June 30, 2009

Hazards encountered in warp drive

This is how our life works right now. It’s pretty confusing as we are traveling in two different time zones, literally and figurally. I stay here in Denver taking long naps, watching TV, and exercising my arm while my brain moves at 25 MPH. Esperando hops around like a flea all over North America commuting for his job between the San Francisco Bay Area, Vancouver, Santa Rosalia, Mexico City and Denver, mentally and physically speeding around at Mach 10. Two days ago he was on his way up here from Baja, but because his flight was delayed by three hours he missed his connection in Los Angeles and had to spend the night there. He got up to go to the LAX airport at 3:30 am to start wait-listing for the earliest possible flight out and arrived in Denver mid-morning yesterday. The first thing we did was go buy him a new suitcase as his current one is trashed; he travels so constantly that he goes through a suitcase in about 6 months. When we got back to the house, he worked the rest of the day stopping at 6 pm to grill lamb burgers for dinner. This morning we took the dog for a walk, then I went to yet another doctor appointment while he packed to go to Washington, D.C. for some important financing meetings.

My new doctor is a back specialist. I have been having problems with my lower back for the last two months and it took about a month to get an appointment with this guy. I was still struggling to fill out the paperwork that the doctor’s office gives you when you start out as a new patient and was shown to an examining room when my cell phone rang. It was Esperando wanting to know if I left the suit that he wanted to wear to D.C. at the cleaners after the Brainy Blonde’s wedding in May. “I think it’s the one I gave away to the Goodwill,” he muttered as he hung up. I was still trying to focus on the forms and not think about the suit when the doctor came into the room. I must not be the only one who is behind the eight ball filling out these forms as there was a ‘bone pile’ of about ten discarded pens lurking on the table beside me from others who had been finishing up their personal data. The doctor decided I would probably get better on my own, but need some physical therapy for a bulging disc. Oh boy, more physical therapy!! He sent me off with a couple of prescriptions and a new appointment should things not improve.

Now that I was done with the doctor, I could properly focus on the Missing Suit. I just couldn’t ever remember taking it to the cleaners. Then it came to me—he hadn’t worn a suit at the wedding; he wore a blazer. The suit had been given to the Goodwill because he said it didn’t fit anymore. When I got home I reminded him of this. “Yes,” he said, “I gave away the wrong suit, I gave away the suit that fit me. The one left in my closet now was the one made in Thailand that doesn’t fit.”

It is one of those ‘Aha!’ moments. Your husband hands you a nice wool suit and says, “give this away, it doesn’t fit anymore, I don’t know how it ever could have fit even when I had the tailor make it 15 years ago in Thailand. In fact, it is impossible that it ever fit me.” This little nagging in your brain tells you that the suit he is handing you is not the right one, not the one from Thailand that you remembered being a different fabric, but your conscious mind is not listening to that little nagging voice. You are remembering the trip to Thailand—going to the tailor there; eating Thai food; watching the little Thai girls give him a haircut/massage; and thinking about how the suit did fit him at one time. You are clearly not focused on the suit you are holding in your hands. Your brain stopped concentrating when you married Esperando, now it is basically a lame brain. And if you're are Esperando, your brain moves way to fast, it is like a stone skipping over the water, missing little chunks of information along the way because you are riding the waves and most of the time it works, but now and then something falls through the cracks. And that, my friends, is how you give away the wrong suit.

June 28, 2009

Casa Abeja update

Even in the absences between Esperando’s business trips and my current situation side railed in Denver with my shoulder, work proceeds on the reconstruction of Casa Abeja, our cute little bungalow in the historic French district of Santa Rosalia. We have been working on it now since last December. I am ready to move in, but of course it is not ready yet and I am not there to do the moving in. When Esperando is there he continues working on the house, and then leaves his lads to carry on while we are gone. Above we start with a photo of the house as it looked when we bought it.

In addition to Jorge and Francisco who work directly for us, we have several principal players working on our house: Ramon the plumber, a trustworthy hardworking guy but hard to find for add-on work even when you owe him money; Ruben the talented tile/concrete/roof man; and Carpintero, the carpenter (or Carpy as some refer to him). The prices we are charged seem low for what we would pay in the U.S. for anything similar to what we get, but they seem high to the Mexicans lads that are helping us out who tell us we are being ripped off. Esperando finds small town life in Santa Rosalia like it used to be in our country; the hardware stores let him take stuff away without paying right then and there, knowing that his credit is good and he will be back with the money later.

The tile work is now completed in the bathroom and the interior is all painted, we are still missing the chair rail on some walls which Carpy is to provide. We still lack kitchen appliances and finished plumbing in the bathroom. The windows and doors are in, the exterior has been painted and re-roofed and new railings are under construction around the perimeter. It is all taking shape. The concrete base has been put in for fence railing.

