Paving the road to nowhere, one word at a time.

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Location: Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico

American born, living in Mexico since 1992.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Moving Along

The house is empty again, just Rocio and Anna and me. It’s nice. Rocio’s brother, one she had never before met, flew into town on Friday with his wife and two children. Monday was the departure day. It was perfect. Most days are perfect days in Baja, but Monday was more perfect than most. I realize this implies that perfection is measured rather than achieved. South of the border, perhaps this is true.

"So, how do you like our weather here in Baja?" I asked Julio right before he climbed into a ride to the airport back to Mexico City.

He looked up, looked around. It was eighty degrees. The wind was warm and nice and it caressed his skin as he looked back at me. "Amazing," he said, in Spanish of course. They took him to the airport and they are back in Mexico City, in the Distrito Federal, Mexico’s version of the District of Columbia. Julio is a bodyguard there. He is the most unlikely bodyguard I have ever met.

Julio’s wife, Alma, is reserved and somewhat demure, unlike her husband who is sometimes brash and provocative. Their children, a girl of eleven and a boy of thirteen were very well behaved but incredibly curious kids. Twice I had to shoo them from my office. Several times they would wander into the kitchen while I cooked, watching me perform the simplest of tasks and prepping food, asking me what I was doing at every step until I poked my head into the living room and shot Rocio a glance that was meant for her to come and fetch them away.

Their visit went well but was not without several glitches.

* * * *

When you marry a Mexican, you marry their entire family, lock, stock and barrel. This was no allusion to me when I married Rocio, I knew what I was getting into and I embraced it – and I’m not at all sorry for making that decision. American families are often splintered, in that other than the immediate brother or sister and parents and grandparents, one can go decades between meeting cousins and aunts and uncles and so on. In Mexico, this is normally not the case. Some of Rocio’s family is the exception rather than the rule, I seem to find out very new connections every few years or so.

With Rocio, it was initially her two kids, her parents, and her sister who was nine when we met. That sister is now a psychologist. Juan, my son because I raised him and I’m proud to call him my son, is now a veteran of the United States Army. Sharon, my daughter for the same reason, is set to marry and living with her boyfriend Jose. Rocio’s parents are retired now. Rocio and me have a sixteen-year-old named Anna. This is what time does - it moves things along.

Rocio has a brother named Ricardo, considered a bit of a black sheep, and I have known him for many years. I gave him money for a house, which he still lives in, because otherwise who knows where he would be now. He comes over sometimes, now that his kids are grown and gone. He sells ice cream and seems much happier than before, when he worked in factories and as a plumber and did whatever else he did for coinage years ago. Rocio has had many issues with Ricardo over the years.

While it might seem out of the question that Rocio would have issues with her brother Julio, since they had never met, there was one conversation that would take place between them – in private – that would open a family wound almost forty years old. This is what happens.

* * * *

On Friday, Rocio had come home from work early as I stood in the kitchen prepping hamburgers, which was what Rocio wanted me to cook on the first night. Juan was off attending his next-to-last Army Reserve weekend assignment and would return on Sunday. Rocio’s sister and mother, and Sharon and her boyfriend had taken separate cars to the airport to pick up the guests and their luggage. Rocio was nervous, picking at Anna, annoying me, while trying to sit still on the couch.

The first car rolled up containing the children, and ten minutes later in walked Julio and Alma. He wasn’t what I expected in size and stature, I thought that it was odd for a bodyguard to be seemingly physically inferior to my own frame and found myself thinking that even approaching fifty years old I could probably take him on. After the obligatory hugs, handshakes, and introductions, Julio broke out a bottle of tequila. I will confess that it is the smoothest tequila I’ve ever had.

There were over a dozen in the living room, ostensibly catching up, but Julio was insisting on being the center of attention. When he wasn’t, he would wander into the kitchen and annoy me, insisting that I raise my tequila in a toast. Rocio would then rescue me, but it slowed dinner. Julio had a difficult time wrapping his head around the fact that I was cooking dinner while Rocio relaxed and chatted. It would get worse before it got better.

