29 May 2008

Chocomíl de Fresas

The month of May is the hottest part of the year in Irapuato and we are anxiously awaiting the rainy season when things should cool off a bit. In the meantime we just have to grin and bear the heat. I mentioned to an American friend of mine that there is nothing that I like better on a hot day when I am worn out from walking around town in the heat than to buy a “chocomíl de fresas” and sit down in the shade and kill my hunger and thirst at the same time. He asked me if I didn’t mean a “chocolate milk” and I had to tell him “No, there isn’t any chocolate in my ‘chocomíl de fresas’ but there is milk and there are ‘fresas’ which in Spanish means strawberries”. My friend looked confused and that is understandable until I explained the contradiction. To do that, however, one must first take a step back in time. In 1928 the Proctor & Gamble Company (of Mexico) developed the first milk modifier to add supplemental vitamins and minerals to milk for Mexican children. The supplement came in the form of chocolate powder and was named “Choco-Milk”. The Mexican people find it awkward to pronounce the letter “k” in the word “milk” and so they just don’t bother and “Choco-Milk” is pronounced “choko-MEEL” and is written everywhere except on the Choco-Milk package as “chocomíl”. An animated character named Pancho Pantera was created in the 1950's to promote nutritional needs and awareness and to advertise Choco Milk and over the years Pancho Pantera has evolved from a simple country boy in a straw hat to a sporty modern youth. Until fairly recently the only flavor of Choco-Milk was chocolate but in 1997 Proctor and Gamble sold Choco-Milk to Bristol-Myers Squibb where it became a product of their Mead Johnson Nutritionals division. In the year 2000 Meade Johnson began to expand the product line, first with Choco-Milk Fresa, and then a few years later with Chococanela, Chocobanana, and Choconapolitano. I haven’t seen these new flavors in our supermarket though. All we have is the original Choco-Milk. Maybe the new flavors are just a big city phenomenon.

Before Choco-Milk Strawberry, Cinnamon, Banana, and Neopolitan “supposedly” came along if you wanted anything besides chocolate you had to invent it yourself like we still do here in Irapuato. People make milkshakes with milk and fruit and powdered milk (to make it thicker), sugar, and sometimes malted milk powder and because they are adding some sort of powder to milk they just called it a “chocomíl”. Some Mexican people refer to a chocomíl as a “licuado” (lee-KWAD-oh) and others as an “ezquímo” (ez-KEY-moh) but the basics are the same. Chocomiles (choko-MEE-les) were and still are very popular. My wife Gina tells me that years ago people would buy a chocomíl for lunch because it was a cheap way to get full especially if you could get the vendor to throw in some oats or other granola type grains. It reminds me of the famous “dime” lunch of an RC Cola and a Moon Pie made famous in the American South.

I have some favorite ways to make a chocomíl. First of all, my mother-in-law, “Carmelita”, makes fantastic chocomil using Choco-Milk powder and bananas. Here is the recipe:

In a blender you put three ice cubes and one cup of very cold milk, the colder the better. Then you put in two eggs, one banana, two tablespoons of Choco-Milk powder and one teaspoon of sugar. Then you put the blender on “high” and let ‘er rip until it gets good and frothy. The secret to frothy is very cold milk, and ice. Mmmm…good!

If you don’t have Choco-Milk powder or you don’t have it in the flavor that you want you can repeat the above recipe with any kind of fruit and substitute the powdered milk or malted milk powder for the Choco-Milk. This is generally what they do at my neighborhood “chocomilería” or “chocomíl shop except they generally don’t add eggs unless you ask for it. You have to be very careful with raw eggs.

I frequent two chocomilerías here in Irapuato. The first is called Frutas La Brisa and it is located on Avenida Guerrero #557. Some people refer to it as "el ultramarino". The word "ultramarino" means "overseas" or "imported" but it is also an old Spanish word for grocery shop. The fruit that is sold by Frutas La Brisa is the very best. The shop has been around for many years. It dates back to at least the early sixties and it is a favorite with the people of Irapuato because it stays open most of the night. In that way policemen and taxi drivers, etcetera, can grab something to eat and people coming home from a night on the town can start working on curing their coming hangover by drinking some fruit juice. Fruta La Brisa is near the "peluquería" or "barber shop" where I go to get my haircut and so I always treat myself to a chocomíl de fresa after my barber Pépe cuts my hair. When they make the chocomíl and pour it into a tall foam cup they sprinkle lots of cinnamon on top. That first taste of strawberry and cinnamon is to die for. If you don't want to take my word for it then you should go and try it for yourself. The second place is called "La Cascada" and it is located on Avenida de Trabajo #1190. Gina has a friend named María Isabel Hernández who works there and it is located in a market where Gina does some of our grocery shopping. Gina prefers the chocomiles made by her friend María Isabel which are very good but I prefer the chocomiles made by Fruta La Brisa and I don't know why either. It must be a Venus/Mars thing.

