Here's how lucky I am: not only do I have smart, funny, beautiful daughter who is spending her last semester speaking Spanish in UM's study abroad program in Mexico, but I also got to visit her during their spring break last week. For the past couple of months she's been telling us about how generous her host family is and what a beautiful city Guanajuato is, but nothing compares to seeing the sights, smelling the smells, and finding your own way in a maze of twisty passages all the same. With blue skies as a back drop, fresh fruit for breakfast every day, and the constant kindness of strangers, there's a lot to love in Guanajuato. And of course, for me finding out more about the food there was a fascinating part of the trip.
Guanajuato, I learned from Miss A., means "city of frogs," perhaps in reference to the river that once ran through the center of town. An old mining center (many of the streets are in mining tunnels), Guanajuato is in the middle of Mexico. In fact, it's the geographic center of the country I was told, and it's also the capital of the state of the same name.
Flying in, I recognize settlements characterized by tight knots of houses and tree-lined streets. And each of these settled areas or towns, both small and large, is completely surrounded by fields under cultivation. The bigger the settlement the more extensive the swath of fields, sometimes patchworked between mountainous hills and sometimes terraced into the hillsides themselves. On the ground here and there are inexplicable clouds of bright purple. Once my eyes focus, I realize they are trees. I've never before seen jacarandas in bloom and they are gorgeous.
One of the things that's immediately striking about being in Mexico is the sense of barely controlled chaos. There's a different standard of public safety than the one I've come to expect. Sidewalks are actually obstacle courses, five roads may intersect with no signals or signage, and anything with wheels can be in the street - bikes, ATVs, buses. Anything goes. But somehow it all works out.
The next thing that seems different is an amazing abundance of small entrepreneurs. The streets are lined with tiny shops, each selling only 1 specialized thing - shoes, meat, ice cream, CDs, shirts, tortillas.
Then there are the street vendors. Often a couple or a woman and her children set up shop with as little as a pot and a burner. They sell things like elote, white corn grilled over a wood fire, spread with mayonnaise and sprinkled with chile and lime. Or tortillas and gorditas, the dough patted out and then cooked in front of you on a huge comal or griddle. Fruit vendors are everywhere. Selling juicy bits cut up in a plastic cup, they have different melons, strawberries, mango, papaya, cucumber, jicama, or mixed fruit, which is also sprinkled with lime and chile salt. This was garbanzo season, so there were vendors with huge baskets of pea-green pods of garbanzos that had been boiled and salted, sold in a paper cone. A common sight is a lady sitting in a doorway scraping the spines off of a big pile of cactus paddles - nopales - then cutting them into strips. And it's hard to miss the strong smell of tripe bubbling away in a pot as you walk by.
I was excited to find the mercados or markets, which I assumed would be equivalent to our farmer's markets. But the ones in Guanajuato are much bigger and more complex than our markets. The Mercado Hidalgo is in a huge train-station like building with soaring windows and hundreds of small vendors selling everything from fried pork tacos to car parts to umbrellas to whole chickens to mountains of dried chiles. What was interesting was that all the produce vendors seem to have the same supplier. The carrots, potatoes, onions, garlic, peppers, zucchini look pretty much the same at every stall. And there aren't as many produce vendors as I would expect. Perhaps only 5-10% of the overall mercado are people selling fruit or vegetables.
Food (like most things in Mexico) seems cheap. Breakfast, or desayuno, at the hotel includes: coffee (admittedly it's Nescafe, which Miss A. says is all they drink there), wonderful fresh ripe watermelon, honeydew, papaya and pineapple, and a basket of delicious crisp rolls (bolillos) and butter - and these are just the starters. After this, the breakfast main course is something like Huevos Mexicanos - eggs scrambled with tiny pieces of tomatoes, hot pepper, onion, and cilantro - and this comes with refried beans and a side of chilaquiles (a kind of breakfast casserole of tortilla strips cooked with eggs, onions, salsa and cheese). This enormous, delicious breakfast costs 45 pesos, equivalent to about $4.50.
Breakfast is so substantial because the main meal of the day, comida, which is equivalent to our lunch, doesn't come until around 2 or 3pm. For that meal, everyone comes home for a couple of hours to eat together, then takes a brief nap and heads out again. Miss A. says dinner is called cena, and it's just a snack around 8pm of something small like a quesadilla with cheese.
Among the highlights of the trip were getting to try some of Miss A.'s favorite places to eat. For my first meal in Mexico after we'd walked all over town I got to try posole, a fabulously spicy soup with the mighty corn kernels known as hominy. It went down well with a Pacifico beer. Miss A. also took me to her beloved Santo Cafe for a wonderful limonada (limeade) and delicious crepes with chicken, spinach and queso de cabra (goat cheese). They have the best sopa de ajo (garlic soup) I've ever had - rich chicken broth rife with small pieces of garlic and threads of egg. It arrives at your table in a cloud of garlic vapor which then follows you for the rest of the day.
Perhaps best of all was Cafe Tal, the only place in town with real coffee. Their coffee happens to be grown in Mexico and is roasted daily. At Cafe Tal they have a drink called the "beso negro" or black kiss. It's a tiny cup of what appears to be melted chocolate, and is served with a tiny spoon. Once you drink it, your lips are outlined in black as though you've been playing with your goth friend's lipstick pencil.