just published: mayan journey

AsiaSpa - Mayan JoureyIf last December’s prevailing wisdom had held true you wouldn’t be reading this. The storied Mayan calendar was famously closing in on the winter solstice and the end of its 144,000-day cycle. Interpreters of the calendar – and a host of New Age conspiracy theorists – predicted the date would coincide with a global cataclysm. Good thing nobody held their breath, because the Maya believed in the cyclical nature of things. The end of the calendar didn’t presage the end of the world; it marked a new beginning.  Call it a transition or period of renewal, but the Maya believed in the necessity of an epochal timeout before moving forward.  Spanish conquistadors might have brought about that break sooner than expected – subjugating the people by the end of the 17th century – yet descendants of the Maya continue to form sizable populations throughout Mexico’s Yucutan peninsula. Plus, many of their cities and ceremonial sites still remain. The wisdom of these ancient Americans hasn’t been lost. It’s laying patiently in wait for a Mayan journey of rediscovery. READ MORE.

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chicks & ducks & geese better scurry

XoloitzcuintleBeyond art and tchotchkes, Senora Olmedo had a diverse interest in living animals, too, such as geese, ducks, and peacocks, which she collected and kept in the gardens of her museum. And who doesn’t love a pretty peacock? However what I found most fascinating was the handful of endangered Xoloitzcuintles, a 3,000-year old native breed of hairless dog considered sacred by the Aztecs. (They believed the dogs were needed by their masters’ souls to help them safely through the underworld.) Initially I thought I was looking at a group of sleek and sinuous statues – until they moved.
xoloitzcuintlepea hens

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the fabulous life of dolores olmedo

Dolores-OlmedoDolores Olmedo had quite the colorful life. As a young girl from a working class background she caused a scandal when her family discovered that she had posed nude for the painter Diego Rivera. Forbidden to see the artist anymore, it wasn’t until many years later that their paths crossed again, by which time Olmedo had become one of the richest women in Mexico – both a successful businesswoman, philanthropist, and patron of the arts. Rivera was broke, close to dying, and concerned about his legacy. At his urging she went on a buying spree, amassing a major collection of the painter’s canvases in addition to works by Frida Kahlo, Diego’s wife, with whom Olmedo had a tempestuous friendship fraught with jealousy over Rivera’s affections. After Kahlo and Rivera’s deaths she bought a 16th century hacienda in southern Mexico City, which she later converted into a museum and shrine to her life of passionate collecting. Not only does the five-building complex hold her entire store of pre-Hispanic, colonial, folk, modern and contemporary art, but also the largest holdings of Kahlo and Rivera anywhere – and her private chambers, filled with extravagant displays of ivory and porcelain, showcase photos of Olmedo with virtually every famous person in the world.

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the new mexican gastronomy

IMG_2820When chef Enrique Olvera opened Pujol in Mexico City’s upscale Polanco neighborhood almost 14 years ago, the budget was so small that his wife had to paint the walls. Things have changed at what is now widely considered Mexico’s best restaurant, with its platoon of 27 cooks. The subtly lit interior is like a fine suit: understated and elegant. Service is hushed and artful – if just a bit quirky – so you can focus the food. One of the leading exponents of new Mexican gastronomy, Olvera is deeply immersed in his cultural legacy. Dried insects feature heavily, like in the elotitos tatemados, a take on Mexican street food: smoked baby corn glazed with coffee mayonnaise and dusted in salty ant powder. Brilliantly served in a hollowed out gourd, it’s an addictive umami snack. In a minimalist version of the salad course, acidity and herbal freshness are explored in foraged wild greens, pinon, and native seasonings. Olvera continuously re-invents traditional dishes and their presentation—you might not recognize something as a flauta, a taco, or a tamale, but with an artist’s flair for combining regional ingredients and modern techniques Olvera lays a foundation and builds on it to create something new. If Pujol is any indication of how sophisticated (yet wholly unpretentious) fine-dining in Mexico can be, I’m in for a whole lot of sensory overload.