Before I go I want to mention another chocolate powder item that was very popular with Mexican school children but seems to be fading away. It is called Choco Piquín and it comes in little envelopes. You are supposed to empty the chocolate from the envelope directly into your mouth but the children lick their index finger and then stick it into the envelope and then lick the chocolate off of their finger. This reminds me of a product that we had in the United States in the 1950's called "Lik-M-Aid". It was a very tart, fruit flavored powder that came in little envelopes and we would lick the powder off of our fingers just like the Mexican children do. Like Choco Piquín, Lik-M-Aid is still around but now it is called "Fun Dip" and comes with little sticks so that hopefully you won't lick your fingers. Hmmm, I wonder if anyone ever died from licking their fingers. I think that if it is such a bad thing a lot of us would have been dead long ago. Oh, well, like they say here "Disfruta la Vida"...Enjoy Life!

25 May 2008

Munching on Mojarra

My wife Gina and I went to visit a friend today in the neighboring town of Salamanca. We were not sure if he would be home from church yet or not so first we took a little detour to a nearby town called Valle de Santiago in order to “almorzar” as we say in Spanish or as we might say in English, “to have brunch”. We have a favorite spot in “Valle” (VAH-yeh), as the town is called locally, and we have enjoyed eating Sunday brunch there on many occasions. In fact we don’t seem to be able to pass within five miles of Valle on a Sunday morning without stopping to eat. The object of our devotion is a little street stand that is run by a family from a rancho called “La Angostura” which hugs the shore of a nearby lake called Laguna de Yuriria (la-GOO-nah deh yur-REE-ree-uh) on the opposite shore of the lake from the town of Yuriria itself. The head of the family, Señor Soto is a fisherman and his daughter Maria Magdalena Soto Nava runs a fried fish stand in Valle on the corner of Ignacio Zaragoza and Ignacio Allende Streets. She has help from her cousin Angela Rivera Nava. Together they cook up the fish that Señor Soto catches. They fry the fish in hot oil in a big basin that sits on top of a propane burner under a canvas tarp. You can have a choice of whole mojarra (moe-HAR-ah), mojarra fillets, or charales (char- AH-les) which are small fish that look like minnows. I wrote about charales back in January of this year. You can read about it by clicking here.

A lot of people seem to like eating whole mojarra that are scored on the sides with a knife and then deep fried to a golden brown. I would much rather eat mojarra fillets so that I don’t have to mess with the bones. I also like to eat charales sprinkled liberally with hot sauce. The young ladies serve the fish with tortillas, shredded cabbage, tomatoes, and “limones” (limes). With these ingredients you can easily build your own fish taco. The only problem that I have with eating these fish is knowing when to stop. They taste so good that I keep going back for more. The best thing is that a plate of fish with all the trimmings will only cost you 12 pesos which is about a dollar and fifteen cents U.S. at the current exchange rate. For me there is something special about sitting on a low stool eating fish just the way you like it and watching the world go by. I have many other favorite places and am developing new ones all the time. One by one I will take you there. Like they say, life just doesn’t get any better than this. Viva Mexico!

21 May 2008

The Quest for Cebadina

I have been on a quest lately…“The Quest for Cebadina”. I was originally thinking about using the title “The Death of Cebadina” for this blog entry because it sounds like a good name for a murder mystery. As it turns out there was no actual death involved (yet) but at least there was a good mystery. My quest started a few weeks ago when my friend and fellow blogger Rachel Laudan brought up the subject of barley water and I mentioned cebadina which is a beverage that supposedly uses barley water as a base. The Spanish word “cebada” means “barley” in English. I remembered that when I lived near Monterrey in the State of Nuevo León and when I left to move to Irapuato my friends told me that I should be sure and try “cebadina” which they said was traditional and abundant in the State of Guanajuato. I discovered that my new comrades in Irapuato knew about cebadina but none of them made a special point of drinking it except perhaps when they had indigestion or a hangover. My friends took me to a place across the street from the Casa de la Cultura in Irapuato on the corner of Hidalgo and Obregón where Obregón becomes Ramón Corona and there I had my first taste of cebadina. Unknown to me at the time, one of my joker friends told the proprietor that I had a big hangover. I innocently ordered a glass of cebadina. As I remember the man brought me a large glass containing a reddish liquid and then he dumped a spoonful of white powder into it and stirred it vigorously. Immediately it began to fizz wildly and he urged me to grab hold of it and drink it down quickly. I did so with reservations and right after that I gave out the biggest belch that I have ever experienced in my life. The cebadina vendor and my new buddies all nodded and smiled as if I had done exactly the right thing and that the cebadina was working properly. That was over eight years ago and that is about all that I can remember of the experience. Over the ensuing years cebadina has drifted in and out of my consciousness and lately I have noticed some web based travel guides noting that among other things the City of León is famous for cebadina. I had been to León, many, many times but I never noticed cebadina.

