31 March 2010

Virtual Touring

This post is somewhat beyond the scope of what I usually write about but since I had such an amazing experience I felt that I simply must pass it on. First of all I follow a blog named "Lines and Colors" which is an art blog maintained by a Philadelphia artist named Charlie Parker. It has been a very nice place to go to educate myself about art in general or at least expose my eyes to representations of fine art of all types. Mr. Parker has just posted an item called "Sistine Chapel Panorama" and it gives a link to a page where you can take a virtual tour of the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican in Rome. I have heard about the Sistine Chapel all my life and have seen pictures of it and I have read articles about it. I resigned myself long ago that I would probably never get to see it in person and thus felt a little "left out" when talking to people who had "been there and done that". Now, however, thanks to this virtual tour I feel like I have "been there and done that" also.

To get to the Sistine Chapel Virtual Panorama page click HERE. You need to have Adobe Flash Player installed with your browser and if you don't have it you can download it HERE. It takes about a minute for the program to load and when it stops loading just start pushing the screen with your mouse pointer to navigate where you want to go in the Chapel. In the lower left corner there is a plus and and minus sign that you can click on to pan in or out and if you click on the "M" for "mouse" you will have an alternative method for moving around. The Chapel is empty of people and the experience is so real that you can almost hear your heels clicking on the marble floor. In fact, if you pan down to the floor and zoom in, you can see the detail just as good as if you were right there in person and bending over. If this virtual touring is the thing of the future then I am all for it. Just think of all the places that we will be able to see without leaving the comfort and security of our own homes, especially for kids, elderly people, and people of lesser means.

I left my virtual tour with a little sigh thinking that a little pressure had just lifted from me. Sure, we want to go everywhere and see everything and people who do that sometimes lead one to feel as if one is missing something essential. With all due respect to Pope Sixtus IV, Pope Julius II, and Michelangelo Di Lodovico Buanarroti Simoni (better known as just plain "Michelangelo") I think that we have works of art here in Mexico that are just as great. For me, the Cathedral at Puebla comes to mind. I have truly "been there and done THAT" in person and if you haven't "SO THERE!". Anyway, I look forward to seeing more virtual tours like this and my hat is off to Charley Parker for letting me know about this one. I encourage everyone to visit his "Lines and Colors" and see what else that you may be missing.

Click on picture to enlarge.

30 March 2010

Musings from the Bench

I took the whole week off this week and I am spending it in my favorite place which is a wooden bench in my own back yard. I have been in a very reflective mood lately and I figure that Semana Santa (Holy Week) would be a good time to sort things out. My wife Gina invited me to go on a ten mile walking pilgrimage with her to visit the shrine of the Cristo Negro in Salamanca on Jueves Santo (Holy Thursday) but I told her no, that I would prefer to sit this one out...on my bench. This past year has been quite tumultuous to say the least and it appears that there is no end to the turmoil. First it was the banking crisis, mortgage failures, and burgeoning unemployment figures. Then it was the Democrats and Republicans trying to kill each other over health care. Now the Catholic Church (my Alma Mater) is coming under ever increasing fire over pedophilia scandals involving the clergy all the way up to the top of the church hierarchy. I need to think all this over. There is so much mindless crap springing up all around me and I must try to figure out why so many of my fellow human beings are like cows grazing on grass that is growing up through their own excrement and I need to determine if life on Earth is nothing more than a string of unfulfilled expectations. I hope to come through this week with a resurrected view of life and a renewal of hope but right now it looks like a long shot.

Let's get back to the bench, shall we? It is the most comfortable wooden bench that I have ever sat upon. You can get an idea of what it looks like from the sketch below. I acquired the bench back in 2001. One day I was driving along a rural highway not far from Irapuato when I saw a man with an old truck sitting by the side of the road with a bunch of rustic looking furniture. On a pure whim I stopped my car and got out to have a look. One of the things that caught my eye right away was a heavy wooden mesquite bench with places carved out to match the curves of the human body. It looked comfortable and inviting and I sat down. It immediately struck me that this was a nice place to sit. Just out of curiosity I asked the man how much he wanted for it. It just so happened that it was part of a set that include two other pieces of furniture and that he wanted 2,400 pesos for the lot. Sadly, I told him that it was too bad that even though I liked the bench I did not have that much money and besides, I really had no use for the other furniture. I reluctantly got up and with one last longing glance at the bench I started walking toward my car.

