gather after our planche á voile lessons finished. Watched by the sheep (known as agneau pré-salé) who grazed the halophytic grasses nearby, we’d plunge knee-deep into the sludgy, muddy rivulets and clean off the shells and our legs with bunches of samphire.

It was Caroline who introduced me to globe artichokes and tried not to laugh at the baffled expression on my face as her family sat around the table, small wicker baskets clamped between their knees for catching the discarded leaves, as they dragged off the soft lump of flesh that clung to the base of each leaf with their teeth.

So passionate about artichokes were they that their garden contained at least six varieties mulched with seaweed from the local saltmarsh, their tender new shoots banked with mounds of silky silt. Finest of all were the Fiesole artichokes with leaves of deepest wine which kept their colour and required only the lightest of steams to bring out their metallic fruitiness. Bred from the Violetta de Provence, a lighter purple variety native to southern France, the Fiesoles were delicate enough to be eaten whole either with butter, lemon juice and salt or a walnut and garlic sauce, similar to Holt’s extremely versatile aillade Toulousaine. How a sauce in the style of Toulouse got to NE Brittany I did not ask but when I first made Holt’s version, it transported me right back there.

These last few years have seen me drift away from French country food. I have always been a keen cook of regional American food and preparing Creole and Cajun feasts kept me in touch with my classical French roots, in a manner of speaking. Faites Simple! means eliminate the superfluous, that is all. The Louisianian insistence upon a mastery of the roux with its precise steps and equally passionate debates over rightness of technique and the importance of culinary building blocks fed my need for order in the kitchen and helped me cope when I spent three years working weekends and evenings in a rural pub as their cook as a post-graduate student.

The same  need for order and rule applies to my love of Mexican cuisine, forged from my years living there as a child and also from a keen observation of local cooks whenever I could escape school. In Holt’s French Country Kitchen can be found a recipe for dindonneau à l’ail en chemise (turkey with whole cloves of garlic) which on first reading has little in common with the Latin American turkey -based meals I ate as a kid. Where is the marigold-infused flesh, the layered and complex molés flavoured with ancho, pastilla and mulato chillies, chocolate, anise and lard? But Holt’s version and the stuffed turkey called pavo relleno I ate in Saltillo were both basted in butter and the picadillo stuffing was made with garlic-infused beef and funnily enough the Breton turkeys (and chickens) we ate were sometimes fed on spicy -scented marigold petals like they also do in Mexico. The flesh of these birds were tinted the colours of Kahlo’s hair in her Self Portrait In A Landscape With The Sun Going Down. The circle of my eating life continued.

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Self Portrait In A Landscape With The Sun Going Down

| miss the precise adherence to rules as old as their families although I can recall their kitchen voices with their slightly nasalized Tregerieg-Breton vowels in an instant. Caroline’s family bought their Kouign Amann from the local patisserie because the French are sensible and have no embarrassment about not making their own cakes-although they retain the right to have lots of opinions about their technical execution. A patissière will be chosen according to something as fundamental as the angle of curve on a croissant and this choice will not be questioned, even two generations of custom later, but when you eat it, you can sense the rightness of their choice. “C’est decide’ you will be told should you dare to enquire.

Holt points out that the French have no need for the dizzying helter-skelter search for new flavour combinations (or culinary scalp hunting as I call it). This doesn’t mean that French cuisine is mired in the historical doldrums though, unable and unwilling to change. It does innovate and refine but these changes are considered and less driven by a desperate need to innovate for the sake of page views and instagram likes or to Be The First. Holt is confident in her experiments but is clear that progress and posterity can only be judged in hindsight which, to me, sounds terribly French. Her food respects terroir and local habits (courgettes served with sorrel grown in the same garden; a salpicon for roast lamb that is based upon a friend’s recipe which itself reflects a different regional store cupboard) but it is also glut-friendly and tolerant of other larders in other lands where the sunshine is less and the frost more frequent.

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So…..Tête de veau, boeuf bourguignon, carbonade flammade, cassoulet, salade Lyonnaise, omelette Ardéchoise, and a glorious pintadeau aux figues are all chalked up on my imaginary menu de l’autumn et de l’ hiver. I want my kitchen filled with the scent of gentle braises as they putter away in their casserole dish and the fridge stocked with what my friend’s mother called ‘difficult cuts’; the cheeks, tails and muscled rumps of animals which all call for careful prep and low ‘n slow cooking.

Lastly- and funnily enough- tête de veau was threatened as a punishment meal for a wanton young man called Spider in another of my teenage reads, Scruples.  Its authorJudith Krantz, wrote of a young Parisienne transplanted to New York City in the seventies. It was one of those sex ‘n shopping airport novels which I devoured greedily, especially the descriptions of Valentine’s cooking because she too preferred French country-style food and frequently made it for her neighbour across the hall whose life of penury meant decent food was scarce. Spider baulked at the thought of tête de veau. I wouldn’t.

Pierced

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To pierce or not to pierce?

Is it wrong to pierce a babies ears? In this piece, I write about my experience of having my ears as a small child and the impact this had. 

As a small child,  I emigrated to Mexico and I lived there for a number of years, masquerading as a proper little Catholic school girl, attending nursery and then moving up into the school proper. I stood out like a English sore thumb when I arrived: I was pale and subdued with bone-blonde hair, blue eyes and un-pierced ears and wore a Ladybird dress and neat patent Mary Janes, neither of which coped very well with the dust and sand of the Chihuahuan Desert. My naked earlobes caused the local people the most concern though: they marked me out as a gringa far more than my blonde ringlets did.

The culture in Mexico both then and now is to pierce the ears of newborn girl babies, performed as soon as possible after birth because presumably it is easier than trying to catch and pin down an older, more mobile, and less compliant child. In most cases, babies actually leave the maternity clinic with pierced ears, the procedure carried out just days after their birth because a newborn will not tug at her sore ears nor interfere with the earrings. Once done and with screams quietened- sometimes after sucking on a honey-dipped finger- these baby girl children received their first gold in the form of tiny sleepers or gold studs and the giving of these in the months leading up to the birth is a common gift.

I was four when my parents decided to pierce my lobes, roping in a nun from my school to do it and I was understandably reluctant to have this nun grab me by the tender flesh of my ear and pin me face-down onto her black serge lap so she might push an ice-cold needle through my lobes. A cork from the freezer was held against the back of my ear, providing the necessary resistance for the needle to push against. The nun then threaded each hole with a length of black cotton and tied the ends of the threads into two small loops to keep them open. A few days later, the threads were replaced by plain gold studs because my parents probably  thought that earrings engraved with an image of the Virgin de Guadalupe were a bit too ‘Catholic’,  although these were a popular choice among my friends who called upon the saints to see them through the most unremarkable of life events.

This dour nun was far removed from the gentle Brides of Christ you might have watched in The Sound of Music and she demonstrated a firm grip and an even firmer countenance as she trapped me deftly between her knees to examine the shape of my ears whilst my parents held onto my thrashing arms. I briefly contemplated biting her plump little kneecap as she bent my head forwards then decided that the risk of Hell On Earth- as opposed to going to the real hell afterwards- was too much of a risk. I had already spent too much time locked in the dark and chalky art supplies cupboard for various minor classroom insubordinations (like being, um, four) and I wasn’t planning on spending more time in there with sore throbbing ears to boot.

Post-piercing, all I was allowed to wear was a tiny, uptight gold stud whilst my Mexican friends wore dramatic, passionate, ear jewelry that afforded them a bigger and more decorative space in the world. I was envious of my friend Susie’s black curls, brown skin and the chunky pair of carved gold arracadas hoops that danced in her ears: standing alongside her, I felt like a half-erased drawing. My discreet British-style studs rendered me a half-hearted participant in a rite much bigger than me and as a child, I squirmed over my competing cultural definition. My envy confused me, wrapped up as it was with resentment at my parents. I had failed to separate my feelings about the frightening method used to pierce my ears from the longer-term consequences and cultural significance of remaining the only un-pierced girl in my school. At times I hated my parents for forcing me to go through such an ordeal, I disliked the hassle of caring for my pierced ears yet I longed too, for something a little less waspy. Alone in my room at night, I would remove the studs and ‘lose’ the small gold ball that screwed onto the sharp post which threaded through my ear. The next morning, my mother, or Maria our housekeeper, would triumphantly produce one of many ‘spares’ and reinsert the earring, accompanied by scolding slaps and harsh words. It became a daily and unpleasant ritual until Maria sat me down and explained that when I was older it would be up to me but for now, I had to submit. She was sure that an extra cup of atole might be in line for little girls who weren’t put on earth to turn her waist-length black hair prematurely grey. Maria was just eighteen. 

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Arracadas do “Tesouro Bedoya”, expostas no Museo de Pontevedra.

My early teenage years were marked by a nascent feminism and I began to consider the psychological implications of having ones pain rewarded by jewelry and a sugary finger.  I thought about the fact that I underwent the same procedure without ‘enjoying’ the benefit of being too young to consciously recall it: it was very hard to forget my feelings of terror at being held down without real explanation of what was to happen. I found it hard to shake off the fear I felt when I realised that I had absolutely no say in it. The fact that ear piercing was performed by a nun made it even odder.

