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,
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!
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.
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.”
By Randy Jackson
It’s almost as if humans have a special connection to birds. It is a heart-warming delight for all of us to see or hear a bird. I could even imagine some brutish invading Hun pausing his evil deeds to watch a little bird hop from branch to branch, singing a pretty song. Birds soften us all, especially little birds.
In my view, all of us are somewhere on the birdwatching spectrum. There’s that Hun at one end. At the other end of the spectrum is the fully kitted-out, pocket-ladened dude or dudette (ornithologist), who devotes a good portion of their time seeking even a brief glimpse of an avian creature.
On the birdwatching spectrum, I’m somewhere in the middle. I’m more of a bird appreciator. I do own a copy of “Birds of Mexico and Central America” and I have a pair of binoculars. I also have a few birdwatching friends. It is through these friends that I have met an amazing birdwatching guide who lives in Copalita – everyone just calls him Cornelio.
Cornelio (Cornelio Ramos Gabriel) is well known for his bird-guiding prowess, both locally and online. Cornelio grew up, and currently lives, in Copalita. As a young boy, while out gathering wood for cooking, he was intrigued by a little red breasted bird. Flash forward to one day in 1998 when he was working at the Camino Real resort. Some tourists showed him a photo of a red breasted bird and asked if he’d ever seen one. Cornelio took them to the place he had seen that little bird as a young boy. To everyone’s delight, they found the very bird the tourists were looking for.
As Cornelio described it, “when I looked at that bird through the tourists’ binoculars, I fell in love with birds.” He then bought a bird guidebook, a pair of binoculars, and began walking trails seeking out birds in earnest. Even when on his motor scooter, if he caught sight of a bird, he would follow it until he could identify it. In this way, over time, Cornelio became an expert on the birds in the Huatulco area.
Around the year 2010, by word of mouth, people began asking for Cornelio to guide them bird watching. This guiding work continued to increase, so that by 2014 he was able to leave his hotel job. Guiding bird watchers became his principal job. This work is largely seasonal for Cornelio, who is also a musician.
Before the devastating effects of hurricane Agatha on Copalita, I was able to ask Cornelio some questions on bird watching in Huatulco:
What are some good places to observe birds in Huatulco?
Huatulco National Park, Sendero Candelabro (on Cornelio’s ranch in Copalita, http://www.facebook.com/senderocandelabro), and along the Copalita River.
How important or popular is bird watching in Huatulco?
Huatulco is a good area for birdwatchers. On a good full-day walk, one can observe about 100 to 120 species.
What is the season for migratory birds in Huatulco?
Northern migratory birds begin to arrive in October and they leave again in March. Birds migrating from the south are around Huatulco between April and July.
Have you seen birds in Huatulco that were well off course, possibly blown here by a storm?
Yes, I’ve seen a giant cowbird and a Tahitian petrel.
What is the rarest bird you’ve seen in Huatulco?
Any particular captivating bird watching experiences?
Once in the community of La Esmeralda [a five-hour drive northeast of Huatulco, on the border with Veracruz], in two days I observed 30 birds I’ve never seen before.
Cornelio’s reputation has spread to the extent that he sees increasing numbers of serious bird watchers who wish to see the endemic birds of Southern Mexico.
To contact Cornelio, many online links will put you in touch. Facebook, of course, or Tripadvisor, even a Google search for “bird watching Huatulco” will work. His own website is https://birdguidehuatulco.business.site/, or Whatsapp (52) 958-106-5749.
Note: At the time of writing this article, Hurricane Agatha hit the Huatulco area causing severe damage. The town of Copalita was severely hit. Cornelio’s family house was spared, but the homes of many friends and neighbours suffered devastating damage. Cornelio is involved in helping his neighbours out. One way of helping some people in Copalita is to send funds to Cornelio for this purpose.
The last word, of course, goes to the birds. Our relationships to these creatures holds an element of “uplifting of spirits,” somehow more so than with any other creature we see in nature. As Emily Dickinson has said “I hope you love birds too. It is economical. It saves going to heaven.”
