Category Archives: August 2022
By Jane Bauer
“In our society growing food ourselves has become the most radical of acts. It is truly the only effective protest, one that can ― and will ― overturn the corporate powers that be. By the process of directly working in harmony with nature, we do the one thing most essential to change the world ― we change ourselves.” ― Jules Dervaes
I own a restaurant, which means if you look in my fridge at home you will find a lot of good intentions. I spend all day around food and it is often easier to just have a piece of toast at the end of the day or to bring something from work. Recently some potatoes I had forgotten about started sprouting in the fridge, so I planted them. I was so inspired by the quick results that I dug out seeds I have accumulated over the years and bought some pretty planters. There is an amazing satisfaction to eating something you have grown.
The cost of food around the world is soaring! Forget when a few years back when people were complaining about the 8$ cauliflower – that is nothing compared to what is currently happening. The New Yorker recently published a piece about “The True Costs of Inflation in Small-Town Texas,” detailing the impact of inflation on BBQ. This is mainstream media reporting on rising food costs that are causing businesses to close!
In Huatulco it’s not just meat, fish (which is locally caught but there is less of it) – it’s tomatoes, avocados and everything else.
What we are experiencing right now is not the famines of the past which affected people in far off lands that we could forget about when we turned off the TV and sat down to our meat and potatoes dinner. There is no turning off the TV any more – globalization has ensured that we are all connected and we are all going to feel the effects.
The causes for some of this inflation have been higher freight costs, supply chains disrupted by the pandemic and war, increase in the cost of fertilizers and gas. Average monthly natural gas price, as indicated by the World Bank’s Natural Gas Index, went up by nearly 600% between June 2020 and December 2021.
Much of the world is experiencing record-breaking heat waves and water shortages along with soaring food prices, which will impact food production as well.
The stories about people living off the grid, near a water source and growing their own food? They don’t seem eccentric or crazy or counter-culture any more… they seem smart.
See you in October,
Bananas / Plantains/ Plátanos
By Julie Etra
Called the banana in America, this lovely and versatile fruit is just one in a group of fruits more commonly known as plantains or plátanos (in Spanish). They are the most widely distributed and consumed fruit in the world and consist of a large number of species, hybrids and cultivars of the Musa genus. Only the grains wheat, rice and corn surpass the production of plantains (bananas) globally. In many parts of the world, the kind of plantains that are cooked are distinguished from the sweet, raw bananas familiar to us in North America.
The origin of this starchy fruit is most likely Malaysia, New Guinea, Indonesia, or the Philippines. The first references appear as early as 600 BCE, but it was noted by Alexander the Great during his travels to India in the 4th century CE. Through trade, like every other valuable commodity, it was dispersed to China, Africa, and well, the rest is history. This original seed-filled fruit barely resembled those consumed today, which has resulted from centuries of plant breeding. The world’s largest producers of bananas in 2017 were India and China, which together accounted for approximately 38% of total production.
One banana, two bananas, and many more
Are you confused by the variety of bananas and banana-like fruits displayed at the Mercado Orgánico de Huatulco (MOH)? Or in the various fruteriás along Calle Carrizal or elsewhere in La Crucecita? A pity most of us are only familiar with the common and ubiquitous Cavendish (Musa acuminata), named after Englishman William Spencer Cavendish, the 6th Duke of Devonshire, who began its cultivation in British greenhouses around 1834. (More about this common banana later.)
As shown in the graphic, there are eight principal banana crops produced in Mexico, including, of course, the Cavendish. As an alternative to that “standard” banana, try the diminutive Dominico bananas, also known as plátano enano, or dwarf plantain, most of which come to Huatulco from neighboring Veracruz. This is the smallest banana available in Mexico. It is a very sweet variety and is widely used in pastry and other confections, including drinks. It is rich in vitamins B, C, and E and has a high magnesium content. It is our favorite banana, and although we can find them when we are going through withdrawal upon our return to the USA, they are very expensive and it seems they never ripen. It usually takes me three plus tries to give up on these expensive imports. When in Huatulco, this banana is our favorite snack.
Later in the Mexican winter the slightly larger Manzanos are available. They are different, of course, with the Dominicos being slightly sweeter and easier to find, even in the super stores like Chedraui and Soriana. Our previous neighbors have a Manzano tree, but I have not been bold enough to approach the present occupants. Manzanos are a bit nuttier and harder in texture than the fast-ripening Dominico.