I lost interest in my earrings in adulthood, refusing to wear them as I started to regain jurisdiction over my body and began to reject everything that reminded me of my powerlessness in the face of my parents’ actions. It was in defiance of all that came after the parental neglect and abuse; the ongoing disregard of me as a person separate from themselves which was heralded by their turning a deaf ear against my pleas to leave my own ears alone. Eventually, I let the holes close up until all that remained was a thickened piece of tissue, a minute bulls-eye in the centre of my lobes. Slightly darker in colour than the rest of my ear, these were a reminder of things done and it became apparent that they would not fade and the damage would never be completely invisible. I had my own daughter and left her ears alone although when she was twelve she went through her own push-me pull -me as she tried to decide of her own accord whether to pierce. Six years later I had my son and left his ears alone too.

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Decades later, I’m attracted by the thought of the flash-trash clink of Creole gilt hoops as I shake my head. I imagine white-gold stars thickly clustered along the outer and upper part of my ear or Halston-fabulous slim needles made from silver and platinum which I imagine swinging and catching the light. The mysterious language of the ear piercer intrigues me too. There are piercings called the tragus and the anti-tragus which sound like a Greek myth on the scale of Perseus versus the Gorgon. The conch and the rook are embedded into the shell-like curves of the inner ear lobe whilst the daith sounds like something a nun might whisper in the stillness of her cell-like bedroom. I’m drawn to what some call the Chola style, from first- and second-generation Mexican and Mexican-American girls who wear gold chains, large hoops and stop-the-traffic red lipstick with an attitude that both reclaims and flips this formerly abusive term on its head. I like the Chola blend of strong femininity and toughness which spits in the face of the fact that these girls probably had little choice as to whether their ears were pierced or not. But I’m not Mexican or Mexican-American, no matter that I once lived there for a while and despite the fact that the Chola has evolved from a culture I am familiar with. There’s a line of authenticity to be drawn in the sand somewhere, probably starting with the fact that Chola abuelas (grandmothers) seem to be quite thin on the ground and I am nearer the abuela than I am her daughter or granddaughter.

I’m ready now. I am eyeing up the anatomy of my little ears and wondering what they can take. As I get older, I can see that a jeweled ear (or nose!) can defy time in unexpected ways, allowing me to retrace old paths with bigger, more sure-footed steps. This time it will be my decision.

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Tamales are my home, girl…

A Smokin' Hot Tamale
A Smokin’ Hot Tamale

The last time I ate Maria’s tamales, I was sitting in the back of a petrol-blue VW as we rattled our way across corrugated cement roads to the local airport. I’d spent the best part of my early childhood living in north-east Mexico where Maria and her mother became my family and for my final journey back to the UK she gave me a brown grease-spotted paper bag full of tamales. They kept my hands warm as I gripped onto them for dear life, a tangible connection with the young woman who mothered me far better than my own did.

I loved tamales. Although they tended to be celebration food in the city of Saltillo because they are demanding time-wise to make and quite fiddly, Maria often made them and kept a stock of them in the frigidaire, ready to steam for my early morning breakfast trip to school and for lunch too. At their most basic, they consisted of a schmear of refried pinto beans and a few drops of rust-red mole inside the steamed masa dough but they could be a veritable fiesta, gasping out puffs of corn-breathed steam as they were unwrapped. Bundled up in corn husks and tied in the middle like a badly fitting housecoat, the masa bulged out, fluffy, palest yellow and leaking reddish chipotle-darkened juices of stewed pork.

Sometimes they’d be spiced with chicken or turkey mole enriched with shavings of the dark local chocolate made from toasted cacao, sugar, cinnamon, and ground almonds. The chocolate was but one of many many ingredients which were then mixed into this mole paste made by grinding ingredients together in a molcajete or communal mill.

Me, aged four or five in Saltillo with the family calf belonging to Maria.
Me, aged four or five in Saltillo with Maria’s calf.

Before making these rather elaborate tamales, Maria and her mother would clear out the kitchen, shooing hens, their children and even once, a recently born calf, out of their way and they’d execute their version of the French mise en place, Estate Listo, which saw many shallow clay pots lined up on the long Encino wood counter tops and punched-metal prep areas. The pots would be bright with fresh and smoked chiles: the bittersweet anchos, glossy pasillas, inky black mulatos and tan coloured chipotles. On occasions, I’d be allowed to assist and my tiny fingers made light work of dipping into tall pots of peanuts, allspice and peppercorns, the long-stemmed cloves, plumpish raisins and the orange coloured pumpkin seeds, the rivers of sesame, scooping out their contents to a soundtrack of Maria and her mother sucking the air between their teeth at my over-generous measures.

I’d help shave the cinnamon, sneezing at its acrid dustiness and leave the preparation of the thyme, Mexican majoram and coriander until last, escaping the kitchen where tiny dust motes of cinnamon flew through the air as the central ceiling fan traced a juddery circle. My fingers were stained yallery-orange from the marigold petals and stems I plucked from the plants growing around the tomatillo and tomato bushes; the sharp peppery juices from their torn, wet and squishy stems were brassy and demanded attention. These ingredients all went into the raw mole alongside garlic, onion, peppers and chunks of local bread, a Mexican version of the French baguette from the days of Maximilian. These loaves – known to us as bolillos and teleras – were baked every other day and the stale loaf ends used to thicken the mole. If it was a lucky day, I’d have Mexican ‘coffee’, made from hot milk and one pass of the coffee jug, thickened and tooth sweetened with a spoon of cajeta and if I was even luckier, I’d get to break off the nose of the loaf and soften it in my bowl of coffee. When Maria turned her back, I’d attempt a raid on the cajeta tin and if she caught me she’d scold, fiercely. Spilled cajeta was a siren song to the local red ants, a fierce and temperamental insect possessed of a gangland mentality: utterly determined to eat cajeta or die tryin’, under the toe of Maria’s heavy huarache, they died in their thousands, leaving splodges of formic acid from their smashed bodies on the terracotta tiles.

When you consider that some recipes call for all these ingredients (and there were often many more) to be separately charred or toasted on cast iron griddles before they all come together in one glorious whole, you can see why clusters of women also came together to make the hundreds of tamales needed to keep a family going. One of us was assigned the most important job: mixing the rivers of drinks; chopping and crushing the fresh fruits, flowers, and grains with sugar and water to make agua frescas, the light fizzy non-alcoholic drinks so craved by sugar loving Mexicans. From the backyard came the chop chop of the machete on large watermelon, coconuts and cactus paddles (nopales) and the clothes line was full of the bright teethlike squares of cheesecloth used to strain the juice before drinking. The ground was splattered with juice and stripe backed gophers,  lizards and other scaled, horned creatures would dart from rocks, attracted by the smell of the discarded date and tamarind pulp and scooped out triangles of melon rind. The rinds would rock backwards and forwards as the gophers curled up inside them to gnaw at the pulp left clinging to their insides. They looked for all the world like the worlds smallest, hairiest babies rocking themselves to sleep in a bizarre vegetal crib.

I’m paraphrasing Paul Auster when I tell you that growing old was a funny thing to happen to a young girl. I’m now more than double the age Maria was when she looked after us all. It’s forty odd years since I have seen Maria and her family and all I can visualise in my minds eye is a young woman with a thick waist-length hank of black hair, tied back with a red ribbon edged with white shirred-lace. Not the expensive stuff or even the heavy cream crocheted lace made by older women who sat with skeins of wool cradled in the tents made by their skirts, fingers firing away like neurons, crocheting away. Maria’s lace came from my own mothers sewing box brought from England and the lace was originally carded onto cardboard flats to be sold by the yard from a market stall in Suffolk. It was sixties lace, all nylon-fabulous and not a natural fibre in sight but against Maria’s hair, untouched as it was by dyes and the friable heat of a hairdryer, the lace was transformed into a ghostly white filigree.

 

Unusually, last weekend I ate a tamale in the rain. My tamale history more commonly involved the sun beating down on the back of my neck and a sear of chile acting as coolant in return. In Mexico I ate them on dusty street corners, sitting on petrol drums turned into tables. I walked down the street eating them trying to not drip juice on my cream school T shirt. I ate them at fiesta, near to cemeteries during Day of the Dead and in various cities: Mazatlan, Guadalajara, Acapulco, Mexico City, and even, once, across the border in Amarillo. They fed me as I watched glass blowers and divers and climbed the tallest pyramids and sat ravenous after my school swimming gala. They came from carts which used oil drums as giant steamers. They were made in private houses, occasionally at school or sold by older women sitting by the waterholes with a white cloth thrown across their lap and baskets full of little cornhusk parcels. We’d emerge dripping and seal-sleek from the water and hold them between fingers macerated and puffy from four-hour swims on the hottest of days. They were perennially there but I have no solid recollection of eating tamales in any weather other than under the hot Dahlia rays of the Mexican sun or the swift dark blanket of the desert nights which seemed to roll down the mountain slopes and onto our sprawling, shuttered house, leaving the odd chink through which poured starlight and the harsh yips of the slope coyotes.

