29 June 2008

The looming candle crisis…

I learned recently that there is a shortage of paraffin wax for candle making in Mexico. Apparently several major international producers of paraffin wax for candles have gone out of the candle wax business. No doubt this has something to do with the global oil situation in general. This shortage couldn’t come at a worse time because this is the candle making season in Mexico in anticipation for the increase in demand for candles for the Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) observances in early November and the Adviento (Advent) and Posada (Pilgrimage) season leading up to Navidad (Christmas). This is definitely not good news in Mexico and is akin to adding insult to injury to many poor Mexican families. Life is tough enough with the rise in food prices and essential items like gas for cooking and fuel for cars and trucks. Now there may not be enough affordable good quality candles. What next? The end of this year already looks to be pretty dark and gloomy in my crystal ball.

My wife Gina tells me that some of the poorer country people still use tallow candles. Tallow is rendered from beef fat and is called “sebo” in Spanish. They obtain beef fat from the butcher and put it in a big pot with water and cook it over a fire until all of the tallow is rendered out and floats to the top. Then they let it cool until they can skim off the tallow. Then they melt the tallow and repeatedly dip strings into it to build up layers of tallow until they have candles. This is the same way that the early settlers made tallow candles. They aren’t very good for lighting. They are too soft, messy, smelly, and smoky. Gina told me that she thinks that some of the cheap paraffin candles on the market must have tallow in them because they are so smoky. I looked in to that, however, and I think that tallow and paraffin do not readily mix and the smoke is probably due to cheap paraffin called semi-refined paraffin. I also learned that many candles now come from Russia, India, and China and have certain percentages of low cost filler substances in them to make them cheaper and they are somewhat smoky.

About sixty percent of the world’s production of paraffin goes into candle making and over the last year the price of paraffin has almost doubled. For many of the world’s poor, this is a definite adverse quality of life issue. In many underdeveloped countries the electricity supply is subject to frequent outages and people depend upon candles more than on flashlights for emergency lighting. It is also a health issue. The homes can be very small and yet contain a multitude of people and there are probably some negative health issues from breathing the smoke of inferior candles. There are some alternatives of course but they are all expensive. First of all there are beeswax candles, the majority of which are seventy percent beeswax and thirty percent paraffin. Not much help there especially with a bee shortage on top of a paraffin shortage. Wax from soybeans is a good alternative but because the price of soybeans is being elevated by the biodiesel industry there is no help there either. There are other waxes derived from vegetables and some waxes derived from coal but they are either too expensive, inappropriate, or unavailable in sufficient quantities at the present time.

I learned that the word “paraffin” was coined by German chemist Karl von Reichenbach (1788-1869) from the Latin words “parum” (not very, too little) and “affinis” (associated with) because paraffin is chemically not closely related to other substances. Later on this led to some confusion. Paraffin wax is different than “illuminating paraffin” or “paraffin oil”. Both substances belong to the family of chemicals called “alkanes” and are made up of long strings of carbon and hydrogen molecules. Their physical properties are much different from one another and in North America illuminating paraffin is called “kerosene” and is used as a liquid fuel. In Great Britain and in many former British colonies kerosene is called paraffin and if you mean wax then you must say “paraffin wax”. This leads to another environmental issue. In many areas of Africa and in parts of Asia the people use kerosene which they call “illuminating paraffin” for heating, lighting and cooking. Because kerosene was relatively cheap it was the only alternative to cutting down all the trees for fuel. With the rising price of petroleum products in general the price of kerosene has risen beyond the reach of many poor people and out of desperation they have returned to burning wood. This can only lead to further ecological problems.

The current world energy shortage may be just a nuisance to some people. They have access to multiple sources of energy and probably always will. They may have to pay more for it but they won’t do without. There are other people to whom the energy shortage may soon become a matter of life and death. I am hoping and praying that this crisis gets resolved sooner rather than later. After all, we are all God’s children, the rich and the poor alike, and everyone should have access to a bit of light to hold off the darkness and the things that go “bump” in the night.