As I was about to start the engine and drive away the man stopped me and told me that he really needed to sell something and asked me if I would take the bench by itself for 1,500 pesos. This was when the peso to dollar ratio was a little less that 10:1 so it would cost the equivalent of about 160 dollars. I begged the man's pardon and told him that I was sorry but that was still a bit more money than I had. I started the car and was about to drive off when he blurted out "Okay, 1,200 pesos!". I turned off the motor and sat there thinking about it. It was a very good price and I really wanted that bench but even if I bought it I didn't know how I would get the bench home. I explained this to the man and he got very excited an said "No problem, I will put it in your car". I thought that he was joking because I was driving a little Chevy hatchback that in Mexico is called a "Chevy Pop" and in the U.S. it is called a "Chevy Joy". So I decided to joke along with him and I told him that if he could get that bench in my car so that I could still drive safely I would buy it for 1,200 pesos. He asked me to get out of the car and open the hatchback and he got to work. First he folded down the back seats. Then he quickly disassembled the bench which was not hard at all. He and his son loaded the pieces in the wink of an eye and left me shaking my head in amazement. Then I started to panic. What if I didn't have enough money?

I searched my wallet and my pockets a came up just short of the 1,200 pesos that I needed and I felt my face reddening with embarrassment. My heart began to palpitate. Just then I remembered the money that I kept above the visor in case I ever needed to contribute to the policeman's donut fund and it was just enough to complete the transaction. I went home a happy camper with the bench squeezed in from hatchback to windshield and with just enough room to turn the steering wheel and I have been sitting pretty on my bench ever since. Now I must get back to the task at hand...enlightenment.

29 March 2010

Benjamin Button & Ota Benga

Yesterday I saw the movie "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" for the first time. The story is loosely based on a short story that F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in 1922. It is said that he was inspired by a quote attributed to Mark Twain that goes "Life would be infinitely happier if we could only be born at the age of 80 and gradually approach 18". The movie doesn't really follow the Fitzgerald story much other than the theme but there was a genuine thread of Mark Twain in the movie and if it wasn't put there because of Fitzgerald's influence then I believe that one of the writers of the screenplay, Eric Roth, must have been a real Mart Twain fan. Among other things there are elements of the Benjamin Button story that come right out of Mark Twain's unfinished work, "The Mysterious Stranger". Twain worked on this story for twenty years and never finished it. It was a story about the morals of "the damned human race". The scene in the movie that shows the events that led up to Daisy's (Cate Blanchett's) accident where her leg was injured and thus ended her dancing career is a scene right out of "The Mysterious Stranger". The movie is also reminiscent of the sequences of improbable history that one finds in the movie "Forrest Gump". That should not be surprising since Eric Roth won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for "Forrest Gump" in 1994. The co-writer for Benjamin Button , by the way, is Robin Swicord.

One of the elements of the movie that stands out in my mind is a scene with Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) wearing sun glasses and sitting on the deck of a sailboat where he looks just like President John F. Kennedy. Another scene shows Benjamin and Daisy on the the deck of that same sailboat in the Florida Keys and you can see a space craft launching over Benjamin's shoulder even though the Florida Keys are on the opposite side of Florida from Cape Canaveral. Another scene had Teddy Roosevelt visiting New Orleans at a time when Roosevelt was suffering from bouts of malaria and would soon be on his death bed. Oh, well, that's show business.