We did have occasional rain in Mexico but it wasn’t the soft and damp woolly mizzle we have here in West Suffolk. In Saltillo we had rain that filled gullies, whirling and tumultuous, crested with dirty white foam and rippled with dust and sandstone from the mountains. It pounded down and dragged things away in its wake before disappearing itself, leaving a desert in bloom where cacti crowned themselves with flowers in magenta and orange and the deep purple of a bruise. Mountain and desert rain is an architect and landscape designer. It alters the familiar, creates new terrain, wipes away the unstable and anything lacking a firm grip upon the earth. Suffolk rain is the opposite- it seems to bed us in deeper, pushes roots and foundations further down into the earth and everything stays the same, no matter how dark the skies grow. Anyway, you couldn’t eat your tamale in the Mexican rain, that’s for sure.

Rows and rows of tamales: Eugene Kim 2007
Rows and rows of tamales: Eugene Kim 2007

So I sat on a slatted bench next to a wicker wolf on a hill called Angel and I unwrapped and ate the tamale which I had brought from a little food truck called Smokin Hot Tamales. The chef-owner had parents who had lived in Mexico and their housekeeper was called Marguerite which reassured me because I was scared that this tamale would not please and I was also scared that it would be too good and I would have une crise on one of the busiest shopping days of the year because of Maria- being reminded of Maria.

It did remind me of Maria and the reminding was good though. This was a real tamale with corn-breath and dragon-puffs of steam and hot sauce dribbled over it. The sauce allowed this tamale to be its own person as did the little cluster of onion and the coriander. There was pork inside and I also bought one with sweet potato, jalopeno and chicken. That one is in my freezer and I will try to be a better person and offer a bite to my own children instead of curling myself possessively around it and eating it all up with no care for anyone else, standing guard over my childhood and past.

“If we do not live now, then when”, asked Seneca. I can’t answer him because I am not a Greek philosopher or even an Anglo-Mexican one. Wiser writers than me have cautioned against trying to go back via the plate but what else can I do as I get older? I’m going to see Maria and her family I hope. I will go back but in the meantime, I am going to get out my bag of masa harina, my comale and steamer and I’m going to badger friends and family to save every last corn husk and I’m going to make my own tamales again- something I abandoned doing because it was too painful and lonely without the accompanying jabber of many many Mexican companions. Those little bundles track me back and forth across an ocean and link me to that other place where the marigolds grow and it is not considered unusual to shoo a calf out of a kitchen.

Dr Seuss + me

downloadMost of us can name a Dr Seuss book but how many of you have read my particular favourite, The Eye Book? Written by one Theodor Geisel (who used Theo Lesieg as a pen name) or Dr Seuss, as you might commonly know him, he writes, “Our eyes see flies. Our eyes see ants. Sometimes they see pink underpants” and this utterly barking looking book (with its prescient nod to the modern popularity of Japanese kawaii) pays a hilarious tribute to our eyes, encouraging us to show appreciation for all the wonderful things to be seen and the amazing way they accomplish this.

Spending some of my childhood in Mexico close to the American border meant that I had better access to Dr Seuss than your average British school child in the sixties. He was read in England but not to the extent he was enjoyed across the Atlantic and when we emigrated back to England, our crates were stuffed with my battered collection of books which took a soul-destroying eight months to arrive. The Eye Book (along with One Fish Two Fish), was my favourite and so earned the right to return with us via plane.

My joy at meeting my new form teacher in Suffolk was immense when she started to read Dr Seuss out loud and her American accent rolled over the words. My teachers in Saltillo, the Northern Mexican city we lived near, would sometimes read aloud from the books in heavily accented English with a definite American inflection. Miss Thorne, with her silver hair in a tight bun and possessed of a lofty, aquiline profile, was slightly feared by the other children but not by me and on that first day I nervously offered my copy of Dr Seus knowing, just knowing, that this American teacher would share my most un-English preference for his books.

Miss Thorne was a warm home from home in this strange, land. From that moment on, she was my buddy, a treasured ally in a cold and snow-covered country where Janet & John reigned supreme. Those emotionally constipated post-war drips with their colourless parents were not for me, having been accustomed to the open and effusive warmth of the Mexicans and Americans I had lived among. Janet and John’s brown T-bar sandals, shit-coloured cardigans, pudding bowl haircuts and obsessive repetition of the most boring inanities about running, dogs and balls did not impress.

I suffered a fair bit when I moved back. Eight year old children are not reknowned for their willingness to embrace the new and different and this blonde ringletted girl who spoke in angry Spanish whenever she got emotional and forgot her English, who looked like them but didn’t sound like them, soon became alienated and the butt of jokes. Mrs Thorne helped as much as she could but having a teacher as an ally was more of a disadvantage and I veered from wild fantasies about her being unmasked as my real mother (I had pretty terrible parents too) and other less kindly ones where I vented my anger at her marking me out as teachers pet.

Dr Seuss would have understood. He knew what it was like to stand out and when he briefly broke off from children’s writing to become a political cartoonist, he made fun of isolationists and American isolationism. He mocked the leaders of the Axis powers and railed against the discrimination directed at Jews and African-Americans- all at a time when their estrangement was enshrined in legislation, socially approved of and commonplace.DSC_2683 Seuss’s sense of social justice also stemmed from his childhood; when he was asked about the source of his creativity and did it emanate from his youth, he responded tellingly, “I think I skipped my childhood,” but “I used my adolescence.” His own background as the grandson of a Bavarian German who had emigrated from Germany in the nineteenth century and, during the First World War and was teased for being a German-American, became the painful bedrock of a career built upon the capture of youthful minds, before they became distorted by prejudice. His route home from school was accompanied by a rain of brickbats and shouts of “kill the Kaiser.” His college years saw him shunned for being Jewish (he wasn’t) and went on to inspire The Sneetches (1961), a story in which star-bellied Sneetches discriminate against star-less Sneetches. At the story’s end, they learn that “Sneetches are Sneetches / And no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches.” He might not have been Jewish but he wasn’t going to stay quiet on the subject of anti semitism. download (3) “A person’s a person, no matter how small,” says Horton Hears a Who, a book in part inspired by his visit to a post atomic bomb ravaged Japan and an important allegory (although the message isn’t as hidden as your typical allegory). I am in no way aligning my own bullying with that of other groups of people whose marginalizations involve brutality and remorseless, killing punishment but I still saw my own misery and isolation represented in a small way by him. I was that ‘no matter how small and plain little turtle below in the stack‘ (Yertle the Turtle). Dr Seuss understood that a whole lot of ‘smalls,’ added together, would go on to form a whole lot of ‘big.’ He made me realise that I couldn’t avoid being a small, nor was I likely to get a chance to become big, but I could find commonality somewhere. I was not doomed to remain forever alone.

And I was a bookish, owl-eyed child, living my life sequestered and partially protected behind a pile of books, a place of relative safety that nonetheless was regularly invaded by my parents and thus required rebuilding. Hard emotional work but the reward of fantasy lands, of other lives between those pages and the promise, one day, of a life that might be totally constructed by me was a powerful incentive to keep on rebuilding myself after being knocked down. And Dr Seuss invented the word that described me! He invented ‘nerd,’ or was the first person to use it in a book in If I Ran the Zoo. His ‘nerd’ was loving and approving, it was powerful medicine to the nerd word as chanted by the kids at school; a word that had more power to hurt in the seventies than it does now. We hadn’t reclaimed it then. I Wish I Had Duck Feet was a powerful lesson in conformity although I suspect Dr Seuss did not intend it that way. Being bullied (and I was relentlessly bullied all throughout my school years) was very lonely because like a lot of people who experience this, I had a sad and bad home life that the bullies somehow smelt on me. They detected it and homed in, knowing that I had no recourse to support, no angry parent waiting to deal with them at the school gates. My parents didn’t give a damn about it and in those days, most schools didn’t either. IMG_0029 In this book, the main character wishes for ducks feet, an elephant nose, a sprinkler on his head (!) and moose horns (among others). ‘If I had two big duck feet, I could laugh at big Bill Brown. I would say ‘YOU don’t have duck feet, these are all there are in town.’ Near the stories end, the character is imaginng the consequences of having all these useful features at once and how he’d actually end up locked up in a zoo, because society will not see the usefulness, only the freakiness. He decides he would rather just ‘be himself’ but this is not a happy settling as far as I am concerned- rather it is a sad accomodation and admission that to conform is to escape the cruel and beady eye of others. IMG_0032 How did I try to conform? I started by refusing to speak Spanish, refusing to keep up my bi-lingualism which so virulently marked me out as different to the other kids. On my first day in my English school, I turned to the little girls designated to show me around and asked them why there were tables lined up in the corridors (they were being put out for lunch). I asked in Spanish, was not understood and thus began my career as the strange girl- in those days, foreign speaking pupils were not common in Suffolk. My grandfather begged me to speak in Spanish, told me I would bitterly regret it if I forgot it all. I would not listen and I did, for a while, forget most of it, apart from that time when, in upper school Spanish class, my new schoolmaster told me I spoke Spanish like an ‘uneducated Mexican peasant.’ I replied coolly, “That’s because I grew up surrounded by them” (and they were worth ten of you, I thought). Now it is all coming back as age deconstructs the barriers in my mind and Hollywood starts to allow Latino actors to take on roles other than pool boy/nanny/waitress/slut. As they gain [a few] more speaking roles and gain representation in the arts, I am hearing what was (nearly) my mother tongue. And the memories flood back.