Problems with popular bananas
The Gros Michel is an example of monoculture disasters. At the beginning of the 20th century, this was the most popular banana in Europe and North America. In 1940, however, a fungal infection arrived in Panama, more precisely Fusarium oxysporum, which attacked the roots of the Gros Michel. Since it produced no viable seeds, only reproducing asexually, it was particularly vulnerable to disease, and hence its demise 20 years after the fungus arrived.
The Cavendish, resistant to the fungus described above, became more popular, with several available varieties including the big dwarf, the small dwarf (redundant, I know), the Lacatan, Valery, Robusta, and Poyo. Recently, another variety of the fungus that infected the Gros Michel has been discovered, and this banana could go the way of its predecessor as it is also asexually cultivated in monocultures (clonal propagation). This type of monoculture cultivation results in plants very vulnerable to plagues and possible extirpation, exactly what happened to the Gros Michel.
Broaden your banana repertoire!
The plátano macho is the largest and heaviest of the bananas and is not sweet. It is cooked in a variety of ways, and can be yellow-, green-, or dark-skinned when very ripe. Machos are consumed in many tropical countries but are virtually unknown in Europe.
The red bananas you see at the MOH and grocery stores, the thick-skinned plátano rojo, is very popular in Latin America, and its availability and use has recently expanded to Europe. It can be consumed raw or cooked.
And yes, there are even more varieties, typically available on a local level, such as the Tabasco (Mexico) and Roatan (one of the Bay islands in Honduras).
Patacones, as they are known in Costa Rica and elsewhere in Latin America, but usually called tostones in Mexico, are small pancakes or pucks made from green Machos, cut in cross section, fried, then flattened and fried a second time. Another fried plantain, cut lengthwise, is a typical accompaniment to Latin American breakfasts – it is a favorite in istmeño cooking (the cuisine of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, Oaxaca). You can enjoy patacones in Huatulco at the restaurant Bladuyu at the entrance to Bahia Chahue. For dessert they can be fried with a liquor, honey and/or cinnamon additionally dribbled/sprinkled on top and accompanied with a scoop of vanilla ice-cream. Yum.
And for a real treat, try molotes de plátano, Macho pulp dough stuffed with quesillo, the lovely Oaxacan cheese (alternatively with black beans), fried, and bathed in condensed milk (or not), frequently offered at Playa San Agustín. The women walk up and down the beach with rectangular plastic containers filled with these tasty, filling units. Don’t pass them up!
Tomatoes: Q & A
By Randy Jackson
Here’s a question that will brighten anyone’s day: “Hey, do you want a toasted tomato sandwich?” Of course you do, everyone does.
Ah, the tomato. We love them, but take them for granted. For example, when we listen to the lyrics of Guy Clark’s song “Homegrown Tomatoes” –
Only two things that money can’t buy –
That’s true love and homegrown tomatoes –
we think, “Yeah, that’s true.” Nobody would sing about true love and an onion or bok choy. When you take something you love for granted, like the tomato, one day you wake up realizing you know almost nothing about it, and curiosity is aroused.
Questions abound: Where do tomatoes originate? Are tomatoes a fruit or vegetable? How many tomato varieties are there? Are tomatoes the most consumed thing ever? How big can a tomato get? What’s the weirdest shaped tomato ever? And the perennial question: Where could I go for a really good tomato fight?
The tomato is thought to have originated in pre-Inca Peru. Back then it was the size of a garden pea. Over the hundreds of years of pre-conquest Mesoamerican civilizations, a variety of types and sizes of tomatoes were cultivated. The Aztec (Nahuatl) word for the green tomato was tomatl (Spanish, tomate) and this is the word that stuck. Good thing too, because the Nahuatl word for the red tomato was xitomatl, which seems less marketable.
It was the Spanish who spread the tomato around the world. In Europe, documents mention the tomato as early as the 1540’s. For about 200 years, the tomato was seen as an ornamental plant for gardens and fruit-bowl displays, as it was generally considered poisonous in Europe. The first tomato recipe we have on record is 1692. But it took another 100 years before the Italians created the tomato sauce for pasta. The rest, as they say, is history.
Is the tomato a fruit or vegetable? Both really. Botanists classify it as a fruit. Nutritionists consider it a vegetable. This is because it is more savoury than sweet, and is often used in salads, not in desserts like most fruits. In 1893, the US Supreme Court declared the tomato a vegetable for tax purposes. Back then vegetables were subject to import duties, while fruits were not. It seems that the US Supreme Court changes its mind on some things, but has never re-addressed their tomato decision.
