Sunday, November 18, 2018

Blessing the Carnitas



Held on the second weekend of November, The Blessing of the Horses or La Bendición de Los Caballos in San Martin de Terreros will be the most memorable experience of our month in central Mexico as it was ten years ago. I’m jumping the gun with a week left in our trip, but I’d make book on it. During the thousands of Blessings that are given the village of San Martin swells from 695 people to 60,000. It’s a sea of cars, campers, busses and tents. The cacophony of the massive mercado that leads to the church is an assault on the senses, overwhelming you with the sounds and smells of football fields full of gimcracks and foodstuffs and a crush of humanity that jostles you all the way to the church. 

In Mexico San Martin is called San Martin Caballero (Saint Martin Horseman) and is Mexico’s cowboy saint.


For days cowboys and girls ride across the campo for religious and temporal pleasures. A constant stream of riders can be seen along the highway as they seek blessings in San Martin and as they ride home to their ranchos strewn across El Bajio, the vast central plain of Mexico.




In Europe he is Saint Martin of Tour, a former Roman Centurion, monk and the Bishop of Tour. Saint Martin was born in Hungary in the early 300s and was conscripted into the Roman army as a young man. It was during his time as a soldier that he came across a half-naked beggar. According to legend he gave the beggar half of his red cape and that night dreamed that the unfortunate soul was an incarnation of Jesus. The next day he left the Roman legion to become a monk. Later, he became the bishop of Tour and devoted his life to the needy. When he died, he was buried with the remnants of his cape or capilla in Italian. Capilla became the word that means chapel in Spanish.

As in 2008 we were the only Anglos at the Blessing of the Horses. Why is a mystery. Though I suppose it’s a matter of pride to know you are the very special and intrepid travelers who have braved the hordes for a taste of the real Mexico.


There are many schools of thought about travel. There is the first-class option of four-star hotels and guided tours which, in my opinion, insulate you from the people and the culture and from the tastes and experiences that define a place. More meaningful is a step or two above steerage where you partake of life like a local. The case can be made that a blend of the approaches is ideal but if you don't get some downmarket reality you really haven't seen the place. I like a first-class experience as much as the next guy especially on the dining front. Yet, why is it that the dining experiences that we find most memorable where those enjoyed shoulder to shoulder with locals in their establishments of choice.

When I queried Peggy and Bob about their best or, better said, most memorable dining experience of the visit, Bob said it was the roast chicken with beans, rice, pico de gallo, fresh cilantro and homemade corn tortillas at an open-air restaurant under a tent at the Blessing of the Horses in San Martin. It was during that repast that I had the second of my honest to God Mexican Cokes. Those are the Coca Colas made with cane sugar not corn syrup. The last time I had one of those you needed a prescription for the stuff. The lunch in San Martin, I submit, was special because we had been transported into an alternative universe, temporary city of Mexicans celebrating La Bendición de Los Caballos. And to think we would have missed the event if I hadn’t seen riders traversing San Miguel de Allende the previous day. Sometimes you just get lucky.

I will go back in order to tell the story of the jaw dropping extravaganza. I find myself wanting to camp there but may not have the huevos.

In a similar spirit, Peggy said her favorite meal was the carnitas with all the trimmings at a plastic and Naugahyde establishment called Restaurant Carnitas Vicente across the street from the movie theatre in Dolores Hidalgo. Our guide Carlos who had led us through the village of Atotonilco in the morning asked if we wanted to eat in Atotonilco or up the road in Dolores. Thankfully we voted for Dolores. I’m a serious carnitas fan. It’s the dish I order at least once a week at Guadalajara Grill in Taos. But Vicente’s carnitas are in another league. At the front door of Vicente’s shrine to braised pork is a huge copper-bottomed cauldron in which pork butt is slowly simmered in lard. When the lard has melted, spices are added, and the meat is simmered till it can be pulled apart or chopped. When you go, as I know you will, be sure to ask for the ribs. They are the not so secret star of the show and are among the best things I’ve ever eaten.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Mas o Menos



We travelled to San Miguel de Allende, Travel and Leisure Magazine’s Best City in the World the last two years, so we’d be here for the raucous and colorful celebration of those who have left our midst. Just as it was ten years ago Los Dias de los Muertos were loud, crowded and memorable. To be at the El Jardin at night is to experience a Times Square New Year’s Eve in miniature.



