Category Archives: January 2021
By Jane Bauer
“Cows are amongst the gentlest of breathing creatures; none show more passionate tenderness to their young when deprived of them; and, in short, I am not ashamed to profess a deep love for these quiet creatures.”
Thomas de Quincey
As we have done for the past four years, the theme for our January issue follows the Chinese New Year. We are entering the Year of the Ox, which hopefully will be better for humanity than 2020’s Year of the Rat.
When I was in India last year, cows wandered the streets as stray dogs do in Mexico. They would approach me and nudge my hand with their head to be petted. These encounters filled me with a strange combination of bliss and sadness. When I returned to Mexico, I went to see some land with a man from my village. There were three cows there and, fresh from my India experience, I approached one and placed my hand on its forehead. Our eyes met and the cow responded to my touch by moving its head towards me. The man who had brought me there looked on quizzically; it was clear he thought I was ridiculous.
So often we overlook the charms of animals that have been domesticated for consumption. As we do with humans, there is a definite hierarchy when it comes to how we dole out our concern for animals. Afterall, I have often made the sassy comment that when people come to a Mexican village and ‘rescue’ a dog, why do they leave the chickens behind? I am being facetious, of course, and this is not a plea that everyone should stop eating meat and welcome chickens into their living rooms (don’t- they are very messy!). I just find it interesting to contemplate how we collectively seem to decide on this hierarchy, and also how it differs from culture to culture.
While I was growing up my mother had a painting that hung in the kitchen of a woman with her hand extended to a cow. Perhaps that is where my fascination came from.
I hope you enjoy this issue. Putting out the magazine has been such a gift during this season when we are separated from so many of our loved ones.
Thank you to the amazing writers, contributors, advertisers and readers who make this possible!
See you in February,
How Cattle Survive Canada’s Harsh Climate
By Jack Vander Byl
Reading the title, you’re probably thinking about the severe cold weather we Canadians get in January and February, and how cold it must be for cows to be outside. Not so. On a cold, clear, sunny day in January at 30°C below 0, our beef cows are happily lying on the snow chewing their cuds. Their protection from the cold comes with their birth. Calves born in the late fall arrive with a thick hair coat and ready for winter. The rest of the cattle in the herd also grow a thick hair coat for the winter. In the spring, the cattle start rubbing against whatever they can find to slough off this winter coat: fences, trees, buildings, etc. Then they are ready for summer.
Calves that are born in the springtime, however, come with a very slight haircoat to help them cope with the severe heat of plus 30°C summer days. And how do cattle cope with those very hot summer days? They do their grazing early in the morning and in the evening, spending the rest of the day lying in the shade of any big old tree they can find and chewing their cuds. Yes, everything a cow eats, she regurgitates and chews it 70 more times to break it into smaller particles that get passed on down to her other 3 stomachs.
On cold, clear winter days cattle cope very well as long as there is no wind. But if you add some strong wind, cold rain or a severe snowstorm to the cold, the cows eat quickly and head to shelter to chew their cuds. In our case – we’re in eastern Ontario – we have a lean-to on the south side of the main barn so the cows can get out of the wind and snow. A windbreak will also do nicely. If they don’t have a building they can shelter in, they will head to the bush, preferably a cedar bush which gives excellent protection from the wind. If nothing is available, the cattle will form a circle with the calves in the centre to protect them and cows around the outside packed in close together so only their behinds are exposed to the wind, taking turns being on the outside of the ring.
When I joined a veterinary practice in 1975, the dairy cattle in eastern Ontario were all housed in barns of 30 to 70 milk cows. The barns were all packed tight with cattle and not very well ventilated. Cows give off a lot of heat and the barns became too hot for the cows. As a result, we treated a lot of pneumonia in our dairy cows. The farmers were happy because the barns were very comfortable to work in, but the cows are very comfortable at 0°C.
During the summer, the cows had gone to pasture every day during the summer but spent most of the day lying under the trees to get shade. If they were left on pasture too late in the fall, they started to grow a winter hair coat and then the farmers had a big job to clip all the hair off so they wouldn’t overheat in the warm barns.
Gradually, things changed. Ventilation in the barns improved, and milk production improved as the cows were kept in a cooler environment. So now, all new barns have open sides with a curtain that can be pulled up in the worst of winter; the barns are generally just above freezing – good for the cows but not so good for the farmers and veterinarians who have to work with them. During the summer, these barns have massive fans that move air through the barns very rapidly and cool off the cows. Dairy cows do not go outside anymore.
So, even though the Canadian climate may be harsh, cattle will adapt, as long as they have water to drink and enough food to eat.