One of my worries is whether the large dining table we bought at the Galeria de la Paz (to ultimately bring back with us to Denver) is actually going to be able to be juggled through the door frame of Casa Abeja. The doors are fairly narrow and the table is a large heavy piece of furniture that is one piece of construction.

Esperando sent me some photos recently to update me on how the house is looking. While we were admiring the tile work in the bathroom I lamented that I wished they had left an inch of rust colored tile between the blue of the edge tile and the sink, at which point Esperando said they needed the room for faucets—whoops! What is wrong with this picture? Ruben left the room for the faucet but not the opening. I suppose it may be ready in two more months as Esperando keeping telling me!

June 24, 2009

Some days are just different

Today was one of those days when the universe pulled a fast one on me.

Well, wait a minute, maybe it really started a week ago when I went to a new hair colorist, Germayne. My hair cutter, Jason, apparently told her what she ought to do to my hair before I got there and she listened to him, not me. When she finished up and I was way blonde, I pointed to a woman across the room with light brown hair and said, “I was thinking more of that kind of color.’ She realized we had miscommunicated big time. I think that was the day I went home and ate a whole cartoon of Ben & Jerry’s Heath Bar Crunch ice cream for dinner. I have been craving more of it ever since. A few days later she called me at home and said to come back in and she would redo my hair free of charge. So I called and made the appointment for today.

At 2 am this morning the smoke detector burst shrilly into full warp drive. I was awakened from a deep sleep, and leapt from the bed to stand befuddled in the middle of my bedroom trying to figure out what was going on before my brain finally registered ‘fire alarm’ not ‘burglar alarm’ or ‘tornado alarm.’ As I bolted from the bed I wrenched my ‘surgerized’ arm, not so pleasant. Then I spent 30 minutes walking around the house sniffing and opening windows and turning on fans to hopefully prevent the alarm from taking off again. We have had past issues with this stupid smoke detector, but never a fire. Thankfully it did not go on again, however I lay there mistrusting, certain that it would. An hour passed before I drifted off to sleep. My last waking thought was that tomorrow I would remove the batteries from the smoke detectors (all seven of them—2 downstairs, 4 upstairs and 1 in the upstairs carriage house out back.)

When I woke up I remembered I was going to pull the batteries out of all the alarms. I didn’t quite know how I was going to carry the ladder around since I am not supposed to use my bad arm to lift anything. The ladder was in my mother’s room so I figured to start there. I placed it under the smoke detector and climbed up. At this point the alarm was perfectly placid, but once I removed the battery the alarm started chirping. ‘Well that’s not going to work,’ I thought as I put in a new battery. There is a button you push to test the battery that causes the alarm to wail, but assures you that the battery is working. I remember Esperando doing that testing last time. So I pushed the button. After emitting an ear piercing scream for what seemed like an eternity, it settled into a nice cheerful but steady chirp. Oh no, I thought, it at least wasn’t chirping before. I climbed down the ladder to where the dog was cowering and trembling from the sharp blast and had to comfort him for a full five minutes to stop his palsied shaking. I realized that even if I could figure out some clever way to drag the ladder around with just one arm, if they were all going to start chirping I would be a total basket case. I shut the door to the bedroom where the alarm continued to chirp intermittently. I called my neighbors, several alarm businesses in the phone book, and even Brinks who alarms our house, but no one knew of a handyman to change out the batteries. In desperation I called our builder who I knew was going under with the stale economy and too many properties he couldn’t unload, but his phone was no longer working. ‘Drat,’ I thought, ‘that’s it.’ Then he called back—I guess he is screening his phone calls closely these days. He offered up he would have Calvin, his former foreman who was now unemployed, call me when I got back from my hair appointment at 11 am. Based on past experience with this builder I was sure Calvin wouldn’t be calling me for a couple of days, but it was the only hope I had. Just in case, I went to the Stapleton website and looked at The Front Porch, which is their monthly homeowner’s rag. It is full of ads and I thought perhaps I can find a handyman there. Sure enough, Bob had an ad listed saying no job was too small. Great that will be my backup.

I had just enough time left to take the dog into the park for a short walk before I needed to leave. We ran into another woman and her yellow lab, Matt. The dogs were instant friends, then Matt fixed me with a steady gaze and made a flying leap toward my bad shoulder with me spinning away just in time to avoid what could have been a really painful accident with my arm. I was sure the other lady thought I was nuts to overreact so, and it was quite embarrassing to me to tell her I had just had surgery on my shoulder. She was really worried her dog had hurt me. Back we walked to Chirping House. I left the dog to go get my hair colored, hoping the alarm wouldn’t go off full bore while I was gone.