Going back to my (culinary) roots with the help of granddad

nic 007 When I want to easily remember my grandfather and hear his voice as if he was speaking to me in real life, all I have to do is wander down the street to my local branch of Waitrose. As I peruse the shelves, he rushes into my head, clear as day with his Midlands accent unchanged by the thirty years he lived in Suffolk. I pick up a pot of double cream flavoured with golden rum and spiced ‘winter fruits’: “What are you buying that for when I we’ve got an old bottle of rum in the roof somewhere- let me look for it and you can just chuck a slug of it into a pot of Elmlea.”  Or as I stand in front of plastic packs of ready mashed potato and orange cubes of butternut squash: “How much time does it take to make mash? Don’t be idle Nic – look at the price!” Or linger by the pretty bottles of pink lemonade: “It’s lemonade with food colouring- they can see you coming.” And then I imagine him going home and rummaging in his shed to triumphantly pull out a traditional flip topped bottle from the back that likely once contained weedkiller: “I’ll give it a rinse out with this Milton’s that I kept from when you were a baby and you can decant some Schweppes into it.” “That’s at least thirty years old, that Milton’s, granddad” “S’alright.”

He was a man with twenty plastic tubs of miscellaneous screws, washers and nails picked up from roads, gouged from wood off cuts or bought from Jacks in Colchester and transported home in a white paper bag in his pocket. My grandmother waged a permanent war against these as they infiltrated the twin tub and then her prized automatic Zanussi, clanging their way around the drum as she peered balefully through the machine window, waiting for the wash to come to a stop.

It is his ‘Waitrose voice’ (a voice of reason some might say) that triggers the strongest sense of Imposter Syndrome within me- the idea that I either don’t belong here, or am betraying my roots or social conscience every time I set foot inside the temple to gastro-gorgeousness that is Waitrose or any other chi chi place. Whether that be the two floors of food heaven at Snape Maltings selling beautifully packaged ten quid a shot pasta, all bronzed die cut rough edged loveliness and made with the best doppia 00 flour or a small local deli is immaterial.

For him, locavore and seasonal meant Weldons Pick Your Own and whatever was sold on the Bury St Edmunds or Sudbury markets instead of extravagantly marketed local food in the regions best farm shops or an upmarket supermarket trying hard to not look like one. When I go to the market to buy my fruit and veg, browse the cheese stall and choose my bread, I am buoyed by the approval I know he’d feel that I am supporting the sellers and the memories that are there to be revisited at each stall too. I recall the smell of the super hard Cheddar he’d always go for- ‘Roy’s stinky cheese’ as christened by my Grandmother (He insisted on being called Roy) from the man in the white van with drop down counter.

I remember the bags of apples, oranges and peaches in season that he’d buy for us to cut up and eat on our laps every night at 8 pm on the dot after Coronation Street had ended. (Or ‘Silly Street’ as he referred to it.) He’d come into the sitting room as he heard the closing strains of the theme tune with his fruit in a brown paper bag, yesterdays newspaper and a paring knife. The ‘Fruit’ ceremony would ensue- newspaper spread across his lap as he carefully peeled and doled out slices of fruit, the peaches left whole to be eaten by me but my grandmother ate hers sliced because somehow this method prevented them from ‘repeating on her.’ Then peelings were tidily wrapped up in the paper to be disposed of on the compost heap before they locked up for the night.

This ceremony with its roots in inter and post war fruit shortages cemented the notion of fruit as the greatest treat for us kids although the moderation of my grandparents in all things was not inherited by me. I soon graduated to putting away an entire bag of satsumas in one sitting. The fruit was kept on an old brown wood sideboard in the back bedroom and I would try to sneak in there and help myself, but the moment I opened the door, the heavy,ripe scent would slip into the hall and give the game away. He’d be appalled at its price now and half intrigued, half repelled by the choice we have, not just between species of fruit but the different varieties too, and all out of season. In his day we grew our own Bramleys and Cox’s and he was pretty conversant with many more varieties: the Pitmaston Pineapple, Worcester Pearmain and Egremont Russet (the latter which I now grow on my allotment). There were a lot more branches in our pomological family tree then, chosen to meet a specific need: keepers to eat throughout the cold winter; apples that had superlative flavour and must be eaten immediately as they were unable to be stored, apples that could be dehydrated into chewy, fudgy rings and apples that cooked down into pies and puddings. Now the fruit in supermarkets now is there for one reason only- it suits the store and its bottom line and flavour comes second.

Supermarkets such as Waitrose like to make us feel that our choice to shop there is the more ethical one compared to those ‘other places’ but I feel conflicted because their illusion of foodie sophistication, more considerate practices and worldliness masks a more difficult to palate truth. My grandfathers voice in my head is akin to the child in the Emperors New Clothes telling me that I am kidding myself that I am not harming the food chain and local economies by shopping in the manner that I often do. It tells me that I actually do not need to cook my way around the world, that millions of people eat adventurously without consuming imported goods out of season from lands far away and that being a food lover is not commensurate with having to try every weird and unusual ingredient. It reminds me that the only value label in store that matters is what that item costs the rest of the world. He was of his time, not ahead of it, and food for him was pleasant fuel, a way by which some people earned a living; worth thinking about because of this but little more beyond it.

He was an engaged man with great curiosity in the world and somebody who should have gone to university: he would have avidly read some of the great food writers I enjoy, writers like James Villas, Edna Lewis, Sara Roahen, and Molly Wizenberg. But he’d have been satisfied with just reading them.  I try to temper all this dissonance by doing the ‘High/Low thing’ (although I don’t like that rather flippant description) by shopping at the holy trinity of Waitrose, Aldi and the local market/independent shops. I make these lists of ‘essentials’ that need not have the provenance of a well bred truffle or rarity value of a Chinese Snow Leopard- flour, sugar, washing powder (no you don’t need Ariel), vinegar etc and lists of the more ‘luxe items’ that Aldi do well- maple syrup, the smoked salmon, everyday Parmesan (I sound like Marie Antoinette), basic olive oil, brioche et al, joyous in the knowledge of monies saved. I hope that economies of scale confer these lower prices- bulk orders, the centralised European storage and delivery systems, as opposed to five year old kids working in fields. 

I may be a scratch cook generally, but I am not going to make my own vinegar, salt, butter and yoghurt, dig six foot deep pits in the back yard to produce authentic pit ‘cue or ferment kimchi. Neither do I plan to try to grow wasabi in my garden pond after rigging up a water flow system with some Professor Branestawm contraption. I cannot be bothered to smoke my own salmon- it is effort enough to find one that hasn’t been abused prior to its death in a fish pen; dosed with medicine, riddled with worms and swimming in its own excrement. I understand that cultivating rare or niche ingredients here allows humans to reduce air and road miles with their attendant negatives but I am also a fan of Andrew and Beth Chatto who caution against growing plants unless you have the right climate and ecology- anything that requires expensive or time consuming measures is not worth it and should be left to grow in a more conducive place. 03bab62faead5e1a670bc2e6762967e4

I have several thousand books about food and cooking, gastronomy and the culture of eating. My cupboards, fridge and pantry are full of little tubes, jars, pots and packets of niche ingredients. Some of these were purchased out of genuine curiosity- is there truly any difference taste wise between generic Jasmin rice and the more expensive and rarer variety, the green stamped Hom Mali? Answer, yes. Others drew me like a moth to a flame because I adored the romance of the culture that birthed them (Zatarains Shrimp and crab boil) or loved the packaging (the blue and cream print on tubs of American baking powder by Bakewell Cream) even though they don’t perform any better. I haven’t used the tub of Crisco I bought but the name and iconography attached to it meant I wanted it. Someday I’ll fry that buttermilk soaked pullet in it before it goes rancid.

I am trying to make it simple again: not having to have a different blooming meal nearly every night and not feeling inadequate if I have yet to try the latest buzz ingredient that some bearded bloke ‘discovered’ on his food road trip to Macon, Taipei or Seoul. I am going to retrain myself to be happy just reading about food instead of always having to ‘source’ it and try to readopt and adapt the ethos behind the way my grandfather and grandmother ate, allowing for the culture gap that has opened up as the years have gone by.

I’m not saying that those folks who choose to experiment with an El Bulli cook book and molecular cuisine kit should be burned as heretics, far from it, even though I reckon ‘molecular gastronomy’ is the wankiest culinary term ever and people who use it seriously should undergo spherification and be fed to pigs.  Rather I am suggesting a less avaricious attitude to the acquiring of gastro experiences, with us asking ourselves if we truly need to try every form of berry discovered in the Brazilian rainforests, much less write to supermarkets demanding for them to be stocked, year round.

Dios de los Muertos and the British Halloween

I spent some of my childhood in Mexico and some of my strongest memories come from Dios De Los Muertos when my mountain city became even more colourful and night and day blended into one as we celebrated and mourned. 

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One of the most haunting and beautiful traditions of Mexico is “el altar de muertos”, the altar for the dead. On All Saints and All Souls Day, November 1 and 2, the souls of the deceased have permission to visit their families still living, on earth. The Day of the Dead is a blend of pre-Hispanic indigenous beliefs and Spanish catholic beliefs and traditionally, November 1 is the day for honoring dead children and infants whilst adults are honoured the following day. Nobody goes unacknowledged though – October 27th is known as the Day of the Orphaned Souls where souls with no living relatives to welcome them are received by the community with bread and water hung on doors whilst October 28th is the day of the Accidentados , those that died a violent or accidental death. October 30th is the day to welcome the souls of children that died in childbirth before being baptized, los ninos limbos and October 31 is the day of the Angelitos, souls of children who have died in infancy, but have been baptized and are thus thought to be free of sin. There is a beautiful and pragmatic Aztec belief that in heaven there is a paradise where a tree of human breasts provides mothers’ milk for the Angelitos .

