December 19, 2009

El Serrano

The English Sparrow or house sparrow, the bane of the birding world (and known by birders as a feathered rat sharing that honor with the Rock Dove or common pigeon) is alive and well here in Santa Rosalia, specifically at Casa Boleo. We have a big tube feeder and it is covered with sparrows whenever it is filled with seed. This summer when we first put it up and I saw we were only feeding sparrows, I told Esperando we wouldn’t refill it when it was empty. But then the muchachas asked if we would please fill it up again because they liked seeing all the little birds. How could I refuse them when they work so hard? Since the only feed available down here to fill it with is scratch (hen feed), a lot of ‘uneatable’ seed and cracked corn gets cast on the ground. That attracts the pigeons that race around below it to chow down the cracked corn. Now isn’t that just every birder’s dream?

Today’s sparrows are descendents of birds imported from Europe to the U.S. before the turn of the last century. They have populated the Americas as they have most of the rest of the world. According to they were imported to protect trees from a caterpillar which is the larva of the Geometrid Moth. Many disagreed with the wisdom of this move and even predicted they would become pests as they fed on seeds and buds, not insects. One hundred Sparrows were released in New York City in 1852 and 1853. In 1854 more birds were imported and released in Portland, Maine and Quebec. In the next ten years, a few hundred more were imported and released in Quebec and around Portland, Boston and New York. In 1869, about one thousand were released in Philadelphia. They were released in San Francisco, Cleveland, Cincinnati, St. Louis and several other cities in the interior. Between 1874 and 1876 a few were released in Michigan and in 1881, in Iowa. This bird is destructive to crops, spreads disease and parasites, competes with songbirds, and its filthy habits and population explosion have revealed its introduction to be a huge mistake. About the only positive thing that can be said for them is that they are monogamous.

My Mother hates Sparrows with a passion as they drive all the other pretty birds away. When we lived in Denver we switched our feed over to pure sunflower seeds which didn’t attract the sparrows, just house finches and a little hawk that liked to eat them who would sit on the fence waiting in the snow for any little birds to show up. That’s a multi-use feeder feeding both little birds and hawks.

As I looked out the kitchen window the other day at Casa Boleo and at the feeder covered with a multitude of sparrows and their children, cousins, aunts and uncles awaiting their turn in the bushes and on a wire that runs from pillar to post, I asked New Cook, what do they call that bird here? Oh, she said it is called a serrano. Ah like the chile, I said. Oh yes, she said, like the chile, but really it means coming from the mountains, they come down from the mountains. I just about choked on my cup of coffee—such a romantic concept for a messy piggy little bird that is generally found near human habitations. Ah the joys of being ignorant of the big wide world. In Santa Rosalia surrounded as it is by desert even a little sparrow is welcomed. When you don’t have a lot of birds to look at, except for buzzards, a little sparrow that reminds you of the coolness of the mountains is just the thing.

Taking a little bird bath in the dirt.

December 18, 2009

Interview with Three Pets

Me: Well, well, my cute little fuzzy children, it is almost time for Christmas, and Esperando and I are going to abandon you again to go back to the U.S. for the holidays. Is there anything I should tell Santa Claus about what you might like before we leave?

Frida: I would jus’ like a Chreesmas tree of my own. I like dragging ze liddle bright lights acrost ze rhoom, and hiding under it to play wid ze branches, maybe chew a few off. Also maybe Santa could brang me a small flightless birdie or a liddle blind mouse, or maybe un grasshopper grandisimo —I tink a large cucaracha would do in a pinch. I know my waistline is muy grandismo now, but jus’ a liddle animal-jus’ to play with—why, we could be friends.

Winnie, alias Sour Pickle: I say, as a proper British Shorthair Cat, I need a new proper cat perch. Frida has pretty much mutilated mine rather into shreds. Whilst I certainly wish she would stay off of it permanently, she still doesn’t seem to know her place in this household (although I boff her regularly). Also I need a year’s supply of Whiskas Temptations in every flavour for my collection. And dates, I have discovered I really like dates, maybe you, er St. Nicholas, could bring me more dates.

