After Intoxication: Brightly Colored Exciting Dangerous Things
Early deadlines? Really? You know my approach to deadlines! And it’s planting season! I tried writing this intoxicated, but found it inefficient. I tried writing this hungover, but found it impossible. It did occur to me that this was the last deadline before Cinco de Mayo, which, especially in this part of the world, has become a St. Patty’s Day like holiday; that is, of cultural significance to some, but of celebratory significance to many. But we all need excuses to celebrate and intoxicate and finding excuses to do so comes easily. Personally, my closest link to Puebla was almost going there on a poorly conceived (and ever more poorly executed) road trip from Mexico City to Veracruz, yet like much of this valley I end up finding myself in search of a hangover remedy on May 6th.
Last year I dragged myself over to the neighbors’ party (to tell them to quiet down), and was quickly swallowed into a blend of pot and politics, Tres Generaciones Anejo and Natural Light, and the best tamales in the city. For the record, the fact that this neighborhood produces the city’s best tamales seems to do little to boost property values. Such is life in this largely Latino neighborhood of the biggest city of the country’s least intoxicated state, where such party agendas as described above are far from atypical. The morning after the neighborhood Cinco de Mayo party was inhumanly diabolical, at least until Maria made her late morning round of the neighborhood distributing desayuno de los campeones:
2 pounds of honeycomb tripe
1 pig’s foot, quartered
1 large onion, diced
3 cloves of garlic, peeled
1/2 cup of hominy, canned
1 tablespoon of oregano, dried
1 bunch of cilantro, chopped
salt and pepper, to taste
and chile peppers, variety and quantity TBD, also to taste
Or something like that, perhaps.
Backward engineering recipes can be difficult. Maria claims that the only three ingredients she uses are tradition, soul, and love.
“I put extra medicine in this batch,” Maria said with a laugh, as I received with two hands the foil-covered steaming red spicy bowl of tradition, soul, love, and cow stomach.
“Gracias,” I replied, sheepishly hungover, with a nod-bow.
“You’re welcome.” she responded with a pause to extend her already full smile to a near laugh. “Your Spanish is better when you’re drunk.”
The ‘medicine’ Maria referred to was neither the hominy nor trippa, but the of course, the chiles. This batch contained a mix of anchos (dried poblanos) for taste and chiltepins (aka “bird’s eye chiles”) for fire. A quarter of the way through the bowl, or at least through the broth (my state was not ready to stomach the tripe), sweat was beading on my forehead. I grew light-headed, high, floating on endorphins. Euphorically released from one intoxication to another.
The hangover killing ingredient of menudo and the well prepared bloody mary is capsaiscin (methyl vanillyl nonenamide to those who take a scientific interest in hangover relief), the defining feature of the chile pepper. Ironically, perhaps, what likely once developed as an evolutionary adaptation to prevent the fruit’s consumption is now what provides for the enjoyment of such. Some would even go so far as to say addiction of such. But the pleasure from the fire cannot stem from the endorphin release or the biochemical properties of the fruit alone. Few vegetables can be said to have such mystique or be of such symbolic, historical, and cultural significance. Tradition. And healing (hangovers) through fire.
Brightly colored, exciting dangerous things. Among vegetables, only the pumpkin is used more frequently as a home decoration, and its role is seasonal. And while many vegetables have probably been thrown to incite riots, few are sprayed to control them. And then there are tattoos…
Maria has a small red chile, a cayenne, inked on the back of her neck. I noted it again as she walked away, off to deliver another portion to another neighbor. Perhaps the chile tattoo is symbolic of her inner fire. Her soul. I’m told the menudo must be stewed for hours for the love to seep in (or perhaps to tenderize the honeycomb tripe). Like so many other recipes that contain the chile pepper, it is a traditional dish, a peasant dish, a dish of celebration (which always goes better with a little spice). And a dish of intoxication, or, in our present case, recovery from thus.
The genus Capsicum includes the more common and docile bell pepper as well the chile. All are now called “peppers’ because the first Westerners to taste them thought their taste, or burn, resembled that of black pepper, making them one of the many things poorly named by Columbus. Maria only calls them “chiles,” the label derived from the Aztecan (or in Columbus’s terms, “Indian”) word chilli. Their five thousand or more year history of cultivation was discovered on pottery artifacts near Puebla, Mexico.
So on May 6th, I continue that tradition. After I finish Maria’s menudo, I take a moment to enjoy my light headed sweat, and head out to plant next year’s crop of chiles. There will be hangovers to be cured next autumn. And brightly colored, exciting dangerous things to be cultivated with tradition, soul, and love all summer.