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Both life and death are experienced as part of the same plane of reality according to pre Hispanic cultural beliefs- all life is engaged in a perpetual process of destruction and creation. During Aztec times, the ultimate achievement was a glorious death with the most honored way to die being la muerte florida ( the flowering death) during childbirth, death in combat or via ritual sacrifice to the gods. Death was seen as the beginning of the seasonal cycle of life and so the dead were honoured and commemorated with rituals and fiestas connected with the time of the harvest.

Mexico is rife with folk tales that warn of the consequences of failing to properly observe the traditions of the festival. Should families inadequately decorate their altar, the returning spirit  may feel sad and angry and seek vengeance on those who have forgotten them. That vengeance might take the form of another family member falling ill and dying shortly afterwards.

“Pues el difunto podria volver ese día a la casa y hay que atenderlo bien”, (“you see, the deceased might return home that day so one has to look after them well”).

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Pan de Muertos

The visiting souls are welcomed and honoured by the setting up of an Ofrenda– an altar decorated by placing their favourite things upon it: foods to sustain them on their long journey and symbols of death and eternal life. The altar becomes a symbol of everlasting love and shows us that people live on in the hearts and minds of their family and friends. Preparation of the food is a family affair with much lively discussion as to the best way to stuff a tamale or roast a chile- households get together to set up tamale prep stations (they can be fiddly) and to share their harvests. Children sit together making paper chains and decorate the house with flowers.

The traditional Mexican altar for the dead is often installed in the main room of the house, on top of a table with three levels, the highest level representing heaven. Here you will find an image of a Santo, la Virgen, a cross, or Jesus. On the middle level you place a photo, or multiple photos of the person you are dedicating the altar to, and on the lowest level, representing earth, you place all your offerings.

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Calaveritas de azucar

Traditional offerings dating back to the Aztecs include:

The Flowers of Tzempaxuchitl (traditional Aztec name)- Marigolds

Calaveritas de azucar (sugar sculls that can be personalised)

Pan de muerto in the shape of bodies called ‘anima’ (the traditional ‘day of the dead’ bread)

Copal and incienso – these act as guide via scent to the relatives home

Velas (candles)

A dish of salt, symbolizing purification, is always included.

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To this the family might add tamales wrapped in corn husks filled with special ingredients, cigarettes or cigarillos, a bottle of tequila, agua fresca or clay jugs of water. You will find bibles and copies of favourite books and some of the more whimsical, traditional pieces of decorative arts, local to the region. Figures of Catrina are traditional- this tall, elegantly attired female skeleton sporting an extravagantly plumed hat is there to remind Mexicans that nobody, no matter how wealthy, escapes death. You will also find dancing skeleton figures (called Calacas) carved of wood or made into filigree paper chains cut out of picado (colourful Chinese paper) and hung behind the altar- purple is the colour of mourning whilst hot pink and orange are celebratory and petate (woven reed mats) are sprinkled with flame orange marigold petals or the flower heads of multi coloured Zinnias. Other traditional flowers are baby’s breath ( nube ) and wine colored coxcomb ( magenta terciopelo). The journey from Mictlan (the Aztec name of the Underworld), is long and very tiring so a wash basin, mirror, towel, soap and shaving products (for the men) are placed near the Ofrenda so the departed spirit can cleanse themselves before joining in the festivities. Chairs with folded striped serapes are put out for the dead to sit on while they rest, drink and regain their strength. We used to use the traditional serape of Saltillo, the town we lived in.

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Catrina

Come November 2nd, light the candles, burn the incense and as each candle is lit the names of the departed are called out, as if to say “Come back home, my son, your family awaits you”. Then sit and wait. The spirits of your loved ones are all around you- in the breeze coming from the desert and mountains, in the moonlight that streams in through the windows and in the candle light as it flickers. The soul is nourished through the scents and flavours of the food, both before the families start to feast and during it and is led to the feast by following the scent of the marigolds as it is believed that they carry the scent of death.

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Many families take their altars to the cemeteries where their relatives and friends lay buried and place offering on graves and inside tombs. At noon on November 1st, church bells toll for the arrival of the elder traveling spirits, known as the Faithful Dead. At sundown we would all process to our local cemetery accompanied by Mariarchi bands who would go on to roam the allees between the tombs, taking requests from attendees to play favourite songs and make dedications. We would picnic, drinking the drink made from corn and flavoured with hot chocolate (Atole) from earthenware bowls, eat tamales stuffed with turkey and pork and masa and break open the pan de muerto in the shape of Catrina, encrusted with primary coloured sugar crystals. Children gobbled down sugar skull candies straight from the twists of paper enclosing them then dance and, if young, fall asleep with the spicy scent of marigolds crushed underfoot. Tired out we’d be wrapped up in blankets and carried home through streets full of fiesta and gaiety.

In Mexico, life and death are celebrated and revered: the sugar skulls would bear both the names of the dead and of the living to remind us of this. I remember coveting the candies covering the graves and tombs of the muertitos (the little dead ones, or children), along with new toys. This super rich candy- Calabaza en Tacha, pumpkin cooked in brown sugar syrup was not eaten by us at any other time of the year and it is just as well- it is not good for the teeth.

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I watched with wonder as families took the bodies of the relatives out of the tombs, unwrapped the muslin fabric that tightly encased them, washed their bodies and re-wrapped them, scattering marigold petals between the layers of cloth. There were no unpleasant scents as the cool dry mountain air encouraged mummification and families were skilled at preserving the bodies of their loved ones. Graves were scrubbed clean, redressed and garlanded with flowers and pathways swept of leaves and other detritus. From tomb to tomb the villagers moved, celebrating and mourning with their neighbours, lamps and burning torches held aloft to light the path. Incense burned in the air and the surrounding mountains cradled the graveyard, bruise-black in the distance, Friends told stories of their ancestors and renewed acquaintances with relatives travelling from afar whilst admiring the altars and graves decorated by others. As the sun went down along came hummingbirds striped of tail with breasts an iridescent oily green and they would drink the sugar water from feeders hanging from the trees in the cemetery. These feeders received an extra spoon of sugar during Dios de Los Muertos in case these birds were visiting souls in need of sustenance.

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calavera poncianista by jose guadalupe

Other years saw us travelling into the Zapaliname mountains that surrounded our home in Saltillo. These mountains are part of the Sierra Madre Oriental mountain range and provided a dramatic backdrop to the altars erected in honour of Zapaliname, chieftain of the Huachichil tribe. Garlands of marigolds would stretch between rocks illuminated by serried rows of fat tallow candles with their porky scent. The nearby waterfall thundered behind the altar, spraying us with mist and a cool breeze. Our serapes were a welcome shield against the cold of the desert and mountain slopes.

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La Calvera Catrina

Such strong iconography inevitably leads to a degree of cultural appropriation sadly and this has been increasingly evident in the UK these last few years as merchandisers seek to encourage us to spend more money on Halloween- it seems to be becoming a festival lasting a week or more now. I fail to see the difference between the wearing of First Nation headdresses at Glastonbury and the appropriation of Dios De Los Muertos traditions and symbols. Decorating your home with Catrina, decorated skulls, marigolds and the other imagery is appropriation even though the two festivals share roots in common. I understand that their gaiety is appealing and especially to British children but using them without even a basic understanding of Mexican religious and cultural practices can be insensitive. So where does British Halloween tradition lie?

All Saints’ Day (also known as All Hallows’ Day or Hallowmas) is a perfect example of a marriage between religious belief and superstition and it is widely thought that Halloween originated as a pagan Celtic festival of the dead related to the Irish and Scottish Samhain (the celebration of the dying of the sun as winter approached), but there is no evidence that it was connected with the dead in pre-Christian times. We have no British tradition of using Dios De Los Muertos style iconography although in parts of France, Catholic families visited their family’s graves with pots of chrysanthemums.

The day after All Hallows’ Eve (Hallowe’en) is an opportunity for believers to remember all saints and martyrs, known and unknown, throughout Christian history. As part of this day of obligation, believers are required to attend church and avoid all but absolutely necessary servile work. The remembrance of saints and martyrs and dedicating a specific day to them each year has been a Christian tradition since the 4th century AD, but it wasn’t until 609AD that Pope Boniface IV extended this to all martyrs. 13th May was originally designated as the Feast of All Holy Martyrs and later, in 837AD, Pope Gregory IV extended the festival and changed its name to Feast of All Saints and the date to the 1st of November.

The Celts believed that the long winter nights made the perfect playground for evil spirits: the barriers between the human and spirit world were weaker  and spirits walked the earth, seeking dominion over the living. Bonfires were constructed to frighten these spirits away and people danced and feasted around them, believing that the flames brought comfort to souls in purgatory. Burning at their strongest in Scotland and Ireland where Celtic influence was at its strongest, the fires lingered on in some of the northern counties of England until the early years of the last century. In Lancashire, ‘Lating’ or ‘Lighting the witches’ became a tradition where locals carried candles from eleven to midnight. If the candles burned steadily the carriers were safe for the season, but if the witches blew them out, it didn’t look good…..Also known as Nut Crack Night in parts of Northern England, nuts were put on the fire and used to forecast the success or not of marriages and love affairs, according to how they burned.