For those of us who care about all of the brethren I repeat the words of Mathew 5:16, "Let your light shine before men, that they may see your fine works and give glory to your Father who is in the heaven:"

This little light o' mine, I'm goin' let it shine,
This little light o' mine, I'm goin' let it shine,
This little light o' mine, I'm goin' let it shine,
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.

27 June 2008

Is nothing sacred?

Poor Mexico! The longer that I live here the more I learn about things that were discovered here but were usurped by others for power, glory, and most of all, profit. Chocolate, which originated in Mexico, is a good example. Today I learned with some chagrin that Mars, Incorporated, the world’s largest maker of chocolate, has embarked on a program to decode the cocoa genome. This is part of a five-year, ten million dollar project to be undertaken with the US Department of Agriculture and IBM. The genome is the hereditary information of an organism encoded in its DNA. By analyzing the approximate 400 million base pairs in the DNA that make up the hereditary information in the seed of a cacao tree, Mars hopes to track down the cocoa flavor genes. I cannot believe that their main motive is not to find a way to scientifically manipulate the taste or even worse...make artificial chocolate! I imagine that in this world of corporate behemoths being the biggest chocolate manufacturer in the world isn’t good enough. They want to find out how to get us to eat even more of their chocolate in order to guarantee that they stay ahead of their biggest rivals, Hershey and Barry Callebaut. What is even more interesting is that the three dominant producers of the cocoa beans from which chocolate is made are Barry Callebaut, Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland Company. Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland Company also dominate the corn growing industry and corn (maize) is another foodstuff that originated in Mexico. Most of the cocoa beans, about seventy percent of the world’s supply, now come from small farmers in Africa who toil under harsh conditions and reap very little recompense for their efforts. The word "chocolate" comes from the Aztecs of Mexico, and is derived from the Nahuatl word xocolatl which is a combination of the words, xocolli, meaning "bitter", and atl, which is "water". The ‘cocoa beans”, or seeds of the cacao tree, have an intense bitter taste, and must be fermented to develop the flavor. In the land of the Aztecs (and Mayans) chocolate was consumed in a bitter, spicy drink containing maize and flavored with vanilla, chili pepper, and achiote (annatto). Oh, by the way, the vanilla bean is another thing that originated in Mexico. The Aztecs called the bean tlilxochitl, or "black flower", after the mature bean, which shrivels and turns black shortly after it is picked. Today, the majority of the world's vanilla is produced by other poor people in a small region of Madagascar, an island in the Indian Ocean. Of course, Mars says that their main focus in spending all that time and money on the cocoa genome project is to help the poor African farmers increase their yields. Hmmmm…yeah, right! I just hope that the results of this effort also help the poor African farmers to increase the size of their pocketbooks. Until that happens I can just picture Xochiquetzal, the Aztec goddess of both fertility and “xocolatl” weeping bitter tears into her chocolate.

16 June 2008

Chongos Zamoranos

There is a city in the State of Michoacán named Zamora where they make a wonderful traditional desert dish called “chongos zamoranos”. The word “chongos” means “curds” and chongos zamoranos is a sort of sweet cottage cheese. It is made from milk and cinnamon and sugar and it is very well known in Mexico. It was supposedly invented by a nun in a convent who needed to salvage some milk that had gone sour and had begun to separate into curds and whey. I noticed that there are all kinds of recipes for chongos zamoranos on the Internet and most of them use rennet which is called “cuajo” (KWAA-hoh) in Spanish and comes from the fourth stomach of an unweaned calf (yuck!). Some of these recipes are quite complicated and can take hours and hours to prepare. My “suegra” (SWAY-gruh) or “mother-in-law” Carmelita makes a very tasty chongos zamoranos that is easy to prepare, and does not use rennet. I will share her recipe with you. She won’t mind. If you were here she would make some for you herself.