My guess was that the tomato would be the most eaten fruit/vegetable in the world. What with salsa, pasta and pizza sauces, ketchup, BLT’s, salads, soups, and on every hamburger ever eaten, what could top that? Well, potatoes. At least by weight and acres cultivated. However, before the potato can gloat over its top spot, we should recognize that most potatoes are used for French fries – and what is most often put on French fries? Exactly. Incidentally, potato chips are the second biggest use of the potato, and in Canada we have ketchup-flavoured potato chips – so there, potato!
There are over 10,000 varieties of tomatoes in the world. Most of these varieties are cross-breeds. About 3,000 varieties are considered “heirloom” tomatoes. Heirloom tomatoes are a sort of “purebred” tomato, traceable to a single genetic plant line. When it comes to the most popular tomato, beefsteak tomatoes seems to top most lists followed by the Cherokee Purple (heirloom tomato), and then Roma (paste) and cherry varieties.
The Guiness World Book of Record has the largest tomato weighing in at 4.9 kilograms (10 pounds 12 oz), with a circumference of 84 centimetres (33 inches). It was grown by Dan Sutherland in Walla Walla, Washington, in 2020. This tomato was the variety Domingo, which is a type of beefsteak tomato. And speaking of records, 121 is the largest number of tomatoes grown on a single vine. Possibly more interesting are the photos of weirdly shaped tomatoes that can be found on the internet. Often tomatoes grow pointed appendages out of their mostly symmetrical shapes. As a result, noses, pointy ears and penises are easily imagined. One tomato found in a British garden looked like the head of Adolf Hitler.
This off-beat aspect of tomatoes is topped by a festival in the town of Buñol, Spain, which holds an annual festival called La Tomatina. Forty to fifty thousand people crowd into this Spanish town for the world’s largest food fight. The only food thrown is tomatoes. You need a ticket to participate in La Tomatina, and only 22,000 tickets will be sold for the 2022 event (a ticket is 12 Euros or 250 Mexican pesos). The event will be held on August 31, 2022. About 100 tonnes of over-ripe tomatoes are provided for throwing at other participants in the town square. There are a few rules – most important is to squish the tomato before you throw it. Two words come to mind: stupidity and messy. As for being messy, the city is well prepared for the cleanup with street washers and fire-hoses all pre-stationed and ready to go after the event. Because tomatoes are acidic, the streets, buildings, statutes, and benches all gleam in spectacular cleanliness after the cleanup.
No longer will I take the tomato for granted. Already I am on the hunt for a Cherokee Purple. Of course, there are Brandywine Pink, Black Krim, Green Zebra, Gold Medal, Big Rainbow, Lemon Boy, Mr. Stripey, White Beauty … No luck yet, but I picked up some Yellow Pear tomatoes yesterday and tried them in a toasted tomato sandwich (lovely).
Verbs beginning with A
abandonar – to abandon, leave behind
abordar – to board, get on [plane, bus, etc.]
abrazar – to hug, embrace
aburrir – to bore; to tire, weary
abusar – to go too far, take advantage
acabar – to finish, end
aceptar – to accept, approve; to agree to
acercarse – to approach
adorar – to adore, worship
advertir – to notice, observe, advise, warn
afeitar – to shave
afirmar – to make firm, steady, to affirm
agradecer – to be thankful for
aguantar – to put up with, endure, bear, stand
abrir – to open
acercar – move towards
ahorrar – to save
alcanzar – to reach, catch, catch up to
almorzar – to lunch, eat lunch, have lunch
alquilar – to rent; to rent out
amar – to love
amenazar – to threaten, menace
andar – to walk, go
anunciar – to announce
apagar – to extinguish, put out, turn off
aplaudir – to applaud, cheer, clap
aplicar – to apply
apostar – to bet, wager
apoyar – to support, hold up, prop up; to back
apreciar – to appreciate, value, esteem, estimate, notice
aprender – to learn
arreglar – to arrange, settle, fix up, repair, tidy up
arrepentirse – to repent, be repentant, regret
By Kary Vannice
I’ve seen visitors to Mexico visibly gag or turn away in disgust when offered a bowl of chapulines (fried grasshoppers) along with their guacamole. I’ve witnessed a few more daring travelers hesitantly touch their tongue to a margarita glass rimmed with sal de gusano (salt containing ground-up agave worm larva). But I’ve rarely seen a foreigner “chow down” on insects undeterred by their preconceived notions about eating bugs.
Most of us are disgusted by just the thought of bugs crawling around in the cabinet where we store our food and are horrified to see mealworm larva float to the top of our cereal bowl.