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molinillo

molinilloA molinillo is is the traditional Mexican turned wood whisk used in the preparation of hot beverages such as hot chocolate and champurrado. Held between the palms and rotated by rubbing the hands together it creates a creamy froth in the drink that makes the addition of milk unnecessary. And while I don’t make a lot of hot chocolate myself, I nevertheless found myself transfixed by the artistry as well as the mechanics of the molinillo on display at Mucho Mundo Chocolate. Rest assured I’ve got one safely squirreled away in my luggage.
molinillo falling from the sky

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mucho mundo

muchoMucho Mundo Chocolate is the first museum in Mexico dedicated to enhancing the experience of chocolate – as if chocolate needed any help. But beyond the purely hedonistic aspects of consumption, the museum puts chocolate in a historical context, tracing its origins back to the Mayans, who first fermented the seeds inside cacao pods and used them to create a hot bitter drink we’ve come to know as chocolate. The favored drink of kings and priests, it was considered food fit for the gods. When the Aztecs gained control over the Maya, cacao seeds were elevated to the level of currency, making drinking chocolate a luxury few people could afford. The arrival of Spanish conquistadors brought chocolate to a wider European audience, yet is still remained a product almost exclusively consumed by the wealthy until industrialization brought about the arrival of solid, mass-produced chocolates. Today we take the ubiquity of chocolate for granted, but a demonstration in Mucho’s test kitchen made clear to me how labor intensive making chocolate the Mexican way once was: first you heat the metate, a traditional grinding stone, while shelling as many roasted cacao pods as you need. (Hint: more than you think.  Roasted cacao seeds are as addictive as cocktail peanuts.) Then grind them on the metate by flicking your wrists with a mano, an elongated pestle. Add a handful of raw almonds to the mixture – their natural oils will slowly release and bind the cacao together – and a sprinkle of cinnamon and sugar. After a bit of sweat you’ll have a crumbly paste, which can be added to water to make drinking chocolate, or serve as the base for baked goods and, after further processing and tempering, chocolate bars. I scooped up a bag of the crumble and munched on it as is; savory, slightly sweet and spicy, it was a tart reminder of why I hate milk chocolate: the fat in dairy dilutes the pleasing bitterness of the cacao. Which, I guess, is why the world is divided between devotees of milk and dark chocolate. On some things we must agree to disagree, however; after experiencing the effort involved, I won’t pop a truffle into my mouth with casual disregard again.

mucho metate

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jose clemente orozco

san iledefonso collegeIf you think of Mexico and 20th Century painting, it’s only natural that your mind gravitates toward the power couple, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. Their politics and personal stories have become a mythology entwined within their art – often superseding it. (And much more about them later.) Yet amongst Rivera’s contemporaries, Jose Clemente Orozco was often considered the more gifted artist. A social realist painter, Orozco specialized in bold murals that established the Mexican Mural Renaissance along with Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros. Yet before my arrival in Mexico City I had never heard of him.  That changed rather fortuitously at San Iledefonso College, a museum and cultural center in the historic center of the city, where the painter’s epic frescoes grace three floors of courtyard walls and stairways. In the 1920s, soon after the Mexican Revolution, the government sponsored mural paintings with themes centering on Mexico’s history and politics of the post-Revolution era, but Orozco – in a marked distinction from Rivera – was highly critical of the Revolution, and used his art to examine the bloody toll the movement took on ordinary Mexicans as it lined the pockets of both the upper classes and the church. Influenced by Symbolism – and satire – the politically committed painter takes on the history of human suffering from the time of Cortes’ conquest: the landscapes are somber, the working classes are oppressed, death is dignified and anonymous, the privileged bourgeois is distorted, the revolutionaries are blinded by revolution. Beyond form and composition these are not necessarily always aesthetically pleasing works of art but, wow, there’s no denying their power.