Germayne was happy to see me and pulled out a big book with dyed hair swatches so I could show her what I wanted. After pointing out several similar colors that appealed to me we settled on what she thought would be best. When I got through being processed my hair looked strawberry blonde. “Wow, that’s really red,” I said—“oh no, golden,” she said. We both decided it would look better if she could add some depth to it, for me that meant less gold and a little darker, for her that meant darker. Now my 11:00 am appointment with Calvin was getting messed up, but new color was reapplied and I sat for another 30 minutes waiting for it to process. My hair looked fine in the salon mirror when I left just before noon thanks to florescent lighting. Then I got a look at myself in full sunlight in the rearview mirror, my hair was a much darker shade with red highlights. It is way red for my taste-my head is in flames! It seems to be turning into a bad hair day.

I drove home as quickly as I could, but no phone call from the builder or Calvin. ‘I knew it,’ I thought to myself. I looked all over for handyman Bob’s phone number which I wrote down on a small piece of paper, but was somehow eluding me. I spent 5 minutes looking in a 5-foot radius before I finally found it. When I called the phone number, the circuits were busy. ‘What is this?’ I thought. Why are the circuits busy? I must have misdialed, but a second time try came up with the same results. ‘This is really weird I thought, the circuits are never busy.’ However the doorbell rang and this skinny guy stood on the porch. ‘Bob!’ I thought, then I thought, ‘you silly goose, you never contacted Bob—do you think he has ESP?’ “Hi! It’s me Calvin,” he said. “Wow, I would never have known you Calvin, you are so skinny.” “Yeh,” he said, “I’ve had a lot of changes in my life including eight surgeries in the last 4 years and I just got my foot done 2 weeks ago.” I looked down at the cast on his foot. “Wow!” I said. He obligingly went around and changed batteries with very shaky fingers. I felt just awful making him drag the ladder up the stairs, it was exhausting to him. He has gone from 215 to 130 pounds since I last saw him 4 years ago. He was really huffing and puffing with the ladder. Even I wouldn’t have been that out of breath. He can’t eat very well because he only has 7 teeth left because of some medicine he had to take. He can’t get dentures until 6 weeks from now because they won’t do dental surgery until he has recovered from the foot surgery. He has been on disability for the last 4 years. Poor guy. Last time I saw him he was going to have his knees replaced and he had just gotten married. Well he is still married, he is now an ordained preacher in the Baptist Church, they have just started up a church in their home, and they have big plans for a rehabilitation house for battered women that will be based on learning to ride and master horses. It will be a year round facility with an indoor arena. He wouldn’t take any money for helping me, but I gave him a donation for the women’s shelter. I sent him out the door with some good advice, “eat lots of milkshakes I said, that is a great way to gain weight.” “The sad truth is I don’t really like ice cream,” he said. “Oh there are so many flavors, try them all, you’re bound to find one you really like,” I told him.

June 21, 2009

Collecting Thoughts

I am jealous, here I sit in hail jail (what Denver has been having a lot of lately) waiting for my arm finish cooking while Esperando is down in Santa Rosalia soaking up the rays at our favorite beach, Santa Inez, and petting cats. Today for lack of anything better to do, I polished up some Native American jewelry. There is something so satisfying about polishing silver and seeing it shine up. The down side is that if you are using a Fabulustre rouge cloth your hands get quite black like they used to gambling on one arm bandits (now days all the slots just print out a paper coupon you can cart over to the cashier or next machine and your hands stay nice and clean).

I admit to being inveterate collector of everything, it is really a disease probably. My brother Juan-in-a-Million seems to have inherited the same gene, but at least he is focused on silver coins, wine, and art souvenirs from their travels. Neither of my parents exhibited these tendencies, nor either any grandparents that I know of—and my sister doesn’t seem to be as seriously afflicted as my brother and I are.

I have such a broad focus that I collect in fits and starts. When I finally feel guilty enough about what I have spent collecting one kind of thing, I move along to another another. I went through a phase of collecting every Turkey Red tablecloth I could find on ebay or in antique stores, not mention antique textiles in general. I love handwoven linens and huipiles from Mexico and Guatemala; mantas from Peru; printed cottons from India; ikats from Sumba. I have funky printed table linens and towels from the 1960’s such as produced by Tammis Keefe. My house is decorated with kilim pillows and oriental rugs scattered around. I am not an expert on any of these, just an eclectic lover of texture and pattern. And then there are the closets full of china, pottery and stoneware. Even the free things like rocks and shells need space to be stored; I have a million shells in the basement along with jars of sand from around the world of all the beaches where we’ve been. People say our house looks like a museum or a store. What is wrong with me?

