November 2009

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One of the most savy food and drink writers I know writes a blog called the Foodinista (she’s also an editor at a major food publication but, to avoid conflict, prefers to go unnamed in her blog). Knowing my love for Mexico, she recently asked me to write a guest blog for the Foodinista on how to make the perfect margarita. This is part of what I wrote:

I have come to the conclusion that Mexicans no longer know how to make a proper margarita. At Ten Ten Pie in San Miguel de Allende I had to pry the bottle of Jose Cuervo gold out of Chema’s hand before he dumped the inglorious liquid into my glass. At El Sacromonte in Guadalajara I reveled in their chile en nogada while ignoring a large but insipid especial margarita that smelled of petroleum. And at Adriatico in Bucerias I got into an argument with my waiter for insisting that the bartender actually squeeze fresh limes for my drink instead of using some syrupy mix straight from Gigante. It’s triste, no?

A good margarita is one of those things that seems easy enough to make—like an omelette—yet so few people do it well. So let me tell you the key to making the perfect margarita: balance.

To read the rest (and get the recipe), go to:

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If the Jardín is San Miguel’s living room, Parque Juárez is her cozy den, a spacious, shady place where you can spend an afternoon reading a book without being disturbed in her luscious gardens.

This afternoon, needing to get out of the house but desiring some place more peaceful than the Jardín, I found a unoccupied green bench near the children’s playground. Above me, white egrets roosted in the thick branches of the laurel trees. I couldn’t see them but I could hear their vociferous squawks.

The author at the entrance to Parque Juárez. Photo by David Lansing.

The author at the entrance to Parque Juárez. Photo by David Lansing.

Here I was, only three blocks from the center of town yet it felt so quiet and peaceful. Every once in awhile a small group of boys would pass by, on their way to play basketball, or an old woman would stroll by, always smiling at me and offering up “Buenas tardes.”

From my perch I could see the wooden sign of my neighbor, La Mansion del Bosque, and the black lantern over the entrance to my own doorway. From there, the street curves up and to the left, eventually disappearing into the blue sky and, beyond that, the off-skew spires of La Parroquia, looking solitary and beautiful in the golden light of late afternoon. A view achingly beautiful.

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Serendipity dances up and down the streets of San Miguel. For instance, one day I walked up Aldama away from the center of town, past Parque Juárez, and towards the neighborhood of San Antonio. Having recently reread Mary Morris’ book Nothing to Declare: Memoirs of a Woman Traveling Alone, in which she took up residence in this barrio for a year, I was curious to see it for myself.

In her book, which was published over 20 years ago, she says, “I never would have moved to the neighborhood called San Antonio if I’d known better. For that part of town was different from the other parts. Very few Americans lived there. It was too far from the center of things. I would have to walk half an hour up a dusty hill to get to market. It was the poorest part; it was where the servants who served the wealthy lived and where others struggled just to get by. It was the dustiest, dirtiest place, where the Mexicans would call me “gringita” and my own mother, when she heard me describe it, would beg me to leave. I had no idea what I was doing when I moved into San Antonio. But I am grateful for the mistake I made.”

I don’t know if Morris has been to San Antonio lately, but things have changed. It’s been gentrified. In fact, the reason I was headed there was to look for a little organic produce store someone had told me about where you can buy the most delicate of local grown lettuce as well as heirloom tomatoes.

After a little searching around, I found the organic place and bought some squash blossoms and fennel. Leaving the store, I noticed that just across the street was a bakery where I bought a loaf of just-baked sourdough bread. Like something you’d get in San Francisco. And it was while breaking off a chunk of this still-warm bread that I stumbled across a cheese shop with a very nice selection of French cheeses.

As I said, Mary Morris’ old neighborhood has gone a bit upscale since she was there. I think today her mom would be just fine with her living in colonia San Antonio.

Anyway, it was while walking home with my squash blossoms and brie that I came across Eunice O’Hanna. Eunice lives in one of those grand mystery homes in San Miguel. From the street all you see is a brightly-painted wall with baroque façade and intricately carved wooden door. What’s behind the wall and door is always an intriguing mystery.

As I was walking down the street, Eunice, who must be in her 80s, was just coming out her front door. We chatted for a few minutes and then she invited me in. I followed her through the door and into a magical courtyard with fountains and a riotous garden of tropical flowers, particularly pink- and apricot-colored bougainvillea. It was like a miniature Garden of Eden which, Eunice explained, is why her décor had this Paradise-lost theme to it, centered by a very large, very beautiful Adam and Eve wall mural.

The Adam & Eve mural in the home of Eunice O'Hanna. Photo by David Lansing.

The Adam & Eve mural in the home of Eunice O'Hanna. Photo by David Lansing.