Dash the Dog: All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth! Ha ha! No, seriously could you take me with you, puhleeze! I will be so sad when you are gone, I barely know you anymore since you are never here. I miss my walks with Pop, and I can’t lie down by your feet if you aren’t around.

Winnie: That’s right Dash just suck it up.

Me: You know its going to be hard for Santa to come down the chimney here, since we don’t have a fireplace, although I think he finds other ways to get in, like the front door for instance. Winnie you have to promise not to run outside and get lost if he accidentally leaves the front door open.

Dash: Don’t you worry, Mom, I will keep Mr. Winston Churchill from getting out—or maybe chase him a lot and bark at him so he gets confused and runs out into the street in front of oncoming traffic. Ha, ha!!

Me: I will really miss all of you, it won’t seem like Christmas without you guys.

Winnie: Harumph, balderdash!

Frida: Yes, how vill I keep varm at night vhen you aren’t aroun to sleep on, and nobody else wans to pet me. I might even forget how to purr.

Dash: Gad, I’m going to be by myself at night with only the cats for company! How gross. That is so unfair!!

Winnie: Now Dash, you know that you like me. Maybe not Frida because she’s a stupid fat gel, but the two of us get on fabulously. Who else would put up with you poking your stupid toy in their face and act as though it were a proper honor?

Me: When I come back in the New Year, I will never leave you guys again.

Frida and Dash (rolling their eyes): What a liar! Look how long her nose is.

Winnie: What red devil of mendacity
Grips your soul with such tenacity?
Will one you cruelly shower with lies
Put a pistol ball between your eyes?

December 15, 2009

More on cookies

This weekend I spent baking more cookies while Esperando spent the day climbing up and down a ladder to caulk up the slits in the wood planking on the walls and ceiling in Casa Abeja to prepare for our moving over there in January, both kinds of messy undertakings. Guess who lost more weight?


On Friday I had asked Sr. Jueves to get me some walnuts, which are called nuez here and which is also the word for nuts in general in Mexico. I showed him some pecans and said the nuts I want look similar to this, but the nuez is bigger and paler. I also said to him, before we had pecanas you used to bring me nueces, which is true. When we first arrived a year and a half ago the store carried big bags of shelled walnuts. Nobody seemed to even know what a pecan was here 6 months ago. Then I kept asking for pecanas and finally pecanas arrived. The stores are now chock-a-block full of pecanas, but no nueces. I seem to have influenced the local nut economy in ways that are a mystery to me.

I went to a different store and found one small bag of walnuts still in their shells. I snatched them up, took them home and cracked them in my molquetera (what we gringos know as a mortar and pestle) that was given to me by my friend, Don Diego’s mother. It is the first time I had ever used it and Esperando chided me for chopping nuts in it, but I have to tell you it was the perfect tool. The curved bowl held the nut from rolling away and the pestle was heavy enough to easily crack the shell. I was in love with it before I used it, but now I am even more so. Look at its cute little piggie face.

By yesterday morning I had a vast domain of some really great cookies: frosted and unfrosted biscochitos, chewy walnut squares, the Neiman Marcus $250 cookie, and lemon squares, all baked over the weekend. I bundled them all up and gave them as gifts to the guesthouse staff and my husband’s co-workers in the office downtown. That left us with just a handful of cookies. Good, I thought, we can start getting skinnier before Christmas—no temptations.