Once a woman said to me that she and her husband weren’t spending money on each other for Christmas because they both had everything they wanted. I thought ‘how in the world could you ever have everything you want?’ I still don’t have everything I want, but I have run out of room to store anything more.

I hope you will enjoy the photos of some the Mexican artesania I have collected.

June 18, 2009

Pangs of Cat Withdrawal

I got my sling off two days ago (rejoice!), but I feel very discouraged after my visit to the physical therapist today. He doesn’t believe I will have the full motion of my arm back for another month, only then can I start strengthening it. I hesitate to go back to Mexico ‘half cooked.’ My Mother comes for a visit in latter July through early August so it looks like I will be in Denver for another month and a half. I am so sorry to be missing Esperando and his daily tales of the happenings at work and Santa Rosalia life—the now hot muggy days full of hovering big black bumblebees and hummingbirds, the empty white beaches with sand as fine as the sand in an hour glass, the incessant chatter of the maids and the cook, the Mexican music and noise that always fills the house. Most of all, I miss all of my cats. I have been missing them for almost 2 months now. I guess I am a cat addict, but there is a reason . . .

I was 'kitten-imprinted' as a child. I escaped at every opportunity to go the Johnson's house next door and play with their cat Ponce and her multiple litters of kittens (no one dreamed of getting their cat neutered or spayed back then in the 1950’s). Early photographs show me wearing a nice dress with scratches all over my face. Even the intimidating sting of Merthiolate couldn’t deter me from hugging those recalcitrant little kitties. Although we had our own personal cat that adopted us for awhile, Templeton, he was an outdoor warrior and not very cuddly. Few parts of his body weren’t shredded or knotted with scabs from his trying to prove his manhood with the rest of the neighborhood.

By the time I was 12, we were living in San Francisco and I was given a Siamese kitten as a birthday gift from my family. Hermana and Juan-in-a-Million, both in college and home working for the summer, drove to the Cher-Lan cattery in Hayward the night before to pick her up. Unfortunately, Shadow as she came to be called, hid herself away in a hide-a-bed in the basement. In the morning my family searched and searched for her and finally told me that my birthday present was a kitten, that she was somewhere in the basement but they couldn’t find her. My brother and father had to go off to work, and though my sister, Mother and I looked every- where, it wasn’t until my sister sat down on the hide-a-bed and felt a spring go ‘sprong” that we knew where to seek her. Shadow begat many children including Freckles, whom we kept. Freckles was a handsome, personable tabby-striped half-Siamese lad who stole my heart until he died after I was through with college and back home again. Grieving though I was, my sister convinced my Mother that I should not be allowed to have another cat until I had experienced the joy having a dog. I still wanted a cat but I got a dog, and a fine creature she was, but she was not a cat.

Once I was out on my own again, I felt impelled to buy a retaliatory cat. I felt wicked having a mind of my own to go and choose a cat. I had a little incentive –this is the kind of cat you get when your roommate’s cat has lots of fleas and you feel that having a kitten might draw the fleas away from biting you to itself. After scouring San Francisco all day in search of the most personable kitten, I adopted Barrymore from a ballerina who lived in the Potrero district. He turned out to have a lot of fleas in his own right and he sat on my chest purring all night coated in flea powder. It was a match made in the stars for he shared my birth date. He was very smart and independent, and a superb mouser. Barrymore lived to be 18 and moved with us to Peru, Panama and Bolivia along with my husband’s cat Bandita. These two cats were really attached to one another.

Now I have Winston Churchill (alias Sour Puss), Frida and Carmen. I like to watch them play with each other in grand pouncing fests, or see them turn into a sleeping cat pile. Or take turns rolling a marble around the floor while the other two hover nearby watching in rapt fascination. A society of cats has its own set of rules, Frida likes to flaunt them by stealing Winnie’s favorite perch which means that she and Winnie get into altercations frequently. My cats won’t know me when I get back. I know Carmen is totally feral inside the house (well she's civilized enough to use the litter box) and at last report Frida was regressing to that state. And I am totally helpless to return—my arm won’t even work on its own. It's this limp thing that just dangles by my side uselessly. My cats would probably advise 'rest until you can catch mice again.'

June 17, 2009

You, of course, are a rose— But were always a rose.

My roses here in Denver are all starting to open up at the moment, even the shy ones. They have so far escaped two week’s worth of severe weather including tornados and golf-ball size hail that have just skirted us. The weather has been so damp and cold that my roses have been coming out plant by plant instead of all at once as they usually do.

