Posted on 02/07/08 in Past Events, No Comments

After a stupid busy month last December, I had to decide whether I would start out the New Year fighting the ice on my windshield or jump on a plane to somewhere hot.

Needless to say, I just returned from Mexico from a great trip. I took some time to visit places I’d never been and also spent time with family in Guadalajara. And this time, despite my previous encounters with food poisoning, I decided to try it all and take my chances. I even found moments to cook along the way.

My first stop was in Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco. I really wasn’t planning on going to the beach since I was on a tight budget, but my good friend Carlos, also escaping Chicago’s chill, invited me to stay at his condo in Vallarta with some friends. I graciously accepted the invitation and offered to cook all the meals. It was nothing but sunny skies and warm breezes by the water. It took a day just to let it all register, but then I was cooking dinner by the beach: some grilled Wahoo tacos, steak fajitas, and some refried beans. It got pretty hot by the grill and if it weren’t for the buckets of Mexican beer, I may have suffered a mild heat stroke.

After dinner we found a great spot called La Cantina, downtown near the Malecon. We had walked past plenty of lame night clubs and super lame señor frog type of places before we found La Cantina. They had a full tequila list and my favorite Mexican music blazing.

Luckily no hangover the next day and good thing because I was leaving Vallarta solo that morning on a 20 hour bus trip to Acapulco. The buses in Mexico are actually pretty nice. The seats are pretty comfy and they recline all the way back. The bus lines I used were Futura, Primera Plus, and ETN. I had brought a few food mags but went through them quickly after a few hours. So I gave my attention to the fuzzy monitors showing movies on the bus. I saw a few Hollywood movies like Man on Fire, Spiderman 3, and Waterworld (they love Kevin Costner in Mexico), all dubbed in Spanish. Then came the good stuff, a nice marathon of old movies starring Germán Valdés, better known as Tin Tan. If there was a Mexican Rat Pack, this guy would be Frank, Dean, and Sammy all rolled into one.

I made it into Acapulco the next morning and I used the day to check out the famous cliff divers and spent some more quality time at the beach. I figured if Acapulco was super awesome, I would stick around for a day or two, but honestly, I wasn’t impressed, so I ventured eastward toward Iguala, Guerrero to visit my friend “El Capire”.

Iguala is known as the city of gold, but judging by the lack of skyscrapers and palaces, I am guessing that all the gold now lives in Spain. Never-the-less, I knew this place was golden when the cab driver handed me a can of Modelo on the way to my friend’s ranch in a farm town called Obregon. It was a long enough cab ride, just right for a 6 pack, but too short for a 12’er.

I met “El Capire” at Honky Tonk BBQ in Chicago. During his months in the states, he works a landscaping job in the burbs and wires money back to his family. And when he comes back to the ranch, he’s got his hands full with his 3 little daughters and of course the ranch with plenty of animals.

He invited me to check out a festival celebrating the Virgen de Guadalupe in Obregon. It was a week long thing with horse races, rodeo, dances, fireworks, praying, drinking, and eating.

I arrived just in time for the horse races, and since I’m not much of a gambler, I spent my cash on beer and tamales instead. I didn’t know this at the time, but I was about to begin the longest beer-a-thon since Senior Year at UIUC. By the last race, it was almost dark, the charros were arguing about the final winner, and it was time to head back to the ranch. El Capire sold 12 sheep to a guy we met at the horse races and we had to load them in his truck that night. El Capire has very braggable roping skills cuz he got all 12 of those guys with his lasso in just a few minutes in the dark. I would simply jump in, lift the sheep and carry him to the truck.

Breakfast the next day consisted of plenty of cactus and egg tacos and a few bottles of Indio Lager. Later I helped El Capire feed some of his cows but then it was back to emptying beer bottles, briefly interrupted by a supper of iguana tacos with chile and avocado. It was Saturday and the only major thing on the agenda was a big dance that night in the center of town with live music and fireworks. The Banda starting playing at around 8pm and the Castillo was at around 9. Banda music is super popular in Mexico: mostly everyone knows the words to the popular songs and almost everyone will dance to it. The Castillo is one of my favorite things to watch in Mexico. It’s a fireworks show that is setup on a metal frame tower, assembled on site. There’s a series of spinning wheels with bright, whistling fireworks usually with a sparkling figure or icon in the center.

Somewhere between the Castillo and the business of emptying beer bottles, I learned about a cow slaughter that was happening the next day. It sounded like a good time so I offered to help out and with the food too. It turns out that every day of the festival; a different family from the farm village takes on the responsibility of preparing supper for everyone in for the festival, which is about 200 people. El Capire’s uncle, Audifas Moreno, was the local cattle guy and he offered up a 12 month old steer for the main course, a dish called barbacoa, slow steamed and stewed beef with a guajillo chile wet rub.

I showed up on Sunday evening for the slaughter sort of dizzy; I had been throwing back bottles of Sol Lager at a wedding all afternoon trying to keep up with Audifas and his cousin. The butcher was already there with his kit: some rope, 3 not-so-sharp knives, a long dagger, an axe, and a sharpening stone. We were outside behind the house and had to work quickly since we had less than 2 hours of daylight left. The butcher handed me the dagger and the axe and told me what I had to do, and after about an hour, we were already cutting the meat up into small pieces and some of Audifas’ grandsons were cleaning the tripe.