Eating two or four-legged creatures is fine, but add an additional pair of legs, and most westerners are “out.” “No, thank you, I’ll pass!”
But could it be that our social and cultural conditioning is preventing us from taking advantage of one of the planet’s most nutritious, eco-friendly, and sustainable sources of protein – insects?
For centuries, 80% of all the world’s cultures have been incorporating insects into their diets. Countries like the United States and Canada make up part of the 20% that are staunch holdouts to embracing the edible insect.
Over a hundred edible insect species are eaten in Mexico and there are almost 2,000 species of edible insect that humans around the world consume. Nearly two billion people eat insects as a regular part of their everyday diet. And for good reason.
Most edible insects are high in protein, low in saturated fat, and high in fiber. They contain various essential vitamins and minerals, including vitamin B12, vitamin D, phosphorous, iron, calcium, zinc, copper, magnesium, and manganese. And many are a one-stop-shop for all nine essential amino acids, and also contain omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, as well as antioxidants. According to http://www.Hey-Planet.com, “Insects contain almost all the nutritional benefits that you get from eating meat, fish, and rye bread – all at once!”
And if the nutritional benefits alone don’t convince you to start incorporating insects into your diet, perhaps the environmental ones will. The Food and Agricultural Association (FAO) of the United Nations points out that “Crickets need six times less feed than cattle, four times less than sheep, and twice less than pigs and broiler chickens to produce the same amount of protein … and they emit less greenhouse gases and ammonia than conventional livestock.”
In our post-pandemic world, we are facing new food-system concerns like supply-chain disruptions, food scarcity, and the rising cost of food, particularly meat. This, along with the ongoing climate crisis, has led many to suggest insect farming as a viable, environmentally friendly, and lucrative solution to all of the above problems.
Last year, the BBC featured insect farming in an online series focused on the future of food. The article stated that insect cultivation uses only a fraction of the land mass, energy, and water of traditional animal farming and has a significantly lower carbon footprint.
One reason for this is that insects can be farmed vertically, meaning that large high-rise warehouses can be used to grow tons of insects on a very small parcel of land. And farmed insects can be fed on what would otherwise be considered “waste” in other food industries, such as spent grain from breweries, food scraps, and other organic waste, which solves yet another problem.
Because insect farming does not require vast tracts of land, it can be done in and around large urban centers, so there’s no need to ship this protein-rich food source to where the majority of people live. This virtually eliminates the supply chain altogether.
Before making it to the consumer, most insect protein is ground into a fine powder, making it much more palatable and easier to incorporate into a mainstream diet. Imagine eating a delicious batch of coconut cookies that just happens to contain cricket powder or enjoying a protein-packed brownie made from silkworm larva flour. You’d probably never even know you were eating an insect, yet imagine the good you’d be doing your body and the planet.
If you live in Mexico and want to give insect protein powder a try, the Mexican-based company One Chance offers delicious protein shake powders that are all available from Amazon Mexico. I recommend the matcha!
Better Than Ever: Mexico City Restaurant Revival in Full Swing
By Carole Reedy
Mexico City restaurants are ready for your visit! As everywhere, the economy suffered terribly during the pandemic, but tourism recovery is looking up. Our huge advantage, of course, is the weather, which is ideal year-round. Sure, there are some hot spring days and cooler temps in December and January, but outdoor dining is a possibility here in any season.
The government has supported restaurants by allowing owners to block off one street lane next to the curbs for tables, as well as giving permission to use considerably more sidewalk for tables. Attractive wood and glass structures protect customers from traffic and wind, giving customers the feel of dining in a European café.
The city is sparkling!
First thing on my agenda post-pandemic was to re-discover my favorite eateries to see how they survived. Here, a variety of my favorite places to enjoy good food in the Roma, Condesa, and Cuauhtémoc neighborhoods. All provide outdoor and indoor dining, but the outdoor dining provides the safest and most pleasurable social experience.
MEZZO MEZZO, Cuauhtémoc, Río Neva 30
To me, Mezzo Mezzo is synonymous with “Gypsy Pizza.” At first the combination of flavors did not attract me, but a friend convinced me to try it. Now I’m a fan and never order anything else at this cozy bistro. The pizza has a subtle, or rather not so subtle, melange of figs and Brie on a crisp light pizza crust. Give it a try!
The locale is a small venue with tables on the street. The wine selection has improved, and the service is as attentive as ever. Busy hours are between 2 and 4 pm. Happily, the restaurant is open from 1 pm to midnight every day of the week, as are most of the restaurants on this list, an important feature for visitors to the city.