You start out with three liters of whole milk. You can use whole milk that you buy in cartons at the “sooper” (supermarket) or you can use “leche bronca de vaca” which is the fresh whole unpasteurized and unhomogenized milk that the man who removed it from the cow brings to your door before it even cools. That is what Carmelita uses and it makes the best chongos. Also, whether or not you are a nun you can use milk that has turned sour and has already begun to separate. If you use fresh milk you must add one quarter teaspoon of baking soda to the milk and you better not forget to do this. The next step is to heat the milk (fresh or sour) almost to boiling for about a half an hour while stirring constantly so that it doesn’t burn, and it will separate. After it has separated draw off about one half cup of the whey (called “suera” in Spanish) and discard. Add two sticks of cinnamon (“canela” in Spanish) and about a cup of natural sugar (partially refined sugar). Heat and stir for another half hour and add more sugar to taste…up to about a half cup. Keep on heating and moving the chongos around until the curds are nice and firm. It shouldn't take more than about fifteen minutes. By now the curds should be a nice beige color and the remaining whey should be a very light colored syrup. Turn off the heat, remove the spent cinnamon sticks, and let the chongos cool to room temperature. That is the best time to eat it when it will be at its flavorful best. That’s all there is to it. The stirring part is a little tiresome but believe me it is well worth the effort.

There are several brands of canned chongos. You can see some illustrations below. I have never tried them because I shudder to think about what Carmelita would do to me if she caught me eating canned chongos. I am not sure but I think it may be a cardinal sin. However, if you really want to know what chongos zamoranos is all about I think in all fairness I should direct you to the City of Zamora, Michoacán because after all…that is their claim to fame.

09 June 2008

Cebadina revisited...

Not long ago I posted an item named “The Quest for Cebadina” and I thought that I had put that puppy to bed but I have stumbled across several points that I missed on the first go-around so I am making this addendum in order to “hoe to the end of the row” before quitting the field.

The first item that I would like to mention regarding cebadina is “tamarindo” (tamarind). I have encountered a number of variations on the definition of Cebadina. Some of them say that Cebadina is a combination of barley water, jamaica (red hibiscus), tamarind, and pineapple to which is added a small amount of bicarbonate of soda to make it fizz. Other definitions don’t mention barley but mention pineapple vinegar. All of them, however, mention both jamaica and tamarind. The other day I was researching a Mexican product called “Sal de Uvas Picot” and noted that it used tartaric acid to react with bicarbonate of soda in order to effervesce. I also noted that tartaric acid was one of the first chemicals to be used in making baking powder. There are only a few natural major sources for tartaric acid other than grapes but it just so happens that one of those sources is tamarind. The tartaric acid is what gives tamarind the “tart” taste that makes it a favorite for use in various types of sauces including, believe it or not, Worcestershire Sauce. If cebadina contained a sufficient amount of tamarind there would be no need to add vinegar in order to have a reaction with bicarbonate of soda. The tamarind and the bicarbonate of soda should be enough to make the cebadina fizz. Since I will probably never be sure exactly what is or what was in cebadina I can only speculate that once upon a time there was a theoretical traditional drink called cebadina that contained barley water as a base, jamaica for color, tamarind for acid, pineapple to counteract the tartness of the tamarind, and bicarbonate of soda to react with the tartaric acid of the tamarind and make the whole concoction fizz.

