Friday, July 10, 2009
Being gored by a bull was preferable to spending another minute in the car with Lady Brett. Or in Pamplona.
WARNING: THIS POST IS NOT ABOUT FOOD.
I used to love Hemingway until he made me to go to the Festival of San Fermin (aka The Running of the Bulls) in Pamplona. “Papa,” I would shout out, in the middle of the night, awake in a cheap Parisian pension, starving student that I was, the dirty sheets drenched in my sweat and me, still drunk from the evening’s bar crawl, my copy of “The Sun Also Rises" open to a meaningful passage on the cheap wooden nightstand. “I cannot rest until I too visit the Festival.” “You are my soulmate.” “I cannot write again, until I write like you.” “I’m going to name my granddaughter Margaux too.” Unfortunately, I could not convince my benefactor (aka, my own “papa”) to finance the trip and let me stay in Europe beyond the end of June (the festival was in July) and I was forced to return to Baltimore, where I spent the summer as working an usher in the train station, calling out trains to Wilmington, Philadelphia, Trenton, Newark, New York, and beyond, all the while knowing I belonged way beyond. I belonged in Pamplona. When I returned to college in the fall, I put my festival dreams on hold. For twenty years.
And so it came to pass that I finally visited…no, that I finally PARTICIPATED IN, The Festival of San Fermin. I arrived at the airport in Madrid to meet my cast of characters, with whom I would spend the next 10 days. I, of course, was Jake Barnes, the impotent soldier who was hopelessly in love with Lady Brett Ashley. The lady herself was actually my best friend’s wife, a southern belle from Kentucky. And Robert Cohn, the Jewish outsider, was a gentile dentist from Tennessee. My best friend was Pedro Romero, the young bullfighter involved in a love affair with Brett.
Dysfunction reigned from the very beginning. As the only Spanish speaker with a few previous trips to Spain under my belt., I was elected to navigate and communicate and fornicate (no, just kidding… I’m impotent, remember). Pedro was driving the rental car and we stop to ask a truck driver parked on the side of the road for directions. When I return to the car, I report that the truck driver had told me to "fuck the road" to Segovia, which I assume to mean don't take it (later, I figure out that the term we use in Mexico for the "f" word is used in Spain to mean "get on" or "grab"). For some reason, probably to make my life miserable, Lady Brett had gone off her meds before the trip, and was completely OCD, telling me what an idiot I was for not being able to figure out where we were or understand the language. We did manage to make it as far as Segovia on the first day, although not via the highway, where Cohn and I passed out on the lawn of the parador, after finishing several bottles of pacharan. Brett and Pedro went into town for sucking pig and woke us up when they returned. Because the hotel restaurant was long closed, Cohn and I dined on a tin of tuna fish and saltines along with several bottles of cheap wine before passing out again. It kind of felt like Papa was there, watching us.
We made it to Pamplona the next day, late, after a long day in the car, where Brett's OCD had kicked in to the max; me on the receiving end of it, which I guess was a welcome break for Pedro. I lost count of the number of times she referred to me as an "f''ing nimrod" after I don't know how many wrong turns...and all I was trying to do was read a map and street signs. We checked into what was supposed to be the best hotel in town and which I can only describe as pretty nasty, and where I had a single room with worn green carpet and a hard bed. Unfortunately, I was still able to hear Brett in the next room through the too thin walls ragging on Pedro about it, after thinking I was finally free of her for a while. I ponder the wisdom of going to a drugstore to bribe the pharmacist for some Atavan with which to spike her wine, but think better of it. In Mexico I wouldn't have thought twice about it, but I didn't want to end up in jail and miss the festival...better to just put up with her.
We go to drink in a cafe and note that the crowd in town seems a bit, well...trashy. Pedro and Brett retire to the hotel and Cohn and I drink until we pass out. The next morning we are up at dawn, dressed in white, ready for the most magnificent event ever. And then my lifelong dream came crashing down and the Hemingway fantasy ended. Brutally.