By Carole Reedy
Tis the season for anticipation, which according to Balzac is the most reliable form of pleasure. The creative efforts of our favorite writers will fill bookstore shelves and Kindle apps starting this September – here they are!
Shrines of Gaiety: A Novel, by Kate Atkinson (September 27)
Devoted readers of Atkinson have followed the adventures of Jackson Brody with each selection in this series, but Atkinson has given us so much more. Her best-selling and highly acclaimed novel of 2013, Life After Life, followed the various alternate lives of protagonist Ursula Todd throughout the 20th century. A God in Ruins came in 2016 as a kind of sequel that brings to life Todd’s deceased brother.
This time the year is 1926, the place London and its Soho jazz clubs. We’re taken into both the world of the glitterati and the contrasting underworld of the era. This book is unlike anything Atkinson has done before, which is what keeps us coming back.
I Walk Between the Raindrops, by TC Boyle (September 13)
Short stories are TC Boyle’s niche, although over the past 25 years I’ve found his novels to be among the best I have read. In fact, The Tortilla Curtain (1995) remains among my top 10 novels.
I Walk Between the Raindrops is the name of a short story as well as the title of this new collection. You can get a sneak preview of his writing by reading the story version, which appears in The New Yorker magazine July 30, 2018, fiction issue.
Each one of the engaging stories in this collection is filled with Boyle’s usual satire and wit.
Lucy by the Sea: A Novel, by Elizabeth Strout (September 20)
Strout set a high bar for herself and her readers with her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Olive Kitteridge (actually 13 short stories, 2008) about the life of a retired schoolteacher. Olive Kitteridge (the protagonist) hails from the fictional, apparently nowhere, town of Crosby, Maine, and her ruthless honesty permeates each chapter. The book captivated readers worldwide.
A miniseries starring the versatile Frances McDormand received mixed reviews, with accusations that the character was portrayed as one-dimensional, though I thought it quite satisfying.
Strout also has been lauded, although with less enthusiasm, for her series of books based on her other protagonist, Lucy Barton. Strout’s latest takes place during the recent pandemic lockdown, Lucy quarantined with her ex-husband in a small house by the sea. It has been described as “poignant and pitch-perfect,” with human connection at the heart of the story.
Best of Friends: A Novel, by Kamila Shamsie (September 27)
Shamsie’s newest novel examines the different worlds and friendship of two women raised in Karachi in the first years of Benazir Bhutto’s reign and continues over three decades, when they both live in London. Loyalty and principle are guideposts woven into their lives, causing conflict and reconciliation.
Best of Friends is probably Shamsie’s most intriguing novel to date, even though Burnt Shadows (2009) and Home Fire (2017) are major achievements. In Best of Friends, we travel with her characters across the globe and live through significant world events. These provide vehicles for the actions of her complex characters. You’ll find it hard to put down.
Bad Angel Brothers, by Paul Theroux (September 6)
Over the years we’ve been the fortunate recipients of Theroux’s adventure tales via his fiction and nonfiction writing, all based on the many miles he’s traversed on our planet. From The Old Patagonian Express, The Mosquito Coast, and The Great Railway Bazaar of the 1970s to his recent Mother Land (2017) and On the Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Journey (2019), Theroux has dedicated his life to observing, experiencing, and writing.
Now in his 81st year, he brings us yet another psychological thriller involving two brothers at odds and the prospecting of gold and precious metals in the mines of Mexico, Alaska, Africa, and Colombia. Another feather in Theroux’s cap. Although his early books are my favorites, I’m eager to read his latest.
The Marriage Portrait, by Maggie O’Farrell (September 6)
After transporting us to Shakespeare’s world in her previous novel, Hamnet (the story of The Bard’s young son, 2020), versatile wordsmith O’Farrell now takes us to the 1550s and the royalty of Renaissance Italy, exploring the life of a young woman forced into an unwanted royal marriage. Loyal followers of O’Farrell are accustomed to her ability to envelop us in different worlds and centuries. This is my most anticipated book of the season, along with the Barbara Kingsolver novel next on the list.