The most far fetched scene in the movie though, was a scene where a character named Ngunda Oti, a diminutive black friend of Queenie's lover Tizzy, claimed to have been exhibited as a Pygmy in the Philadelphia Zoo. This is no doubt in reference to a real person named Ota Benga who had been captured in the Belgian Congo by slave traders and bought for a pound of salt and a bolt of cloth by a man under contract to bring some pygmies to populate an exhibit at the 1904 Worlds Fair in St. Louis. The St. Louis Fair was the first World's Fair lit by electric light and it was much to do about America bringing light to the rest of the world. There were several exhibits of indigenous people on display from places like Africa, the Philippines, and Mexico. It was a shameless affair with racist undertones. After the fair Ota Benga was taken to New York and exhibited in the monkey house of the Bronx Zoo. After people began to protest , he was released in 1906 when the powers that be "realized" they had been inhumane, and he was placed in an orphanage until 1910 when he was relocated to Virginia. He received formal education before starting work at a tobacco factory, and he began to plan his return to the Congo. With the outbreak of WWI his plans seemed impossible and he became depressed and killed himself in 1916 with a shotgun.

The is a lot more improbable history in the movie but it is such an entertaining story that if you haven't seen it you probably ought to. I give it two thumbs up. It's a good flick.

12 March 2010

Muñecas de Cartón Revisited

A couple years ago I wrote a piece aout "Muñecas de Cartón" which are dolls made of papier mâché that were popular with little girls in Central Mexico from the 1880's until around the 1960's. The railroads came to Mexico in the 1880's and with the railroads came the circus and the trapeze performers. The ladies of the trapeze in their sequined tights and garish outfits were quite a sight for young women everywhere and many a little girl had dreams of one day performing on the high wire. The muñecas de cartón are modeled after the female trapeze artists. From time to time I get inquiries from ladies about where they can purchase one of these dolls. Well, now is the season when you can find them for sale if it isn't already too late to find them at all. They get scarcer every year. If you are going to get one then you better do it now. They appear in the market here in Irapuato and surrounding cities around Palm Sunday and are usually sold along with Easter goods. You can generally find them during Semana Santa and then right after Easter they are gone. If you want one you should start looking for them very soon. The following is my original post which will tell you a little more about them.

Every spring around the time of Holy Week in Irapuato, Guanajuato, México where I live, there appear in the local market some peculiar dolls made of papier mâché. They are commonly called “muñecas de cartón” in Mexican Spanish. The word “muñeca” (moon-YEA-kah) can mean either “doll” or it can mean “wrist”, as in the wrist that connects your hand with your arm, depending upon the context in which the word “muñeca” is used. The word “cartón” (kar-TOHN), however, can be misleading because the word “cartón” is generally associated with the English word “cardboard”. The phrase “muñeca de carton” is actually a short form of the phrase “muñeca de cartón de piedra” or “doll made of rock paper”. The phrase “papier mâché” is of French origin meaning “chewed” or “masticated” paper but it translates into Spanish as “cartón de piedra”. I have also heard these dolls referred to at various times as “muñecas de Salamanca”, “muñecas de carnival”, “Las Lupitas”, “muñecas de cabaret”, and unfortunately “muñecas de puta”. I say unfortunately because the phrase “muñeca de puta” means “whore doll” or “prostitute doll”. I have never actually heard anyone refer to them this way in Mexico but there are people from the United States who buy them for five dollars or less in México and sell them on eBay for twenty-five dollars or more and refer to them by that disparaging name. How sad!

I used the word “peculiar” to describe these dolls for several reasons. For one thing, they only seem to be available in the spring of the year around Easter time. There are several sizes but no matter what the size they all seem to have come from the same general mold or they were all modeled after the same person. Most have dark painted hair but some have light brown or blond hair and they have movable arms and legs. They all seem to have the same face which is painted to look like a woman wearing a lot of makeup. They appear to be wearing an old style one piece bathing suit which is usually either green or lavender or blue with a bright circular design painted on the chest and incorporating a lot of shiny glitter. They usually have a necklace made of glitter and painted-on earrings. Sometimes there is also a woman’s name painted on the chest. Many of the ladies that I talk to who are fifty and older look at these dolls with great nostalgia and fondness because they remember receiving one almost every year at Easter when they were little girls. Being made out of papier mâché they were fairly bedraggled by the end of a year and so they were replaced annually by a kind mother and father. They didn’t cost very much so it was no great burden to the family. The boys would receive a broomstick horse with the horse’s head made out of the same material as the dolls were. In each and every case the people can describe to me how good a new doll or hobby horse smelled. They were made with a certain kind of carpenter’s glue called “goma de cola” which has a distinctive aroma that can evoke vivid memories. I have included below a photo of a muñeca that I bought not too long ago and a photo of some muñecas that were made around 1930 or 1940.