EL AUTÉNTICO MANILA PATO, Locations in Polanco (Virgilio 25), Condesa (Culiacan 91), and Roma Norte (Colima 159)
This highly popular eatery specializes in Pekín duck tacos, served with corn or flour tortillas or as a torta, with won tons and spring rolls as side dishes. And that is the entire menu!
Healer, historian, and taco-maker Edgardo Ganada Kim and Adrian Segura founded the venue in 2014. They combined the Mexican taco and Chinese side dishes to create textures and flavors to which you’ll return frequently. Plum and oyster sauces enhance the flavors of both the rolls and tacos. None of my visitors has ever been disappointed, and those of us who live nearby are on regular repeat.
Beer, water and soft drinks are the only beverages served.
Hours are daily noon until 10 pm.
SAN GIORGIO, Roma Sur, Anahuac 38
Italian natives give this pizzería five stars as the most authentic Italian Napolitana pizza in the city. The ingredients are fresh, and the variety of pizza choices ample. The tomato sauce has that special flavor that only the Italians deliver, and the mozzarella cheese is created for the venue. There are also big, fresh salads, as well as traditional lasagna al ragú. Spinach and ricotta cannelloni completes the pasta menu. Chicken, pork, and salmon entrees are also available.
The street corner ambiance on Anahuac and Tehuantepec in Roma Sur is exhilarating. The waitstaff especially gives warm Italian greetings and service.
The restaurant provides takeout and delivery, their life-saver during the two years of lockdown. Now, they are open every day 1 pm to 11 pm, except Sundays, when they open at 2 pm.
MALLORCA, Paseo de Reforma 365, at the corner of Río Guadalquivir
This Spanish restaurant will satisfy your need for flavors from the Iberian peninsula. Serrano ham in abundance, as well as Spanish omelets and tapas-type breads adorn the breakfast menu. The chocolate croissant is a must! Comida selections include paella, risotto, salads, and meats and cheeses. There is a large wine selection.
The real emphasis here, however, is on the pastries. Inside there’s a separate pastelería with enough chocolate and cream-filled treats to satisfy any sweet-lover. Cakes, tarts, and candies of the highest quality fill the space.
Hours vary day to day, but basically, they are open 8 am to 9 pm.
LARDO, Condesa, Agustín Melgar 6
This is a favorite breakfast place, very busy from 9:30 am till 11 am. Once I take my guests there, they have a tendency to return for all their breakfasts!
Each dish has a special presentation. The combination of flavors, spices, and ingredients used for standard dishes is unique. The entire menu is also eclectic. For your comida, try the octopus with red curry or the squid, black rice, and ginger. There are fish items, such as huachinango (red snapper) and couscous, as well as lamb kabobs and risotto croquettes.
An outdoor area has been added to two sides of the restaurant, enlarging by half the number of clients the restaurant can accommodate. It is a spacious area that is as charming as any Parisian street.
Open daily 8 am to 10 pm.
TAAK-CAL, Roma Sur, Anahuac 36
This new-to-the-neighborhood “kitchen bar,” as it is called, opened right at the beginning of the pandemic. They managed to hang on and now are in full swing. From land to sea, the menu varies from tacos and salmon filet to shrimp, fish, soups, and vegetarian choices. My favorites are the arrachera (marinated skirt steak) tacos and the salmon pistache.
It’s a charming setting, often with a guitarist or other music, and its ambiance certainly brightens the street, with San Giorgio right next door.
Open daily 1 pm to 11pm.
Wherever you dine you’ll see smiles on the faces around you, elated to return to this most desirable existence.
Hints for Reheating Your Take-Out Meals
By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken
We are definitely snobs in regard to restaurant dinners. We’ve always preferred long leisurely meals in places known for their excellent cuisine and gracious service. We’ve rarely thought about take-out meals; maybe once a year, pollo rostizado crossed our minds and our lips.
COVID changed all of our lives and our dining habits. During the 2020 lockdown, the retirement community where we live in the U.S. began delivering both lunch and dinner to our homes. And, during periodic surges of new COVID variants throughout 2021 and 2022, we’ve returned to receiving delivered dinners. Even when we are in residence in Huatulco during winter months, we now occasionally have picked up bagged dinners, especially from restaurants that have shifted primarily to take-out menus.