Jack Vander Byl is a retired large animal veterinarian who now enjoys helping out at his son’s beef cattle farm in Eastern Ontario.
OXXO – What’s Behind the Ox in the Room?
By Brooke Gazer
With eight locations in Huatulco, OXXO signs seem to be multiplying like a squad of bunnies all across Mexico. Who are they and where are they from?
In 1977, the first OXXO stores opened in Monterrey, selling mainly beer, snacks and cigarettes. The name originated with a stylized logo that resembled a shopping cart. Two diagonally stacked XX’s formed the frame of the cart, and the O’s on either end looked like wheels. Before long OXXO expanded its inventory to compete with the 7-Eleven international chain, which had opened its first Mexican store in Monterrey in 1971.
Brandishing a simplified logo, OXXO now boasts in excess of 18,000 convenience stores across Mexico, and the chain is rapidly expanding throughout Latin America. It is estimated that OXXO serves 13 million customers daily. If convenience stores were part of a farm, OXXO would be the Ox – the biggest animal and the one who controls the most pasture.
The OXXO brand is owned by FEMSA (Fomento Económico Mexicano, S.A.B. de C.V.), the fifth-largest company in Mexico. FEMSA has far-reaching tentacles into a vast number of other companies in Mexico and throughout much of Latin America. It is the second-largest Coca-Cola bottler in the world; Del Valle fruit juice is also bottled under the Coca-Cola brand. FEMSA owns 20% of The Heineken Company’s international operations, including Cervecería Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma, a major Mexican major brewery, which means FEMSA controls sales and operations of not only Heineken Beer, but Dos Equis, Sol, Tecate, Bohemia, Superior, Carta Blanca Indio, and Noche Buena. It might be safe to assume that all the beverages inside the refrigerated wall of the OXXO stores are controlled by FEMSA. But this mega corporation also has a refrigeration division, so it is likely that the coolers belong to FEMSA as well.
Solistica, another branch of FEMSA, controls much of the beverage distribution in Mexico, moving its brands from production to warehouse to point of sale locations such as OXXO and its competitors.
A favored location for OXXO stores is adjacent to gas stations, so FEMSA has been a major franchisee of Pemex stations. When Mexico reformed the laws that ended Pemex’s monopoly on petroleum, FEMSA began investing in this sector as well. OXXO Gas has yet to arrive in the state of Oaxaca, but there are over three hundred OXXO gas stations dotting the rest of the map of Mexico. In the past, the government set the price of fuel through Pemex, but could FEMSA trucks buy their own fuel at a discount?
The little beer store OXXO has come a long, long way in just over forty years, and they continue to expand their services. It is estimated that about sixty percent of Mexicans have no bank account – OXXO saw a tremendous opportunity. They introduced computer scanning software that allows anyone to plunk down cash and pay for goods bought online, partnering with retailers like Amazon and Mercado Libre. Like VISA, OXXO charges a percentage to the merchant, and they add ten pesos to the buyer’s purchase price. Even those with bank accounts might find this service useful. You can deposit cash into someone’s bank account simply by giving the receiving person’s bank card number. For a mere ten pesos, it’s quicker, easier, and more accessible than going to the bank.
Without question, OXXO is a convenient place to stop for a snack or a drink. It is easy to spot these ubiquitous outlets and they have so much to offer. I’ve used the payment option myself when my bank card was being uncooperative. But I worry, just a bit, when one firm has so much control over a market. It’s practically impossible for independently owned stores to compete with these clean, well-lit, well-stocked convenience stores. But when the company also controls the product and its distribution, it is no longer an even playing field. Yes, the customer wins – at the moment. But what if they became the only game in town?
Brooke Gazer operates Agua Azul la Villa, an ocean-view B&B in Huatulco (www.bbaguaazul.com).
By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken
The term “sacred cow” and the related expression “holy cow!” probably derive from the reverence Hindus pay to these ubiquitous bovines in India. One lasting memory shared by almost all travelers to India is the sight of cows placidly winding their way through dense vehicular traffic. And most also can easily recall the omnipresent smell of cow dung being burned for cooking and warmth by people living on city streets throughout India.
The cow was also considered holy in ancient Egypt and in other religions that emerged in the Middle East. “New world” religious beliefs, including those of the indigenous peoples of pre-Hispanic Mexico, were for the most part pantheistic and designated specific animals as possessing supernatural powers. However, in those days, cows were unheard of in Mexico.