I also came across an item regarding Bromo Seltzer, which effervesces similar to Sal de Uvas Picot with the exception that it uses citric acid to react with the bicarbonate of soda instead of tartaric acid and also contains an analgesic. Bromo Seltzer was originally manufactured by the Emerson Company and in the late 1950’s as part of Warner Lambert Pharmaceuticals they came out with a product for kids named “Fizzies”. I remember Fizzies quite well. They were tablets containing bicarbonate of soda, citric acid, a coloring agent, a flavoring agent, and a sweetener. When you dropped a Fizzies tablet in water it would effervesce and you could instantly turn a glass of water into a glass of bubbling soda pop…in theory that is. What I remember about Fizzies is that they were a lot of fun to fool around with but they didn’t taste very good. You could still taste the bicarbonate of soda. That is the same problem that I experienced with cebadina and, now that I think of it…cebadina does taste a lot like Fizzies! They were both popular drinks during the same era and the attractions for both of them were the novelty and the bubbles. Fizzies came in several different fruit flavors, such as orange and grape, along with traditional soda flavors such as root beer and were usually sold in packets of eight tablets that cost around 20 cents. Unfortunately for millions of Fizzies fans, the last packet of Fizzies came off the line in 1969. The chemists at Emerson Drug Company had used a form of artificial sweetener called cyclamates. Cyclamates were the only artificial sweeteners at that time capable of forming a stable bond with the other chemicals used to create Fizzies. Tests performed on rats during the 1960’s established a link between cyclamates and certain cancers, which led to a permanent ban on cyclamates in the United States. For a time Fizzies were sold unsweetened with instructions to add one spoonful of sugar to the glass of water with every Fizzies tablet but that turned out to be very impractical and Fizzies eventually fizzled out. Why didn’t they put the sugar right into the tablet? It turns out that to sweeten a glass of water with a tablet containing sugar as well as the ingredients to color it, flavor it, and make it fizz would require too big a tablet. A more intense sweetener was needed. After the introduction of NutraSweet to the sweeteners market, the Fizzies brand was resurrected in the mid-1990’s by Premiere Innovations, Inc. It wasn’t available for long though and the company just disappeared. Fizzies are now back on the market again since 2006 and are available in seven flavors…sour apple, lemon-lime, root beer, cherry, orange, blue razz and fruit punch. They are manufactured by Amerilab Technologies in Plymouth, Minnesota (www.fizzies.com/). In their present form, they are sweetened with a mixture of sorbitol, acesulfame potassium and sucralose. The scary part is that they now cost about four dollars for a packet of eight tablets as opposed to twenty cents per packet when they first came out in 1957. Back then gasoline was about twenty cents per gallon and now gasoline is around four dollars per gallon. Hmmm…do you see where this could be going? Conspiracy theory anyone?

In any case, I am finally ready to say goodbye to Cebadina. Our relationship is now officially over. It was fun while it lasted but duty calls and I must seek out other dusty corners in the attic of History to see what I can scrounge up. I am sorry Cebadina. It is time for both of us to move on.

07 June 2008

To Hell with the fridge!

Whenever we have some food leftover after cooking and eating, my wife Gina never puts it into the refrigerator until is completely cool. This drives me crazy. I tell her that she should put the food into the refrigerator right away and let it cool there to avoid giving bacteria a chance to grow. She tells me that her mother Carmelita always told her that she should never, ever put warm things into the refrigerator. I asked Carmelita about this and she told me that her mother taught her the same thing. This is incredible because almost fifty years ago in another country and two thousand miles from Irapuato where I now live my mother and I had the same discussion. The reason that the matter came up was on account of chocolate pudding. In those days we made chocolate pudding on the stove. We put some milk in a pan and then added the chocolate pudding mix. Royal Pudding & Pie Filling was our favorite brand. Most American style puddings used some kind of thickener in the form of a starch. The first pudding thickener was Alfred Bird’s cornflour-based custard powder. Traditional English custards used eggs but Alfred’s wife Elizabeth was allergic to eggs so he developed the custard powder just for her. He was also one of the first developers of baking powder because Elizabeth was allergic to yeast. Alfred Bird must have been a really nice man and his wife must have been a very lucky woman to have such a smart cookie around. Later puddings used arrowroot, tapioca (cassava root), or potato starch, etc. In any case, with starch you had to be careful to avoid heating the pudding too much. When the pudding first started to bubble is when you were supposed to remove it from the heat. Royal Pudding used arrowroot which is very sensitive to excessive heat. I can still remember the Royal Pudding jingle:

"Royal Pudding,
It’s the finest one.
When you see the very first bubble,
It’s done, done, done."