I have not been able to come up with a complete history yet but that is part of the joy of being alive. Life is a journey and not a destination and I know that “poco a poco” little by little, I will learn more. I have been able to piece together a little bit about them. First of all, the papier mâché industry began to emerge and prosper in France and Spain in the mid 1700’s. In Spain there were two cities in particular, Valencia and Salamanca, where the making of figures from papier mâché became quite popular and still is. Eventually this practice spread to México and was particularly used for the making of effigies of Judas Iscariot that were blown up with fireworks and burned on Holy Saturday. I don’t know for sure, but I am guessing that the making of papier mâché dolls in the spring was associated with the making of these Judas figures since they used the same material and process in making them.

One of the things that I have yet to learn is why these dolls are associated so much with the City of Celaya in the State of Guanajuato, not far from where I live. There are several families in Celaya who have been making these dolls for over one hundred years. The reason that the dolls look like they are wearing old fashioned, one piece bathing suits is because they are supposedly modeled after female circus trapeze performers. The circus became popular in México about the same time as it did in the rest of North America at the beginning of the last century and the appearance and costumes of the European style circus performers apparently took everyone by storm. These days there doesn’t seem to be much of a market for the dolls among little girls who would rather play with something more modern. The decline started in the 1950’s especially after the Mexican government put a halt in 1957 to the practice of blowing up Judas on Holy Saturday because the proliferation of fireworks was becoming too dangerous. I think there will always be a small market for the dolls however, as long as the women who remember them from childhood are still around…oh, yes, and probably as long as there is an eBay.

07 March 2010

Capirotada revisited...

My friend Tancho just posted a recipe for Capirotada to his blog, "Rancho Canyon Cookbook" and it reminded me that this is the season for Capirotada and that I have my mother-in-law Carmelita's recipe stashed away somewhere in my vault of treasured recipes. In Mexico there is a saying, "Ves un burro y se antoja viaje" (You see a donkey and it makes you want to take a trip), so not to be outdone I dug up an old blog post of mine about Capirotada that includes Carmelita's recipe and am hereby offering it up for your Lenten pleasure as an alternative to Tancho's...especially if you are a teatotaler. If you aren't interested in history then just skip down to the recipe but I think you might like to read a bit about the history of capirotada first.

“Capirotada” is a Lenten bread pudding made with stale bread, brown sugar (called piloncillo), cheese, butter, nuts, and raisins and several other ingredients depending upon who makes it. If you have one hundred people making capirotada you will probably have at least twenty variations depending upon regional and ethnic considerations. I noticed that capirotada is often mentioned in cook books as a Lenten-Passover dish and I wondered about the connection. Why do two religious cultures share a particular traditional dish tradition at the same season? It is quite apparent that Hispanic people and Sephardic Jewish people share a fondness for capirotada but the fact they both eat it as a traditional seasonal food made me curious. I decided to delve into the history of capirotada but I soon found myself aimlessly wandering around the attic of history until I stumbled upon some clues.