Many of the indigenous residents of the western hemisphere shared a reverence for the serpent, as can be seen when exploring archeological digs throughout Mexico and Central America. The Mayans also attributed divine powers to creatures that bridged the heavens and the earth – bats, owls, hummingbirds and eagles. Anyone who has risked claustrophobia and climbed up into the inner recess of the temple of Kukulcán in Chichen Itza has also come face to face with another Mayan sacred animal – the red jaguar.
The introduction of Christianity into the western world essentially attempted to wipe out indigenous civilizations’ pantheistic beliefs and their sacred views of animals. Although Christianity refers to Jesus as the lamb of God and represents the Holy Spirit as a dove, the Christian view of the nature of animals is firmly planted in the monotheistic doctrine of Judaism.
The Hebrew scriptures, also called the Bible or the Old Testament, were explicitly written in opposition to the doctrines and beliefs of surrounding religions. The opening chapters of Genesis depict humans as far superior to animals. While oxen are mentioned at least fifty times in the Bible, they are always described as a possession of men. The Bible includes commandments to be kind to oxen – for example, not to muzzle them when they are used for threshing, never to use them for plowing in tandem with a less strong animal, and to allow them to rest on the Sabbath. But humans are viewed as responsible for the actions of oxen, and no doubt is left that humans are in charge of all animals.
Not only is there no holy cow in the Bible, but on the contrary any animals considered sacred by foreign religions are expressly depicted unfavorably. Consider the serpent in the Garden of Eden, a memorably evil fellow if there ever was one. And remember that worship of a golden calf is described as one of the most grievous actions committed by the ancient Israelites.
Admittedly some animals are featured in the Bible in a more or less positive light. A storied talking donkey could see an angel while his master Balaam was blind to the angelic presence. A yearly practice to alleviate Israelites from their sins involved placing the sins on a goat and exiling it off to the desert – the original scapegoat. And some bovines were designated to serve as sacrifices to expiate for sins.
For Jews who eat only kosher food, cattle are favored animals, as long as they are certified as slaughtered humanly and handled properly in food preparation. Remarkably, since Mesoamerica was unknown to those who wrote these dietary rules, the eagle, the owl, the bat, the serpent and the jaguar are not kosher and are never eaten. Of course, the prohibition against consuming them is unrelated to their sacred status in this formerly unknown world.
Christianity in general, and particularly the Catholic religion imported to Mexico, avoids any prescriptions about edible and inedible animals, or of sacred animals. So when you are driving in Mexico and see an ox or a cow or a herd of cattle blocking the road, you can say “Holy cow!” (¡Santo Dios!) simply as an expression of annoyance without any genuine religious overtones.
When is an Ox Not an Ox?Meet the Musk Ox!
By Susan Birkenshaw
Dating back to the days of the sabre-toothed tiger and wooly mammoth, the musk ox (Ovibos moschatus) can be traced back over 600,000 years. In the northern tundra culture of the Inuit, the musk ox has been revered as a gift from their gods and protected as a strong source of food (from the meat), warmth and protection (from the wool and hides), and weapons (from the horns and bones). As strong and respectful hunters, the Inuit have used every part of their hunt.
Distinctly identifiable by the musky odor of males during mating season, the musk ox bears little resemblance to the bison or the ox as we know them today. In fact, they are more closely related to mountain goats and bighorn sheep, with their cloven hooves and an astonishing nimbleness on the icy terrain that they call home. Much warmer and softer than sheep wool, musk ox wool (qiviut) is also simpler to harvest, done by brushing the loose hairs from the hide or collecting the commonly dropped patches around their habitat. This wooly Qiviut has been measured as eight times warmer than the sheep and much more waterproof, all the while being lighter per weight. It is stronger than sheep wool and surprisingly finer than cashmere, produced by Kashmir and pashmina goats.
In the wild, these majestic animals are smaller than their bison cousins. They have large dish-like hooves with two toes, which can spread across the ice and rocky terrain for better footing. This is an excellent adaptation to their environment, as they live commonly at the very northern edge of the Arctic lands in the Northwest Territories and the northeast coast of Greenland. They most commonly roam in herds of two to three dozen, but as the world overtakes them these numbers are dwindling.
In this Year of the Ox, we should not err in disregarding the musk ox, just because it is not genetically linked to the oxen we see on farms in 2021. Highly valued because of its contribution to successful farming, the musk ox has had many positive characteristics attributed to it. It has survived through its resilience and protectiveness, which leads to an image of being steadfast, reliable, hardworking and honest. In today’s environment, I have decided to choose this particular “ox” as my new best friend.
Year of the Ox: Read a Chinese Tale to Celebrate
By Carole Reedy
What better way to start the new year than by discovering writers from across the Pacific? Novels by Chinese writers seem to get short shrift in the review sections of our modern media, and I confess to ignoring the grand culture of the Chinese in my own reading. As a result, I did some research and sought advice from a friend who is knowledgeable about all things Chinese, has lived and taught in the countryside of China, and is an avid reader of both Chinese fiction and nonfiction.