I checked out the Internet for cebadina but there is very little information other than it is more or less a carbonated beverage cooked up from barley water, tamarindo (tamarind pods) , and jamaica (red hibiscus flower pods), with some pineapple vinegar mixed in. Then the whole concoction is kept in an oak barrel until it is served in a glass to which is added a bit of bicarbonate of soda to make it fizz. My wife Gina told me that when she was a little girl and her parents took her to León they would always go to the "centro" or “downtown” area. She said that during the hot weather there would be a number of stalls selling cebadina and the people seemed to like it and drank a lot of it to help them cool off. She said that there was a narrow street right next to the “presidencia” (city hall) where there were a lot of outdoor market type stalls under the building’s arches and a number of them sold cebadina. She said they sold it in cone shaped white disposable paper cups of about four or five ounces that fit into an aluminum holder. This would have been about the tail end of the 60's. We went to León to check it out. It turns out that there are no longer any such market stalls under the arches but only about 100 meters away facing the square at Portal Guerrero #17 we found a shop called “La Cebadina” that seemed to be doing a brisk business dispensing cebadina from an oak barrel. We went in and I walked up to the counter and ordered a small cebadina. The lady drew off a bright red liquid into a plastic cup and before I could even get my bearings she stirred in a teaspoon of white powder and said in a loud voice ”Tómalo rápido antes que se tire” which means “Drink it rapidly before it spills over”. It was too late. It foamed up and spilled all over the counter and she gave me a disgusted look as she wiped it up. I drank what was left in the cup and found it to be fairly strong and vinegary. It was not all that bad but it really wasn’t that pleasant either. The mystery deepened. I thought “What is this stuff and why would anybody want to drink it?”. I tried to ask the shop people about cebadina but they became very tight lipped like I was a spy and it got worse when I started taking pictures. I decided that I needed to go elsewhere for my answers.

I decided to search for everything that I could find about similar barley based drinks and their possible origins and I really didn’t have to go far. I discovered several references to “cebadina de tepache” and the addition of bicarbonate of soda and I began to realize that tepache is the real base of cebadina. Tepache is a drink made from pineapple rinds, sugar, and cinnamon. The pineapple begins to ferment after two or three days and this gives tepache a slightly alcoholic “bump” but not a “kick”. If more alcohol is desired sometimes a bit of beer is added or barley (cebada) to help the fermentation process. Tepache wasn’t always made with pineapple because pineapples originally came from Brazil and Uruguay and although they were brought to Mexico in the sixteenth century they weren’t widely available outside of the tropics until they could be distributed by rail in the late 1800’s. Before that time tepache was made with nothing more than ground corn, sugar and water. It doesn’t matter if the tepache is based upon ground corn and sugar or pineapple rind and sugar the alcohol resulting from fermentation will eventually turn to vinegar. When this vinegar made the tepache too acidic to drink people learned that they could neutralize it with bicarbonate of soda and get a fizzy drink as a bonus. Around the year 1940 someone decided to add jamaica and/or tamarindo as a coloring agent and the notorious cebadina of Guanajuato was born.

I revisited the shop in Irapuato where I first tried cebadina and the proprietor confirmed much of what I had been speculating about. His name is Hector Arrieta and he told me that his father Ramón Arietta started the business in 1944. The shop is called “La Reyna Refrescaría y Dulcería” or in other words “The Queen Refreshment and Sweet Shop”. He told me that barley is no longer used and the ingredients of his cebadina are nothing more than pineapple, jamaica, and tamarindo mixed according to his father’s secret formula (of course). He said that the fizz depends upon the strength of the cebadina. He keeps full strength cebadina in a storage barrel and he puts ice in the barrel on the counter that he uses to dispense cebadina in order to dilute the acid and maintain a proper balance. Normally his customers don’t go for the big fizz unless they have indigestion (or some practical joker buddies) and so his cebadina just bubbles pleasantly after the addition of the bicarbonate of soda. I tried his cebadina again after eight years and this time I liked it and even bought some to take home with me. Besides the strength, the main difference between the Irapuato cebadina and the León cebadina is the color. The Irapuato cebadina looks reddish orange like it could very well be a mixture of jamaica and tamarindo. The León cebadina, however, looks bright red like it could possibly be nothing more than red unsweetened Kool-Aid and vinegar. By the way, the “La Cebadinaa” shop in León was founded about the same time as the Irapuato “La Reyna” shop.

I still have some loose ends to tie up. For one thing, what about the oak barrel? What does that do? Well, if cebadina became popular during World War II there could very well have been a shortage of steel barrels and besides, you wouldn’t want to put an acidic product in a steel barrel anyway. Plastic hadn’t been invented yet so oak was the obvious choice. I suppose that nowadays you could use a plastic barrel but I don’t think it would be very appealing. Another thing…what is the tamarindo for? I can understand using the jamaica on account of its red color but it doesn’t seem like tamarindo offers any particular benefit unless it is because it is slightly acidic. Another question is do they use pineapple juice and let it ferment to the vinegar stage or do they just add pineapple vinegar to the red coloring agent? Perhaps I will never know. As far as I can tell there is only one vendor of cebadina in Irapuato, and one in León. I had gotten a lead on two more cebadina vendors in León, one in the Juan de Dios Plaza and another in the Calzada de los Héroes near the “Lion’s Gate” but we checked them out and found that they had both gone out of business. I understand that there may be a cebadina vendor in the City of Guanajuato but I will leave that one for my friend Rachel to discover.