jose orozco

Stairwell Orozco

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might as well be hung for a goat

hung for a sheep

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mercado san juan

in thrall to the chilis

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the daily shop

mercado san juan

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escamoles

escamolesOur perception of Mexican food has been blighted by years of overstuffed burritos, nacho pyramids, and a scourge of chimichangas and fajitas. Yet authentic Mexican cuisine is a fusion of indigenous MesoAmerican staples like corn, squash, and chiles, influenced by the domesticated meats and cooking techniques of the (primarily) Spanish occupation. It’s one of the world’s great cuisines, holding it’s own against both France and China in my humble opinion. (Don’t believe me? Try your hand at making one of the complex regional moles.)  To a large degree that’s what part of this week in Mexico is about: tasting traditions old and new. Like escamoles, or ant larvae – a dish native to Central Mexico and considered a delicacy by the Aztecs. Insect caviar, if you will. As far as traditional foods go, it’s a lot better than it sounds. The light-colored eggs, harvested from the agave plant, resemble pine nuts and have a slightly nutty taste. Often pan-fried with butter and spices, escamoles can be found in tacos, eaten with chips and guacamole, or here at El Cardenal, turned into a no-pun-intended Spanish omelette.

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larga vida al correo

IMG_2811Mexico City’s Palacio de Correos is – as its name suggests – a postal palace. Built at the very beginning of the 20th century, its design and construction was the most modern of the time, including an eclectic style that mixes several different traditions into a very complex  – and very grand – design. The building has a steel frame and a foundation built on an enormous grid of steel beams, which has allowed it to withstand a number of earthquakes. Built with a very light-colored, almost translucent variety of a stone called “chiluca,” the exterior is covered in decorative details such as iron dragon light fixtures and intricately carved stone around both the windows and the line of the roof. A perfect example of the building’s complicated design is the fact that each of the building’s four floors has windows in a different architectural style. Yet  the palace’s unity is maintained through the clever repetition of arches. The main entrance has a large ironwork canopy which is typical of the Art Nouveau that was fashionable in the early 20th century. Inside, the marble floors and shelves combine with bronze and iron window frames manufactured in Florence. The main stairway features two separate ramps that come together to form a landing, then seem to cross on the second landing above before moving off, each in their own direction. Rather an apt metaphor for the mail, don’t you think? Long may it live.

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goin’ south

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no such thing as bad publicity

Los Pollos Hermanos

File under sad, but true: a fast-food burrito chain where a fictional drug trafficker runs his organization has become one of Albuquerque, New Mexico’s more improbable tourist attractions. As “Breaking Bad” finishes filming its final season in the city, the popular show has brought about a major boost to the local economy – yet it’s also creating a dilemma for tourism officials having to consider the ultimate cost of exploiting their city’s ties to a show that centers around drug trafficking, addiction and violence. (The show follows the fictional character of Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher turned meth lord.) While other popular television shows such as “Sex and the City” and “Seinfeld” have spawned a veritable cottage industry of location-based tours, “Breaking Bad” has provoked a pattern of drug-themed products springing up around town. The Candy Lady store recently capitalized on the show’s popularity by selling blue “Breaking Bad” meth treats – sugar rock candy that looks like the meth sold on the show. And the Great Face & Body shop developed a new line of blue bath salts called Bathing Bad. (For the record they are not the street drug known as bath salts.) Meanwhile, Masks y Mas Mexican folk art store near the University of New Mexico sells papier-mache statues of La Santa Muerte — Mexico’s Death Saint who counts drug traffickers among her devotees. (During the chilling opening of the show’s third season, a pair of cartel assassins is shown crawling to the saint’s shrine in Mexico to request some divine help.) Tourists are also flocking to sites that before the show were unknown and unimportant: the suburban home of White, played by Bryan Cranston; a car wash that’s a front for a money-laundering operation on the series; a rundown motel used frequently for filming; and the real-life burrito joint, Los Pollos Hermanos, which is a fast food chicken restaurant on the show. “It’s raised the visibility of the city,” said Tania Armenta, a vice president for the Albuquerque Convention & Visitors Bureau, which created a website of the show’s most popular places around town to help tourists navigate. But whether it’s a perception tourists might come to equate with, say Ciudad Juarez, remains to be seen. Until then there’s apparently no such thing as bad publicity.

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