Here are several selections you might enjoy, based on your responses to the previous recommendations in this monthly column.
Interior Chinatown, by Charles Yu (2020)
Two months ago, Taiwanese-American writer Charles Yu walked away with the National Book Award for Fiction 2020 for his second novel, Interior Chinatown. Yu also has experience in screenplay writing (HBO’s Westworld series and other notable features), evident in the structure of this prize-winning novel that tells the story of aspiring actor Willis Wu.
Within seconds of the announcement of the National Book Award winner, avid readers were scrambling to enter their names in their library waitlist, yours truly included. I was most impressed to read that Yu is a fan of Philip Roth and claims to have read more of Roth’s novels those of any other contemporary writer, definitely a plus in my book! Wu’s first novel, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (2010) received kudos and awards, as have many of his short stories.
The Good Earth, by Pearl Buck (1931)
Probably the best-known and universally respected novel from China is The Good Earth, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1932. Buck, the daughter of missionaries, lived many decades in Zhenjiang before returning to the US in 1934. In 1938 she was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, and The Good Earth is now considered a classic.
Set in China at the beginning of the 20th century, this is the story of a farmer and wife caught in the web of history before the Revolution. Through their story Buck gives us a peek into the history and culture of the era, as well as into the emotions and desires of its people. One reader assures us that “the book has a contemporary feel despite being written nearly 80 years ago.”
The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories, China from the Bottom Up, by Liao Yiwu (English edition 2009)
A public toiletries manager, a leper, a grave robber, and a professional mourner, among others, are the subjects of the 27 interviewees of China’s forgotten population. Each vignette ranges from 15 to 20 pages. The research took the author 11 years, and attention from the Chinese censors followed, of course. The book has received rave reviews, with the San Francisco Chronicle claiming “Reading The Corpse Walker is like walking with Liao. Even though our feet are not blistered and our bodies are not starved, in the end we are shaken and moved.”
Red Sorghum: A Novel of China, by Mo Yan (English edition 1993)
Mo Yan, which literally means “don’t speak,” is the pen name of Guan Moye, a man who has won almost every Chinese literary prize as well as the Nobel Prize for Literature (2012).
Perhaps the best way to describe this book’s tone is in the writer’s dedication. “With this book I respectfully invoke the heroic, aggrieved souls wandering in the boundless bright red sorghum fields of my hometown. As your filial son, I am prepared to carve out my heart, marinate it in soy sauce, have it minced and placed in three bowls, and lay it out as an offering in a field of sorghum. Partake of it in good health!”
The book’s structure is a series of flashbacks spanning three generations (it seems many Chinese family sagas take place over three generations), taking the reader through the turbulent times between 1923 and 1976 both inside and outside China.
Amy Tan, brilliant and popular Chinese-American writer, praised Mo Yan: “Having read Red Sorghum, I believe Mo Yan deserves a place in world literature. His imagery is astounding, sensual and visceral. His story is electrifying and epic. I was amazed from the first page. It is unlike anything I’ve read coming out of China in past or recent times. I am convinced this book will successfully leap over the international boundaries that many translated works face. … This is an important work for an important writer.”
The 1987 Chinese film, Red Sorghum, based on the book, received much recognition, including the Golden Bear Award at the Berlin Film Festival in 1988.
The Novels of Amy Tan
The observation from Amy Tan above brings to mind her several novels about Chinese-Americans, especially the relationships between mothers and daughters. Tan was born in the US, the daughter of Chinese immigrants. The conflict among the young new Americans and their Chinese heritage is a constant underlying element in her stories.
The first of Tan’s successful novels was The Joy Luck Club (1989), followed by several others, all receiving the kudos they deserve. The Bone Setter’s Daughter (2003) was even made into an opera that had its debut in 2008 at the San Francisco Opera.
An interesting note about Tan – she was a member of a charity garage band called “Rock Bottom Remainders” (remainders being an author’s unsold books that are then “remaindered,” or made available at reduced prices). She served the group as the lead rhythm “dominatrix” backup singer and second tambourine. The rest of the group was made up of renowned authors, including, among others, Dave Barry, Stephen King, Mitch Albom, Barbara Kingsolver, and Scott Turow, along with some actual professional musicians. Their yearly gigs raised over a million dollars for literary programs. The group disbanded in 2012 following the death of their founder, Kathy Kamen Goldmark.