After the hamburgers and fries, we killed the tequila and continued with beer until everyone finally got tired. Rocio’s parents and Sharon and Jose left, Julio and Alma and the kids went to sleep, and so did everyone else. It was after midnight. Except that I then awoke before three in the morning and stared at the ceiling. I got up and dressed and came downstairs. I came into my office and fired up the computer, learning through my mother’s email that my father was in the hospital.

* * * *

At five in the morning I looked at the kitchen. It was a mess. I knew that our guests were running on an internal clock that was two hours ahead of us. I washed the dishes. Julio came downstairs at a quarter after six and I made him some coffee while he scolded me for doing dishes. Who else was going to do them? They would want breakfast soon.

I excused myself and went to the store, and when I returned, Julio and Alma were dressed.

"We’re going for a walk," Julio said, and they left.

Meanwhile Rocio came down and I shrugged. "They don’t even know Tijuana," I told her. "They’ll get lost." Rocio laughed a little bit. Apparently, she wasn’t getting along with Julio as well as she expected.

The second time they passed by our house, I noticed them and had Rocio go track them down while I diced potatoes. They entered, having found our local panadería and the wonderful breads and rolls therein, and having purchased some chocolate tablets at another store to make atóle. My kitchen would be hijacked for almost an hour. I went back into my office and answered my mother’s email.

Apparently, my father was admitted for a case of pneumonia. He tested negative for flu, so they had him on antibiotics. In the course of the treatment, they discovered his heart rate racing to above one hundred and fifty beats per minute, and rushed in cardio equipment. They didn’t find the cause of the accelerated heart beat, but brought it down to near normal levels with drugs.

Back in the kitchen at last, I fried up some bacon in one pan and the diced potatoes in oil in another pan. I kept them warm in the oven while poaching twenty eggs and steaming a couple pounds of small, peeled and de-veined shrimp. At the end I made a Mornay sauce with cheddar and Monterey jack cheese, and finely diced some cilantro while Anna made toast with butter. The presentation was simple; two poached eggs and a few shrimp on the toast with a ladle of Mornay sauce on top, sprinkled with a touch of the chopped cilantro, bacon and potatoes to one side.

By this time, the house was full again, and when Julio finished his breakfast he came into the kitchen and asked if I was a chef. I laughed. I admitted that I was self-taught. I’m not sure that Julio believed that.

Now full and quite appreciative, everyone went up the hill to Rocio’s parents’ house for a few hours, which allowed Rocio and me to nap. When I woke up, Rocio was doing dishes so I grabbed Anna and we went to the store. Saturday night would be what I consider my signature dish, stuffed chicken breasts with chipótle glaze. Very little rest for the weary.

* * * *

Back at home, I wrapped potatoes in foil and stuck them into the oven and Rocio was there.

"So, what’s your first impressions?"

"Not very good," Rocio growled. "He’s always the center of attention. He’s loud and sometimes insulting. While you’re in the kitchen cooking, he’s scolding me in front of everyone for not cooking, accusing our house of being upside down."

"He’s a chilango, what did you expect? He isn’t any different than any other chilango I’ve ever met," I said.

By the time they came back, I had already cooked the chorizo and ground beef mixture with finely diced onions and minced garlic and had drained the grease. Anna was finished grating the cheeses. I was making butterfly-cut pockets in the raw chicken breasts. Julio was too curious to remain in the living room with what had now become about twenty people, including Rocio’s other brother, Ricardo and his wife. Julio watched me stuff a chicken breast with two tablespoons of the chorizo mixture. Next came two slices of cream cheese. Then came a teaspoon each of grated Monterey Jack and sharp cheddar.

It took between three and four thin slices of raw smoked bacon to completely wrap each breast. Liquefying in a blender, a small can of chipótle chiles in adobo with a small can of red chile sauce, and adding a little garlic and onion and salt made the chipótle glaze. With the stuffed chicken breasts in a foil-lined pan, the glaze is spread over the top using a brush or a pastry spatula. Everything is baked for one hour at three hundred and seventy five degrees. It gave me plenty of time to prepare the second batch.

"Cut this batch in half, most people can’t eat a whole one anyway, they’re too rich," I told Rocio.