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Halloween Apple Bobbing (Howard Chandler Christy), 1915.

Halloween was also sometimes called Snap Apple Night, in England. Contestants had to try an bite the apple suspended on a piece of string without using their hands. A variation of the game was to fix an apple and a lighted candle at opposite ends of a stick suspended horizontally and to swing the stick round. The object was to catch the apple between the teeth whilst avoiding the candle. Many places in England combined Halloween with Mischief Night (celebrated on 4 November), when boys played all kinds of practical jokes on neighbours. ‘Souling’ was a ninth century pre-reformation European Christian custom where locals would make house calls and beg for ‘soul cakes’. In exchange for a cake they promised to pray for the repose of the soul because it was believed that the prayer of strangers especially could help this souls journey to heaven. Platters of these little unleavened cakes were left on porches with water or something stronger as the pilgrims gathered, singing songs such as this:

“A soul, a soul, a soul cake. Please god missus a soul cake. An apple, a pear, a plum or a cherry, Any good thing to make us merry. Up with your kettles and down with your pans Give us an answer and we’ll be gone Little Jack, Jack sat on his gate Crying for butter to butter his cake One for St Peter, two for St Paul, Three for the man who made us all.”

If children were part of the group, they would be accompanied by a hobby horse (an echo of the Celtic past), which was called the Hooden Horse at this time of year. Shakespeare was familiar with this custom and referenced it in ‘The Two Gentlemen of Verona’ where observed pithily that one of the special marks of a man in love is to ‘speak puling, like a beggar at Hallowmas”.

And it is in these customs we see the beginnings of the modern practices of trick or treating and party games.

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Soul Cakes

Soul Cakes

Similar to a Hot Cross Bun but without the cross or currants, these little allspice flavoured cakes make an authentic and delicious All Souls Day breakfast- try them with jam, honey or even maple syrup. If you wish, you can flavour them with saffron which was a traditional crop across parts of England.

175g butter

175g caster sugar

3 egg yolks

450g plain flour

pinch salt

1 teaspoon mixed spice or allspice

warm milk

Preheat oven to 180c and cream the butter and sugar in a bowl until fluffy and pale then beat in egg yolks. Sift flour and spices then slowly add in, mixing to a stiff dough. Knead thoroughly and roll out to 1/4 inch thick then cut into 3 inch rounds and place on a greased baking sheet. Prick the rounds with a fork and bake 20-25 mins or until lightly golden and cooked through. Sift with icing sugar and eat warm.

Libraries helped to build this girl

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Photo by Jan Willemsen, by permission- Flickr commons

I have a lot of books. In piles by the bed and underneath it, lining the book cases and shelves that in turn line the narrow upstairs passages of our late Victorian home. They are stacked by easy chairs, ready to soothe and transport an uneasy mind, slotted into gaps between kitchen units and propped up on bathroom radiators. They fill the cellar, lay in wait on stairs, accompanying me up and down them from the moment I leave my bed in the morning, stumbling and heavy lidded until they return upstairs to accompany my slide into sleep. I have read many of these books but many more await me, making me worry that I will run out before the books do – all that great writing published after I shuffle off this mortal coil that I will never get to read.

Schopenhauer said, over one hundred and fifty years ago, ‘It would be a good thing to buy books if one could also buy the time to read them: but one usually confuses the purchase of books with the acquisition of their contents.’ Sadly the last few years have been marked by an increasing lack of time to sit and read and I resent it, I truly do. If books build a person does that mean that my busy-ness has caused my construction to come to a temporary halt? Will I slip into a slow autophagy, a gentle and gentile decline in the manner of a stately home without National Trust guardianship unless I maintain an unspecified quota of books read?

I have always identified myself first and foremost as a bookworm from a very young age. A sticker on the front of a book I pulled from a shelf in the town library showed a pale young girl, eyes huge behind owlish glasses, her open book illuminated by the glow worm sitting on her shoulder. She sat late at night, the bedclothes tented over her head, (a nylon blanket and wincyette sheet set no doubt), reading in defiance of her parents who probably wondered why she took so long to rouse of a morning. I had found a graphic rendition of my own bookish existence at the age of eight and although my sheets have a much better thread count these days, I haven’t really changed all that much. The bedpost on my husbands side of the bed is festooned with a selection of eyemasks to better enable him able to cope with my late night reading.

Henry James may have referred to the city of Florence’s ‘many memoried streets’ but for me, Sudbury library with its separate children’s library and galleried upper floor containing the ‘big books’- encyclopedias and reference, is my street of memories. I started in the children’s area then ventured out into the wider spaces of this cavernous former corn exchange on the Market Hill. Tall, slightly dusty and echoing as a ‘proper’ library should, walking around here was, to me, as important as the hidden and darker corners of European cities, a surprise that taught you something around every corner and to a small child, as big and safe a city as they could ever need.

And if you are a bookworm, a library is the only way you can satisfy that intense hunger for books and choice because to buy all the books that I wanted to, and indeed did read, would have cost a small fortune. For children worldwide, the library is the place where their background and their income is irrelevant. Back in the early seventies, Sudbury had several independent book shops on Gainsborough and Friars street with fine collections of books but if, like me, you could read a Roald Dahl in three hours, the cost would soon become prohibitive. The desire to explore subjects and authors unknown was also inhibited by the risk of spending pocket money on a book that may turn out to be a dud and the comprehensive encyclopedias were completely financially out of reach. For children and families not born into stately homes with their own libraries, the ones in our towns are a fine substitute with the advantage of staff trained to guide children towards books best suited.

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Illustration by Chas Robinson via Flickr Commons

Before Sudbury library, there was the one in my junior school in Mexico where I started, aged four in the first year, the only English girl and the only blonde in a sea of inky black haired locals. Their library contained shelves edged with strips of onyx, lined with imported Jane and Peter books from the USA, classics such as the Phantom Tollbooth and Harold and His Big Purple Crayon (the latter went on to become a life long favourite of mine) alongside books of the saints and martyrs which terrified me. At the school library entrance stood a lurid plaster statue of Mary the Virgin pointing to her exposed and bleeding heart past which I scuttled on my way to the books. I learned to avoid the stories of saints, broken by torture and other terrible fates for as the only non Catholic in the school, the promise of eternal reward did not sit as comfortably on my shoulders and I grew impatient with their motivation. Instead I cajoled the library assistant into sharing her comic books and learned to speak Mexican Spanish via Yogi Bear, Speedy Gonzales and Porky Pig. I sat on her lap, ate bread dipped in milk caramel, read my books and tolerated her plaiting and replaiting my locks- she had never seen white blonde ringlets before.

From the library of another country to the one in my English high school: a place so alluring that aged fifteen, on being asked to write out the games lesson register at the start of the Autumn school year, I simply left my name off it and enjoyed a blissful year tucked away behind the shelves, reading for that double period instead of freezing my ass off on the hockey field. Nobody noticed me there, not least the school librarian who had developed the habit of walling herself behind stacks of returned books and only emerging if she absolutely had to. I read ‘Heart of Darkness’ with old copies of National Geographic on my knee, the glossy photos of old Congo and the Ivory Coast and Algeria acting as back up for my over worked imagination. I read ‘Sons and Lovers’ and ‘The Waves’ and Plath’s ‘Ariel’ and came up against race and class, mental illness and structural inequality all in one cold Winter term, my back pressed against a radiator, its paint thick and smelling of hot dust as it heated up.

I moved to the countryside as a young adult and had my first child where the long distances to the nearest town coupled with the pre internet age meant the mobile library van was a safeguard against losing my enquiring mind. Or rather it was the lack of opportunity to have my enquiries answered that was the threat then. A librarian prepared to ignore the ten books maximum rule, careful cross referencing of the Times and Guardian book review pages followed by the ordering of the books reviewed, ensured I retained my sense of being a participant in a world that was moving so fast I worried about dropping off. Staggering across the green to the giant orange library bus parked up against the kerb – squalling baby under one arm, carrier bags full of books in both hands then that journey reversed, back home, ‘Please, please sleep baby’ and my excitement that an ordered book had arrived.

A move to London meant an embarrassment of library and bookshop riches. The British Library- hallowed halls but nothing, absolutely nothing in comparison emotionally to the libraries that came before. Libraries that, when I moved back to Suffolk, became the same home from home for my now two children, books borrowed by them then purchased by me because they despaired at the thought of their return for some other child to enjoy. Using the online ordering service at Bury St Edmunds Library to locate the niche, and my particular love, kitschy American cook books then using it to order books for the children and they, in turn, learning patience and delayed gratification through this. It is never just about a ‘book’. My then training as a mental health professional and a post grad in health promotion in part belonged to the libraries of Suffolk (and the local hospital library) – the patient trawling of their staff through computerised lists of elusive and niche books to keep my studies going in the small hours, my children asleep and me nearly so, nose touching pages and pages of close type.