Then, I got curious about the Mexican wedding cookies that we made the first day and which had evaporated into thin air. Why was it that none of the Mexicans here knew of this cookie? I looked it up on Wikipedia and didn’t get an answer to that, but I did find an interesting history. It seems that variations on a simple cookie made of nuts, flour, egg, sugar, vanilla and anise or caraway seed used for flavoring, and called a Jumble, has been around since the Middle Ages. It is the basis for our modern cookies known variously as Russian Teacakes, Sand Tarts, Polvorones Sevillanos and, yes, Mexican Wedding Cookies. Apparently this cookie originated in Arab cuisine, spread to Spain and from there to Europe. Yesterday afternoon, looking around at my empty larder and curious about the Polvorones Sevillanos, the little devil on my shoulder caused me to try that recipe. It was a little different as it included cinnamon in the dough. The recipe I made was far too dry to stick together and so I had to add a little brandy (which was a component of a different recipe for the same cookie). Well we’ve all read the joke about making the fruitcake and sampling the liquor, and how the recipe goes to hell. And no, that didn’t happen to me, but the result is sort of the same as we have a whole new batch of temptations to sample now. Esperando informed me he doesn’t like them so I will have stuff them down my gullet alone—such a loathsome task. Hiccup!

December 12, 2009

What a piece of work is man

Oldest Maid washing a puppy foundling

Oldest Maid is my best employee, she is always on time or early, she never forgets to make sure fresh towels are in the room, that the garbage can gets emptied, that the windows are polished and the furniture dusted. She loves her job and she loves to work here. When she had vacation this last summer she came back a day early because she missed being here so much, but the rest of the girls sent her home. She is a hard worker and I trust her completely.

It seems she has developed a uterine cyst which in and of itself can be treated. Her sad odyssey is that she has to rely on the Mexican healthcare system. Mexico’s healthcare is nationalized, that is good for people that live in Mexico City where doctors earn good salaries, but not so good for those that live in remote places like Santa Rosalia where the healthcare is substandard. Oldest Maid has gone to the doctor here several times in the last 8 months and has had her healthcare delayed by postponed appointments due to holidays, hurricanes, and the whim of the scheduler. She was told she needed an operation the first time she went, and that has not changed. For some reason she keeps getting sent to place after place such as La Paz and Guerrero Negro, both some distance from us always with the same diagnosis—she needs surgery. Her cyst is as large as a grapefruit and she is in a lot of pain. This last time when she went to Guerrero Negro they told her not to bother coming back or trying to make another appointment. They will not operate on her.

Oldest Maid is a Jehovah’s Witness. It is against her religion to have a blood transfusion which she would need if she were to have the surgery. She signed a paper for surgery stating that she did not want to be transfused. Her daughter is a Jehovah’s Witness and has just married another Jehovah’s Witness. They are well entrenched in their church. If you have a transfusion it is likely the church will excommunicate you. Her sister works for me, and her other sister has worked for me before—none of them are Jehovah’s Witnesses, of her five siblings she is the only one. She 52 and his been separated from her husband for many years (they do not believe in divorce.) She lives with her son, (her daughter lived there until her recent marriage), her mother and one of her other sisters. When her mother and siblings have birthdays or Christmas celebrations in the house she either stays in her room or leaves the house. It seems so sad to me.

The doctors told her to limit her activities, minimal walking or lifting (surely no housework!) When I found out she was refusing a transfusion for surgery that would save her from a slow and painful death, I had to talk with her. I told her that I wasn’t anyone to tell her what she should do, but then I proceeded to tell her just exactly that. I told her she needed to accept the transfusion regardless of what her religion was telling her do. I told her lots more besides, about living to see her grandchildren and God’s love for his all his creation; she just told me that she loved me. I don’t know what she will decide to do. I see her daughter standing beside her but her thinking is brittle, she believes her mother needs to follow the rules. When you are young and follow the rules you don’t see them in the same perspective of those who are older and have gained some perspective on life. Would her daughter shun her if she had the transfusion? If she has the surgery and does not get the transfusion it is likely she will die from blood loss. If she does not have the surgery she will be in much pain. Her hemoglobin is really low and they were concerned about the surgery for that reason too. I feel have never been confronted so closely by human tragedy. What we chose to believe channels our lives and those around us in ways we can never know.