Although Tan’s fans love all her books, The Kitchen God’s Wife (1991) and Saving Fish from Drowning (2005) are among my favorites. When asked her favorite books, the following were on Tan’s list: Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie, Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich, Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez, The Good Lord Bird by James McBride, and the Collected Stories of Lydia Davis.
Death of A Red Heroine, by Qiu Xiaolong (English edition, 2000)
Everyone loves a mystery! Here’s another inspector to add to your collections from Sicily, the Dordogne region of France, London, Scandinavia, or Scotland.
Death of a Red Heroine is the first in a series starring Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai police. The true value of favorite mystery novels lies in the opportunity to steal a glimpse of life into each country. Here it’s the People’s Republic of China. Each book in the series tackles a different political and economic situation, making the novels intellectually stimulating as well as enjoyable.
Qiu’s just-published latest offering, called Hold Your Breath, will be of special interest at this time as it takes place in the midst of the pandemic in Wuhan.
Iron & Silk, by Mark Salzman (1986)
Renaissance man (writer, artist, cellist) Mark Salzman famously has pursued several careers in his 60 years. In addition to an impressive resume that includes graduating from Yale University summa cum laude, receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship, and being a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction, he is described by friends as “a cool and kind person.”
Aside from academics and writing, he makes time to play the cello. In 1996, he performed as guest cellist with YoYo Ma, pianist Emmanuel Ax, and others at Alice Tully Hall for the 20th anniversary performance of Live from Lincoln Center. If fact, one of his novels, The Soloist (1995) is about this passion.
His connection to China? He always had a passion for China, even as a boy when he chose to walk barefoot to school, to the amazement of the other boys. In the early 1980s, Salzman taught English at Hunan Medical School, where he also studied martial arts. Iron & Silk bore on its cover the descriptive subtitle “A young American encounters swordsman, bureaucrats and other citizens of contemporary China”; it garnered several literary awards and was made into a film for which Salzman not only wrote the screenplay and but starred as himself.
Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister: Three Women at the Heart of Twentieth-Century China, by Jung Chang (2019)
The Soong sisters have to be the most famous sisters in China, ever. This triple biography is their story, which traverses China and the US. The three daughters were born between 1888 and 1898 of a Methodist preacher turned Shanghai entrepreneur, Charlie Soong, and their mother Ni Kwei-tseng, whose own mother, Lady Xu, was a descendant of the Ming Dynasty. They were the first Chinese girls to attend university in the US.
When the three returned to China in 1909 they found themselves in the middle of a revolution in which they became wholeheartedly involved, although they ended up on different sides. To sum up their adventure: Chingling marries Sun Yat Sen, Mayling ends up with Chiang Kai Shek, and Ei-ling becomes an advisor to Chiang, making herself one of the richest women in China. They became the most powerful women in China, never to be forgotten.
The Washington Times sees the greatest value in the book as a stepping-stone for Westerners to understand this era: “The complicated history of China during this period is little-known to most Westerners, so this readable book helps fill a gap. By hooking it onto personalities, Jung Chang has been able to chart a comprehensible way through these decades and an immense mass of information that could otherwise be difficult to digest.”
On top of that, The New York Times calls it a “riveting read.” My Chinese-expert friend also is enthusiastic about this particular book.
Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, by Jung Chang (1991)
This three-generation family history, which culminates in Jung Chang’s own autobiography, received rave reviews and is listed as one of Amazon’s most read books.
Simply put, it is the story of Mao’s impact on China from a woman’s point of view. Chang shares with us the extraordinary lives of her family members: her grandmother, a warlord’s concubine; her mother’s struggles as a young idealistic Communist, her parents’ experience as members of the Communist elite, and their ordeal during the Cultural Revolution; Chang herself was a Red Guard briefly at the age of fourteen, then worked as a peasant, a “barefoot doctor,” a steelworker, and an electrician. At an early age she took a shine to reading and writing. Once again, a story of three generations!
This book sold over 10 million copies worldwide, but is banned in the People’s Republic of China. Along with her husband, Irish historian Jon Halliday, Chang has also written an 880-plus page biography on Mao Zedong, Mao: The Unknown Story (2005). Chang now lives in London, although she has said “I feel perhaps my heart is still in China.”
For me, and perhaps for you, there is a hesitation to read novels from regions we know relatively little about, perhaps for fear of not relating to or understanding the characters and their motives. The books above are among the best in their category and I believe can help open our hearts and minds to the unknown.
The “Poor Man’s Ox” – The Mexican Burro “¡No seas burro!”
By Julie Etra
Burro, donkey, jackass, mule, hinny.
