900 miles south to Zapopan, Jalisco from Austin, mostly on Mexico 54, a major
portion of the inter-American freight route that doesnít compare well even
with Iowaís county blacktops.
54 is getting beat up day and night by CFI, Schneider and a lot of trucks with
Arkansas plates no doubt hauling for Walmart. Mexico needs Walmart like a
another sunny day. I donít mean to hammer Mexican road-builders, its just that
one doesnít drop NAFTA into a glass of water and expect it to turn into
Cabernet Sauvignon. That hollering one hears in Texas about the massively
increased north-south truck traffic-and the lack of federal planning to handle
it- resonates quite well here in Mexico. The big fellahs are tearing up
roadbed and bridges built when Lazaro Cardenas was president, and few of them
will bear the increased pounding once a lot more of the smaller light-
manufacturing operations go on-line.
That eventual burden will be in addition to the increase in local rubber
bumping along. The short-haul tankers, belly-dumps, low-boys, buses and farm
tractors all tread along, amid fretfully groping Gringos pulling an Izusu
Rodeo behind their motels on wheels. Aiy-Chihuahua. I saw one 100 horsepower
Deere hauling a 12 foot disc rip up two feet of pavement a hundred meters in
front of me as he pulled across the thoroughfare - the pavement frequently
drops off 6-8 inches to the "shoulder" ( abyss). Up went the front wheels,
down went the discs, traction, and up came the asphalt. He didnít look back,
so it must be a commonplace.
Seen often are what everyone in anything less than a Suburban should justly
fear rolling aside them on the interstate: the "doble-remolques", twin forty-
foot trailers hauled in tandem behind a driver who should have a wide-angle
video remote on the tail-end in order to see what is going on behind this
chopped-off escapee from a railroad. The iron horse is pulling its weight
though: I saw a seemingly endless line-up of empty double-decker cattle cars
headed south when I was coming into Laredo.
Which sort of brings me around to the food part of my essay. Having learned
from my last fast in Oklahoma, I hauled some stuff with me this time: the
fruit, trail-mix, Scandicrackers and garlic saw me through the desert between
Saltillo and Zacatecas. It was a real desert, not just a metaphor, i.e., where
fast-food is the sand and coke is the water. Got lost in Zacatecas at noon-
time trying to intuit an eatery, then turned back around south for
Guadalajara, and saw El Fuente minding its own business on the side of the
road in Cieneguillas across from a fairly new Fanta soda pop plant. Ah:
factory, plus restaurant equals lunch. Just in the nick of time, I walked in
before the plant personnel poured across the highway. El Fuente means" The
It was aptly named and this is what I got for three dollars and seventy cents:
a beer, a bowl of soup, a little plate of rice, some homemade pork rinds, 6
homemade corn tortillas and a plateload of pork chile verde and beans. I
ignored the pork rinds and analyzed the soup and rice. The soup was
approximately 2/3 of a quart in volume with fresh carrots, onions and zucchini
surrounding a thick bone to which five good bites of beef were still attached.
Like the soup, the rice also had scratch vegetables in it. The main course was
unnecessary but I cleared it off like the good gourmand that I am. I just
looked it up to be sure that "gourmand" also infers indulgence, but according
to Microsoft it doesnít, therefore theyíre wrong and I ate the chile verde
because it tasted so good.
Between Zacatecas and Zapopan the desert slowly unclenches and fields, watered
by aqueducts running down from local impoundments, begin to green. The further
south you run, the more irrigated agriculture you encounter, until bananas and
guavas and avocados begin to show up. These are watered by the sky. I was
absolutely charmed by small patches of alfalfa, some no more than 2000 square
feet in area, groomed and cared for like they were filled with snapdragons and
delphiniums. I had to pull off to make sure one field was carrots and it was.
The corn is laid into upright stacks and then a farmer with a PTO driven
grinder cuts the piles into pieces and sacks it up for livestock back at the
corral. Tomatoes are still coming on, while spent fields are on the other side
of the road. The citrus and guavas were uneven in appearance. Being that they
were on hillsides where its hard to bring fertility, it may have been a
nitrogen deficiency, but I guessed mites too. Although it might have been last
yearís freeze that knocked them back. Outside of Villanueva the eucalyptus
trees are growing out from the roots, with tall dead trunks above them. There
was wheat about a foot and half high and some nice stands of oats, and women
and children were having a lot of fun knocking down nuts from trees with
sweat-marked poles I imagined their parents might have used years ago. Heading
into Jalisco I began to see roadstand signs that read "coffee" and "mangos".
I fear it is too dry though, and has been droughty for awhile. Some of the
reservoirs have three-year vegetation growing in their far reaches. Some
irrigation authority should suggest that the farmers not water at midday with
a twenty knot wind blowing, but for all the know-how we have north of the Rio
Grande, that sort of caution goes unheeded as you can readily see throughout
the southwestern deserts we have borrowed with all that dammed up water. Hook
it up, fire it off and walk away.