So here we are at the bottom line. What did I learn about cebadina? I learned that drinking cebadina is one of those nostalgic traditions from the past that is slowly fading away and that it is one of those things that “everybody knows about” but relatively few people really care about unless it is a hot day and they happen to be passing by the cebadina shop. I had a lot of fun on my quest for cebadina though and I encourage everyone who comes to visit our beautiful City of Irapuato to try the cebadina. Just tell Hector Arrieta at “La Reyna” that Mexico Bob sent you. If nothing else it will be of those experiences that you can put on your “Been there and done that” list and whenever someone mentions cebadina you can always say, “Oh yeah, cebadina. I know all about that. You really ought to try it!”. Let’s keep cebadina alive a little bit longer.

18 May 2008

La Boda de Rancho Clásica

Yesterday my wife Gina and I were guests at a classic Mexican country wedding fiesta in a small pueblo named “El Carmen” that is part of the municipality of Irapuato but is separated from the main City of Irapuato by farm fields. The place has only 1285 inhabitants (más o menos…more or less) and it is what is typically referred to as a “rancho”. The streets are laid out in a haphazard fashion and the buildings are a jumble of dwellings ranging from nothing more than simple brick and concrete huts to fairly nice modern homes. There are lots of farm animals sprinkled throughout and lots of children too, and the roosters crow all the time. Because it was a big wedding there were quite a few vehicles parked along the narrow street but since you don’t have to worry much about getting a parking ticket in a “rancho” you just squeeze in wherever you can whether it makes sense or not. Everyone understands that getting to that first cold beer is the main priority.

We were invited to the wedding by a pretty young lady of twenty named Cynthia Arraceli Galván Rodríguez who works with Gina as an accountant. Her cousin, Sergio Galván Banda and his bride Cristina were the newlyweds. As weddings go it was a very large one. As soon as we entered and sat down we could hear people buzzing that is was “una boda de cinco cerdos” or in other words, “a five hog wedding”. They were referring to the fact that early the day before five hogs had been butchered and “canalizado” which means they were spread open and hung up so that the meat could cool and rest a bit. Very early on the day of the wedding, long before the sun came up, they were put into huge copper pots along with orange juice and lime juice and no doubt some other “secret” ingredients and they were cooked about 12 hours until most of the fat was rendered out and the meat was tender and juicy. They call this meat “carnitas” and it is one of the most famous and favorite dishes of Mexico. If you have never eaten carnitas you are truly missing something. It is spectacular!

Cynthia’s mother, Ramona, had a lot to do with the cooking and she told us that they made sixteen “cazuelas” of “sopa de fideos” (noodles) and fourteen cazuelas” of “arroz” (rice) to go with the carnitas. The “cazuelas” that she referred to are giant clay saucepans with handles on each side like a washtub. The clay that they are made from is called “barro”. The word “sopa” by itself means “soup” but “sopa de fideos” is not a soup. The word “sopa” is often used to refer to foods like noodles and rice that accompany the meat dish. To make the sopa they first killed four big “guajalotes” (gwah-hah-LOH-tehs) which means “turkeys”. They cut up the turkeys and boiled them in water to make turkey stock. They removed the turkey meat, which is called “pavo” (PAH-voh), from the stock and to the stock they added tomatoes that had been roasted and then ground. They used this stock to cook the noodles and rice. The noodles are short and thin and both the noodles and the rice pick up the red color of the tomatoes. They also served mole (MOH-leh) sauce along with the carnitas, fideos, and arroz and of course, the traditional corn tortillas and pickled jalapeño peppers. Before we left, Ramona gave us a package of carnitas, fideos, arroz, and “pavo” (turkey meat) to take home with us for whenever we got hungry again. By the way, all of this cooking was done over wood fires for which wood had to be collected, chopped, and stacked.

The crowd was very pleasant and friendly and there were many, many children. The people drank either beer or carbonated soft drinks that were served from two liter plastic bottles into plastic cups. The beer was a choice of Victoria or Corona and it came in long necked bottles which seems to be a tradition at these affairs. The bottles were opened by “popping” the tops off on the edge of the metal chairs. I cheated and used my pocket knife. The refreshments were kept cold in a concrete stock tank that had been filled with ice and there was plenty of refreshments to go around. It must have taken several trucks to haul in all that soda and beer. The fiesta took place in the Galván family compound which is a big circle around which all of the people in the family built their houses. In the center there is a stone oven that is used to make tamales de rancho. I love this type of tamale which is baked rather than steamed and I will write more about this in another blog. The reception began at three in the afternoon and by the time we arrived at four thirty it was well under way. There was a lively four piece “norteño” style band playing and they never let up the whole time we were there. We observed some men assembling a big stage like the kind used at rock concerts which would be used for the evening’s main entertainment after the sun went down. The party would last all night. Unfortunately, we couldn’t stay because of another commitment but nevertheless we had a wonderful time. About 7:30 we began our goodbyes which in Mexico take about a half an hour or more. After may “abrazos y besos” (hugs and kisses) we slowly made our way to the car accompanied by our hosts and after another round of goodbyes we took our leave. All in all, it was a very pleasant afternoon.