I don't know exactly what Papa saw but what I saw was, as Brett described it, a "cluster f*&$ing nightmare." I discover in short order that I am not really a bull person. They are big, scary and nasty, especially when they are loose on the street. They SNORT. I never particularly liked them in bullrings but I thought when I saw them running free it would be different. I was right. They were totally terrifying. But nowhere near as much as the crowd was.
For the festival, the town had turned into what I can only describe as an Eastern European refuge camp, with the bulk of participants in the festival young and dirty kids, who slept in tents or on the streets, drank until they threw up on their white clothes, and wore the stains with pride. The casual sex and bohemian vibe of papa's time had turned into a Euro-trailer trash saddam and gomorrah recently risen from the depths of hell. There was screwing in the streets. There was vomiting in the streets. There was pissing in the streets. It was so appalling, so deeply depressing and disturbing, there was only one thing for me, Cohn, Brett and Pedro to do. Drink. It was the only way were gonna get through it.
And so it came to pass that the next few days dissolved into a drunken haze of early mornings spent watching the bulls running through the streets while even drunker idiots tried to run with them, eating and drinking until we passed out, waking up for the bullfights at night where the bulls who ran through the streets in the morning were brutally slaughtered in the bullring, then eating and drinking until we passed out again. It was insane.
It was also exhausting and we were only on Day 3, with 3 more to go, when Brett, as she was want to do in Papa's book, made the casual comment that perhaps we should adjourn to San Sebastian for some R&R. Cohn, Pedro and I refused to admit defeat. We were there for the festival and we were staying for the festival. All of it. Weren't we?
We weren't. There was no hiding it. The Hemingway dream was turning into full on disaster and to make it even worse, we weren't enjoying ourselves at all. Not the food, not the festival, not the people and not even the wine, which we drank to get through the misery. On Day 4, I woke up early as usual for the running of the bulls and noticed something nasty on the tacky green carpet. What was it? Was it....baccalao? I try to think back to the night before. Didn't I have baccalao for dinner? The phone rang. It was Pedro. "We're out of here," is all he said. I breathed a sigh of relief, put my pounding head back on the pillow, and slept until noon.
We were quiet on the drive to San Sebastian and even Brett didn't speak. Shell-shocked, I guess. We had no idea what to expect, but whatever was in store, it couldn't have been as bad as Pamplona. We arrived into San Sebastian and I instantly felt at east. It was lovely, there were no drunken crowds, and the hotel was great. My room overlooked the river, the tide coming was coming in from the Bay of Biscay, and I filled my lungs with fresh air and breathed a long sigh of relief. I felt like I was home.
I used to love Hemingway until he made me go to the Festival of San Fermin.
Friday, June 26, 2009
Tuesday, May 19, 2009
Friday, May 15, 2009
I am constantly asked by friends, or friends of friends, or by people who got my name from someone who knows me, where to eat when they visit Mexico City, and I am only too happy to provide some recommendations. But before I go on, I need to say again that the best Mexican food I have ever had is prepared by my housekeeper, who has kept me well fed and versed in Mexican cuisine for many years now, and once you have tasted her huachinango a la veracruzana, mole verde, sopes, chiliquiles, and my favorite, grilled pork ribs marinated in tequila and diced poblano chiles, a recipe we developed together, food in most local restaurants pales in comparison. That is why I go to them infrequently, or when I have guests in town who want to eat “authentic” Mexican. But when I do go out locally, I tend to go to the places that are listed in guidebooks and discussed on boards like Chowhound; Izote, Fonda del Recuerdo, Villa Maria, La Valentina and Contramar continue to wow me on occasion and almost always leave me feeling satisfied. For tacos, I like El Tizoncito in Condesa and Lago de los Cisnes in Lomas (especially on Sunday afternoon, the official maid’s day off,, where upscale housewives who have no idea how to boil water can be seen devouring tacos along with their families). My corner taqueria, Las Costillas on Juan Escutia and Pachuca, makes great quesadillas and their pork chop tacos are always a hit with me as well, as is the friendly staff.