The thing is that I really liked the thick skin that formed on top of the pudding when it cooled. To make a really good thick skin you needed to chill the pudding thoroughly and quickly. My mother would never let me put the pudding into the refrigerator to let it cool so I only ate pudding in the winter time when it was cold in Chicago. I would stir the package into the pan of milk heating on the stove and then watch for the first bubble. Then I would pour the heavenly smelling mixture into a glass bowl and set it out on the back porch to cool. Oh, how I loved that pudding! My sister Suzy didn’t like the pudding skin and so I always tried to be nice to her so I could have hers too. I know that I am not alone in this. I suspect that there are a lot of secret pudding skin lovers out there who just won’t admit it.

Anyway, back to my Ma. She overheard me asking my Dad why she was so adamant about not putting warm things in the refrigerator. He started to tell me that he thought it came from a World War II effort to save energy. My Ma interrupted and told us that this practice pre-dated the war and that her mother taught her to never, ever put warm things in the refrigerator. Finally I asked my Aunt Loretta about because she was a few years older than Ma. Aunt Loretta just laughed and said it was because in those days they had an ice box instead of a refrigerator and if you put warm things in the ice box it would melt the ice. I tried to talk to Ma about this but she would have none of it. Her mother told her not to do it and that was that. Same thing with Gina and Carmelita. If Abuelita (grandma) told them not to do it then that is the law. You know what? I decided that when the women are not around I am going to put warm things in the refrigerator anyhow…and to Hell with it!

05 June 2008

Sal de Uvas

I am constantly running across interesting sounding names for Mexican commercial products and at times curiosity gets the best of me and I just have to check them out. Almost always, I am rewarded by a unique and colorful history that makes it well worth the effort. My current object of investigation is a Mexican product called "Sal de Uvas Picot" ( pronounced SAHL deh OO-bas pee-COHT). It is a carbonate type aid for acid indigestion and it comes in the form of a powder that you dissolve in water. It immediately starts to effervesce when it hits the water and you drink the vigorously bubbling liquid to initiate a cure for your upset tummy.

The phrase "sal de uvas" literally means "salt from grapes" and the word "Picot" refers to "Laboratories Picot" which is the name of the company who developed the product in 1928. In order for me to explain the "sal de uvas" part we need to drop back in time to at least 1835 and take a look at the invention of baking powder. Up until this point in time most bread was made with some form of yeast. The yeast provided the bubbles that made the bread rise. One could also use bicarbonate of soda, called "baking soda" but only if the bread dough had an acid component to react with the baking soda which is a base. Baking "powder" was developed from baking "soda" by several individuals between 1835 and 1845 in order to be able to make bread without having to wait for yeast to rise or without the need for an acid component in the bread dough. Interestingly enough, the British military was one of the first entities to take advantage of this new invention to make biscuits to feed His Royal Majesty's troops. Perhaps for this reason the word "royal" was very early associated with baking powder and in Mexico baking powder is referred to by cooks as “polvo royal” or “royal powder” to this day…no matter what the brand. There were several early brands that claimed the name “Royal” and I am not even sure how “Royal” became the favorite brand in Mexico. Perhaps it arrived with the English when they built the first railroad from Veracruz to Mexico City or perhaps it arrived with the Americans during the Mexican War with the United States. It doesn’t matter. In Mexican recipes “royal” means “baking powder”.

