Saturday, 27 February 2010

Breakfast on Sabinal IV: papaya and hot chocolate

I never actually had papaya and hot chocolate for breakfast on Sabinal. I had it at Restaurant Constantino at the corner of Calle Minerva and Avenida Benito Juarez in the grid of dusty grey streets that makes up the Chihuahuan desert city of Nuevo Casas Grandes. Constantino is not a restaurant I'd highly recommend; a little bit dumpy, tables and chairs sprawled messily throughout the room. Nor would I vouch for the food except for the lime-soured papaya and the frothy hot chocolate.

Sabinal is a small isolated Mennonite colony in northern Mexico connected to Nuevo Casas Grandes by an abandoned railroad bed-turned-shale covered road which lurches and bumps through endless miles of scrub bushes; creosote and mesquite, prickly pear and yucca lost in the barren beautiful desert of sky and mountains. Sabinal Mennonites resist modernization and its easing amenities including electricity and vehicles as they persist in the harshness of desert farming. Facing astronomical odds, a few prosper, most tenaciously hang on, and others abandon another failed cotton, onion or chili crop for a house trailer and a steady, albeit cash-under-the-table job in Texas.

I spent the cold, shivering month of February 2009 on Sabinal conducting ethnographic research and while there was generously hosted by the Klassen, Hiebert, Braun, Harder and Wall families. I joined them around their tables, I awkwardly climbed in and out of their buggies, I sat stiffly upright on a wooden church bench listening to the singing of a hundred Old Colony Mennonites worrying that my skirt was too short. I laughed with three-year-old Henry as I pushed him around and around his grandmother’s yard on a scooter. I accompanied Anna Braun to the pasture to bring the dairy herd home in the evening as she explained the eccentricity of a cow who insisted on sucking her own teets. I listened as Maria Harder sang Elvis Presley and Wilf Carter, songs she remembered from her youth in British Columbia. I heard stories of neighborly tensions, dogs poisoned, cows trampling gardens. I was invigorated and exhausted and marveled at my own tenuous and inadequate understanding of it all.

Near the end of my stay on Sabinal, I joined Susanna, Sarah and Margaret Klassen on a late night ride across the colony to village #7 to deliver a band saw blade that needed sharpening for the upcoming Klassen pig butchering. In spite of the glistening infinity of a galaxy of stars overhead and the orange haze of Ciudad Juárez’ million lights glowing in the distant northeastern sky, the night was blindingly black. The busyness of daily life had quieted on Sabinal, houses were darkened and most families were asleep. Reins in hand, Sarah deftly guided the horse through the darkness as she quizzed me about a train that could take me clear across a city all the while underground. I, on the other hand, was distracted, overwhelmed by the beauty of the black stillness, relieved to be miles away from the noise and lights of Toronto. In the lulling and languishing of our conversation, I knew this sky to be big enough to hold the intimacies of connection and the mutual misunderstandings of our different worlds, an expanse vast enough to embrace the happiness and courage, the discontentment, the sorrows, the exclusions, the grasping, the satisfactions and the worry, the predictability and the bewildering that I had witnessed as life on Sabinal.

Constitucion Oriente
During my month on Sabinal I periodically returned to Nuevo Casas Grandes to catch my breath. On those mornings when I disembarked from the bus that had brought me from Sabinal to Nuevo Casas Grandes, I stepped into a dreadedwelcomed solitude so different from the bustle of colony life. I was relieved to be away from the curious gaze of colony Mennonites and even more relieved to shed the obligation of my own ethnographic curiosity. I anticipated sorting through my Sabinal-intense thoughts but I shrank from the trepidating loneliness of having no one to share those thoughts with. Arriving early enough for a second breakfast I usually headed up Constitución Poniente, away from the cluster of Sabinal Mennonites who had traveled with me, walked as far as Minerva and then inevitably turned in to Restaurant Constantino.

A breakfast of papaya and hot chocolate does not register as one of Mexico’s culinary wonders. The dry brown winterness of Nuevo Casas Grandes is a long, long way from Mexico’s culinary capital, Oaxaca, where chefs of Pilar Cabrera fame pestle a thousand richnesses—mulatos, pasillas, anchos, walnuts, sesame seeds, pine nuts, pepitas, all spice, cinnamon, plantain, raisins, pears, prunes, tomatillos, garlic, chocolate, panela—into the thick sticky moles that make that state famous. Nothing Nuevo Casas Grandes has on offer even begins to approach the seven-hued splendors of Oaxaca’s moles. I enjoyed the bacon-wrapped, cheese-stuffed jalapeños at a seafood joint downtown, the creamed chili burritos from a stand crowded into the corner of a supermarket and tortilla soup in the restaurant of Villa Colonial hotel but Nuevo Casas Grandes is no culinary mecca. Its fare is what you would expect in a dusty northern town, simple flavors that make only modest demands on the palate. Yet there is a time and place for everything, even the unpretentious, ordinary, sometimes mediocre food of Nuevo Casas Grandes. On those cold February mornings when I stepped off the bus I had a sky full of complexities to contemplate so what in heaven’s name would I have done with a dish of mole negro oaxaqueño or mancha manteles de cerdo? No, I needed a palated quietude for breakfast. I was content with papaya and hot chocolate, a plate of effortless simplicity set down in front of me, a mug of warming smoothness to grasp in my hands.