The dilemma faced with take-out lunches and dinners that were originally hot is whether or not to rewarm the food. If reheating, how do you do that without destroying the flavor and texture? Many people opt simply to use their microwave oven. But the executive chef in our retirement community, Chef Valeriy Borodin, received complaints about flavorless, mushy food. He then realized that the ubiquitous use of microwaves was ruining his carefully prepared creations. Chef Val held an online forum to provide instructions for reheating specific dishes. Here are some of his hints:
· Pasta in red sauce. This is one dish that can be microwaved, but first add more red sauce and just microwave for a very short time until warm.
· Pasta in white sauce. Request the sauce separate and heat it in a frying pan, stirring until hot; then add it to the pasta. The sauce will reheat the pasta.
· Pasta in oil-based sauce. Reheat the pasta in a frying pan and then add the sauce to the pan.
· Baked pasta such as mac and cheese or lasagna. Reheat it in oven.
· Meat chops/roasts. These are better if ordered when dining at a restaurant. But if they are to be taken home or delivered, order them less cooked than you usually enjoy eating them, and when they arrive, sear them on high heat in a frying pan for just a few seconds on each side. Never microwave meat.
· Fish/seafood in red sauce. This dish can be reheated in a microwave, but just until warm.
· Fish/seafood pieces other than in red sauce. Order them “undercooked” and rewarm them in a frying pan
· Roasted vegetables. Reheat them in an oven.
· Steamed vegetables. Microwave covered just until warm.
· Sauteed vegetables. Pan fry until warm.
· Broths. Reheat in microwave.
· Soups that are creamed or contain pasta. Reheat in a sauce pan.
There are some takeout dishes that Chef Val didn’t address – dishes that even the least experienced consumer would never rewarm in a microwave – such as pizza. Of course, our grandkids are happy to eat leftover pizza for breakfast right out of the refrigerator. But for those of us who yearn during lockdowns for freshly prepared dishes served piping hot right from the restaurant’s grill or kitchen, properly reheating take-out dishes is a passable substitute. ¡Buen provecho!
An Eye on the Women of The Eye
By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken
Carole, one of the founding writers of The Eye, may be best known for her many Eye articles providing reviews of books. Born, raised and educated through high school in the south side of Chicago, Carole attended Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo for two years, majoring in English Literature and Education with a minor in Music. She completed her B.A. degree and certification for teaching at DePaul University in Chicago and then taught high school for three years in Maywood, Illinois. She realized that her true career path was in publications and first became a proof-reader of teaching manuals at the Bell and Howell manufacturing company, then a copy editor at the American Medical Association where she ultimately became the Senior Editor of an AMA publication focused on health for consumers.
While still teaching, Carole met her first long-term partner. They made the mutual decision to move to the Phoenix area of Arizona, where Carole developed a love of the desert, met her husband-to-be and switched careers to the travel industry. She first worked for a friend’s travel agency and then for many years for American Express advising platinum cardholders on their travel plans. Since Carole is passionate about travel and has visited every continent except Antarctica by herself or with small groups of friends, the new career was a perfect match – until she and her husband decided that they wanted to adopt a completely different, less complicated, life style and in 1997, moved to San Miguel Allende and in 1999, to San Augustinillo, a small village on the Oaxaca coast. Unfortunately, her husband died the following year, but Carole remained in the village for nine years and, even after having moved to Mexico City about 15 years ago, still has close friends there and is esteemed by many for having established the San Agustinillo Library.
Living in Mexico City allows Carole to indulge her deep interest in opera and bull-fighting. She also enjoys playing social bridge and, recently, mahjong. She maintains close connections with her three step-children, seven grandkids, and many friends in Mexico and the U.S. But although she encourages visits to see her in Mexico, she is now a Mexican citizen and has no interest in returning to the U.S.
Carole met Jane Bauer many years ago while still living in San Augustinillo. Since Jane knew about Carole’s background, when she decided to publish the Eye, Jane called Carole and asked for her participation. More than ten years later she is still writing. Her favorite Eye contributions are her end-of-the-year book reviews.
In the Cradle of Corn, Farmers Go Broke and People Go Hungry
By Deborah Van Hoewyk
Maybe nine thousand years or so ago, corn was “born and bred” by the early peoples of the modern states of Oaxaca and Puebla, most probably in the Valley of Tehuacán. It took centuries of careful selection to turn a grass called teosinte into corn, but farmers in even the most remote areas developed hundreds of corn varieties adapted to different growing conditions. Although there are only about 60 strains of corn still grown in Mexico – Oaxaca is the origin for well over half of them – this genetic diversity should make corn a reliable food source even when natural or man-made disaster wipes out some types of corn.
(The Eye has published a number of articles on the history and cultivation of corn, go to https://theeyehuatulco.com/ and use the search box.)