For a happy life, Montaigne wrote, we “should set aside a room, just for ourselves, at the back of the shop” and so I have. Mine is lined with books, their spines colourful or tastefully subtle, some with deckled page edges, others smoothly uniform: a psychological  ISBN in my head that helps me make decisions or defer them; helps me cope and understand and interpret; long for, settle or decide to avoid. That room in my head has been stocked with the help of our nation’s libraries and it will be a tragedy if, in the future, cuts to library services mean that generations of children grow up with their own bookshelves depleted- the ones in their heads and the rather more literal kind.

I’ll leave the last word to E.B White:

“A library is many things,” E.B. White once wrote in a letter to the children of a small town to inspire them to fall in love with their library. “But particularly it is a place where books live, and where you can get in touch with other people, and other thoughts, through books… Books hold most of the secrets of the world, most of the thoughts that men and women have had.”

Further information on East Anglian library services and Bookstart-

The Suffolk Library Service

The Norfolk Library Service

The Suffolk Book League

Bookstart Suffolk

Bookstart Packs

Birth attendant to lizards & chasing tumbleweed- A Mexican childhood.

chiuahan desert Yucca, Creosote, and Mesquite typify the plants in the Chihuahuan DesertPicture the outskirts of Saltillo, Coahuila in Northern Mexico. My mother used to drive around the desert in circles, dust flying in her wake. We would stand on the running-board, hold on and scream in frightened hilarity as she tore about in her metallic-blue Beetle, THE car of seventies Mexico and driven by everybody. A favourite game was chasing the tumbleweeds and dust devils over the scrub, the sounds of the cars roaring engine rivalled by hollering kids clinging like barnacles to the rolled-down windows. We mapped the route of the tumbleweed via our pattern of tyre tracks; puttering along the switchback mountain roads only to screech to a halt whenever we saw a waterfall across the gorges or a lizard that had been awoken by the noise of our engine. Scaly backed and teetering down the road, the lizards would veer crazily from one side to another and we’d follow on foot or in the car.  In the desert silence, all we’d hear was the graze and bump of car tires on a stone and cement road with potholes and ruts large enough to lose a small child in.

Coahuila-Mexico-Roads

No father. Either taking the photos of us or away at work, the reason why we were all living there as migrants in this strange land with its cartoonish cacti, foul smelling creosote bushes, juicy leaved agave, heather-purple mountains and dead dogs in the road. Father. Work then home to sweep us away on road trips and holidays. There were overnight stays in motels-Holiday Inn- with their neon-brilliant displays and names lit brightly on tall metal stands, all scaffolding from the back view and glamorous ‘Vegas, Baby’ from the front. They had curving drives, white-painted rocks and car hops with one white gloved hand held out, the other tucked into the small of their backs. There’s some photographs of me by the motel entrance, hiding my face behind a naked Tiny Tears doll and stropping because I wasn’t allowed to go straight to the pool, cool and blue waters safely penned-in behind wire fencing with scrubby palm trees bent by the desert winds along its perimeter.

Playa de las Gaviotas- Gaviotas beach in Mazatlan

The females of the family wore baby-blue mini dresses to pose for the camera and even our mother matched due to the great affliction of the sixties and seventies- the coordinated family photograph. There’s us with tan knees scabbed from scrabbling over the desert rocks and our mother’s legs are encased in American tan tights in ninety-degrees of heat, not yet ready to discard them and go bare-legged. Garlands of white fabric Lily Pullitzer daisies appliqué our waist and neckline as we stand there in our cookie-cutter dresses with their princess shapes and sweetheart necklines; these are dress design names that describe our roles of girlfriend, mother, daughter or wife and our nature; demure, modest,on a pedestal, in the background. Always decorative and “a credit to you”. A tall Beehive from the late sixties is worn by some women and it’s slowly turning into the wilder leonine Raquel Welch and Baby-Jane Holzer mane of the seventies in the last few years of the sixties. We have dimpled soft arms, brown by British standards, pale by Mexican, and I have white-blonde hair, ringlets too, and often commented upon by locals because it is so different to their blue-black straight locks.

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Liz Taylor & Mike Todd in Acapulco

Imagine sliding glass doors onto a high veranda and balcony overlooking Acapulco beach with the mountains behind which are home to movie stars who remain in compounds with pools and guards. The grounds are kept pristine to await the twice yearly visits by Dean Martin, Liz Taylor, Frank Sinatra. We knew when they were in town by the fluttering excitement of the hotel staff. Liz is in her tropical floral kaftan, cigarette in an enamelled holder, sunlounger tipped back, and the waiters greeted by her sun-shy squint as they loom over to serve her a cerveza with lime and more cocktails, all Pucci-bright with parasols and fruit. Tiny lizards seek shade at noon under our loungers, lapping at the drips of melted ice which forms puddles and come out into the sun as shadows lengthen and cooler air pushes down on the heat still rising from the stone tiles. The Acapulco cliff divers, macho, celebrated local Gods, poise Cruz-like to fall, timed with the waves crashing in and out of the bay then stalk the beaches afterwards, seawater droplets on black curls, cadging cigarettes and nights with rich American women, beach-widows during the week and starved of attention. The young men steal away when the husbands fly in at weekends, tired and important. We children chase the lizards and catch them, make little homes for them with piles of rocks for walls and filled with flowers picked from the gardens. There’s a roof of ficus branches for shade. The staff disassemble them overnight as they clear the towels left by the pool and the cigarette butts, and empty glasses.

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We chase the gophers in the desert too, looking for their hiding places and poking sticks down dark holes. We watch collared lizards dart away when the shadow of an eagle passes overhead, only for them to emerge minutes later, standing on their hind legs, white bellies catching the sun. We wait for the female lizards to develop orange spots on their bellies which tells us they have laid their eggs and then go hunting for their nests which we patiently sit by, squatting down in the sand to await the hatching of eggs laid among the sagebrush, pinyon and juniper bushes that grow in raggedy clusters. We are eager birth attendants. Afternoons are spent walking along the dry stream and river-beds that fill in a flash-flooded instant, hours after the rain clouds dip low on the horizon- one of the biggest desert dangers and the first thing our housekeeper warns us of. Sometimes we poke sticks into the holes occupied by rattlesnakes, hearing the warning rattle deep down in the earth- there is time to retreat as long as you avoid the overcast cooler days when the snakes rest closer to the surface. Or the snakes sunbathe on flat dark rocks, swollen-bellied after a lunch of gopher.

We go in for our lunch. No Mexican deliberately chooses to eat outside in the midday heat and our housekeeper is insistent. Lunch, then siesta. Late to lunch one day- “‘Dónde estás. ¿dónde estás hasta ahora?” she calls then screams in horror, “Mi dios, peligroso!”- My God, dangerous, get away! There is a rattlesnake, sleepy and placid in the sun and I am sitting cross-legged next to it aged four, crooning, talking, singing to it, I cannot recall why. The neighbour comes, broom placed across the head end, followed by a swift decapitation with a spade and the snake is reluctant to die, writhing and opening its mouth for some time, emitting angry little gasps. No longer placid. This is a land where many things are adorned with snakeskin- hats, cowboy boots and our place mats have a strip of it decorating their edges.

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My sister & I in our paddling pool in the courtyard- snake attacking broom nearby

Food. Tamales. Damp bundles wrapped in corn leaves, puffs of steam as they are unwrapped. Belted in the middle like a badly fitted housedress, they are stuffed with masa, steamed and fluffy, encircling a dab of dark pork and mole, jab of radiating chile-heat in its dead centre. They are cooling on a hot day, stimulating sweat. Corn (or the typically Northern wheat) tortillas are made with the cast iron tortlilladora or a wooden press made from Encino wood, a hard white oak native to Mexico. Stuffed with mashed pinto beans, some avocado, some tomatillos, chillies and quesa fresca, wrapped into a half circle, they are eaten swiftly in three bites. Northern Mexico is the land of the vaqueros (cowboys), the shepherders, and ranch owners who all settled here and managed livestock, basing their diet on grilled meat (usually beef, lamb, or goat); built around wheat tortillas rather than corn. Cooler weather meant carnitas and carne asada- flank steak marinated in citrus, jalapeno, garlic and olive oil, and grilled or poultry-based stews. Fires are aromatic with burning bundles of mesquite gathered from behind our house: much better than leaving it to blow across the plains and become a lightning-ignited fire hazard during the frequent mountain thunderstorms that passed overhead each week.

Alfareros in Tiaquepaque- hand painted pottery in Guadalajara

We learned to eat on the street, not part of the British culture we had left, then and we ate corn-cobs, sooty from the fire, freckled with chilé, lime juice and piled onto a cart on every street corner, sweet and salt on the fingers. There was barbecued melon, cubed or sold in slices and kept semi frozen on piles of ice tinged pink with its juices and milk-soaked cakes with caramel sauce….all served as a portable lunch, breakfast and also our merenda, the after-school snack we would eat on the way home. We shared our housekeepers Cafe De Olla, brewed in a tall clay pot, scented with cinnamon, sweetened with sugar from the cane. Ours would be heavy on the milk, light on the bean. There was no hope for our uniform, a pale cream turtleneck tee shirt in the winter, which soon became stained with adobe-dark juices from food eaten from the hand as we ran and walked and jumped our way home. Summer smocks were limp from the heat of the day, creased from the school chair, from laying on the grass under the trees as we tried to keep cool at break times. Brown check and cream cotton and a red blazer for winter because the desert days could be cold.