"I know," she agreed.

"If anyone wants seconds, they’ll have to wait a while, there wasn’t any room in the over for two batches at once, I didn’t expect quite this many people until tomorrow."

They ate the stuffed chicken breasts and baked potatoes and corn, except that Julio demanded warmed tortillas from Rocio. Rocio offered buttered bread, which is more typical, but Julio would have none of it. I could see Rocio coming undone. She served him tortillas, mumbling under her breath. The second batch finally came out, but mostly everyone was stuffed by then.

After dinner, Rocio and Julio stepped outside to have a lengthy conversation. I wouldn’t find out about it until Monday. When they came back in, everyone drank beer and wine and seemed to try and get along the best they could. I had promised Julio to take him with me in the morning when I went downtown to the Tijuana fish markets, that we would stop by and grab a good coffee and then open the Perico at ten in the morning. Then we would visit the Dandy del Sur, and he could take those memories with him back to Mexico City.

I told him that nine in the morning was a good time to leave, and he insisted on seven o’clock. Rocio’s father had enough. He didn’t say anything, he simply asked Sharon’s boyfriend Jose to take him and his wife home. I looked at Rocio and shrugged. They would be back tomorrow and everyone else was spending the night. I went to sleep at midnight and awoke at six thirty on Sunday morning.

* * * *

I paced the floor that morning, drank two cups of coffee and waited. Julio did not come downstairs. Finally, at a quarter ‘till nine, I went upstairs and woke up Rocio.

"Your brother isn’t up yet, and it’s almost nine o’clock. I’m ready to leave without him."

Rocio struggled to open her eyes. "You want me to wake him up?"

"That’s up to you. I’m leaving at nine-fifteen, regardless," I said.

I came back downstairs and opened a beer, thinking about two hours that I could’ve been sleeping. Rocio came down in her robe.

"He’s showering now," she said.

"Nine fifteen, I’m leaving, regardless."

The plan was that I would come back with Julio and the fish and shrimp at around twelve thirty, and then Rocio would take them to Playas so they could see the Pacific Ocean this far north, and they would visit Elizabeth and her husband. I read my email while I waited, my father’s pneumonia seemed to be getting better but the drugs were making him hallucinate at times. There would be more time in the hospital. If I inherited two things from my father it was some sort of ability to cook and an extreme dislike of hospitals.

When Julio and me left and found a route cab, he was quiet. I pointed out all kinds of landmarks and changes in all of my years in Tijuana. Where Rocio worked when we met, roads and bridges that didn’t exist, anything and everything that occurred to me. It was a change in Julio that I never predicted.

We got a coffee in Centro a quarter before ten and walked around, I pointed out different places and went on about how there was virtually no tourism anymore, in a town that was built on it. Most of the closed shops wouldn’t open. We walked over to the Perico and waited. It was ten o’clock, and as another older gringo had approached, waiting with us, I peered in through the locked screen door.

"Todavia no está la cantinera," came the voice, sweeping up last night’s festivities.

The older gringo asked me what she said and I told her that apparently, the bartender hadn’t shown up for work yet. We both laughed at the idea that it would require some otherwise unknown skill to pour a draught beer. I tried to include Julio in the conversation by translating, but he was quiet. The cantinera then showed up and we all went inside with a couple of louder types and drank a beer.

After the Perico, where Julio probably didn’t say any more than five words, I took him down to the Dandy del Sur where it is usually more quiet. But apparently the Dandy had remained open all night and about a dozen remained from the night before. This didn’t faze Julio. We watched some American football and drank two beers and a scotch each. I couldn’t believe how quiet he was.

At noon, I paid the tab and we went down to the fresh fish market and I bought four kilos of angelfish and a kilo each of jumbo and large shrimp. We took the route along Boulevard Diaz Órdaz and again I pointed out landmarks, the missing bullring, the bridge over cinco y diez, and so on. By the time we came home, Rocio and Alma were finishing up with the dishes. Julio went upstairs to change clothing and Alma followed him, and Rocio then asked me how it went.