It was all fascinating. But not as fascinating as the dozens and dozens of strange necklaces Eunice had designed and now had on display in two rooms on either side of the courtyard entrance. The necklaces were made from old beads and amulets and coins as well as what Eunice called “found objects.” Meaning just little things she’d come across somewhere in Latin America that caught her attention.

Since many of the necklaces looked as if they’d been sitting in their display cases for decades, I asked her if she sold many. No, she admitted, not many. But, she said, she didn’t care.

“There are plenty of people who want to buy them. I just don’t like to sell them. So usually I don’t.”

We were both silent for a moment while I tried to wrap my arms around this. Afterall, she had a gallery, albeit in her home, and the jewelry was well-displayed and there were prices on everything. Yet she wouldn’t sell them.

Why was that? I asked.

She sighed, holding one of the delicate pieces in her hand. “People don’t deserve them,” she said.

And then she changed the subject by asking if I’d like something to drink. Her maid brought out a tray with a pitcher of agua de jamaica and a little dish of lime slices. We sat out in the courtyard, drinking the refreshing hibiscus tea while staring at the wall of a naked Adam and Eve, forever divided by a conniving blue snake.

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Dusk in San Miguel

At dusk the sky over San Miguel is a layered torte of reds and pinks and purples, a hazy but lovely sunset made rich by the smoke that sits over the town waiting for a breath of fresh air to blow it away. I like to walk up Correo in the late afternoon when the brightly colored walls of the buildings look drained in the sun, the heat and the dust making them like the old ladies who squat beneath the awnings of the mercado during the hottest part of the day.

A walk up Correo on a hot afternoon. Photo by David Lansing.

A walk up Correo on a hot afternoon. Photo by David Lansing.

I’ll have a drink by the pool at La Puertecita, waiting for the day to cool down. At this time of day, the wind is fickled. It can be perfectly still and then, quite suddenly, a gust from the south ripples the water in the pool, pushing dry bougainvillea flowers across the surface like water-skippers towards the deep end where they collect in informal bouquets. Minutes later, the wind changes its mind and now rushes in from the north, gathering clusters of papery red flowers in the shallow end. And then it is still again.

It is as if the angels in the washed out sky are fighting all over again, St. Michael and the devil, and neither good nor evil can hold sway for more than a few minutes at a time.

Once the sun has gone down I finish my drink and walk back down the hill to the Jardín. In the deepening shadows the walls of the homes I pass have regained their colors and now the dark courtyards look cool and inviting. I like to walk past El Pegaso, on Corregidora, where there are three telephone lines where hundreds of barn swallows gather in the early evening.

Why do they pick this particular spot to gather?

Who can say.

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In Alice Adams’ book Mexico: Some Travels and Some Travelers There, she writes: “Mexican churches so often have that slightly lopsided, mildly deranged look; they were clearly made by striving, imperfect, talented, but fallible human beings, which may account for some of their strong appeal.”

She most certainly must have been thinking of San Miguel’s most famous church, La Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel which everyone simply refers to as La Parroquia—the parish church. It is to this part of Mexico what Notre Dame is to Paris, a beloved icon that in some ways is San Miguel.

The author in front of La Parroquia, San Miguel de Allende.

The author in front of La Parroquia, San Miguel de Allende.

Like the buildings in Mexico City, church after church was built on this same site in San Miguel beginning in the 16th century, with each new architect taking some of what he liked and replacing that which he did not. In 1649, the church had so deteriorated that most of it was destroyed and a new one built. Thirty years later, the process was repeated and shortly after that, a new church was constructed in something of a Baroque style. For almost two hundred years, that’s the way it stayed. Then things got interesting.

Around 1880, a self-taught mestizo architect, Don Zeferino Gutiérrez, who also happened to be the city’s quarry master, was hired to build a new church façade. His inspiration came from the great Gothic European cathedrals—like Notre Dame. Had he ever been to Europe and seen these great churches? Of course not. But he had seen postcards of them. And evidently that was enough.

Now, because Zeferino was self-taught and because he was working with mestizo craftsmen who could neither read nor write, the architect used a stick to draw his designs for the workmen in the red clay soil. This is how I want the tower clock to look, he told them, drawing it in the soil. And this is how the choral windows should be. And so on.

The bell tower of La Parroquia. Photos by David Lansing.

The bell tower of La Parroquia. Photos by David Lansing.

The result is a mass of pink pilasters, balustrades, windows, spires, and steeples—all with a slight lean to them, like a drooping sand castle—that soar over the grand houses that rim the Jardín.

There are eight bells in the tower and all of them have names. The largest, called La Luz, was cast in 1732. It rings out every evening.

Some critics call La Parroquia an abomination. Others have called it “grotesque gothesque” and “Disneyesque.”

I think it is simply the most beautiful church I have ever seen.

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