Starting with nomenclature, burros are the same as donkeys and are related to horses and zebras (the Equidae family). They were bred in Egypt or Mesopotamia around 5,000 years ago, originating from the African continent, where they were used as beasts of burden. A jenny or hinny is the offspring of a male horse and female donkey; they are usually sterile and therefore cannot reproduce. A mule is a cross between a male donkey and a female horse, and is also sterile (sterility also applies to zebra hybrids). A male donkey is also called a “jack” or “ass” (hence the word “jackass”). A young donkey is called a “foal.” In Mexico one often hears the expression “no seas mula” or “no seas burro,” as per the COVID 19 signs posted around Huatulco (also saying ‘with all due respect to the animal), and meaning “Don’t be stubborn,” just as we say, “Don’t be a jackass” (although that implies more than stubbornness).
Although I have read that the current population of burros in Mexico is estimated to be three million, I have also read that they are in danger of extinction with only 300,000 burros left. We do, however, forget about the usefulness of this animal in Mexico, and its historic significance.
Popular belief has it that Bishop Fray Juan de Zumárraga (1468-1548), felt sympathy for the native load carriers or porters (cargadoras, or Tlamemehs or tamemes in Nahuatl), and the strenuous burdens they carried. Part of the lower social class called los macehuales, tamemes were not slaves but were trained from birth for this work, following in their parents’ footsteps. They fulfilled an important role in Aztecan society and were essential, as there were no pack animals in Mexico before the arrival of the Spaniards. They wore a wide leather strap with ixtle (agave fiber) rope that held the load carried on the back. Called a mecapal, the strap was wrapped around the forehead; some of them included wooden structures for additional support. The tamemes could carry up to 60 pounds; although travel routes and distances varied, a common trip averaged 15 miles.
Back to the burros. At the time of their importation to New Spain, burros had been domesticated in Spain for at least 3,000 years. There is evidence that four male and two female burros accompanied Columbus on his 1493 voyage, and that they disembarked either in Cuba or Hispaniola (the island made up of Haiti and the Dominican Republic). On his first voyage (1492), Columbus – with a European eye – noted that crops and domesticated animals were in short supply, and recommended that all subsequent voyages include them. Along with the burros, horses, longhorn cattle, crates of chickens, and seeds and cuttings of about 30 crops, including sugar cane. The cattle lost no time crossing the Gulf to Mexico and quickly became successful, in terms of both production and money-making. So, although oxen (technically speaking, an ox is just a big strong cow, usually male, trained to work – plowing, hauling, milling, etc.), were well-established in New Spain by perhaps 1520, they belonged to the ranchers of New Spain, not the lower classes of the conquered Aztecs.
Fray Juan apparently accomplished the Mexican importation of burros in 1533, with animals from Castile (Castilla), in northwestern Spain. The burros evidently found conditions in New Spain to be ideal, and so the donkeys went forth and multiplied throughout areas of the Spanish conquest, but particularly in Mexico and Central America, where llamas, endemic to areas of South America, were already in use as pack animals.
What makes a burro a burro? We know they have long ears and colors vary. They are usually calm and astute but can also become stubborn; they are known to be playful and affectionate. They emit a long “bray” (rebuzno in Spanish). Lifespan averages 15 to 30 years, depending on the care they receive. They are vegetarians, with a diet based on grasses, alfalfa, shrubs, vegetables and, especially hay (which can include multiple baled species including alfalfa), but are very tough and can find forage even in deserts. Reproduction varies according to sex: the male reaches sexual maturity at about three years and the female at about four years. Pregnancy varies from 11 to 14 months, typically with just one offspring. In the wild, they are solitary and don’t form groups or harems of females as do wild horses. They have a well-developed olfactory system, detecting smells up to six miles away. And unlike a llama, they can carry up to four times their own weight. Hooves help.
So, “¡No seas burro!” Wear your cubreboca, maintain social distancing, be respectful, and listen to what the experts and authorities tell you. We’ll get through this pandemic eventually.
Resourcefulness and Ingenuity in Clay Pot Mezcal Distillation
By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.
When I read about the Year of the Ox, it reminded me of the resourcefulness and ingenuity of the hardworking Oaxacans who make mezcal. Why? Because not only is a team of oxen used to plow the earth, but the team is sometimes employed to transport agave hearts (piñas) from field to traditional family-operated distillery (palenque), or to crush them after baking. There’s no need to buy a horse or mule when you already have animals capable of doing multiple tasks. And their waste makes excellent fertilizer.
The start-up costs of building a clay pot (olla de barro) palenque in Oaxaca involve relatively little monetary outlay. However, the ongoing upkeep expenses have the potential to be out of reach for many distillers (palenqueros) of modest means … but for their ingenuity, resourcefulness, and sustainable practices.