My interest in roses leans toward the antique and fragrant, I have a lot of polyanthas. In the backyard in a raised bed we have Leda or Painted Damask, a pale damask rose edged in magenta that just blooms in spring; Therese Bugnet a beautiful clove-scented pink rose bush that blooms profusely all summer on prickleless stems, Reine de Violette a very violet-fragrant magenta rose, and Alfred de Dalmas a deep pink repeat-blooming moss rose, even the leaves and stems are fragrant on this plant. Scattered around elsewhere in the back is Dainty Bess; a rambler Albertine by the backgate; pale pink tall climber New Dawn on the back fence paired with the clematis Etoile Violette; and Basye’s Blueberry which is really taking off this year after two years of subdued growth.

In the front of the house on a sideyard I have the white English rose Glamis Castle just opening now, it was badly tramatized by freeze this winter; Marbree a rose-colored marbled Portland rose (marbling almost looks as though raindrops had fallen and stained it where they touched the petals); a mystery rose that I believe may be the Gallica named Tricolore (I sent for Tricolore de Flandres a striped rose, but when it flowered it was not that); lavender Florence de Lattre; the Chestnut Rose; Altissimo, a vibrant red rose; and a potted tree rose Ballerina. Some newcomers from last year are the Red Meidiland rose and a Burgundy Iceberg.

All my roses are own-root stock, which means if they die back badly, the same plant comes out from the roots, not something else. For a long time I have been ordering roses from http://www.vintagegardens.com/ and http://www.heirloomroses.com/ with now and then an excursion to http://www.waysidegardens.com/ with great success. However this is more difficult when I am not here for extended periods as it is hard to predict when ordered roses will arrive sometimes. Since one of the landscape roses Improved Blaze, the only one with grafted roots, died off this winter I am waiting for the arrival of Sweet Afton, my first tea rose, to put in its place. The really difficult part is that I have run out of space to put in yet more roses. There are so many wonderful roses to choose at in 100 Old Roses for the American Garden by Clair Martin which I refer to like a bible, that I go through flagging pages and then in a couple of weeks re-flag them. Someday I would like to have a really big garden that would accommodate 50 rose bushes. That would be a lot of work, maybe I should be content with the ones I already have.

June 12, 2009

The road to hell is paved with good intentions, Part 1

One of the evil fates that befell us earlier this year occurred on our drive south from San Diego to Santa Rosalia with my friend the Brainy Blonde. At the time we were sightseeing our way down Baja, just past Cataviña. The Blonde was in the car perusing the map when she came across a place called Coco’s Corner, a pit stop for Baja 1000 revelers. With a name like this she said, this is a must see place. So off we turned from the paved safety of Mexico Transpeninsular Highway 1 onto the Chapala-San Felipe dirt road in search of Coco’s Corner. On the map it appeared to be only 16 or so klicks down the road, but what a road! Esperando was equal to the adventure; for some time now he had been curious about this road as a possible truck route for bringing goods from up north down to the mine, but no one from the mine had really driven it yet to see what was there.

Somehow when the Blonde and Esperando get the bit in their teeth about these road things, I always end up in the thick of it. When we lived in southern Peru and she visited, they decided we needed to go to the little village Pucara, a ceramic center out in the middle of nowhere, to buy a certain kind of clay bull that adorns local roofs. The thinking was that we could buy one for cheaper than they sell for in Cuzco. We took a bus from Juliaca, packed like sardines as the bus floundered and skittered across a plain that was about 3 feet deep in mud from recent rains. The passengers audibly moaned at each turn as the bus wallowed and lurched along almost spilling onto its side with all of us in it. We passed 18-wheelers buried up to their axles, beached like whales. If ever a pilot deserved applause for getting his passengers to safety that bus driver was the man! We finally did make it to Pucara without mishap, but never found a bull--they sent them all to Cuzco. These are the kind of irresponsible people I profess to be attracted to—the kind without a lick of common sense (sadly, I have enough common sense to make up for them both.)

But back to Baja. We were initially lulled into a false sense of security, after all this was a known road. Initially although rocky, it was level and rather wide as we took off from the highway. Three miles in it narrowed some, then we went over a rise and the rocks became more pointy, the road more hilly and we started to see dead tires mixed in with the cactus, actually lots of dead tires. This is a road that eats tires, I said (but they ignored me). On we went, up hills, around curves, and down gullies—no other cars in sight. Esperando pulled over in the next flat place to fulfill a biological urge and that’s when he noticed our tire was flat. We were now about 15 klicks off the highway, essentially out in the middle of nowhere. Esperando sent the Blonde and me off in search of big flat rocks to stabilize the vehicle while he dug the jack out from under the seat. At just about that point from out of nowhere, the only other car that would probably appear for the next three days showed up with a couple of nice looking strong young men who stopped to ask if he needed help. I was so happy—ah no, says Esperando with macho finesse, I think we have everything under control. So off they drove leaving us in a cloud of dust while my jaw dropped wide enough for any fly.