10 May 2008

El Día de la Madre

Today, Saturday, May 10th is Mother’s Day in México. It isn’t always on a Saturday but it is always on the 10th of May. In the United States Mother’s Day is always on the second Sunday of May. In 2009 the second Sunday of May will fall on May 10th and so both Mexico and the United States will honor their Mothers on the same day. That won’t happen again until the year 2020. Why does Mexico celebrate Mother’s Day on a fixed date and the United States celebrate Mother’s Day on a variable date but both in the first half of May? Originally they celebrated on the same date but things got a bit confused along the way. The important thing is that Mothers get their due. Let’s take a look at how the whole thing got started.

First of all, celebrating motherhood is nothing new. The practice goes way back in history all over the world. In England it evolved into “Mothering Day” which was a Sunday in Lent when servants were given the day off to return to their ancestral home and visit their mothers and share time with their families. The practice did not fare well in the American colonies at first and it wasn’t until after the bloodshed of the American Civil War and during the Franco Prussian war that an interest in celebrating Mother’s Day was revived. A lady named Julia Ward Howe, who in 1861 wrote the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”, made a “Mother’s Day Proclamation” in 1870. She called on mother’s the world over to come together and protest the futility of their sons killing the sons of other mothers. Her motive was not so much to revere motherhood as it was to use motherhood as a catalyst for peace. During the ensuing years the celebration of Mother’s Day was disorganized and sporadic but the seed that Julia Ward Howe planted began to grow.

At the same time that Julia Ward Howe was writing the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” there was a lady in West Virginia named Anna Marie Reeves Jarvis who was organizing women to work for the well being of their communities by holding “Mother's Work Days”, which were days when groups of women dedicated themselves to campaigns involving better hygiene, sanitation, and medical care in the small communities of rural West Virginia. During the Civil War she helped not only her neighbors but wounded soldiers from both sides as well and through all that she managed to keep peace among the various political factions in her neighborhood. Taking their cue from Julia Ward Howe, a women’s group led by Anna Marie Reeves Jarvis began to celebrate an adaptation of Howe’s idea called “Mother’s Friendship Day” in order to re-unite families and neighbors that had been divided between the Union and Confederate sides of the Civil War. Her many humanitarian efforts were only cut short by her death on Tuesday, May 9th, 1905.

After Anna Marie Reeves Jarvis died, her daughter Anna M. Jarvis campaigned for the creation of an official Mother’s Day in remembrance of her mother and in honor of peace. The idea for Mother's Day came to Miss Jarvis on May, 9th 1907, the second anniversary of her mother's death, which happened to fall on a Thursday. On May 10, 1908 which was the second Sunday in May, the first official Mother's Day celebration took place at Andrew's Methodist Church in Grafton, West Virginia. From there the idea spread from state to state and foreign countries as well, including Mexico. In 1912 West Virginia became the first state to officially recognize Mother's Day, and in 1914 Woodrow Wilson signed it into national observance, declaring the second Sunday in May as Mother's Day. This may be where the fixed date versus variable date separation took place. What had been originally celebrated May 10th had now been officially transferred to the second Sunday.

In Mexico City in 1917 a young man of 28 from the State of Puebla named Rafael Alducin Bedolla founded what was to become an important newspaper called Excelsior. In April of 1922 he invited all interested parties to a convention to propose a nation-wide holiday in Mexico dedicated to Mexican motherhood. As a result of this convention the first official Mexican “Día de la Madre” was celebrated on May, 10th, 1922. Guess what…it was a Wednesday! Why they didn’t follow the second Sunday idea we’ll probable never know. If anyone does know, please tell me. Father’s day in Both Mexico and the United States is celebrated on the third Sunday in June. This year Father’s Day in both countries will fall on June 21st.

There are various way that Mexican people celebrate Mother’s Day depending upon their local customs. Here in Irapuato, Guanajuato where I live it is the custom to stand outside of the mother’s house after midnight and sing “Mañanitas”, a very old traditional song. It is usually reserved for the Blessed Virgin, Mother’s Day, and birthday celebrations. If the people are wealthy they may hire Mariachis to do their singing or perhaps a small “Norteño” type band. Some people who are not so wealthy group together and go in turn to the houses of each of their mothers with the men singing one part and the women singing another part. It is very beautiful. The night doesn’t end until everyone’s mother has been serenaded. On the morning of May 10th the mothers usually attend morning mass at their local church and after mass the children treat mother to breakfast. In the afternoon everyone gathers at the home of the oldest mother in the family and the ladies make chicken with mole sauce, jalapeños, corn tortillas, and red rice. If they don’t want to cook they send out for “carnitas” which is another favorite dish and it is served with refried beans, tortillas, and rice. Afterwards there is a desert of either ice cream or cake or both. Oh, yes, I almost forgot…there is generally plenty of tequila too, usually served with the carbonated soft drink “Squirt”. It is a special time that reunites the family with the mother at the center. Here is the Mother’s day version of “Mañanitas:

Las Mañanitas Del Día de la Madre:

Estas son las mañanitas, que cantaba el Rey David.
Hoy por ser día de las madres, te las cantamos a ti.
Despierta Mamá despierta mira que ya amaneció.
Ya los pajaritos cantan. La luna ya se metió

Que linda está la mañana en que vengo a saludarte.
Venimos todos con gusto y placer a felicitarte.
Ya viene amaneciendo. Y a la luz del día nos dio.
Levántate Madre mía. Mira que ya amaneció.