One reason the novels of O’Farrell are favorites among avid readers is her versatility. The places, themes, and characters vary book to book, as does her style and tempo. My personal favorite is This Must Be the Place (2016).
Demon Copperhead: A Novel, by Barbara Kingsolver (October 18)
Move over Charles Dickens! Popular 21st century author Kingsolver has created a modern David Copperfield, called Damon Fields, whose life parallels our favorite Victorian boy. He is mockingly called Demon and Copperhead for the golden locks inherited from his father.
When I first saw the title of Kingsolver’s new novel, I thought she had returned to the theme of biodiversity so popular in some of her previous works. But I was pleasantly surprised to see it’s actually a retelling of perhaps the most loved work in English literature. Yes, it’s a tome, 560 pages to match Charles Dickens’ creation, whose first edition counted out at 624 pages. Some of our favorite delightful Dickens’ characters are also reimagined for a savory touch.
Kingsolver has taken on the challenge of showing us how little progress has been made in addressing socioeconomic poverty over the past 172 years (the autobiographical David Copperfield was published in book form in 1850, a year after the magazine serialization).
Kingsolver’s version also explores the dark world of poverty, this time in rural Appalachia where Damon grows up in an atmosphere of abuse, addiction, child labor, and foster care, though eventually he finds the kinder side of humanity.
A sense of humor and a talent for artistic expression, with the mandatory bit o’ luck, seem to save both David and Damon. True heroes both, as also could be said of their creators.
Nights of Plague, by Orhan Pamuk (October 5)
The Nobel Prize winner of 2006 is publishing his latest novel this October after controversy in Turkey upon its publication there in 2021. Pamuk was accused of “insulting Turkishness.” But, he says, “In Nights of Plague, which I worked on for five years, there is no disrespect for the heroic founders of the nation states founded from the ashes of empires or for Atatürk. On the contrary, the novel was written with respect and admiration for these libertarian and heroic leaders.”
According to The Guardian, PEN America has reported that at least 25 writers were jailed last year by the Turkish government, the third-highest number globally.
The story takes place on the imaginary island of Mingheria (between Crete and Cyprus), the 29th state of the Ottoman Empire, where Muslims and Orthodox Greeks struggle to live together. Conflict, plague, and murder merge to make this century-old story too close for comfort.
The Passenger (October 25); Stella María (November), by Cormac McCarthy (Boxed set of the two novels available December 6)
I admit to not being a fan of McCarthy, but feel it’s my duty to list his new books due to his extreme popularity. He has been named one of the best American writers by reliable critics, in the company of Philip Roth, Don DeLillo, and Thomas Pynchon. McCarthy, however, has stated he prefers the company of scientists to writers.
The books tell the story of siblings Bobby and Alicia Western. Their stories are told eight years apart, first Bobby’s and then Alicia’s.
The publisher says “These extraordinary novels are unlike anything Cormac McCarthy has written before, and while both should be read and experienced separately, they represent two sides of the same narrative coin. We are extremely proud to be publishing the remarkable, inimitable work of Cormac McCarthy.”
Said to be the publishing event of the year – perhaps I will give McCarthy another chance.
By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken
We grew up the East Coast of the U.S., where the primary sounds of birds were sweet and melodious. Their songs marked the seasons. The chirping of robins meant spring was here. The summer was filled from sunup to sundown with trills and warbles of brightly colored goldfinches, cardinals, orioles, and the more somberly attired nuthatches. Fall was brought in by the songbirds flocking together and filling the trees with melodies as they prepared to fly south. And even in the coldest days of winter, tiny chickadees hopped around on snow-covered branches as they cheeped their little conversations.
Imagine our surprise when we were introduced to the noisy birds on the Oaxaca coast making a racket as their sounds punctuated the day. We simply don’t need an alarm clock in Huatulco. The chachalacas wake us as soon as the sun rises. Although they are large and heavy, resembling turkeys or overgrown quail, we heard them long before we saw them. Their name means “chatterbox,” but “clatterbox” would be more accurate. Their calls to each other sound like a metal spoon dragging along a washboard. And since they are clothed in feathers of various shades of browns and greys and hide out in bushes and trees, they can be frustratingly hard to spot even though they sound as if they are close enough to touch.