December 11, 2009

The Christmas Tree

Yesterday we put up the Christmas tree. Before it arrived the conversation went something like this and underscores the finer points of female logic:

Me: I want to put up a Christmas tree this year.
Esperando: But we won’t be there for Christmas.
Me: I don’t care, we are there for two more weeks and I want to have the feeling of Christmas before we leave.
Esperando (knowing after so many years it is hopeless to argue): Ok, so I will send Javier over to help find a Torote. You can go with him to pick out a Torote (a wild shrub which is used for a Christmas tree in much of Baja that has a resinous pine scent).
Me: No, this year I want a U.S. style pine tree. Moreno’s Market will have them.
Esperando (wishing to economize): Well just get a little one.
Me (making a non-binding commitment--i.e. Charlie Brown I promise to hold the football): Yes, I will get a really small one. The smallest one they have.

Sr. Jueves came by to get me and off we went to Moreno’s. Sr. Jueves told me yesterday that Sr. Moreno would have small, medium and large trees. We have a rather cavernous room with high ceilings and I began to think a very small tree was not so great an idea, maybe medium size is better. This morning he told me the large trees and the small trees were about the same, except one costs less. When I got there, they were all the exact same size, about 6 feet, and although they had been offloaded from the truck only several hours previously, half of them had names on them already and had been sold. I am sure in a couple of more hours they would all be gone.

I had been concerned that the tree could be rather dried out, after all it was cut in the U.S., where I don’t know, and came down on a truck via Tijuana. It was so fresh with so much sap that Sr. Jueves could barely saw 2 inches off without the saw blade sticking constantly. The fragrance filled the room.

Last year we had a Torote. Not knowing much about them, it was way underwatered and died 2 weeks into being a Christmas tree. (Iwas told not to water it at all.) At the time I wanted to buy white lights for it but none were available. We bought two strands of colored lights, and when I asked for another colored strand that afternoon they had sold out. This year I tried to buy more colored lights but all they had were strands of white and strands of red. So I bought a strand of white to mix in with what I already had and they still barely covered the tree. I sent Sr. Jueves back to buy more strands of any color but they had sold out again. New Cook went rushing off to the second hand store her sister-in-law runs and came back with two more strands of colored lights. She saved the day.

Then having made a batch of Mexican wedding cookies twice (the first batch lacked flour and became on giant very flat cookie), New Cook joined in and started making a wreath from the leftover greens and glittered shells that I used last year. Then she went home and brought over her Christmas ornaments to add more to our tree. Although I tried to insist we could buy them from her, she wouldn’t hear of it, it was her donation she said. She has a very generous spirit. Everyone commented on how wonderful the fragrance was from the tree.

Sr. Jueves told me he now understood about the kind of base you need for a fresh tree, that when I was trying to describe it before it made no sense but now it did, it was sort of like becoming a convert to a new religion the way he waxed on with light shining in his eyes. The tree is beautiful. We all ate Mexican wedding cookies and were happy . This morning only six cookies were left and we are starting on a batch of biscochitos.

Decorated sailboats in the harbor at Santa Rosalia.

December 10, 2009

Making Christmas Cookies

A pan of cookies gone wrong!

One of my complaints about sharing my gringo recipes with the cooks is the way that things turn out, often they bear NO resemblance to how they are when I make them, and NOT in a good way. I have some wonderful sweet bread recipes which we used for a brunch here. Cook-with-an-Attitude followed my recipes and I thought they were horrid. The following weekend I made the same bread and it was exactly as I remembered. I don’t know where she went wrong, but I have decided that the first time they try my recipes I need to supervise. It has been a surprise to me in doing so how often I have averted tragedy caused by our mutual language barriers.

This morning after I had a little talk with the devil on my shoulder about losing weight and eating cookies, we started to bake Christmas cookies. I was going to start with biscochitos, a traditional Christmas cookie from New Mexico that uses anise and cinnamon. Since you need cookie cutters which we didn’t have, we put those off to make until tomorrow so we can go buy cookie cutters today. In the meantime I decided we would make Mexican wedding cookies—Esperando's very favorite cookie in the world. The muchachas had never heard of them before, which all goes to show that they must be a mainland thing and not an all of Mexico thing.