Esperando laid on his side in the dirt and started jacking the truck up; and every twist of the cheesy bottle jack sliced his forearm open so he was bleeding freely all over his clothes and the ground. I was still looking for better rocks when The Blonde came to find me to tell me he needed medical attention. Once he had the truck jacked up and started trying to remove the tire it wouldn’t budge, but the truck fell off the jack with his exertions. He re-jacked the vehicle up while I held my breath and wondered how many days the water would hold out. The minutes stretched into an hour, then more, as Esperando and the tire slow danced beside the jack, and finally the tire released its hold on the lugs. Yeah! We were in business again! We wouldn’t collectively become ghosts wandering the desert like La Llorona leaving a pile of bleached skeletons to decorate the local cactus/tire garden after all!

They say God looks after fools and little children. Instead of turning back to the highway, two of our party voted to continue the quest for Coco’s Corner (as you might guess, the abstaining one is she with the extra measure of common sense.) Over each subsequent hill and across every rise the view was the same, more desert and no Coco's Corner. Finally Esperando decided that with no spare it was truly time to turn back.

We spent the night in Guerrero Negro. The Malarrimo Restaurant where we ate is a favorite haunt of the Baja 1000 crowd with a collection of autographed hot-shit wine bottles from famous wineries and drivers, and decal stickers the driving crowd has plastered all over the restaurant's windows and walls—including one that says, ‘Coco’s Corner!’ The next morning when Esperando found a llanteria (tire store) it turned out the tire was toast, it had a 4-inch slit in it.

Join me here in October as we drive this road again, this time all the way to San Felipe. Then we will be properly prepared with a hi-lift jack, at least 3 spare tires, and lots of water—and if we find Coco’s Corner I will send The Blonde a photo!

June 10, 2009

How to eat a tamale, really!

Tamales Santa Rosalia Style shown below
It surprised me to know a lot of my readers want to know how to eat a tamale. If you want to know what to eat with a tamale, click on this entry. Otherwise herein I will tell you exactly how to eat a tamale since it strikes me that there might be people out there in the world that have never seen, much less eaten a tamale. How sad! Or having been presented with one, they didn’t have some perceived etiquette down pat. I can’t keep them in suspense any longer.

Tamales are an ancient food. They were probably invented by the Mexican people (as in Aztecs or Mesoamericans) and now days follow a southerly flow from the southwest USA through Mexico down to Central and South America. No one knows for sure when or who invented the tamale, but we do know tamales have been written about since pre-Columbian days. In the 1550's, the Aztecs served the Spaniards tamales during their visits to Mexico. The tamale changes its name, appearance and flavor in each country until it gets to Chile where it loses any resemblance to a real tamale but just becomes a lump of masa without any filling. This story is not about those other tamales, but about the ones you find in Mexico and the southwest USA.

Tamales are a labor of love. They are generally made in larger batches of say 12 dozen or more if someone is selling them, or 3 to 6 dozen if made for one's family. They seem to cost about the same if you buy them from someone no matter what country you live in. In Mexico, they are the food of choice for any fiesta, celebration or holiday, but are available everywhere in the Mexican-American world all year long if you ask around. In the US if you are buying tamales you generally buy a dozen at a time, but in Mexico they are not sold by the dozen; you can buy any number without regard to dozens. I don’t know why.

I grew up in Carlsbad, New Mexico, where my mother bought tamales from Manuela who took orders and made up batches for her devotees in her own home. Here in Colorado we can get delicious tamales, the hottest spiciest ones I’ve ever eaten that are sold by some Latin women from their coolers outside the Mexican super markets on Federal Blvd.; in Taos, New Mexico, Abe’s Cantina and Cocina in Arroyo Seco has the best tamales in the world because of their unparalleled masa. Eat a tamale in El Paso, Texas or Tucson, Arizona and it will be different yet again. In Santa Rosalia the tamales have two olives in them (watch out for the pits!) as they do often once you cross the border and keep on going south. US tamales tend to be spicier, those in Mexico more bland but tasty.