Over time, corn has shaped the cultures and the lives of the indigenous peoples of Latin America; indeed, the Popol Vul, the sacred book of the people we now call the Maya (fl. c. 1800 BCE – 900 CE), reports that the gods tried to create humans first from mud and then from wood, but they failed. When the gods tried to create humans from corn, they succeeded, and the Maya became “the Children of the Corn.” Corn is thus way more than elotes y esquites sold from street carts – it is life itself. But the capacity of Mexican corn to sustainably support its people has faded almost entirely away.
How we think about hunger
People go hungry all the time. Drought here, famine there, and people in poverty have nothing to eat – we send money to food banks and hope for rain. That, however, is a response that only provides immediate relief. Growing and distributing food is by no means solely a natural phenomenon, and treating hunger as an unfortunate failure of nature is useless.
In 1981, the economist Amartya Sen, who notably also studied philosophy, published Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation – one of those books that changed the way we think about something. In 1943, when Sen was nine years old and growing up in Bengal, three million Bengalese starved to death, ostensibly due to famine. (Bengal is now divided into the state of West Bengal, India, and the country of Bangladesh.)
Analyzing the Bengal famine, as well as multiple famines in other countries, Sen argued that people do not go hungry for lack of food. In fact, there were adequate supplies of rice in Bengal to prevent people from starving. But starve they did, because the system that provided food did not provide equally for everyone. In 1942, in the midst of WWII, Japan took Burma (now Myanmar) and Singapore, cutting off their rice exports. The Indian military overreacted, stockpiling large quantities of rice, which led the public to panic buying, hoarding, price increases and then price gouging. People in Calcutta (now Kolkata), which was the capital of British India, could still pay the price – but three million people in marginal occupations and rural areas, where wages were stagnant and resources were few, could not.
Hunger in Mexico
For a country with a history of rebellion and revolution on behalf of its “ordinary people,” Mexico has a complicated, century-long history of poverty and hunger. The latest statistics on hunger, food insecurity, and nutrition indicate that overall, about 1 person per hour starves to death in Mexico; about 1 in 5 kids under age 6 is morbidly malnourished; about a quarter of Mexico’s population is food insecure (lacking access to basic foods); and a quarter of the population is obese. Mexico is the largest Latin American consumer of highly processed, “hyper-caloric” food products – raising the incidence of diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease.
In rural areas, where poverty is endemic, food is available but people can’t pay for it; on average, over 40% of the populations of Guerrero, Oaxaca, and Chiapas suffer from “food poverty.” (Statistics on Mexico’s social development status are collected by CONEVAL [Consejo Nacional de Evaluación de la Política de Desarrollo Social], which in 2008 developed the first multidimensional – both social and economic deprivation – poverty measurement protocol in the world.)
However, as both Amartya Sen and CONEVAL would point out, the connection between poverty and hunger is not simply a matter of whether you can afford to buy healthy food. For millennia, corn was the main staple in the Mexican diet, and it was a healthy food for the Mexican families who grew it. Tortillas made from native corn (maíz criollo) provided over 40% of a day’s protein requirement, they prevented rickets in kids, and offered lots of fiber. Between 1982 and 2018, however, tortilla consumption dropped by over half, and tortillas were “industrialized,” made from commercially grown and ground masa harina (corn flour). What happened?
NAFTA and the collapse of Mexican corn
A lot of things happened – agricultural, social, and political – but most significantly economic, starting with the promotion of free trade policies in the 1980s. Mexico, like other Latin American countries, had borrowed internationally to support modernization and industrialization. On August 12, 1982, Mexico defaulted on its debt. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailed Mexico out with a loan that required, among other things, reducing trade barriers, deregulating industry, and
liberalizing foreign investment. These conditions, along with other measures to facilitate international trade, especially with the U.S., led a decade later to Mexico’s participation in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA, signed in 1994), renegotiated in 2020 as the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). On the surface, NAFTA seemed to convey great benefits on Mexico’s ability to trade with the U.S. and Canada.
But NAFTA didn’t work out all that well in relation to agriculture and domestic food production, particularly the native corn. Concurrent with NAFTA, and required in part by the agreement, Mexico shuttered the few agricultural support programs it had in place, some of which were considered anti-poverty programs as well. The Mexican government made strenuous efforts to acquire imported grain, mainly corn, from the U.S. Scads of American corn arrived in Mexico, and was sold more cheaply than the more nutritious native corn. The impact on Mexico’s food system and people at the economic margins was profound.