Eating in traditional “international” restaurants that include some Mexican dishes on the menu (Bellinghausen in the Zona Rosa and Danubio in the Centro) is like slipping into a pair of sweats and beat up sneakers…comfortable, easy and familiar. For more modern Mexican, I also like Los Canarios in Sta. Fe, especially the duck tacos, as well as La Guadiana.
For non-Mexican dining, Jaso in Polanco is about is good as it gets, and the understated Basque restaurant Bakea in Lomas de Barrilaco always leaves me wishing I was back in San Sebastian and wondering whether it is in fact, the best restaurant in the D.F.
L’atelier de Quim Jardi in Colonia Roma is the perfect bohemian pizza joint run by a quirky, unique and talented chef; I go about once a week and usually order “The Lynch”, named after the famous director, which is not yet on the menu but will be whenever they print a new one. The jazz is always hot, the pizza at times, not. Still my favorite pizza place though. 50 Friends in both Condesa and Polanco has good pizza as well, always with a large crowd that is reflective of each neighborhood.
I try not to eat much beef these days, but when I do, El Zorzal on the corner of Alfonso Reyes and Tamaulipas is a fine place to do it. I prefer their casual, neighborhood vibe to the big ticket Argentine places like Rincon de Argentina, which always feels to me like a huge Rustler.
All that said, here are three simple places that don’t make all the discussion boards or guidebooks (although occasionally they do turn up) that I find myself returning to for Mexican food and always enjoying. I can recommend them to just about anyone and everyone.
Selene (behind the Camino Real in Anzures). Go very late and very drunk. You will fit right in….and you probably won’t notice (or at least remember) the cleanliness factor. It's all about the tacos al pastor here, although I have ordered a "milanesa" taco from time to time and loved every greasy bite.
El Turix (Emilio Castelar 210 in Polanco). Stuff yourself on cochinita pibil tacos and panuchos, down a few Montejo beers, and bliss out.
La Gurufa (Michoacan 91, Condesa). I don’t know why I like this place so much, but I do. Sit outside, watch the happening locals, order the blue corn quesadillas with goat cheese or another contemporary Mexican option and chill. Saturday and Sunday late mornings are best, because you are sure to spot someone more hungover than you are.
Wednesday, May 13, 2009
Tuesday, April 21, 2009
I had some friends and colleagues over this weekend to drink some sake that I brought back from Japan a couple of months ago and compare it to what is available locally (consensus: no comparison whatsoever. Further consensus among most the next morning: better just to stick to Sapporo and Albarino.) To go with the sake, I had a sushi chef from one of the better local sushi places come in and prepare what turned out to be a huge sushi and sashimi feast. There was so much leftover, everybody took home a large package and I still had more than there was room in the refrigerator to store, so my housekeeper, building manager and several neighbors were gifted large foil packages as well. In the end, I was left with a few pieces of hamachi and big styrofoam cups of ikura and tobiko (flying fish roe). I spent all of yesterday wondering what I could do with the salmon roe and came up with the following recipe last night. It was so good, I had it again tonight, polishing the recipe and polishing off the ikura at the same time. I am still working on what to do with the tobiko. I’m thinking pizza with wasabi creme fraiche and chives.
Green Fried Rice with Ikura (salmon roe)
Serves 1 as a main course, 2 as a side dish
-2 tblsp. canola oil or other oil with high smoke point
-2 cloves garlic, minced
-2-4 serrano chiles, minced
-1 cup steamed white rice (preferably leftover Jasmine and cold)
-1/3 cup each minced cilantro, cucumber and scallions
-1 tblsp. fish sauce or soy sauce
-2 tblsp. salmon roe
-Tomato wedges and scallions for garnish, lime wedge for squeezing
Heat a wok over high heat until smoking, then add oil, swirling to coat. Add garlic and chile, stir fry for about 30 seconds. Push garlic and chile to one side, add egg and fry until barely set. Add rice and breaking up egg, stir fry for another 30 seconds. Add cilantro, cucumber and parsley, and stir fry 30 seconds, add fish sauce or soy sauce, and stir fry for about 90 seconds more, adding a little more sauce if it seems too dry.
Serve rice topped with salmon roe and garnished with tomato and scallions. Squeeze a bit of lime juice over the top.