First of all, let’s examine the word capirotada itself. In Spanish, the word “capa” can mean various things but they all have a common theme. A “capa” generally means a covering or a layer. It can mean a “cape”, a “coating” or a “layer” of something as in a “coating of paint” or a “layer of chocolate”, or it can be a “cap”. A “capirote” can mean a cow or other livestock that has a head that is a different color that the body. Many bird names in Spanish have the word “capirotada” appended to them if the bird has some type of different colored “cap” of feathers on its head. The word “capirote” also signifies a long pointed hood that medieval penitents wore or the cap worn by prisoners put on display for public humiliation or the traditional penitent’s garb worn by cofradía participants during the silent march on Good Friday in Spain, Mexico, and other Hispanic countries. In the United States it might be referred to as the “dunce cap” that the teachers of years gone by made students wear if they acted badly or didn’t know their lessons. A “capirote” is also the name for the little hood that falconers put on the heads of their birds to keep them quiet. Lastly, a “capirotada” can also be a mix of something like a stew, or a hash, or a mincemeat or a layered casserole. Aha! Now we are getting somewhere.

There is a French word, “capilotade” that lends credence to the idea of a layered casserole. There are a multitude of recipes for French capilotade and some involve poultry, some involve red meat, and some involve fish such as “Capilotade de Morue” which is a dish made from salt cod, capers, and wine. If we go back in time, however, and we go as far back as ancient Rome, we come across several dishes that lend themselves to the idea of “capirotada” or “capilotade”. The most prominent of these Roman cuisines is a dish called “Sala Cattabia”. The Romans used a bread for this casserole dish that was little more than flour, water, and salt. After the bread was baked it was broken up and put in a pot, covered with a layer of goat cheese, and then layers of cucumbers, boiled chicken, onions, and pine nuts. The whole thing was cooked with some kind of dressing that contained vinegar, raisins, honey, pepper, and various herbs.

Okay, now it is time to “fast forward” quite a bit to around the year 1500. It appears to me from my wanderings through time that the various evolving forms of the Roman dish divided into two branches, one with meat or poultry or fish and the other meatless, but still utilizing cheese. During this casserole evolution there were all types of breads evolving as well, and the bread used could make a distinct difference in the dish. In Spain at that time there was a strong Arab Islamic presence and so no doubt some of the ingredients came from North Africa. In 1478 the Spanish Inquisition was established in by Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella to maintain Catholic orthodoxy. Until 1492 the Inquisition only had jurisdiction over baptized Catholics. However, in 1492 the Jews were banished from Spain and in 1502 the Muslim Moors were also given the boot. The only way that a Jew or Muslim could remain under the jurisdiction and protection of the Spanish Crown was to adopt Catholicism. One of the main tasks of the Inquisition was to make sure that the so called converts or “conversos” had really converted and were not just faking it to avoid being burned at the stake.

I found several garbled references on the Internet that referred to the Inquisition and the year 1640 and Inquisition archives containing recipes for capirotada. Most of the references seemed to be nothing more that people copying each other’s errors which is something that the Internet is famous for. The date 1640 intrigued me though and upon checking further I learned that in 1640 there was a book printed called the Regimento de Inquisitor General that gave detailed instructions on how to search for fake converts from Judaism to Catholicism. By this time the Inquisition had learned how to ferret out the Crypto Jews (as they later came to be called) fairly well. Knowing this, many of the Jewish “conversos” emigrated to New Spain, and in Mexico in particular they tried to distance themselves from the mainstream of the Inquisition by moving to the northern frontier. Being supposedly “good” Catholics they would have been expected to eat traditional Lenten foods such as capirotada prepared in the traditional way.

In Northern Mexico and Southern Texas there is a bread called “pan de semita” which some people call “Jewish bread” because they claim the word “semita” means “semite”. Jewish people are sometimes referred to as “semites” along with Arab people because both groups are said to have evolved from Shem, the oldest son of Noah (if one is to give credence to the Biblical account in the Book of Genesis). The exact details are not crystal clear in the Genesis account but Shem being the father of both the Arabs and the Jews was taken by many as historical fact in the days when anthropology was still bound by the Bible. The actual word “semite” didn’t even emerge until the early 1830’s. The linking of “pan de semita” strictly to Jews is probably an error. No doubt “pan de semita” was a flat, course bread linked to both Jewish and Arab cultures. What may have set the pan de semita apart is that it can be baked as a type of nomad’s bread without the use of yeast. Some people speculate that pan de semita was a substitute for the traditional matzo unleavened bread at Passover and it may have been camouflaged by the Catholic capirotada. Another thing, and even more important, most bread made in those days was made using lard. The pan de semita of Northern Mexico is made using vegetable oil instead of lard. In the Inquisition days vegetable oil or olive oil was hard to come by on the frontier and so the inquisitors were no doubt on the lookout for anyone making unleavened pan de semita using oil instead of lard.