By 2003, nine years after NAFTA, the zócalo in Mexico City was crammed with machete-wielding campesinos – farmers demonstrating against the impact of NAFTA on their ability to make a living growing corn. An additional clause took effect in 2003 – Mexico would no longer impose duties on agricultural imports from Canada and the U.S. That meant even more foreign corn, cheaper than ever; 900,000 farming jobs in Mexico had disappeared by 2003.
By 2004, the U.S. had quadrupled its corn exports to Mexico, and prices of native corn had dropped by 66%, driving many mid-sized corn farmers – the ones who were producing corn for sale, not subsistence – out of business.
By 2011, two million small and mid-sized farmers had left their land because they couldn’t support themselves; the land most of their farms occupied was rough and rocky, and couldn’t be adapted to compete with larger farms in flatter territory. For at least five years now, Mexican agricultural production has been shifting to export crops popular in the U.S., notably berries and avocados. Neither crop is integral to the Mexican diet, and small farmers do not have the resources to switch to such export production.
By 2016, corn was Mexico’s #1 agricultural import from the U.S. Mexico became the #1 export market for the U.S. not only for corn, but for dairy products, soybean meal, and poultry – all basic foodstuffs. It was the #2 export market for highly processed food from the U.S.
By 2018, Mexico was importing 45% of its food, ranking it 7th in the world as a food-importing nation.
In Eating NAFTA: Trade, Food Policies, and the Destruction of Mexico (2018), author Alyshia Gálvez argues the food-system case against NAFTA’s “unintended consequences,” finding that a global and financial definition of “food security” has been more valued than subsistence agriculture, that commercial development has been more important than sustainability, and that market participation outweighs social welfare, particularly in relation to the Mexican diet. Galvez saw little chance for changing these outcomes.
On a more hopeful note, tortillas to the rescue
Just as healthy, protein rich tortillas made from heirloom corn seem to be a thing of the past, they may be back, ironically rescued for their potential to offer a gourmet food experience, albeit with a social purpose.
In May 2018, the Alianza por Nuestra Tortilla (Alliance for Our Tortilla), a collaboration among 75 or so businesses, food producers, corn farmers, and researchers, was formed to ensure Mexico can recover “la buena tortilla,” the ideal tortilla, made from native corn that has been nixtamalized (processed in an alkaline solution that unlocks nutrients and enhances flavor and scent). The corn will have no agricultural toxins or additives, and will not be genetically modified.
One member of the Alianza, businessman Rafael Mier, had founded the Fundación Tortilla in 2015, and its main program, Tortilla de Maíz Mexicana, a year later; the goal was to promote the “culture and consumption of corn and the tortilla as fundamental elements of national wellbeing.” Mier’s program works on public policy to revitalize native corn; preserve the traditional “three sisters” (corn, beans, squash) method of corn cultivation; and generate and disseminate knowledge of native corn and how to use it.
Taking a non-tortilla approach, the Scorpion Mezcal company launched Sierra Norte Native Corn Whiskies in 2016, made from 15% malted barley and 85% maíz criollo. Although the new product was driven by the burgeoning popularity of mezcal, which in turn caused a shortage of agave, owner Douglas French sees it as a way to help keep Oaxacan “native cultures and traditions alive,” specifically by buying endangered heirloom corn produced by small family farms at a fair price.
New tortillerías have opened in Mexico City that specialize in traditional tortillas, which have started appearing on the menus of upscale restaurants, e.g., Pujol; the first, Maizajo in Azcapotzalco, opened in 2016 and is “dedicated to the research, production, and commercialization of native corn products.” Cintli, opened in 2017 in the La Roma neighborhood, likewise focuses on native corn, uses nixtamalization in its processes, and practices social justice in its relations with corn producers. You can take a tour of Cintli, and try out their tortillas (and other heirloom corn products).
You don’t even have to go to Mexico to experience tortillas made from maíz criollo. In 2014, Jorge Gaviria, originally from New York, founded Masienda in San Francisco; now located in Los Angeles, Masienda aims to “elevate the everyday tortilla through a return to its origins,” which Gaviria found in Oaxaca. By now, Masienda has relationships with over 2,000 smallholder Oaxacan corn farmers, and produces traditional tortillas from their native corn. You can purchase Masienda’s Corn Tortillas (pink bag) and their Blue Corn Tortillas (blue bag) from Whole Foods in New York City for $4.49 US each.
Whether creating a market for gourmet tortillas will create enough demand to help small farmers in Oaxaca is an open question, though. If you’re in Mexico now or even a couple of years from now, that corn tortilla under your taco will most probably have been “born in the USA.”
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