It usually takes about 2 whole days to make them with helpers. No one would make them by themselves--they would be crazy, it is so much work. At least two or three or more people are involved in an assembly production of these delectable morsels. Often the tamale filling is made the day ahead from the pig’s head, beef ribs or roasts, and of both dark and light meat of the chicken. The meats are not mixed together; you would buy pork (mine and Esperando's favorites), beef or chicken tamales. Regionally there are sweet tamales with no meat or tamales cooked in banana leaves, but they fall outside of scope of my treatise. The meat is boiled until it falls off the bones and then whatever seasoning, such as red or green chile sauce, or broth with spices is added to it so that you have a rather saucy wet filling. Masa (a dough) is made from nixtamal (very finely ground corn meal) mixed with lard and some of the broth from the meat. The masa is spread to about ½ inch upon corn husks that have first been soaked in hot water. Next a generous spoonful of filling is placed on the masa and it is rolled up cigarette style, so the filling is encased in the masa, and the husks keep it all wrapped together, the ends of the husks are folded over or tied with strips of husk. The tamales are carefully packed into a large pot to steam for 2 hours or more.

But how do you eat them you ask? That is the best and easiest part. The tamales have already been cooked when you purchase them, so you steam them covered in a basket for 7-10 minutes or so, it doesn’t take long, just a little longer if they have been frozen. Or, you can microwave a tamale on high for 1 minute. Take them out—be careful they are really hot! Unroll the husk carefully so the tamale stays whole. Throw the husk away, sliding the tamale onto your plate (or move the husk to the side of your plate if there is no where to toss it) and eat it with a fork. Some people like to pour red or green chile sauce or salsa on top, but if they are great tamales that is not necessary. There are plenty of bad or so-so tamales out there, but nothing can beat the taste of a great tamale. For those wanting to know even more Gourmet Sleuth has alot more details.

June 6, 2009

Soup of the evening, beautiful soup

One of my passions is cooking. I don’t get much of a chance to in Santa Rosalia since the guesthouse employs a cook. So today I am going to experiment with making Red Pepper and Orange Soup for lunch. The recipe comes from the Reader’s Digest Spanish language cookbook Cocina Fantástica which our cook borrowed from her friend to show me, and I was able to purchase on http://www.exlibris.com/ as it is out of print. This is such a great cookbook, full of delicious and unusual recipes that after I had sampled some of them, I bought a copy for myself as well. Theoretically the recipes can be prepared in 30 minutes.

Among my most favorite vegetables are red bell peppers. We don’t have access to them but once in a blue moon in Santa Rosalia. Last time I saw them I bought most of what they had even though they were slightly wilty and had Esperando roast them on the grill. Then I peeled them, put them in a jar, and covered them with olive oil and we ate them up over the course of the week. Now that I am in Denver for awhile this is an opportunity to see if I like this different sounding soup recipe.

Red Pepper and Orange Soup
Serves 4

2 T olive oil
2 lbs red peppers
2 cloves minced garlic
3 Seville or blood oranges
1 T orange flower water (available at health food, gourmet grocer or large liquor store)

In a large casserole, heat the oil over a medium fire. Devein the red peppers and cut into quarters lengthwise, then slice into large pieces. Sauté the pepper and garlic; add salt to taste. Cover the casserole and heat to high until vapor begins to escape from under the lid. Reduce flame to very low or they will burn, and cook for 25 minutes or until peppers are really soft, turning them from time to time so that they cook in their own juices. (Here in Denver we are at a high altitude so I had to cook them for 40 minutes.) Meanwhile in a mixing bowl, juice the oranges until you have ¾ of a cup of juice. (I cheated and purchased fresh squeezed orange juice from the grocery store, but I think blood oranges would be really good.) Add the orange flower water to the orange juice. When the peppers are well cooked, puree them in a blender or food processor. Add the orange juice mixture to the blender and liquefy again. Adjust seasonings, I added salt enough to balance out the sweetness of the oranges. Heat the soup again and serve with a little chopped parsley. What's not to like?

June 5, 2009

What wound did ever heal but by degrees

As William Shakespeare wrote: "How poor are they who have not patience. What wound did ever heal but by degrees." Other than watching my roses hatch very slowly, not much is going on here.

I wasn’t going to dwell on my recovery from shoulder surgery anymore, but it seems to be the my only focus right now. Today was my second physical therapy session. The first time I went, I met Rick my physical therapist and Ashley the receptionist who just moved to Denver two weeks ago.

Rick is a decent 35-ish freckly guy, pleasant but pretty much business-like with a steady hand and good at explaining how to do my exercises. I spent about 10 minutes painfully raising my arm up and down in a pulley with my other arm while he went off to print out some more exercises for me. He asked me what my goals were, which are to be outta here by July 3 to drive back down to Baja. Ashley and her husband moved here just out of college from Washington State. Because we have been having so much rain lately, such unusually cloudy and drizzly days, so unlike Colorado weather this early in the year, I had to explain to her that it was all very weird and she shouldn’t base her impression of Denver on the last two week’s weather. Its true to say these people are the dominant influence on my life at the moment.