We first actually saw, rather than heard, chachalacas years ago in Santa Cruz driving on a street that ended in relatively dense and high vegetation. Seven or eight of them were comically hanging out on one tree, their combined weight dragging the branches almost to the ground. At first we couldn’t recognize them, since it was after sunset and they were very quiet. But our headlights disturbed one and he or she gave a loud cackle waking the others who called out in an affronted cacophony. We had no doubt that they were the infamous chachalacas who frequently woke us, so we felt justified in turning the tables. Their ability to hide must be an adaptation to being hunted and cooked. Reportedly their meat is very tasty, and said, of course, “to taste like chicken.” Of course, many wild creatures, including snakes, are said to taste like chicken. But we intend to continue using them as alarm clocks rather than dinner. (For more on this bird, see “The West Mexican Chacalaca – Best Known for Its ‘Song’,” in the July 2013 issue of The Eye.)
We are often amused in the late morning and afternoon by white-throated magpie jays. These noisy members of the crow family have bright blue backs, a long blue tail, white breasts, a distinctive black v-shaped bar that rings its lower neck, and a comical curly-cue black crest that bobbles around as it hops from tree limb to tree limb. Magpie jays seem to spend most of their time screeching at each other and squabbling over insects and seeds. The only time they seem to be quiet during the day is when they are by themselves or when they stealthily position themselves near an outdoor human dining area to swoop down and steal a piece of bread or tortilla chip. On the off chance that a human is fast enough to protect the food from the swooping magpie jay, they are likely to find a nearby perch and scream until the human gives up and tosses the desired food to the irate bird. Some outdoor restaurants on the Oaxaca coast, plagued by aggressive magpie jays, have hung curtains to discourage the little beggars. Although we appreciate not needing to fend off avian thieves, we miss being able to watch the reactions of other diners who suddenly realize that part of their meal has been converted into a magpie jay free-for-all.
Mexico has 22 species of parrots and macaws, so parrots are plentiful on the Oaxacan coast. There are three varieties named for the frontal patch right above the beak – white (Amazona albifrons), lilac (Amazona finschi) and orange (Eupsittula canicularis). The little fellow with the orange frontal patch and long tail is actually a parakeet. But all of them are mostly green. And when they are flying from tree to tree and squawking while in motion, it’s difficult to tell them apart. Our favorite time to watch parrots (and many other birds) is during the period right before sunset. The birds flock together and begin searching for a place to roost overnight. Whole treetops seem to blast into air, as the flocks soar and, as one, find another tree to occupy. This visual phenomenon repeats itself several times until, using unknown criteria, the flock settles down for the night. But each time the flock comes in for a landing the group conversation is close to deafening. The sunset brings out a cacophony of ear-splitting, hard, harsh avian sounds multiplied by up to a hundred or more voices.
Finally, the bird whose noise punctuates the quiet of day all day long and sometimes even at night, is the woodpecker. There are three local varieties of the woodpecker; the lineated, pale-billed, and golden cheek woodpeckers. But they are commonly heard more than seen – even though each has a splash of bright red on their heads. Their distinctive ra-ta-tat-tat as they pound away at tree trunks looking for insects to eat can be heard at long distances. So, although one looks for that flash of red in nearby trees, the woodpecker may be deceptively far away. We grew up with woodpeckers, albeit different varieties, most commonly the downy woodpecker, so their drumming was a familiar noise.
But the strident sounds of the chachalacas, magpie jays, and parrots, once startling and unfamiliar, have now become part of our cherished environment in Huatulco.
By Jane Bauer
Migration is as natural as breathing, as eating, as sleeping. It is part of life, part of nature. So we have to find a way of establishing a proper kind of scenario for modern migration to exist. And when I say ‘we,’ I mean the world. We need to find ways of making that migration not forced.
Gael Garcia Bernal
I am always taken aback when I hear someone come down on immigration; after all, go back far enough and most of us are a long way from where our ancestors started. Things are always changing and people are always on the move. Whether it is a temporary hiatus for rest and relaxation or seasonal higher wages or a permanent move seeking a different kind of life – perhaps one with more safety or one where our money will get us more. How are we different?