Most clay pots used in Oaxacan mezcal production are produced in the town of Santa María Atzompa. They are made with locally sourced clay, water, and fire, and thus their cost is relatively modest, perhaps 800 pesos for the two receptacles required to make one still.
The housing that encases the bottom clay pot is made from clay and/or adobe bricks and mud, and nothing more. The adobe is made by mixing sand, mud, bovine and/or equine manure, and waste agave fiber (bagazo) discarded after distillation. Bagazo is often also used as compost or mulch, and when dampened, is typically employed in the baking process to insulate the piñas from the hot rocks.
Firewood goes at the bottom of the baking pit. Not straight logs the lumberjack sells at a premium to lumber yards, but rather seconds that the distillery is happy to acquire at a discount. Once the bake has been completed, where there once was firewood there is now charcoal. It is used a fertilizer to grow more agave (or other crops), or by the family for cooking and for sale.
Even the discarded agave leaves (pencas), once dried, have an important use as fuel. Entire Oaxacan communities live off them to cook tortillas, grill meats, make hot chocolate, and more.
Clay distillation pots last from roughly a couple of weeks to a year and a half, after which time they must be replaced. The bottom pot, as opposed to the upper clay cylinder, presents the more significant problem.
Once it cracks, the housing must be disassembled, the pot removed, a new one inserted, and the encasement re-built. The life of that bottom olla is extended by using a wooden tree branch shaped like a fork, its prongs joined with rope or wire, and not a metal pitch fork, to remove the bagazo.
Still, through cracking, clay pots are inevitably rendered unusable for their primary purpose. When that happens the fermented liquid or the subsequent single distillate can seep out and be lost. The damaged and discarded pots are frequently used as planters, but that bottom pot can still be used in the fermentation process. Most baked crushed agave is fermented in wood slat vats, but some palenqueros ferment in clay pots partially embedded in the ground. After a damaged pot has been removed from the still, it can be repaired with cement and used for fermenting; a broken olla de barro gets new life.
For clay-pot distillation to work, a continuous flow of cold water is required. It often arrives along a makeshift wooden trough, falling into the small conical condenser through a length of giant river reed (carrizo). Carrizo is an invasive wild plant, but it has multiple uses, including in the olla de barro distillation process. Carrizo is also sometimes employed to guide the water out of the condenser, and the distillate out of the still into a holding receptacle. Yet another use for the reed is as a bellows to stoke the flame under the clay pot during distillation. Some palenqueros purchase waste from a lumberyard de-barking process as fuel for their stills. The bark always includes some attached wood.
Long ago palenqeros used clay condensers in the distillation process. When metal became available, they switched. Originally, they used simple laminated metal, and some still do, although more recently stainless steel or copper have appeared. Some palenqueros have even adapted old aluminum construction worker hardhats. The shape is about the same, and with a little work they are almost as efficient as the others. When I visited a distillery in the town of Sola de Vega in 2012, the palenquero was still using hard hats as condensers!
Steam rises, hits the condenser, then the drops of liquid must fall onto something which then guides the liquid to the exterior of the cylinder, through the carrizo, down into the container. That something is typically a hand-hewn wooden spoon, or a small length of penca. The condenser is sealed to the upper cylinder, which is sealed in turn to the lower olla de barro, not with glue, but rather a paste that forms naturally on top of the fermentation vessel.
When the still is not in use, many palenqueros prefer keeping the opening underneath, into which firewood is placed to produce flame, closed off. Some state they don’t want young children playing hide-and-seek in the sooty and sometimes still hot orifice. Others don’t want their chickens laying eggs inside. A palenquero friend in Santa Catarina Minas keeps the opening closed using old metal discs from a plow.
I noted earlier the modest start-up costs for establishing a palenque for olla de barro distillation, and touched on the cost of the clay pots. The additional installations in clay (as well as copper) operations are almost free of out-of-pocket costs aside from labor: the baking pit in the ground, the ability to crush by hand using a wooden mallet and nothing more, and fermenting in an animal hide, a wood-lined hole in the ground or directly in a bedrock cavity.
The innate creativity of the palenquero distilling in clay is remarkable. And while we must admire his resourcefulness, it’s crucial that we not begrudge him for making technological advancements with a view to making life just a little easier, as his economic lot in life improves. Should not the romanticism we seek in rural Oaxaca sometimes take a back seat? The palenquero will retain most of his sustainable practices and continue to be resourceful, but surely deserves a break.
Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).