Rick give me a bunch of exercises that I can do at home without needing someone like Esperando around to lift my arm up for me. By the time I left my head was swimming and I hoped I could remember how to do everything right. I went home and had two days to practice everything on my own. Mostly I have to do five different exercises twice a day 20 times each and hold each position for the count of 10. That may sound pretty simple but when one arm is busy doing exercises, it only leaves one hand free for counting to 20 in five finger increments, while verbally counting to 10 to hold the position. It was a whole new challenge; maybe I don’t have Alzheimer’s yet after all.

Today I went light doing the morning set of exercises figuring I would get new ones added today and practice at physical therapy. Instead I got a back and shoulder massage. It started out swell, all those sore muscles in my back got rubbed tenderly, but after the nice part Rick started poking everything that was stiff and stretching it out until I said ouch, then he would hold it there and push a little more after a few seconds. In a way even though it was painful it was good knowing my muscles were starting being pushed to go back to where they need to go. It is so discouraging to see what tiny steps I have taken so far and sort of staggering to think how far I have to go yet.

While Rick was torturing me I asked him if he liked BBQ, that if he did he should check out The Ribhouse at Prospect. Well yes Rick said, he was from Texas so every time he went back home the first thing he did was go out for BBQ. Rick told me my muscles were really tight because they were still trying to protect my shoulder from movement. Then he spun a little Texas philosophy on me. He said these muscles are like a bunch of big brothers protecting a little brother in a bar, everyone starts fighting and getting out of control and really they aren’t helping the situation because they don’t know what they are doing just striking out at everything, just like my muscles don’t know what they are doing to still try to protect my shoulder from moving. As a concept it really stuck in my mind—but there is so little else to occupy my mind right now. After about 40 minutes of getting poked, stretched, prodded and twisted, Rick brought in an icepack and iced my shoulder for the next 15 minutes so by the time I left I was freezing as well as sore. But the really worst (and best) part of the physical therapy is the fact that I have to drive by Sonic Drive-In on my way home and console myself with a chile cheeseburger every time. So much for the weight I lost in my first two weeks recovering from surgery! I’m already full of hot air, I’ve got to be vigilant that I don’t start to balloon.

June 1, 2009

Mountain Time

Yesterday Esperando and I went for a drive through the mountains. First we drove to Golden, Colorado, home of the Colorado School of Mines and Coors Brewery. It is a cute little mountain town, the main street lined with interesting shops and places to eat. Last summer they had a great farmer’s market in the park and an antique car show that incorporated five city blocks. We stopped to have a cup of Starbucks, and in talking to our barista I discovered she had just taken her sling off last week from the same surgery I just had. I could see she wasn’t using her arm much. They told her 5 months before she would be mountain climbing and doing scuba. She said her arm was sore from the physical therapy. I don’t have any such athletic ambitions, but I hope I my arm is much improved in 5 months—that’s a long time. After enjoying our coffee outside in the sunshine we set off for our next part of the trip.

Our plan was to drive to Longmont through the mountains in a somewhat circuitous route. Along the way we saw mountains covered with snow, a raft of parapont gilders on the hilltop in Golden that sports the big painted ‘M’ for School of Mines; bicyclers and motorcyclists en masse on the windy mountain roads; lots of guys out fishing with bobbers and fly rods; and as we drove through Boulder Canyon, quite a few rock climbers up there in the nether reaches. In what other state than Colorado could you drive around and see such diversity of physical activity within 40 minutes? Everybody wanted a piece of the warm sunny weather, even though dark clouds threatened thunderstorms on the horizon. The high mountains are still crowned snow, but the aspens have greened up, lots of wildflowers were blooming, and the snow melt fills the rushing streams.

In Longmont we went to dine at one of Sunset Magazine’s June 2009 picks for the ten top barbeque spots in the West, The Rib House at Prospect. It is an unassuming but commodious facility with inside and outside dining and takeout. The ambience of the Propect Development in which the restaurant nestles is very inviting, tree-lined streets and neighborhoods that are quite cute with a blend of modern urban design and nouveau Victorian houses sprinkled with southern architectural and farmhouse themes, i.e., antebellum and New Orleans wrought iron trim, big porches, hanging flower baskets and varied bright paints.

We enjoyed our meal outside. So many people were out doing mountain activities that we didn’t encounter the big long line I feared. Between the two of us, we chowed down the baby back ribs, boneless short ribs, medium sauce (spicy) and sides of beans, corn in special cheddar sauce, and the Chipotle potato salad. It was all delicious and spicy, even the beans. They have just opened a new location in Boulder, and are selling their BBQ sauces at King Soopers.

After that we headed back home to avoid the predicted big thunderstorm that didn’t materialized until the evening when we started to barbeque scallops with prosciutto and fresh thyme and tarragon.