05 May 2008

Cinco de Drinko

What started out in the United States as a celebration of pride for the Mexican people has been turned into a celebration of alcohol thanks in large part to the three biggest domestic beer companies; Anheuser-Busch, Coors, and Miller (and also Jose Cuervo Tequila). Because of their scramble to sell products, Cinco de Mayo has become one of the top sales periods of the year for the alcohol industry. The commercialization of Cinco de Mayo started because Coors Brewing Company wanted to improve its image among Hispanics. In the 1960’s Mexican Americans began boycotting Coors because under the leadership of the far right wing conservative Joseph Coors the company had been discriminating against workers on account of race. The Coors brewing Company was finally charged in 1969 with racial discrimination and found guilty a year later. You remember the late Joseph Coors don’t you? He was a founding member of the ultra conservative far right think tank known as the Heritage Foundation. He not only provided the funds for a building to house the organization but he donated $250,000 to cover its first year budget as well. He was also a also member of Ronald Reagan's millionaires club “kitchen cabinet” and helped finance Reagan's political career as governor of California and U.S. president. His own brother once said that he was farther to the right than Atilla the Hun.

In 1985 the National Council of La Raza, the American GI Forum, and later the League of United Latin Americans Citizens signed an agreement with the Coors Brewing Company to stop the long-standing boycott of Coors Beer in exchange for more than $350 million in donations to Latino organizations. That is when alcohol sales first started to overshadow the pride of the people. When Coors and the Latino organizations began cozying up to one another they both saw a gleam in each other’s eye. Not wanting to be left behind, Anheuser-Busch and Miller soon followed suit and now the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) and the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) (among others) receive lots of money from the alcohol industry. Sure, the money does some good things. Budweiser gives millions of dollars in donations to the National Hispanic Scholarship Fund and the Coors provides money for videos and literacy classes for Mexican immigrants, and Miller sponsors the Mexican National Soccer Team and various educational programs. However, The damage caused by alcohol in the Latino community is a terrible and growing problem. Such a health crisis by any other cause in any other community would be labeled a catastrophe and politicians would make it a major issue. The problem is that the alcohol industry is strong and the Latino community is politically weak, especially now because of the illegal immigration issue, so nobody says much about the increasing alcohol addiction and abuse in the Latino community. There may be a few alcohol-free Cinco de Mayo events, but the vast number of celebrations are still “Drinko” de Mayo.

The truth is that Cinco de Mayo has been promoted by alcohol advertising into a major holiday like Mexican Independence Day but in Mexico Cinco de Mayo it is not a major holiday at all. It's mainly celebrated in the City of Puebla, where it commemorates the Mexican army's defeat of French invaders on May 5, 1862. The real Mexican Independence Day is Sept. 16, 1810, when a priest from the city of Dolores, Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, began the fight for independence from Spain. That war continued until Sept. 27, 1821, when the treaty of Córdova was signed that recognized Mexican independence and established a constitutional monarchy. The monarchy lasted only until Dec. 1, 1822, when Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana rose up to proclaim the republic. In 1824, the Constitutional Congress established the Mexican Democracy. The first years of democracy were very difficult and the fledgling Mexican democracy certainly didn’t receive any help from the United States. When the Mexican government began placing restrictions on Anglo settlers coming to its Texas territory and prohibited slavery, the Americans living in Texas declared independence from Mexico. By 1845, after nearly ten years of sovereignty, Texas became a part of the United States. In an effort to gain more land and resources, the United States began the Mexican-American war in 1846 under the ambitious president James Polk, and by 1848 more than half of the land that is the current American Southwest had been taken from Mexico. After the 1846 Mexican-American War, Mexico entered a period of great political and financial hardship. In 1861 Mexican president Benito Juárez was obligated to suspend payments on debts owed to Spain, England, and France and these three nations made preparations to invade Mexico to recoup their losses. England and Spain accepted offers to negotiate repayment of the debt but France under Napoleon III did not and France opted to try and take over Mexico while the U.S. was involved in the Civil War.