Grasshoppers and Ants: Diligence in the Year of the Ox
By Randy Jackson
After that major bummer of a year – 2020 – we now have the Chinese Zodiac Year of the Ox for 2021. Not wanting to cast aspersions on the Zodiac animal of last year (the Rat), I think it’s time we moved on. But not so fast: Just what are we supposed to be getting into in this Year of the Ox? The ox is supposed to represent the characteristic of diligence. That makes sense, I guess, from what I imagine of an ox-like character. But is diligence a good thing?
The origin of the word “diligence” was the Latin word diligere, which meant to “value highly” and “take delight in.” Over centuries the English meaning of the word morphed into “careful” and “hardworking.” The word diligence was held in high enough regard in western Europe that it become one of the heavenly virtues of Christianity, along with chastity, temperance, patience, humility, kindness and charity. The seven heavenly virtues were clarified as a balance to the seven deadly sins set out by Pope Gregory I in CE 590 – diligence counterbalanced the sin of “sloth.”
Diligence seems to be the one Christian virtue that isn’t passive. To be diligent implies overtly doing something rather than embodying any (or all) the other virtues in one’s actions. Diligence as a virtue cannot stand by itself as a “good thing” without the other virtues. Otherwise, being diligent while committing a crime would be virtuous. The ambivalence of diligence as a Christian virtue has provided fodder for stories and even paintings over the centuries.
There are a surprising number of fables and fairy tales that deal with diligence. “The Three Little Pigs” is an obvious one. As we know, the third little pig worked diligently on his house of bricks while the other two little pigs spent more time playing, singing, and dancing. We all know how that turns out. The third little pig saves the day, as his house is too strong for the wolf to blow down. The moral of the story: hard work (diligence) wins the day.
“The Ant and the Grasshopper” is another fable dealing with diligence. However, this fable has inspired different interpretations on how diligence can be viewed. Originally, the hard-working ant who saved up for the winter was seen as cruel and miserly when he refused the more whimsical grasshopper’s (usually depicted as a musician) request for food in the winter. The diligent ant was seen as lacking in Christian charity.
In the Victorian era, French artist Gustave Doré produced a painting titled “The Ant and the Grasshopper.” The painting depicts a young woman musician with head bowed at the door of a house.
Two children from the house are looking up with sympathy at the young woman. There is a lack of pity shown by the lady of the house as portrayed by her knitting. This is a reference to the French tricoteuses – women who knitted and jeered as the guillotine lopped off the heads of the French aristocrats during the French Revolution.
“The Ant and the Grasshopper” poses two important philosophical questions: should hard work be valued over the enjoyment of life? And, what responsibility do the “haves” bear for the “have nots”? In the United States, Walt Disney’s original cartoon portrayal of ‘The Ant and Grasshopper” (1934) was a political statement against the New Deal as proposed by Franklin D. Roosevelt. In the cartoon the impertinent grasshopper sang the song “Oh the World Owes Me a Living,” expressing a sentiment that many Americans held at the time – they saw the New Deal as giving something to people who did nothing to deserve it.
In literature and film, “The Ant and the Grasshopper” fable has inspired a large number of stories exploring differences between the life of someone who is diligent and hardworking, and someone who mostly seeks the enjoyments of life. In Somerset Maugham’s story “The Ant and the Grasshopper,” there are two brothers, one diligent and hard-working, the other carefree yet likeable. In this story, the carefree brother lucks out in the end (much to the chagrin of the diligent brother) by marrying a rich widow (who then dies and leaves him a fortune). For those familiar with Maugham’s most famous work, On Human Bondage (thought to be largely autobiographical), the main character, Philip Carey, is grasshopper-like, living a bohemian lifestyle against the wishes of his strict and diligent guardian uncle.
John Updike’s short story “Brother Grasshopper,” which specifically references the original fable, contrasts the characters of two brothers-in-law. One is diligent, hard-working and socially awkward. The other is charming, carefree and extravagant, but struggles with money. In the end the diligent man comes to realize the carefree man had enriched his otherwise restricted life of diligence.
Another, and different, angle on the concept of diligence, ironically, is the Japanese concept of inemuri – referring to sleeping on the job. This cultural phenomenon is more nuanced than just having a nap at work. A better translation would be “sleeping while being present.” It refers to diligent hard-working employees that are so busy and working such long hours they need a little inemuri to keep going: inemuri is thus seen as an indicator of diligence. In the west we might refer to this as a “power nap,” but without any notion that diligence is involved.
As for diligence as a characteristic of the Year of the Ox, there is no ambivalence, it’s only a good thing. The Zodiac predictions are for a year of advancement and success in 2021. After 2020, we can all use some of that. Happy New Year.
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