Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Pictures from Mexico City: La Merced, Monuments, and Maps

(Earlier post here. Belated best wishes to all during this season of wonder and hope.)

A stack of banana leaves at a vendor's stall at La Merced, Mexico City. Banana leaves are used as wrappers for steaming/holding together food, especially in the southern regions of Mexico. In person, these were various beautiful shades of dark green, but that quality didn't show up so well in the color picture; so the Mrs. switched the image to black and white and revealed these marvelous textures. Click on this and the following images to enlarge them. This and all images by the Mrs.

In yesterday's post, I said that our primary goals for our trip were "1) Visit the Basilica on the 12th; 2) Be a little more selective about where we ate some of our meals; 3) Relax." Yesterday's post was primarily about the Basilica, so here we'll sort of cover 2) and 3).

For me, at least, the two blur together more than I'd like. Thanks to some intrepid researching by the Mrs. we ate some very good food indeed, at prices that didn't exactly break the bank. In a couple of instances, though, these places were in parts of the city that were either brand-new to me or that I had not visited in many, many years (brief example here: all I remembered about my mid-'80s visit to the National University to see its famous mosaics was that I'd gotten off at the University's Metro stop and climbed a hill . . . I had forgotten the part about walking about a mile--important because by that day on this most recent trip, the Mrs. had developed blisters), and it so happened that I was without my trusty flip-map of the city. (It is in some box, somewhere, that I know it made sense to put it in at the time as we were packing for the move, but I couldn't find it the day before our departure.) The Mrs., however, had her equally-trusty smartphone with GoogleMaps and GPS, and more than a few times that did indeed come in very handy. One morning, when in search of a restaurant that, the reviews assured us, "everyone" knew (advice to Comp students: Beware of those absolutes!), we were able to use these marvels to help out our taxi driver when he got a little turned around in the neighborhood where the restaurant is.

But I still found myself missing my map's fixed scale and, for that matter, its much larger "screen." We'd look on the Mrs.' smartphone's screen at the little dots showing where we were and where we wanted to go (sometimes having to decrease the image to make both dots appear on the screen) and she'd ask me, "How far is that from here?" and I'd have to say, "I'm not really sure." Only the very oldest part of the city (the Spanish-built, mid-16th-century part) is laid out on anything resembling a standard grid, so it's pretty easy to estimate distances there; the rest is a crazy-quilt of self-contained colonias, each with its own autonomous determination of the shape and dimensions of a city block. Lots of fun if one is wandering through on foot--the way to really get a sense of this city, huge as it is, is to a good bit of walking in it; but it's not so much fun if one is looking for a specific place and one's feet really, really hurt.

Anyway. This isn't a criticism of GPS, by any means (I've done a bit of that elsewhere in other contexts, if you really don't have anything better to do this holiday season), but just an acknowledgement that having a traditional map would have been very nice, but it was in large measure thanks to GPS and the Mrs.' aforementioned research that we had some truly wonderful meals.

In lieu of pictures of said meals, how about some images of some of the ingredients for those meals from La Merced? First some general words about this place: It is a mercado, but it's no tranquil, adobe-walled place with humble serape-wearing folk with their wares (often made or grown by the sellers themselves) spread out on blankets. Imagine a space that's, oh, the size of at least three Super Wal-Marts, filled with, maybe, three times the amount of displayed merchandise of those Wal-Marts, the shouts of venders hawking their wares, the polite pushing (if that's not an oxymoron) of shoppers, and a fair amount of visual chaos: no signage; just merchandise stacked way north of 10' feet high and the sudden awareness that, "Oh--this must be the shoe section, and that over there [one peers down a very long aisle and sees lots of gleaming cylindrical aluminum and stainless-steel things] looks like the cookware section. Maybe foodstuffs are next to that?" One should not go to this place when on a schedule or when looking for something in particular, both of which rules we violated: We went on our last day in the city (we had several hours before our flight left that afternoon, but I was more than a little concerned that we'd have trouble finding our way back to the entrance to the Metro station), and we were in search of vanilla for friends and family back home. (I could write a whole blog post on our quest for vanilla, but I'll spare you. It was just yet another reminder that I need to stop asking the rhetorical question, "How hard can this be?") But we promised ourselves that the next time we visit, we'll go there when we can just wander.

Dried chiles. This was by no means the only, or largest, display of chiles; its corner location lent itself well to photographing it, though. Incidentally, the Mrs. herself asked for permission to take pictures; no one refused us--indeed, the sellers were most gracious and even seemed pleased to be asked.

Heads of garlic. To get a sense of just how big these were, the heads to the right are regular-sized heads. These made our "elephant head" garlic look positively scrawny by comparison.

Huitlacoche. This is a corn fungus named by the Aztecs (it translates literally as "ravens' excrement"); it's used as a filling in tamales and quesadillas, and in soups. We didn't try anything with huitlacoche, alas, which I now am regretting; it has a mushroom-like, smoky taste, which sounds pretty good to me. Here is more information and some recipes, for the curious.