France sent a large force to invade Mexico at Veracruz and it came to pass that on May 5, 1862 an army under the command of French General Carlos Fernando Latrille, Conde de Lorencez, came head to head with a rag tag Mexican army under command of General Ignacio Zaragoza and his mix of career army officers, a handful of Mexican army regulars, peasant farmers, and Zacapuaxtlas Indians. By the end of the battle there were 476 Frenchmen dead and 345 wounded. The Mexicans had only 83 dead and 130 wounded even though the French outnumbered them more than two to one. The extraordinary thing about the battle was that the French, who had one of the best trained and best equipped armies in the world, were defeated by a much smaller force of poorly trained and poorly equipped Mexicans. What made the difference? Much has been written by military historians about the details of the battle so there is no need to go into it here. However, the arrogance of the French and their disdain for the Mexicans was countered by the humility, perseverance, and pride of the Mexicans. It is just another case of David versus Goliath. The French eventually won all the rest of the battles by sheer force and installed their puppet Emperor, Maximilian. By then, however, the Northern U.S. Army had grown to a size and strength that made it inadvisable for the French to aide the Confederacy. The Mexicans had kept Napoleon III from supplying the confederate rebels for more than a year, thus allowing the United States Union Army to smash the Confederates at Gettysburg 14 months after the battle of Puebla, which essentially ended the Civil War. Union forces were then rushed to the Texas/Mexican border under General Phil Sheridan, who made sure that the Mexicans got all the weapons and ammunition they needed to expel the French.

Well, whatever became of Zaragoza? After his famous victory the heroic General Ignacio Zaragoza was visiting his sick and injured soldiers and he contracted typhus fever and died at the age of 33. Some historians say that Texas born Ignacio Zaragoza should be considered an American hero as well as a Mexican hero for delaying the French and preventing them from aiding the Confederate army. I say, ¡Viva México!, ¡Viva Zaragoza!, ¡Viva America!, ¡Viva Cinco de Mayo!...and to Hell with Coors!!!

01 May 2008

“Call for Philip Morris”

While doing some research for a recent blog named “Faros ya chupó Faros” about the origin and history of the Faros brand Mexican cigarette, I stumbled upon some facts about the current global cigarette industry that really amazed me. I had been aware for some time about the aggressive marketing campaigns of Philip Morris but I hadn’t realized what a gigantic presence on the global scene that Philip Morris has become. Anyone my age who grew up in the United States in the fifties and early sixties will never forget the voice of Johnny Roventini, the midget bellhop and his “Call for Philip Morraaaiis” during the commercials for the “I Love Lucy” show on television. Up until January 1st, 1971 we were also subject to Philip Morris Company television commercials for the Marlboro man, Viginia Slims, Chesterfields (Ronald Reagan’s cigarette), Parliaments, and L&M. On that date at 11:50 p.m. last television cigarette commercial in the U.S. ran during the Johnny Carson Show. As a matter of fact, I can still remember the cigarette commercials for all of the major brands because they were meant to be both entertaining…and addictive. Kids like nothing better than cute jingles and after all, we young people were potential future customers.

I became very curious about the origins of Philip Morris and its subsequent rise to market dominance and so I decided to dig down and see what I could learn. For one thing, it turns out that Philip Morris actually was a real person. In 1847 a man named Philip Morris opened a tobacco shop in London, England and in 1850 he began selling hand rolled Turkish cigarettes in his tobacco shop. Cigarettes were not very popular in the West at that time and among some men they had the reputation of being effeminate. That view changed considerably during the Crimean War (1854 to1856) when British soldiers learned how cheap and convenient cigarettes were on the field of battle. They copied their Turkish allies who called cigarettes “Papirossi” and the English troops brought the cigarette smoking habit back to the British Isles. Meanwhile, back at his tobacco shop, Mr. Philip Morris tried to satisfy the new demand by making hand rolled British cigarettes under the brand names “Oxford” and “Cambridge Blues”. Mr. Morris really struggled to meet the growing demand because skilled workers could only produce between 1500 and 2000 cigarettes in a ten to twelve hour day. Even though the best workers could roll four to five cigarettes per minute at their peak it was impossible to keep up that pace continuously. It wasn’t until the 1880’s that machines were developed that could continuously produce up to 6000 cigarettes per hour.

In 1881 Philip Morris went public on the London market and in 1887 the company became “Philip Morris & Co. Ltd.”. By the time the year 1902 rolled around Philip Morris & Company was incorporated in New York City and had opened an office there. At that time the entire cigarette industry was producing about 3.5 billion cigarettes yearly but that was still only about half of the number of cigars being produced. This fact is of particular interest to me because I happen to be the grandson of a cigar maker. My Grandfather, Stanley Mrotek was born in Manitowoc, Wisconsin in 1889 and he learned how to roll cigars by hand at an early age. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) for him, a man named Oscar Hammerstein of New York City invented the first practical cigar rolling machine around the same time. Grandpa eventually had to give it up cigar making and he and my Grandma finally moved to Chicago and opened a “mom & pop” candy and tobacco store on Damen Avenue near Fullerton. My father grew up above the store and I was born nearby in 1947. By the way, the grandson of Oscar Hammerstein, the man who invented the cigar machine, was none other than Oscar Hammerstein II of “Rodgers and Hammerstein “ songwriting fame. Anyway, it wasn’t until World War I that cigarette smoking really came into vogue and started to push cigar smoking into the background. After the first world war the cigarette “boom” really took off in earnest, especially in Europe and America.