New Cook lived for a while in the U.S. and so can read English a little bit. I didn’t translate the recipe but kind of walked her through it. She pointed out that the T for tablespoon could be confusing to Spanish speakers who would think it was a T for taza (cup), and then we almost had a disaster when she wanted to do exactly that—put in a cup instead of a tablespoon of vanilla!

It took a while to get the cookies mixed properly as we had continuing issues with the measures, she would not fill the measuring cups up to the proper mark, undermeasuring a lot of the ingredients (maybe this is how we started to go wrong on other recipes). But finally everything was ready and I left her to roll the cookies into little balls, round I said. She came to show me round, but her round was flat besides. Ah no I said, round like this and demonstrated a little ball. Oh she said—pelotitas (little balls), then she corrected herself—albondigas (meatballs)! She stuck them in the oven and I left—in 15 minutes they called me back—the cookies had melted into one giant flat cookie. Oh no, I said, what went wrong? Since I had copied the recipe off the internet some time ago I didn’t have the source anymore, but figured I would just looked up Mexican wedding cookies and any recipe would reveal where mine was off. Señora, señora—called from the kitchen by New Cook—I know what is wrong, I forgot to put in the flour. We had been so busy getting sugar and vanilla measures mixed up and laughing, me supervising to make sure nothing went wrong, that we both overlooked the flour! These cookies do not brown except on the bottom, so the cook was sure they were underdone when they ready.

The Best Ever Mexican Wedding Cookies
Yields about 3 dozen

2 c flour
2 sticks cold butter, cut into pieces
¼ c powdered sugar
1 T vanilla extract
1 tsp almond extract
½ c almonds
½ c pecans
1 1/2 c powdered sugar, sifted (to roll baked cookies in)
1 tsp anise seeds (optional)

Preheat oven to 325F. Grind almonds and pecans in food processor, then add butter and continue to grind until smooth. Add 1/4 cup powdered sugar and vanilla, then mix again. Add flour and anise seeds (if using) and grind mixture until blended. After flouring hands, roll the dough into small balls. Place about an inch apart on an ungreased cookie sheet. Bake 15-20 minutes, or until brown on the bottom. Cool for 15 minutes, then roll the still warm cookies in the remaining powdered sugar. Let cool again, then roll again in powdered sugar.

December 9, 2009

Christmas is upon us!!

We’re back in Santa Rosalia today. We have been gone almost a month, it has gotten colder—down to 75F daytime and 59F last night. I was cold enough just sitting here typing after lunch to have to go crawl under the electric blanket for a nap. I really don’t like being that cold. Frida crawled up on top of me and started purring, I guess she was cold too. She has really gotten friendly since our return, usually it takes her about 3 days to get used to us again, but it was different this time. She was sleeping on us immediately last night upon our return. She actually meowed at me today. Christmas is upon us!!

Earlier today Favorite Maid told me Dash needed his warm doggy blanket from last winter. I poo-pooed the idea since we got him a nice Tempurpedic dog bed 6 months ago for his bad hips. Look at all that heavy fur he has on, I said. When we went to the bodega to find where I hidden the Christmas tree ornaments last year we came across his blanket folded up in a box. I don’t ever remember putting it there, but I must have. Favorite Maid brought it out and said, look at your blanket, Dash. He bounced up and down just like a little kid, wiggling his butt the whole time (he is a tail-less breed). Then he proudly tried to drag it all over the living room, but he kept stepping on it. Ok, so the maid was right and he was so happy to see it; I felt guilty. What a cruel Mommy he has. I think my cat Sour Pickle is completely in love with Favorite Maid. He follows her everywhere. While I have been gone Carmen has also gotten friendlier, even coming up to Favorite Maid and patting her hand with a paw to encourage her to put the food down faster. Maybe if I would stay home ever my pets would like me as much as they like Favorite Maid—but then again maybe not.