The Spanish Colonial bones of the splendid city of 75,000 haven’t changed since we visited ten years ago. The historic buildings are still standing and assiduously protected, and San Miguel is still a Pueblo according our guide Carlos. The designation Ciudad or city is reserved for real sprawl. Yet, the pueblo bonito has become busier and more touristy and not for the better according to me. As a plodding student of the Spanish language, speaking the local lingo is an even less necessary than it was a decade ago. And so, I’d point you to Antigua, Guatemala for more immersion, better instruction, fewer English speakers and a cultural experience that rivals San Miguel. Smaller, more intimate and more comfortable for, dare I say, two thirds the price.

About four days into this visit I was touristed out. To quote the immortal Peggy Immel, “I get tired of wandering around looking at shit.” The woman has a way with words.

My sense of place comes from being in the culture not just an observer of it. It’s the reason that, like Bourdain, my fondest memories come from a food cart or a counter in the public market for a massive Cubano sandwich with every meat known to man including slices of hot dog. Need I mention that two of those suckers and two Boing fruit drinks set you back six bucks.

And to the subject of cost, depending on how you eat and drink, prices in the old Pueblo are creeping toward those of the US of A though an eight-course prix fixe dinner at the elegant Moxi in the Hotel Matilda was just $65. That’s half of a similar repast north of the border I’d say. But there may be more million-dollar homes in San Miguel than Santa Fe and that foretells something insidious.

When I look around in Spanish school, in better restaurants, galleries and music venues everybody is me, white and old. Might as well have stayed in Taos by that measure.

The drone of stores left me in shock by day four and our palatial if worn digs are just far enough up an unrelenting hill to make going to El Centro and back a workout and then some. My idea of a neighborhood is walking a couple of blocks for a baguette or a pastry, for a leisurely breakfast or a convivial drop in bar. Here it’s a twenty-minute proposition. Good thing taxis are cheap and plentiful. It’s roughly 60 pesos or $3.25 to downtown or back. Still Peggy and I try to walk to and from El Jardin unless it’s late night or we’re packing groceries.

Our neighborhood, Atascadero, is a kind of Gringo Gulch. It’s so Anglicized that there’s a croquet lawn at the top of the hill and half of the people we meet on the dreaded hill say “hello” not Buenos Dias.

Music has been a highlight of our trip so far. Our housemate, Bob Dempsey, made reservations to see the world class guitarist Gil Gutierrez and his trio play at the Instituto Allende the night after we arrived in San Miguel. We were excited to see Gutierrez whom we first heard play in 2008. Ten years ago we went to hear him thinking he’d be playing with Doc Severinsen, Johnny Carson’s long-time band leader but Severinson was ill. Still we were treated to an otherworldly musical performance sin Doc but with Señor Cartas, Gutierrez's partner at the time.

This time Gutierrez was joined by a jazz violinist and a drummer both from Mexico City and a bassist from San Miguel. Each was outstanding. Bob and our other housemate, Jamie Hindman, said they’d never heard a better musical performance anywhere and those dudes have seen it all.

Then on the second night of Los Dias de Los Muertos we sat on the tile floor of the Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel to hear an orchestra and choir from Mexico City perform Mozart’s Requiem. That's the night that I almost got in a fight with a rude French jerk who tried to muscle a spot next to Peggy. I can see the headline now, "Elderly gringo clocks arrogant frog during Mozart performance."

Another night we watched a Flamenco troop in full Day of the Dead regalia dance, play and sing at Teatro Angela Peralta. Suffice it to say, there are more diversions in San Miguel than my simple mind and spirit can accommodate.

Until yesterday, we’ve had a paucity of time to just be. For me that’s writing, photographing and exercising. I’ve run exactly once, lifted precisely zero and that makes Steve a snippy SOB. It was the first time I felt I was “in” San Miguel and not watching a piece of performance art. I walked down to northeast corner of El Jardin for a breakfast of jugo de naranja, café Americano and Huevos Otomí, scrambled eggs in a white bean soup, I first tasted it in 2008 with my friend Lindsey Enderby and he never fails to mention it when we talk about San Miguel. This one’s for you, amigo.



Monday, November 05, 2018

Leather and Sinew




Sorry everybody. We haven’t had internet since Saturday morning meaning that I missed my first blog post in something like 12 years. That’s a little like getting the first ding on your new car. The next time will be easier.

I’m taking a small break from the string of posts that will allegedly be woven into a memoir before I croak. So, today a couple of street portraits are my feeble effort.

These sinewy gents were standing in front of the Mercado Publico a couple of blocks northeast of the Jardin. The Jardin or garden is the epicenter of San Miguel. The soul of the enchanting Spanish Colonial pueblo radiates out from its manicured beauty.

For you gearheads, these were a product of my oh so handy Sony RX100 Vl. Pretty happy with that bad boy.