We finished up and I was so ready to get back to El Capire’s house to get cleaned up. It was already dark and the whole town was heading over to the plaza de toros to see the first night of rodeo. This was my first time at the rodeo and I had no idea what to expect. The plaza was packed. Down in the bullring there were about a dozen charros in full gear riding their horses and showing off their lasso skills. Circling the bullring there was a concrete fence with gaps, large enough for people to jump in and out of the bull ring, but too small for the bull or a horse to get through. Above the concrete fence there was a ledge where you could sit with your feet dangling dangerously near the action below. You could walk the ledge all the way around the plaza or take the steps up into the stadium seats to get a bird’s eye view. I grabbed a 6-pack of Tecate and decided to park it on the ledge. The “show” consisted of live Banda music, some dancing show horses, some bull riding, and of course the bull fighting. They announced the lineup for the night: 6 bulls, all from the same ranch and all bred and raised to work in the bullring. The first bull was loaded into the small pen where some brave soul was ready to mount, praying for a long ride without broken bones. The gate swung open and the bull jumped out, bucking and spitting for a good 15 seconds before the rider called it a day and jumped off victoriously. The bull, seemingly content with losing its passenger, then had to battle a few toreadors with red capes, until finally getting roped in by the charros on horseback who led him out of the plaza to safety.

The second bull of the night only gave the rider a few seconds. I noticed a few brave spectators that would jump through the gaps in the fence to spend a few exciting seconds in the bull ring. One man jumped through the gap as the bull was running away toward some other brave spectators. But for some reason, the bull decided to turn back around and charge at the man. There wasn’t a lot of time to react, but the man made his move to jump through the gap to safety and with half of his body already through the gap, the bull managed to get a horn in and pulled the man back into the bullring.

It was the most brutal and intense scene I’ve ever witnessed: sitting with hundreds of people watching a man battle for his life against an angry bull, everything happening in a few seconds, with that helpless feeling that there’s nothing you can do to help. They finally roped the bull by the horns and pulled him away, and some bystanders jumped in and helped the man up and out of the bullring. They finished the rodeo and the other 4 bulls had their time in the bullring, and to everyone’s relief, with much less drama, but when we left the plaza, we all learned that the man did not survive. I was shocked, and the realization that the bull killed the man the same night we killed the steer suddenly overwhelmed me.

The next day I was up early to start on preparations for the big meal. A couple hundred people were showing up at 4pm to eat. Audifas didn’t have a gas stove at his ranch house so I had to go old school and cook the meal outside with wood as fuel. I was able to cook the beans in the kitchen on their clay stove, but I used dried corn cobs instead of wood since I didn’t want too hot of a fire. We got our fire for the barbacoa started first since this needed to simmer for at least 6 hours. The biggest challenge was cooking the 10kg of rice in the clay pot. I had to keep a separate fire for boiling water to add gradually to the rice as it cooked since there was no way to keep it tightly covered.

With everything under control and all the food on a smooth simmer, there was finally time to sit down for a beer. I hadn’t had one since breakfast so I had to get a few down before the town showed up. The Banda came by first, playing music as they walked in. Then a mob of people, and after a 1 hour plating frenzy, it was all over.

That was my last night in Guerrero. The next day I took a bus north to Guanajuato, a college town known for its Spanish colonial architecture, small plazas, and narrow, winding alleys. It’s my favorite city in Mexico and it’s the best place to see really random things and get some rest and relaxation. I stayed at Casa de Pita, a small and unique bed and breakfast place near the Plaza del Baratillo. Pita is the nicest lady in all Mexico (perhaps second to my grandmother) ; she has always made me feel like family when I stay and her breakfast meals are so good.

My original plan was to get some work done on some emails and menu planning while I was in Guanajuato, but that never happened. Instead I tagged along with some new friends I met after breakfast. We took a day trip to Cerro Cubilete, the geographic center of Mexico and site of the Cristo Rey del Cubilete, a shrine with a 75 ft. tall statue of Christ.

The rest of my time in Guanajuato was spent walking the city, revisiting some of my favorite cafes and galleries, and discovering some new ones. On Friday night I cooked a big meal for my new friends at Pita’s house. That morning I did some shopping at the market, and for 400 pesos ($40 dollars) I put together the following menu (for 12):

  • Tilapia and Octopus Ceviche w/ Beets and Corn
  • Cream of Chayote and Roasted Cauliflower Soup
  • Roast Pork Tenderloin w/ Pasilla Pistachio Mole, Dominican Rice
  • Apple, Pear, and Apricot Tart w/ Homemade Caramel and Cinnamon

One more night in Guanajuato (I stuck around to check out some lucha libre) and then I was off to Guadalajara, Jalisco. I had one week left in Mexico and it was finally time to visit with the family.

There’s something about going to my grandmother’s house in Guadalajara that makes me not want to leave. I’m constantly being fed delicious food and hearing great stories about the stupid things my parents did when they were young.

I used the time I had left in Jalisco to visit with as many relatives as I could, some in Tecalitlan, Nigromante, Ixtlan, Zapotlan, and finally going to my other grandfather’s ranch in the mountains near the volcano of Colima.

We caught him in the corral feeding his cows and he was surprised to see me. Aside from writing him a letter a month in advance of my trip, there’s no way to let them know about my visit. I went there with my uncle Toribio, who was anxious to take me on a deer hunting expedition that day near the ranch.

I was hoping to bag my first deer and imagined bringing home the big one and cooking a big feast. But after 7 hours wandering through pine forests and mountain tops, we had only a few spottings, but no luck with dinner.

We settled for a pot of beans with some cheese and tortillas, which after such a hike, was brilliant and delicious.

With just a couple days left in Mexico, I spent as much time out in the sun absorbing large doses of Vitamin D, knowing that in just a few days, I would be back in Chicago.

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