Tomorrow I hope to put the Christmas tree up. One of the grocery stores here gets fresh trees every year. This year we getting an arbol natural (a fresh pine tree). When I broached the subject of a Christmas tree stand with Sr. Jueves he said, oh don’t worry they make a stand out of wood. No, I said, the tree will dry out. I had him take me to Garcia’s, a really nice hardware store, figuring they would have a Christmas tree stand, but no. The owner said we don’t really do that here, maybe it will catch on in a few years. So I went back home and was telling New Cook and Favorite Maid about maybe putting the tree in a bucket when New Cook piped up that I needed a Christmas tree stand and she had just seen some really nice ones at El Tomasito. Off she and Sr. Jueves dashed and the next thing I knew I had a really great gringo style Christmas tree stand for $12. This is really confusing to me, a stand like this in the U.S. would be at least $30. Ah but I need a receipt said I, so back they charged to get a receipt from the store and then it turns out they mischarged us for the tree stand—so is only $8!! Amazing!

I am hungry for Christmas cookies. I wage a war back and forth in my brain. Cook some cookies. No they are fattening. But it isn’t Christmas without cookies. You won’t be here for Christmas. Maybe I should bake some nice loaves of bread instead. But cookies are so beautiful and small and isn’t the variety so wonderful? But they are so much work. Ah the mind is so devious, the next thought—get the cooks to help you with the cookies, they will love it!! I feel my brain weakening to the entreaties of the little devil on my shoulder.

December 4, 2009

49° 11' N 123° 10' W

We are in Vancouver now for the company Christmas party on Friday night. We are so lucky! It is not raining or snowing for a change; but still—it is really cold outside with a low of 32F this morning and not predicted to get much higher than 43F today; tomorrow the high is predicted to be 37F! Brrrrrrrrrrrr. It’s a good thing I bought a last-minute down coat before we got here. I seem to do a lot of rushed internet shopping with overnight shipping as we proceed on these little whirlwind tours. We had planned to be back in Santa Rosalia before coming here, so I didn’t have the warm rain/snow gear to bring along. I bought my coat at Lands End which I like for their reasonable prices and quality merchandise, but there were not many choices still left in my size so I had to settle for a white. Esperando tells me I look like the Pillsbury Dough Boy in my new coat—such kind words. Actually I had rather liked it but since he said Pillsbury Dough Boy I am now sure I must look like a blimp.

I had forgotten how expensive everything is in here in the frozen North, as my Mother refers to it! These people really get ripped off—at one time the Canadian dollar was about 75¢ to the US dollar, but now they are about even, which adds 25% to the price of everything (of course no one adjusts their prices downward) just for starters, and then that is also topped with a HST tax (sort of a VAT tax) which will be up to 12% by next July. This means real estate, restaurants, groceries and any shopping is just outrageous. I don’t know how these people afford to live here albeit it is a beautiful city.

This morning I went for a walk along Robson Street, the major trendy shopping district with stores like Gap, Banana Republic, Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein and so on. I could not resist wandering into Tiffany’s to admire the beautiful jewelry. Right before my very eyes two young blond things were buying a silver diamond-studded key with chain (apparently the new HOT jewelry item as seen in Vogue, etc.) They looked like teenagers to me, but I think they were probably in their early 20s. I am guessing they were buying this for their mother—in any event, with chain it came to a little over $1000, and they purchased it without blinking an eye. I was stunned. Maybe they were buying it for their dad to give her. Then, I looked at all the large carat diamond rings and drooled a little bit. The clerks assured that was fine as they had Windex to clean up the cases. They were all so kind and genuine, I really felt sorry not to increase their commissions by buying some nice bauble. Actually the store was quite busy. Guess its time to put some real effort into winning the lotto!