"You wouldn’t believe it," I said. "Julio was so quiet, I don’t even think he uttered a dozen words. He was like a completely different person."

* * * *

The great thing about Baja fish tacos is that nine pounds of fish will serve a lot of people. The cream sauce should be made first, with a two-to-one ration of mayonnaise to sour cream, a splash of white vinegar, and stir well. Add milk in order to thin it to the point where it drips off of the spoon and refrigerate it. Your favorite red sauce can either be purchased or made by cooking dry chiles de arbol and California, combined with some cooked red jalapeños, a little salt and some garlic.

Batter is simple. Three cups of flour and two tablespoons of baking powder are combined with a tablespoon of salt and a tablespoon of crushed oregano, and a teaspoon each of black pepper and cayenne pepper. Add a good hard squirt of mustard and a beer and beat it into a batter adding two more cans of beer until smooth and drippy. The fish should be cut into pieces about one and a half inches by four inches and battered and deep-fried until golden brown.

Complimented by finely sliced cabbage and chopped cilantro and perhaps some avocado slices, the cream sauce and the red sauce go on last. By the time they came back from Playas, everything was prepped, including the jumbo shrimp which I would cook in a style called mojo de ajo, which is simply in olive oil and unsalted butter with garlic. I was warned that Julio and his family did not particularly like fish (but they enjoyed shrimp, go figure), but I assured them that there was nothing fishy about fish tacos done this way. Twenty-four people showed up that evening, including Juan and his girlfriend and several of their friends.

By the time everything was over, I was exhausted. The shrimp was gone quickly, and even though there was a lot of fish left over, we went through almost two kilos, four and a half pounds of tortillas. A huge bowl of cream sauce was devoured, along with almost two heads of cabbage and a dozen avocados. Apparently, not liking fish doesn’t apply to Baja fish tacos. I stepped outside to have a beer or two with the men, and then I went to bed and slept better than I’ve slept in years.

When I awoke in the morning I nudged Rocio awake.

"Time for you to take care of them. Have Juan take everyone out to get tacos de birria."

They went while I drank coffee and got further news about my father. The pneumonia was better, the heartbeat still baffled the hospital staff. The drugs still affected his sense of reality sometimes, he was in and out of it. My father does not do well in hospitals.

When they returned, they took off again for one last excursion with Rocio, to go shopping. The flight left at five o’clock, which meant they had to be there at four, and had to leave at three. Everyone gathered right before three on Monday afternoon. There were hugs for those of us staying behind, and most loaded into two cars and took off to the airport. I had survived it nicely, but waited for Rocio to get home to find out what had happened.

* * * *

Apparently, Julio had tried to convince Rocio that the aunt that had raised him was right about everything. Rocio pointed out to Julio that he was only four years old at the time that everything had happened. They argued. Rocio finally told him that she wasn’t about to forgive and forget. She told Julio that they were brother and sister, no matter what, but that the side of the family that raised him was his alone. Apparently, they found some common ground in that they agreed to disagree and keep that one branch of the family tree intact, regardless.

Also apparently, when Julio was a very young man, his mother – Rocio’s mother – had made a trip to Mexico City and asked to see him. He was rude, finally meeting with her and then excusing himself, saying that he didn’t have time. This is his own mother, I can’t imagine. When he had gone up the hill on Saturday, he took his mother aside and apologized. He made it right with her.

Last night, everyone was finally gone, and I turned to Rocio and asked her about all of it. She told me all about what happened.

"Did you bury it, did you finally bury Rio Balsas?"

She thought for a few moments. "I am learning. Little by little," she said.

Rocio took off her glasses and looked at me. She didn’t know what else to say.

"Good night, baby," I told her.

"Good night," she said. "I know it’s over. I’ll get through it."

This is what happens. This is what time does – it moves things along. Like a river, like what happened at Rio Balsas. These things are always moving along.


Blogger Joshua said...

This posting made me very much talk of food.

5:34 PM, December 11, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

jushua needs more about his grandfather then food john dodd

7:06 PM, December 30, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

dave how are you talking to you xmas day was great it was worth the los of sleep love john

7:11 PM, December 30, 2009  

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