I am astounded by the variety of Mexican beverages, their connections with certain holidays and the type of people who drink them. The beverages I associate with my childhood in Panamá are chicheme (a corn drink), saril (similar to a spicy hibiscus water) and the ubiquitous Christmas ron ponche (its key ingredient is rum: the only way to get through holidays with family.) Oh, and let’s not forget the always popular but less elegant Tang, culei (Kool-Aid) and chicha de tutti frutti (yes, with the canned fruit) –guests at all birthdays, even fancy ones.
Aguas frescas are deliciousness in a glass: Mexican refreshments made with water, fruits, flowers, or vegetables and I am addicted to making them –don’t judge. I always have a couple in my fridge along with bitter chocolate, champagne and chipotles en adobo–you never know who may drop by.
I could drink horchata (rice water) all day long; chayote and nopal are two of my favorites, and sometimes I rather admire pink pitahaya water, or red beet water (also known as tears of the virgin) instead of drinking them.
Whenever I make and serve them, I am always thinking of how much I have learned and benefited from the Mexican sense of hospitality –especially when sipping tequila or rum with a bunch of mechanics. I believe that the minimum amount of courtesy you show someone you invite into your home is to offer them something to drink –even water and make them feel comfortable. I’m still amazed at how rare this custom seems to be among so many people.
Before the Spanish Conversation courses were canceled last year at the college where I work (I guess I should have studied a Master’s in something more practical for Southern California like Latin or Italian) part of the cultural component was teaching manners from the Spanish speaking perspective to lessen these cross cultural miscommunications. In my Mexican experiences, beverages have been the first sign of courtesy, and the entryway to many friendships.
One of my most special trips into México was a road trip we took in January 2003 through the states of Baja California and Baja California Sur. It was something we really wanted, but didn’t plan too well –the same way I write poems: I have a rough draft in my head with ideas, but ultimately inspiration and spontaneity take over and decide the course of action.
After a long drive we ended our first night tired and hungry in a small town. We dropped our stuff at a hotel, found a place to eat, and tried to figure out what we would do and where. Besides us there was a group of people celebrating on the other side of the small restaurant.
We sat in a corner with our books and maps, and within fifteen minutes a man from the other side of the room came with two tequilas, introduced himself, told us it was his birthday party and that we were invited. His name was Reyes, it was January 6, and we were not allowed to say no!
And because we don’t want to offend: that was the first and last time I ever participated in karaoke (but only because the Presidente Municipal was there, and you don’t want to say no to him.) The former owner of my dreams was in shock because he knew me so well. For most people it wouldn’t be a big deal, but if there is one thing that mortifies me is singing in public (that and when Americans take out the calculator and scrutinize the bill to the penny, and taxes, and tip … are you kidding me? These are your friends! You are ruining the meal!)
And yes, I am the best singer EVER; from opera to tango, but only in the shower. Fear of public singing (not speaking) was the reason why I didn’t want to go to my high school graduation –I got into so much trouble with my father. Not only did we have to sing, but we had to wear white dresses. And even though no singing was required, I didn’t go to my Bachelor’s or my (impractical) Master’s graduation either (thanks for the trauma Girls’ High.) But that night we danced, hung out, ate, and drank like we were old friends. We were supposed to leave the next morning but we ended up staying for two days.
My poor faithful Max (yes, I name my cars: after eight years together I buried Don Porfirio last month, and I have spent the last three weeks getting to know Malinche.) Max was not trained for the treacherous roads I forced upon him, and after a demanding trek to see the whales, we came back to find that the oil had drained out of the pan, courtesy of evil rocks. We were an hour away from the main road and town, none of the other tourists with whom we had spent all morning offered to help us, and they all got into their cars with California plates and left.
But soon superheroes came to our rescue: the mighty fishermen! who in spite of the cold, the wind, and that they had been working all morning, constructed a ramp on the shores of the lagoon, used some type of boat glue to patch the pan –which lasted the next year and a half that I kept that car- they filled Max with oil, and wouldn’t accept any payment. Then I find out that one of them was celebrating his thirtieth birthday, his family was waiting for him, and he was already an hour late. So of course he invites us to his home for lunch, we met his family, and his two sons proudly showed us what the Three Kings brought them.
I have a love hate relationship with shellfish and fish; I started eating them in my mid-twenties –courtesy of my mother’s aversion to them. The only seafood I grew up eating was salted cod on holidays (the lucky fish my mother tolerates) and breaded fish sticks (the one my father baked for us.) If I cook seafood I have no problem eating it, in a restaurant it depends on how fishy it smells when it arrives. At someone else’s house: please don’t invite me.
And surprise, surprise: fried fish for lunch! Of course. I blocked that meal from my memory, except for the hibiscus water –I drank about four glasses. With her by my side I could eat almost anything, and if it’s spiked: there’s no doubt I could eat anything. During that trip we had two more incidents with Max (stuck in the sands of Loreto, and a flat tire -Mr. Wonderful couldn’t figure out how to remove the tire from the car) but it was all part of the adventure and there were always good Samaritans there to help us.
Three years later we happened to be in Cholula for the Feast of the Virgin of the Assumption and in the middle of the procession/party we were offered homemade tequila to toast the saint. And when I had a vile flu and was waiting for the medicines the doctor had prescribed, the waiter at the hotel where we were staying in México City gave me his own remedy: four (or five) complementary tequilas. It didn’t cure me, but I slept very well that night. And what better way to warm a crisp, chilly Xico afternoon in Veracruz than with free handcrafted fruit liqueurs? In my experience, Mexican graciousness and cordiality have been accompanied with something to drink.
I don’t like to make New Year’s resolutions; why start the year lying to myself? But I would like to make the effort of eating fish at least once a week –I’m lying, I’m not going to do that. Once a month is a more realistic goal.
So before January ends and to celebrate the birthday of that gallant fisherman, tonight I had fish for dinner. There is a Mexican restaurant nearby that serves sit down dinners until midnight – normally in San Diego you would have to go to a taco shop or a fast food restaurant if you’re hungry after nine p.m.
It was so, so brave of me to order the plantain crusted red snapper in a roasted tomato and chile de árbol sauce, served with vegetables, rice, beans, and flour tortillas. I felt pretty smug: I ate almost half of it … and I drank three glasses of hibiscus water (thumbs up for me!)
When I came home I got in the bath tub and sang: <<No tengo trono ni reina, ni nadie que me comprenda, pero sigo siendo el rey. >>