Many would argue that long-term vacationing or owning a second home in a foreign country helps the economy and therefore isn’t the same as when outsiders come into their country looking for asylum and ‘taking’ their jobs. However, I would argue that they aren’t really that different.
While the kind of migration that has its roots firmly planted in ‘expat’ experiences can temporarily help an economy, in the long run it causes prices to rise, initiates gentrification and adds to a class system. I actually cringe when I hear the word ‘expat’ for its colonial connotations and I encourage you to read further on this if you find yourself using it.
On the other hand, the kind of migration that has its roots firmly planted in ‘refugee’ experiences can temporarily put a strain on an economy, in the long run, it is an important part of the economic growth of any country.
We are first and foremost people and it is hubristic to believe that any one of us is more deserving and entitled to movement or humane quality of life. Find your place in the world, make it your own, and let everyone else do the same.
This month our writers explore the waves of migration that have made Mexico the wonderful and diverse country that it is.
Thank you to everyone who submitted essays to our My Mexico Moment contest. I look forward to reading about your favorite places in Mexico for our July issue.
See you in July,
A Road Trip
By Nancy Westfall de Gurrola
After a year of college in my native Iowa, my parents decided that I needed to see more of the world. Having studied French in high school I assumed it would be Paris or the French Riviera. But no—the plan was for my mother and me to drive to Mexico City for a summer course. Obviously, I protested that I didn’t intend to spend the summer with my mother or riding on a burro or sitting under a cactus wearing a funny hat! I sulked about the trip, sure we would never survive the drive through the long hot desert and, as many friends in Iowa had told me, the “bandidos” might get us.
Despite my resistance, we left for Mexico City in June 1961 for what was to be a 2-day trek through the northern desert of Mexico. Somewhere between Matehuala and San Luis Potosí the car suddenly stopped. Mom lifted the hood of the car but had no clue what was wrong. Trailer trucks and cars whizzed by, but finally a man in a pickup stopped and offered to help the two non-Spanish-speaking “gringas.”
He began to take out one piece of the engine, put it on the ground, then another and another. My mother leaned into the window of the car where I remained sitting sullenly, cursing my fate in the sizzling heat, and said worriedly, “He’s going to dismantle the car, not know how to fix it and just leave us here!”
My mom, who spoke no Spanish, and our “good Samaritan,” who spoke no English, engaged in animated sign language. Suddenly looking very nervous, she said to me, “I think what he has asked for are my underpants! What should I do?” Still angry at being dragged on this trip, I replied that she should just give them to him.
She got in the car, slipped off the underpants and gave them to him through the window. After more sign language she said, “He wants yours too! Maybe then he’ll go away!” I complied.
But no, he didn’t go away but proceeded to tear the underpants into strips and tie them together. Observing this, my mother cried, “God help us! He’s going to strangle us with our own underpants!” Now I was frightened too!
Just as we were about to run down the road trying to escape, he began tinkering under the hood, replacing the parts of the engine that were strewn around. He signaled mom to try the ignition. The engine started! What had been a very scary moment suddenly turned into a humorous incident. He had fashioned a fan belt out of our underwear! We then followed him to a mechanic’s shop in San Luis Potosí to get proper repairs.
Why hadn’t our “good Samaritan” asked for a blouse or a handkerchief? He had needed something that would stretch! (We heard later that besides ladies’ underwear, pantyhose could be used as a fan belt but pantyhose had not been readily available until the mid-1960s and who would have worn nylons in the desert anyway?!)
Moral of the story? My stereotypes of Mexico disappeared forever! The exceptional helpfulness and ingenuity of our clever “guardian angel” inspired me to want to know more about Mexico and its people.
And I fell in love with Mexico and a Mexican. So, I remained, continued my studies, married, raised a family, became a university professor and have lived a wonderful life in Mexico. Before he passed away last year, my husband and I had celebrated 55 years of marriage.
Nancy Westfall de Gurrola