I am satisfied that I have a general idea about why capirotada is linked to both Lent and Passover but I reached this point by tugging at little random historical threads and my theory may not be entirely correct. If I find out that I am all wrong I will print a retraction and if I find some new and interesting information I will edit it in. We can never be certain about History because we are only seeing shadows of it. My great grandmother from Poland had a way of dealing with this uncertainty. Whenever she heard someone speaking with great authority about what happened long ago she would say, “And how do you know? Vas you dere Charlie?”. Gina and I make capirotada and to put out own personal stamp on it we sometimes use English walnuts instead of peanuts or almonds and instead of using raisins we use dried blueberries. Perhaps one hundred years from now someone will be searching the internet to learn about capirotada and after stumbling upon a remnant of my blog they will infer that the people of Irapuato were unique in the ingredients that they used in capirotada. Good grief! I certainly hope not.

Here is the traditional recipe for Irapuato, Guanajuato style Capirotada:


1 kilo piloncillo. These are the little cones of raw brown sugar. One kilo sounds like a lot but believe me it isn’t. There are about twenty little cones to the kilo.

2 cups water

3 sticks of Mexican cinnamon

1 laurel leaf

4 black pepper corns

4 cloves

A stick of butter (more or less)

1 to 2 cups of raisins

1 to 2 cups of unsalted shelled and halved peanuts

Queso añejo (aged queso fresco) cheese for a garnish

1 dozen or more fine dinner rolls. Here they are called “bolillo amasijo”. They are pointed at both ends and about the size of your fist. You can use other kinds of bread but fine dinner rolls with a light crust work the best.


Slice the bolillos on an angle into pieces about one half inch thick. Put the slices on a cookie sheet out in the sun or into a warm oven until they are hard. Fry the slices in hot oil on both sides until golden brown. You can also deep fry them in a fryer in very hot light vegetable oil. Drain the bread slices on a paper towel. Place the piloncillo sugar cones into a pot with two cups of water, the cinnamon sticks, the laurel leaf, the pepper corns, and the cloves. Melt the piloncillos over low heat stirring frequently until you get a nice light semi-thick syrup. Dip each piece of bread into the syrup and put them into a big pot until the bottom of the pot is covered. Then sprinkle in some raisins and some peanuts and a few pats of butter. Put in another layer of bread slices and then more raisins and peanuts and butter etcetera until the pot is full or you run out of slices. There should be enough for a four quart pot. Pour the remaining syrup over the top layer, put on a lid and cook over very low heat for five to ten minutes. Turn off the heat and let the whole thing cool down. You now have some wonderful Capirotada. Serve it in small bowls. Garnish it with cheese. Don’t even ask about the calories though. I can’t even count that high.

The above recipe was used by Gina’s mother and her grandmother and her great grandmother going back for many generations. The only difference is that now we use vegetable oil and years ago they used “manteca” which is very fine lard. This dish was served on Ash Wednesday and every Friday of Lent and of course, Good Friday. It was eaten as a desert to compensate for not eating meat on those days. On Saturday mornings, the leftover Capirotada was eaten for breakfast with a cup of “atole blanco” which is a hot drink made from finely ground corn meal. Some people would also eat “platano macho” that was sliced and fried in butter along with the Capirotada. The “platano macho” looks like a large hard banana and is generally referred to in English as “plantain”. Capirotada was a very expensive dish to make in the old days and for that reason it was reserved only for Lent when people ate less regular food and could afford to spend a little more for the ingredients. I only eat it at Lent because if I ate it all the time I would look like the Goodyear Blimp. I can tell you one thing though. It really is delicious!

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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.