Thursday, January 8, 2009

Skin & Bones

A month had passed and I had learned enough Spanish and been to the supermarket enough with my husband that I could venture out on my own to shop for lunch – or so I thought. One of the cultural traditions that I truly enjoyed in my adopted country was the siesta – a two hour break each day for lunch when husbands would return home – this phenomenon cut the loneliness that pervaded my early days living at the end of the Baja peninsula in 1995.

Setting off down the street toward the one traffic light in town, I drove my white VW around chickens, roosters and the neighborhood strays. San Jose del Cabo, the “real” Mexican town on the other side of the 15 mile corridor from Cabo San Lucas of “Love Boat” fame was a hamlet of unmarked streets without stop signs – perilous for most and unnerving for a New Yorker.

Arriving at the one supermarket just west of the Pacific Ocean, I parked and entered feeling confident and wifely. Fresh vegetables and fruit were a snap, I just selected what I wanted – no conversation needed other than an infrequent “permiso” if I wanted to get by another woman. Other than the workers there wasn’t a man in sight. A handful of Serrano peppers and the divine Mexican tomatoes and a large white (really white) onion – the three basic ingredients of salsa needed to make a meal complete – were easy to scoop up and put in the basket. I started to feel at home. Certainly easier than running a New York City public relations & marketing agency – this life seemed to be a snap.

Off to the deli counter to order some cheese – I just needed a bit but suddenly realized that the only weight for sliced goods that I had learned was “un quarto.” But a quarter of what? A pound, a kilo, I had no idea. Soon enough I had a quarter kilo of soft creamy ricotta-like cheese, enough for the entire convent located just across the street from my home.

Standing still in the middle of the aisle – sneering looks coming at me like arrows – my black jeans and t-shirt obviously inappropriate in the middle of the day – was I the only woman in the market wearing pants? I considered the in-store bakery or the panaderia closer to home and probably fresher. But the 112ยบ heat of the day was fast approaching – it was past Noon – lunch didn’t begin until 2pm – there was no way to leave the groceries in the car without the air-conditioning and so the bakery a few aisles over was my next destination. It was easy enough to order cuatro bolillos – the soft crusty rolls that the middle and upper classes ate with meals instead of tortillas.

Now for the challenging part of the expedition, ordering the chicken from the butcher. Time and again I had watched my husband (now my ex) order skinless, boneless chicken breasts. Waiting my turn I practiced in my head, “por favor, dos pechugas des pollo, sin hueso y sin piel,” I chanted. Soon I was up at bat and repeated the phrase I had committed to memory. The butcher smiled and nodded. I murmured “gracias” as he handed me the package wrapped in neat white paper. Score! I had done the shopping and was soon in line to check-out. Who says a New York Jewess couldn’t move to a rural town in Mexico, learn the language and chill out while making lunch for her new husband? I was queen of my world and couldn’t wait to return home and start cooking.

Arriving home I quickly stowed my bounty in the refrigerator and took Chloe, my shih-tzu for a walk – my best friend in this desolate town –she deserved this and so much more. The hum of women cooking and the luscious aromas sailing out of kitchen windows was around us challenged only by the bougainvillea that grew like a majestic weed throughout Mexico. For the first time in weeks my breath was unlabored and the anxiety that had become my constant companion seemed to abate.

Back home I removed from the refrigerator the items necessary to make lunch, starting the water boiling for rice and washing the vegetables and fruit. It was then that I discovered the secret of the white wrapped paper package – I had a bag of bones and skin – not a sliver of chicken breast in sight. Tears rolling down my face I thought of calling my mother but our phone hadn’t been installed yet (this took 3 months and $2,500 to accomplish). What to do?

There wasn’t enough time to run back to the supermarket, I needed to make a meal now. I then heard the soft singing of our housekeeper, she came daily and usually was in and out so quietly I hardly knew she was around. I found her in the master bedroom changing the sheets. She looked at me and said, “Si Senora?” But I found myself struck dumb, could I tell her what I needed? I had failed miserably at buying lunch, what made me think I could explain this to her and ask her advice. Pulling myself together, I muttered through tears the dilemma. A smile spread across her face as she announced, “cuando tiene piel y huesos hay solamente una causa que puede hacer, sopa de pollo.” Of course, chicken soup, why didn’t I think of that?

A pot, some water, the skin, bones, onions, tomato, cilantro, salt, pepper and the stock was boiling. When the rice was finished I tossed this into the soup pot, stirred and added a little more salt. I cut tortillas into strips and toasted them. Avocado cut into chunks, grated white cheese. Now it was time to set the table, an extraordinary wood and glass dining set that had been a wedding present from my husband’s friends at work. Chop the Serranos trying not to rub my eyes as I excavated each and every seed, then mixed with chopped onion and tomato and a sprinkling of fresh cilantro. Lunch was nearly finished as the key turned in the door.

Many months later I told my husband the tale of the first lunch I made totally on my own. Just one of many insane or hilarious, or were they insanely hilarious moments, that peppered my time in Mexico, not only a country away from the United States but a world away from my culture, my city, my beloved New York.

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