Arriving home to play in the desert around our house with other local children- Austrian, American and Mexican, we drank the hand-squeezed jug of lime and water brought out for us and I still remember the taste of the clay drinking pots used by our housekeeper, all earthy and dusty – the taste of transformed mud against our tongues. Nibbling on it became a form of pica. At table we got the hand-blown glasses bought on holidays, on trips to the artisan glass-blowers of Guadalajara where we would watch them force air into bulbs of swirling kaleidoscopic colours, see the glass flexing and melding, the colours finding their place as the vase or cup or bowl swelled and formed.

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Church of St Esteban by Hopper

An artists paradise, Mexico, for Kahlo, Rivera and Patrocino Barela, O’Keefe nearby and Edward Hopper who stayed at the Hotel Arizpe Sáinz,during his visits to Saltillo in the 1940s. The hotel rooftop became artist studio and butt of his complaints about the view obstructed by walls towers and electric signs and the frustration at his inability to capture the blue purple green of the mountains in oil paints. The noise and bustle was not liked and eliminated from his landscapes which are a symphony of adobe, earth, rounded corners and buildings abutted. The colours of Mexico are captured in the Serape, the name of this blanket based garment originating in Saltillo although it is woven and worn all over Mexico and Guatemala. Ixtle fibres from Agave woven in bands of red and egg-yolk yellows and greens; then contrasted by the black, violet and bruise-purple colours of the land at sunset. They were one of the first things we bought upon our arrival, flung over beds and settees and as rugs and gifts sent back via shipping crates to relatives and friends. I still have mine but the fringed edges have become knotted and tangled over the decades.

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We are on the Saltillo to the Colombia Bridge border crossing to the West of Nuevo Laredo, all 192 miles. The Mexico 57 toll highway between Saltillo and the border is now four-lane but not then although it has always been clotted with lorries and tankers, the mopeds weaving crazily in and out of them, all disappearing towards the mountains as you travel deeper into Mexico. In the opposite direction, traffic slows as you approach the border, cars and vehicles stuffed with humans and their detritus, packing and unpacking bags for inspection, fishing in glove compartments for documents, reaching over seats to smack tired and scrappy children. “Sit still and behave! Or the guards will take you away!”

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We drive to the USA to buy Christmas gifts and back again and detour along the way to visit places known only to us locals, turning off the highway into the mountains proper, towards ravines and cuts, waterfalls plunging and gouging deeper pools and streams. The water is the same colour as our VW which is parked alongside as we paddle, sit on the boulders, eat our food and swim. Then, on the way back, a wrong direction is taken then an illegal U turn onto the highway is made after driving across a few acres of rough scrub, kitty-corner to the road. The police arrive, two young guys in limp, sweat-stained and tide-marked uniforms, rote in their application of the time honoured tradition of demanding and accepting payment of a cash bribe. Most drivers choose to pay up, the pervasiveness of corruption. “What would happen if we don’t pay, Dad?” “They’d shoot our our tires and leave us here.” They siphon off a gallon or two of gasoline also. Polite, friendly, one of them strokes my hair “Usted tiene una familia encantadora, senor”. You have a lovely family, sir. Gracias. We’d be anxious if our Father looked anxious. He is used to it. When in Rome and all that.

Salto Cola de Caballo- Horsetail falls near Guadalajara
Salto Cola de Caballo- Horsetail falls near Guadalajara

The combination of tradition and loucheness in fiesta abounds. El Grito de Independiancia on the 16th of September in the town and village Plaza marking our independence from Spanish rule; Los Dias de los Muertos with rituals both metaphorical and literal; Las Posadas and its commemoration of the long journey undertaken by Joseph and Mary, and their search for lodging in Bethlehem. The procession calling at homes along a route, me in cream heavy satin and an angels halo, an ‘angelic’ child with blonde ringlets chosen especially out of all the other children, despite the incongruousness of blonde in a story emanating from a Middle Eastern land populated by mainly dark-haired people. Birthdays and Christmas bought the ubiquitous piñata, Daisy Duck one year, a white reindeer another. Strung up high above the courtyard, a man at each end of the rope, standing on flat roofs opposite each other. Children blindfolded, hold a crepe paper-decorated stick and swipe purposefully at the piñata as it jerks and sways, the men making it more or less easy according to our age. Gradually becoming more tattered, wisps of paper from it whirl and float down with each ‘thwack’ followed by a sharp crack as the stick meets the claypot filled with sweets buried deep in its centre. Whoops and screams of children bounce around the courtyard as they jostle and scrap for the candies that are strewn everywhere. No gallantry. No mercy. Candies stuffed into pockets, into mouths, cheeks bulging. We are already sugar sick from too much Tres Leches Cake and American-style birthday cakes frosted in green, red and white- the colours of the Mexican flag.

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The plaza in Saltillo

Religious ritual and tenets both butt heads and dovetail too with local life. There’s the happiness of families, strolling at night through the streets, eating their honey and lime paletas in the plaza, men smoking short stubby cigarillos, women delving into straw bags retrieving hankies to wipe sticky baby faces and fingers. There’s animated chat and greetings floating across the cobbles, the church bells announcing the lateness of the hour. A time spent sleeping in England and now for socialising instead, punctuated by head splitting yawns until we acclimatise.

Huddled against the mountains, a thin dark line against their bulk is the shanty town. The wind in the right direction carries faint sounds- music, yip yips of stray dogs, a mans voice. A car exhaust trailing off into the mountains or towards the town. The lights glimmer until three, four in the morning, tempting those people who are trying to resist going there; people like our lovely family friend. Early Friday evening and there’s the usual tap at the door and “Can I drop this off for safekeeping?”, a brown paper paypacket left on the table, the door slamming behind him and trail of exhaust fumes as he hightails it towards the brighter lights than those left on at home. Funny, friendly and loved by everyone, our friend struggles with alcohol and will often return two days later, spent in money, begging my parents to hand over the rest of his pay, the money he intended for them to keep safe from his impulses. On those days, we stay in our rooms. He smells funny, and, like our wrestler neighbour who works as a Luchadore and sometimes puts on his mask to chase us around the courtyard in a game, “No exceso de rudezas, senoritas!” ‘not too violent, my little ones’, he is familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. We enjoy feeling scared and thrilled by the neighbourly antics of the wrestler though; we know it is a game and one especially for us children. Not so with the friend of our father sadly and because we love him so, we worry for him. That is a wrestling match he will go on to lose.

Calle de Victoria in Saltillo
Calle de Victoria in Saltillo

The woman who live there in that place, we see them sometimes in our town, buying food, visiting the doctor or dentist or hospital. They are not so vivid in the daytime. They don’t need to be. We wouldn’t necessarily know the men who visit them because in the day they could be your father, your uncle, the village priest maybe. Or the doctor himself and they don’t want you to know where they go at night. Nobody seems to talk to the women although they are not strangers and everybody knows who they are. Out housekeeper hustles us along, she doesn’t like these women. She went to school with some of them, grew up on smallholdings next to their homes. I like their earrings, bigger than my little gold studs that I had put in two weeks after arriving here- a Latin American custom that I fought like a hellcat. Screaming, the pain of having a needle pushed through baby soft earlobes. The nun who did it, grim-faced. Not a tender-hearted bride of Christ.  The freeze of the ice cube held against the hole. And the ear stud pushed through bleeding raw flesh. I wanted gold hoops, brassy chandeliers that swayed and knocked against my jaw with every defiant shake of my head.

mexican-pinata
Pinata

My fiesta costumes are swirling and bright, lace, tiers of stiff, crinkled petticoats, ribbons and covered buttons on dresses in petrol blue, pinks, grass greens; strewn with yellow daisies or pink cabbage roses, seventies bright and naive. Skirts designed to be held out with one hand making a dramatic half circle then released to flow out as I twirl and dance. Backwards and forwards across plazas and school stages, only interrupted by a push and slap fight with my best friend because one or both of us did the wrong steps. Pulled apart by teachers. A little shake “NO! Chicas Malas!” . We dance on, cutting glaring eyes at each other with each pass, making our skirt swirls more pointed, flounce and turn, chins tilted skywards, nostrils flared. Passions aroused by tempo and the shouts of “Arriba!”, the stomping feet of band and crowd marking the beat. Overtaking it sometimes, too. We are only six. The crowd laughed, amused by our fury. My mother, unamused and even less so when, at the end of the day, I returned home carrying a cardboard box, something peeping and scrabbling about within. A commemorative gift from the school.

nic 002
Myself aged five at my housekeepers smallholding.

Beverley the chick soon turned Beverley the cockerel, aggressive, spurred, savage killer of infant lizards and chaser of the brave Luchadore neighbour. No cockerel lived to sing through more than one spring in the farmyards here. Off to the housekeepers small holding went Beverley, Juanita’s axe and outdoor feather strewn table ready for him. then later on, a chocolate spiced, brick-red mole to go with the rooster stew, arroz-rice all for lunch with her elderly mother and even more elderly grandmother. To me, both seemingly as ancient as their Aztec ancestors. Profiles like the black onyx figures sitting by our front door, models of the Aztec Gods, holding their decorated shields. Tiny, weighty and cold to the touch, cooling against the back of a neck on a searing hot day. In this hot country, far from England.