Mushrooms. We don't know what variety these are (they weren't labeled); we just very much liked their shape and very subtle gradations of color.

Flores de calabaza--squash blossoms. As with the huitlacoche, we didn't try anything with this as an ingredient; like huitlacoche, these flowers are used in soups and as an ingredient in variations on traditional dishes such as tamales and quesadillas.

Okay: enough food. Now, below the fold, some monuments.

El Ángel a la Independencia, or simply "El Ángel." Dedicated in 1910 to commemorate the centennial of Mexico's independence from Spain, this is one of the capital's most iconic monuments and, for American visitors, a potentially-crucial landmark--the U.S. embassy is just a couple hundred yards away.

El Monumento a la Revolución. This was two blocks from our hotel; we passed by it daily because it was on the way to the Metro station we always used. Last year was the bicentennial of Mexican independence and the centennial of the Revolution; in honor of the latter, this Monument has undergone a modest transformation: there's a small but very nice museum below it, and now there's a glass-enclosed elevator that takes you up into the dome itself, where there's access to an outer observation deck.

The elevator shaft that leads up to the dome of the Monumento.

The inner dome of the Monumento.

An inner stairwell leading out to the Monumento's observation deck.

Looking southwest from the Monumento's observation deck--for those familiar with the city, those tall buildings are about a mile from the Monumento and stand where Paseo de la Reforma enters Chapultepec Park. It was smoggy that day, and for most of our stay; as I noted in the earlier post, though, back in the '80s this would have been considered a pretty clear day.

Statute of Fidel Velásquez Sánchez (1900-1997), the founder of the Confederación de Trabajadores de México, or CTM, the largest and most powerful of Mexico's labor unions, located at one corner of the CTM's headquarters. His Wikipedia entry gives its usual dispassionate account; the short-and-polite-version is that, for decades and decades in the last century, Velásquez Sánchez had as much a hand in shaping 20th-century Mexican politics in concert with the PRI, Mexico's long-time ruling party, as any other figure--presidents included. He's here because the CTM's headquarters looks onto the plaza where the Monumento stands. The statue itself doesn't quite look onto the plaza, but it's close enough to doing so that a couple of times as we walked by him I thought about my post on "dialogic statuary" from a while back and thought on the appropriateness of its placement: both literally and figuratively, he was a child of the Revolution; and throughout his long life, for better and for worse, his actions helped shape the Revolution's meaning through the PRI's politics and policies.

If you've read this far, thanks.


R. Sherman said...

It must amuse Europeans that we Western Hemisphere types have so many monuments to our history which is, comparatively short compared to, oh say, Italy's.

Anyway, I love Mexican markets. When we've been to the Yucatan, we've stayed at a small fishing village south of Tulum away from the crowds. The Market there is every Saturday and Wednesday, and it's marvelous. I think it's a rule that Third World Market food never carries nasties, because we've never gotten ill on anything we've bought.


John B. said...

I appreciate your comment about the New World's tendency to monumentalize stuff. I suspect that the reason is to aid in the formation of a cultural identity, and we still have some work ahead of us in that department. Henry James once said that the history-obsessed Hawthorne would have been a better writer if he had lived in England instead of this country. As for Mexico, the desire to memorialize can get kind of tricky regarding the personages of the Revolution of 1910, when there was a fair amount of in-fighting (read: a couple of assassinations) among the leaders of the revolt against the old order. It's as though the monument-makers, rather than decide whom we're collectively supposed to root for, just decide to commemorate all of them. What ends up getting honored, then, isn't so much the persons as the revolutionary spirit of the time . . . one result of which is that you end up with something called the Institutional Revolutionary Party (the PRI). But to my mind, when you can literally round the corner from the national cathedral and confront the excavated remains of the Aztec's central temple, well, that to my mind surely is more impressive in its cultural significance than a golden angel on a column, attractive as it is.

Your comment about the market is right on, I think. My only encounter with severe gastrointestinal distress (as in, about four days of being so weak that at times I had to crawl to the toilet) was when I ate a gordita whose origins I didn't know. In the markets, the way that uncooked meat and fish get displayed--sometimes on ice, but usually at room temperature and uncovered--can give one pause, but that's because we're accustomed to saran wrap intervening between us and the meat. Nothing ever smells putrid or "off"--to me, La Merced smells amazingly fresh.

You also reminded me of something that happened to the Mrs. and me on this trip. Mexicans don't like getting sick from their food any more than anybody else does; so when in doubt about where to eat, just follow the crowds. Anyway, just down the block from our hotel was a little corner lonchería that served up short-order things like tortas (grilled meats and vegetables served on large, flattish rolls of bread). It was always crowded, and always very good. The first time we stopped there, I decided to introduce the Mrs. to licuados, which are similar to smoothies; as we waited for our order, a nicely-dressed older woman standing next to me caught my eye and said, referring to the place, "It's very clean." I told her that we weren't afraid to eat there; she smiled and said, "Well, you just don't want to get the Curse of Malinche." She said this as a kindness to me, but I think it was equally clear that she was speaking for everyone sitting there that night.