That is all well and good about baking powder but what does it have to do with “sal de uvas”? It just so happens that the English transliteration for “sal de uvas” is “cream of tartar”. I hate to show my ignorance but I always thought that cream of tartar was some kind of cream but that is not so. It is a white powder that is used to supply acidity in the realm of cooking. To make baking powder they originally mixed bicarbonate of soda with cream of tartar in dry form and when added to a liquid it formed bubbles because the cream of tartar is acidic and when dissolved in liquid it reacts to the bicarbonate of soda base. Cream of tartar comes from grapes and is obtained when tartaric acid is half neutralized with potassium hydroxide and becomes a salt. Grapes are one of the very few significant natural sources of tartaric acid and cream of tartar is obtained from the sediment called “argol” produced in the process of making wine. Tartaric acid comes from the grape skins and is what gives wine its tart and acidic tasting properties. Cream of tartar is formally called potassium bitartrate and was known in ancient times as “Crystals of Argolis”. The argol that it comes from is a reddish brown in color and sometimes the white crystals would grow inside of a wine bottle, especially around the cork. It had some very strange chemical characteristics that intrigued early scientists who called it “sal tartari” and the argol that it came from “terra foliata tartari”. The medieval alchemists used it in many of their concoctions and called it “Arcanum tartari” which more or less means “secret blood stone”. How romantic can you get, eh?

Around the turn of the last century the Brioschi company of Italy began making a successful antacid relief powder named “Brioschi” (pronounced bree-OSS-kee) and about the same time a man named Isaac E. Emerson began making the famous “Bromo Seltzer” and both used the concept of mixing tartaric acid in dry form with bicarbonate of soda. Sal de Uvas Picot is a similar product and made its debut in 1928. Each serving size envelope contains 2.485 grams of Bicarbonate of Soda, .2165 grams of Tartaric Acid (Sal de Uvas) and 1.9485 grams of Citric Acid. It was shear marketing genius to call this otherwise simple and unsophisticated product “Sal de Uvas”. Like many contemporary products it became a household word through promotion via the new media, radio. The Laboratories Picot began to buy air time on Mexican radio station XEW, the “Cathedral of Radio” in 1931. Their commercials were a resounding success and the company exceeded its expectations of popularity and sales so they decided to launch a songbook called “Cancionero Picot. It was distributed in pharmacies and house by house, and contained many of the lyrics of songs heard on station XEW. Thanks in part to the success of the Cancionera Picot the radio station XEW became known as the “Voice of Latin America from Mexico”. One of the most effective features of the Cancionero Picot were Chema and Juana, two characters who always announced the virtues of the product in the form of verse. Chema is the pet name or “hypocoristic” name for José Maria, and Chema looks like a typical Mexican cowboy with a big drooping mustache. His female counterpart Juana looks like a rather plump Mexican version of Betty Boop. Together they were a smash hit. In the late 1950’s, Laboratories Picot began to advertise on television with an animated character named “Burbujita” which means “little bubble” . She was a cute little pixie-like character dressed in a modern nurse’s uniform and she carried a magic wand that emanated bubbles.

The reward that I got for checking out the “Sal de Uvas” story was not only an interesting bit of Mexican folklore but also the amazing history of baking powder. The ironic thing is that cream of tartar is no longer used in baking powder because cheaper and better chemicals have been discovered and put to use. That is why if you are following an old, old recipe for something like pancakes that calls for “Royal” and requires a single acting baking powder it is better to make your own. You just mix two spoonfuls of cream of tartar with one spoonful of baking soda and one spoonful of corn starch. In my search for cream of tartar and the history of baking soda I encountered a cast of characters second only to the Wild West or the Sopranos gang. There were baking power wars, and baking powder barons, and a corner on the argol market, etcetera. By the way…what brand of baking powder did your mother use? My ma used Calumet brand and I can still remember the picture of the Indian Chief on the can. Who knew that such a simple thing could have such an interesting past. And so, as I close this chapter on my quest for the truth I tip my hat to the Sal de Uvas Picot people who made their product a vibrant part of Mexican history and opened my own curious eyes just a little bit wider.

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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.