As just about everyone knows, the absolute biggest success story for Philip Morris is the “Marlboro” brand. Marlboro was one of the brands that Philip Morris & Co. brought to New York from England and it was named after “Marlborough Street” which was the street in London upon which the Philip Morris factory was located. Many people don’t know that the Marlboro brand was aimed at women in 1924 with the slogan, “Mild as May”. In the years following World war II the Philip Morris Company wanted to re-invent the Marlboro brand and direct it towards men and the marketing people hit upon the idea of using the American Cowboy an icon. The rest, as they say, is history. These days two out of every five cigarettes sold in America are Marlboro “cowboy” cigarettes. Not only that, but the brand is becoming increasingly popular the world over. In some cases, Philip Morris actually alters the taste of the Marlboros to suit the preferences of their international clients. In Indonesia, for example, they add the taste of “kretek” a sweet smelling spice that is derived from cloves.

In recent years Philip Morris had been trying to unburden itself of the slowing U.S. tobacco market and the serious threats of litigation from aging American smokers who are dying from lung cancer and emphysema. The company stressed the fact that they were only interested in maintaining their market share among committed smokers in the U.S where they weren’t permitted to advertise and cigarette sales had been declining at the rate of 2% to 4% per year. This decline in smoking is not the case globally though and the company is positioning itself to take advantage of burgeoning markets in underdeveloped and newly developing countries. Even though sales are dropping steadily in the U.S. and Europe, sales figures are climbing steadily in Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa. Until 2003 Philip Morris was a diversified company that also controlled popular food brands such as Kraft, Ritz, and Oscar Meyer. In 1967 Philip Morris had already separated its domestic sales from its international sales by establishing Philip Morris International. In 2003 Philip Morris changed its name to “Altria” and spun off most of its food business. Then, in 2008 Philip Morris International was spun off from Altria becoming the world’s leading international tobacco company and the third most profitable international consumer goods company.

Approximately 5.5 trillion cigarettes are produced each year by the combined western style cigarette industry and they are smoked by over one billion people which is about one sixth of the world’s current population. That means that there is still a huge potential market that is being divided among just a few large companies, the largest by far of course, being Philip Morris International. China alone has 350 million smokers who each year light up 2.3 trillion cigarettes which is about 42% of all cigarettes smoked world wide. Over the next decade China sales will no doubt dramatically increase the growth of Philip Morris. The Chinese market is just one big potential. The market in India is another. In India people consume about 100 billion western style cigarettes per year but they also consume over 800 billion of an Asian type cigarette called a “bidi” (pronounced BEE-dee). A bidi is a thin cigarette made of tobacco and other ingredients wrapped in a tendu leaf and secured with colored thread at one end. Tendu leaves come from the Tendu tree (Diospyros Melonoxylon Roxburgh) which is a member of the Ebony family (Ebenaceae). Bidis are regarded as a cigarette for the poor and the tobacco is generally of such a low grade that often other ingredients and “flavors” are added to the bidis just to make them palatable. There are millions of people in India and Southeast Asia dedicated to the production of bidis. Bidi rolling is a cottage industry and is typically done by women and children in their homes. More than 325,000 children labor in the bidi industry in India alone. Women, and children in their teens, can roll 1,500 to 2,000 bidis per day. That is about the same rate as the women hand rollers for Mr. Philip Morris of London or the El Buen Tono Company in Mexico City could make cigarettes in the early days of western style cigarette production.

The commercial tobacco trade had a humble beginning in the “Old World” when Francisco Fernandez introduced smoking in Europe in 1558 and created the first international market. Then pioneer John Rolf cultivated the first tobacco at Jamestown, Virginia in 1612 and created in the “New World” the first steady international tobacco supply. In 1760 Pierre Lorillard built the first tobacco product factory in New York City to make snuff. It was not only America’s first tobacco company but it is the oldest continuously operating company in the U.S. It later became the American Tobacco Company and produced “Old Gold” and “Kent” brand cigarettes. Tobacco has been with us for a long time and it will no doubt be with us for a long time to come. In reviewing the history of the Tobacco Industry I realized that more than any other industry it seems to be full of acquisitions, consolidations, political intrigue, legal wrangling, accusations, condemnations, and lots of blowing smoke (pardon the pun). Why? Because the product is cheap to produce, addictive, and extremely profitable to market. After all, nicotine is just another form of addictive drug and there is a new potential addict born every five seconds somewhere in the world. Some people say that the “Golden Age” of the Tobacco Industry emerged in the 1940’s and lasted through the 1950’s. Well, maybe in America the “Golden Age” ended but in much of the rest of the world the “Golden Age” is yet to come and most of the “gold” in the next “Golden Age” will go to Philip Morris.

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I was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A. I have been living in Mexico since January 6th, 1999. I am continually studying to improve my knowledge of the Spanish language and Mexican history and culture. I am also a student of Mandarin Chinese.