Food and Spirit: Mexico City

[Last weekend I returned from a week in Mexico, and for this week and next, I am going to alter the literary/writing topic of this blog, to write about being there.]

Mexico City street food

An extremely popular street food in Mexico City, cut off in small slices for tacos

The capital of Mexico has a population of a billion people—or if you’re into technical math and actual facts, a population of 20 million, and people in Mexico City drive like polite maniacs. They pull suddenly in front of one another, closely follow the car in front, and push into a line of cars that is already tightly packed. Nevertheless, I never saw Mexico City drivers grow angry or behave aggressively. They drive the way they do because they feel they have to (unlike where I live in Atlanta, where psychotic aggressive driving is normal).

In Mexico City, we found multiple streets devoted to particular types of commerce, such as home goods, plumbing, clothing, or music. Our apartment was close to a music street, and when we walked down that street in the morning to get breakfast (like the tamales I had one morning), the street was very quiet, somewhat deserted, all the shops closed with pulldown metal doors. In the evening, however, that same street was a cacophony of sound and lights and activity. At 9:00 at night, every business was open, selling electric pianos, huge speakers, sound systems, and other instruments, with small bright lights arranged to rotate and flash out the door, as thought the street itself were a stage. In front of a few stores, young women in tight short were paid to stand on the street and dance to the loud music, presumably to draw in customers. Customers who then might—who knows?—buy a guitar or something.

Compared to anything I’ve ever experienced, there was a tremendous amount of activity on the streets in Mexico City, and if you want food, it’s everywhere. This was the first country I’ve ever been to with such ubiquitous availability of food on the street. The city has many restaurants, but in addition, every place we went there were sidewalk stalls selling food, some stalls even with seats for customers to sit and eat tacos and fruit and cactus bulbs and beans. In addition to the stalls, the city must have thousands of tiny establishments the size of large closets, operating from inside a building but with a small counter opening onto the street. You walk up, you buy a taco or cup of fruit, you walk on.

Many different kinds of food are available, and in particular the people in Mexico City seem to like meat and meat and a little more meat. One morning we were walking around looking for a store where we could buy bus tickets and we passed food stands getting ready for later in the day. One place in particular had an enormous vat of boiling water, from which a man was pulling out pieces of meat that I believe were not yet entirely cooked. He was placing what came out of the water on a huge platter—snout, heart, piece after piece, as though a whole pig had been cut up and put in that vat. The scene was like something from Dante’s inferno of street cuisine.

We were three nights in Mexico City, and every night we ate in a restaurant that we loved. The first place, a small cafe recommended by our AirBnB host, had a motto painted on the front: “Aquí es un lugar de respeto y paz” Here is a place of respect and peace. While we were waiting for food, our waitress came by with a stack of books and drawings, which the cafe was selling to customers. If you bought a book, you got a free drink. I bought a book of poetry in Spanish and had my first delightful glass of mezcal, a specialty of the region of Oaxaca (tequila is a type of mezcal, but mezcal is also a different drink).

Another night we ate at an elegant place called La Opera, founded more than a hundred years ago by some Frenchmen. There I had grilled octopus in a spicy sauce, and I continued my exploration of tortilla soup, a delicious dish that most restaurants seem to carry. Our final night in Mexico, we went out with a friend to a gastropub-ish place for some damn good food, including something I went to Mexico hoping to try, chapulines, a type of tiny toasted grasshopper (also a specialty of Oaxaca). Take a small corn tortilla, add cubes of white cheese, guacamole, a pile of chapulines, and salsa—ah, baby, now that’s a Mexican taco. I also had another glass of mezcal, so it was Oaxaca night in my neighborhood.

Diego Rivera mural

Part of a Diego Rivera mural, of Indians dyeing cloth

We stayed in the center of the city, the Centro Histórico, and the very center is a huge open square called the Zócalo, lined on one side by the long high wall of the National Palace. Despite the enormous size of the palace, it is built like other residences under Spanish influence, with an inner courtyard, though in this case with a Really Big Courtyard. Facing the courtyard, some of the walls contain murals by the painter Diego Rivera, showing Indians living before the Spanish came, then crushed by the Spanish, then rising again in revolution.

Near the Zócalo stand the remains of a former high pyramid, the Templo Mayor, that was the center of the city when it was the Aztec capital, a city built on an island in a lake (a lake that is long gone). Thus the Aztecs, then the Spanish, and now the Mexicans have considered this spot to be the center of their society, as though the center of Mexico City is one of those places on the planet where an invisible power flows through the earth.

Another display of power was the enormous cathedral on the Zócalo. Construction on the church began in 1573, deliberately placing it in the old Aztec sacred space, the same way Catholic churches in Europe were built on top of Greek temples, to replace the old ways. Sometimes, however, the old ways do not disappear just because the conqueror builds a church. Although the Mexican people are very Catholic (the Spanish did win that one), we saw ceremonies right beside the cathedral where people were lining up for a traditional healer to perform a limpia (a spiritual cleansing).

Spiritual cleansing ceremony

Limpia ceremony near the Zócalo

The limpia involved the petitioner holding a large bunch of basil while the person performing the limpia held a smoking container, blowing smoke around the person receiving the cleansing. Thus an ancient spiritual ritual was performed next to the largest church in the country.

After a day and a half in Mexico City, we took the bus north to San Miguel de Allende, and next week I will write about that fascinating little town of art and history.

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