mancha manteles de cerdo - pork table cloth stainer

Breakfast on Sabinal III: milking sunrise

Breakfast on Sabinal II: watch what you say

I should not have said “oatmeal.” I should have been evasive, I should have hemmed and hawed, "oh, different things, sometimes this, sometimes that." But I didn't. I said I usually ate oatmeal for breakfast. I've never liked oatmeal that much but I started eating it regularly about two years ago; healthier than boxed cereal and more substantial than toast. I've learned to cook it in such a way that I can enjoy it. I use small granular Scottish oats—rather than rolled—mixed with Red River Cereal to lessen the sliminess, cooked in milk rather than water for a more full-bodied flavor. This is the only way I can enjoy oatmeal. So I should have known better than to say “oatmeal.” Inevitably, the next morning while everyone else ate cookies and bread, I was served oatmeal, large undercooked flakes of rolled oats in a thin watery goo. But I filled my bowl, added some milk, a spoon of sugar and ate the porridge. I expressed my thanks to my host and sighed with relief as I got up from the table.

The next morning I crawled out of bed before the sun rose as I had to catch the bus back to Nuevo Casas Grandes. Apart from my host who was going to take me to the bus, the entire household was still asleep. After I had completed my morning ablutions and packed my bag, I sat down at the table laid out for me. By now the sky was beginning to glow with the morning light, but the room where I sat was still dark. I could just make out the pot I had seen yesterday so I knew I was being served oatmeal again. I lifted a spoonful to my mouth and did so with a certain lightness. I could manage another bowl of oatmeal on this my last morning on Sabinal. I slid the porridge into my mouth; cold, solid, leftover from yesterday! All I could do was wash each spoonful down with a gulp of coffee and hope that the darkness covered my dismayed grimace. I emptied the bowl, expressed my thanks and climbed into the buggy with relief.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

breakfast on Sabinal I: can there be breakfast on Sabinal without coffee?

On those frigid February mornings as a cold stillness dawns, what else is one to do but greedily slurp up gulping mouthfuls of coffee filling every inch of the body?

Many mornings I stood in the cold of a desert winter watching the Klassens, the Hieberts, the Harders milk their cows, feed their calves, release their squawking chickens for the day. It wasn't until the cows had been let out to pasture, the milk cans wheeled to the street to be picked up by the milk wagon later that morning and everyone washed and cleaned of barn smells that breakfast was served. A prayer was silently shared and then breakfast began, cookies, big flat cookies with marshmallow and chocolate topping, soft white buns--Tweeback, a pat of butter, no make that two pats and, of course, coffee. Cups were filled with boiling water, instant coffee spooned in followed by some creamer and then cold water added to cool it off. When everyone was satiated another silent prayer was shared and the busyness of the day could begin.

Most Mennonites on Sabinal are dairy farmers and have been for generations, ever since their fore-parents left Saskatchewan for Durango with their dairy herds in tow nearly a century ago. Every family I visited had a herd of cows. A fortunate few could afford milking machines but most families milked their cows by hand twice daily. Herds were regularly rotated on the fragile pastures that have been claimed from the Chihuahuan desert and which had to be carefully irrigated to be sustained. This intensity of never-ending dairy labor supplies the colony's two cheese factories with all the milk needed to produce the sought-after Mexican specialty, queso menonita. Sabinal cheese is particularly coveted because Sabinal is the only Mennonite colony in the Nuevo Casas Grandes area that does not use additives in its cheese.

Queso menonita is not the only dairy delight that Sabinal Mennonites know how produce and which they savor. Slices of soft unripened cheese pressed in the early hours of the morning, Brocke—pieces of Tweeback dunked in coat-your-lips-creamy curds, feather-light cottage cheese mounded onto Tweeback; lavish clottings of whipped cream atop cream pie. These are just the beginnings of the possibilities that can enhance a breakfast if you own a dairy herd. Without a doubt, Sabinal Mennonites have dairy in their bones. And so every morning as I spooned instant creamer into my instant coffee I marveled that a colony full of people who revel in consuming dairy in its many extravagances and for whom caressing a swollen udder is next to godliness, if not godliness itself, has collectively forgotten the pleasure of pouring thick sweet cream into its coffee and has resorted to syrupy-sweet, oily powder as a substitute. Surely with more than a thousand Holsteins within the fifty square kilometers that make up Sabinal there must at least one family that still drinks its coffee with cream, but I never had the good fortune to share a breakfast with that elusive family.

And then one morning it all made sense. Eating breakfast with the Klassen family, I watched first Jacob, and then his sister Susanna take a cookie from the bowl, one of those big marshmallow chocolate orbs, reach over to pull the butter dish closer and then slice a thick, creamy slab of golden goodness from the pat. I watched as they cut into the butter once again and then as they slid the butter-cum-cheese from their knives onto their cookies. In an instant I understood. This is no insipid, super-market-bland anemic paste that passes as butter where I come from. This is butter in all its dairy splendor, potent with the sharpness of soured cream, a sumptuous mouthful that lingers on the taste of pasture. This is the raison d'etre that sustains the ongoing grind of milking, day upon day, morning and evening, in the frosty winter or the blistering forty degree heat of a desert summer. This is an entire week's carefully hoarded accumulation of cream and I would dare to ask for some cream for my coffee?