It is old technology, but I am a real sucker for aqueducts, especially the
little ones made of bricks and concrete running alongside a nice patch of
black dirt. And the furrow-irrigation, so outmoded and wasteful, is still so
satisfying to maintain and coax along all the way to, hopefully, the end of
the row. Don Miguel Torres made us water corn like that in California.
I wanted to put out drip tape, and he said: " Get out of here with your
plastic. The corn wants a lot of water, and when the water goes down to the
roots the roots keep following the water and then the corn wonít fall over.
Let me water this corn like I want to."
Anything you say boss, and he was all that. Production problems associated
with shallow watering in concert with synthetic fertilizer at the root zone
tend to reinforce the idea that deep watering does make some sense. Short
roots from drip irrigation; short roots, greater risk. But in the coming age
of water scarcity, I think weíll see more drip tape in agriculture before we
see fewer golf courses in the small ball meccas of Arizona.
Six hours out of Zacatecas I cleared the ridge above Guadalajara, having had
the good fortune to have passed an achingly slow freighter ominously marked "
Materiales Peligrosos" ( Dangerous Materials) on the last brief
straight-away before entering twenty five kilometers of hairpins, cliffs, and
deep drops into the Achichito and Rio Verde watersheds.
Parked "safely" in the confines of Hell-Bat-Town, Jalisco, I had that old
mealtime dilemma once again confronting me. At least I found hotel quarters
before the sun went down. These drivers seem to speed it up once the delivery
vans are parked, and its a regular Daytona in downtown Guadalajara after dark.
I wished I could change out of my Red Wings so I could carry myself a little
more quickly across the boulevards.
" No problem," the hotel desk clerk said, " There is a Burger King around the
block on the Avenida Avilla Camacho."
When I winced slightly, she pointed out that there was also a typical grill
just down the Jorge Alvarez del Castillo. So I showered and walked down to "
Rubenís", and for four dollars and twenty cents I had the following:
First, I got a basket of small, fried corn tortillas, four big containers
filled with salsas and pico de gallo, and a bowl of guacamole that you would
pay four bucks American for in Austin. The waiter alerted me to the fact that
with my order of cerdo adobado I got a free trip to the salad bar. I nixed the
iceberg and loaded up on beets, garbanzos, onions and cucumbers. No dressing.
The beets were scratch, and I could tell because there was a small, knobby,
double-rooted beet cut up in the server, and they were earthy and crunchy-
My, what big garbanzos you have, Guadalajara! I destroyed the guacamole. Then,
superfluously, came the meal: Way too much grilled pork loin in adobado sauce,
fried scratch potatoes that tasted like potatoes, a bowl of charro beans, a
pile of sliced tomatoes, a soup bowl filled with fresh, sautťed onions and
jalapenos, the corn tortillas that I watched the woman make from behind her
glassed-in theater, and two beers. I made up my mind to take a long walk after
dinner and skip breakfast. The perfumed streets were lined with flowering
trees, and I noted that one distinct proof against graffitti is to cover the
wall with a living thing like Bougainvilla or ivy.
Rubenís throws you a real curve-ball. You walk in thinking: this is going to
be too Gringofied, since its pretty close to the University and is across the
street from an English language school. Just a hunch. And its sharp, and
gleaming and had two TV sets tuned to dueling, different soccer games, one in
Germany, the other in Peru. The waiters walk by with their arms loaded with
food, watch one play for half the trip across the room, and then focus on the
other game as they reach their destination. When the announcer yells: GOAL! in
there, Iíll bet it gets interesting.
Do not succumb to the Romanticized observations of one lucky traveler, because
we all rhapsodize about these fundamental, probably fleeting, food truths of
Mexico. Though scratch cooking is definitely more available, particularly
where a novice is least inclined to experiment, like the public market, Mexico
is hurtling toward processed convenience with a Keep Up With the Joneses
vengeance. The big supers are wall to wall with the name brands most good
Greens have learned to avoid like the plague they are. I remember how
disappointed I felt when my friend Angel Perea told me that his wife, an ace
scratch cook, was "enchanted" by McDís French fries. And Ralph Nader owns
stock in DuPont.
Now that I am once again in a place where they give away avocados, I want to
know what happened to the US avocado market. Something doesnít seem to fit,
and its not because I have been eating too many. After all the hard work that
Angie Dickinson and Calavo did getting people to eat them, the large, quality
avocado is mysteriously missing. And the resulting guacamole is like green
caviar: dearly priced. Even in California all one sees at retail are small
sizes, and when encountered in Minneapolis or Iowa City at $1.39 each for
around four bites of overripe mush, I have to figure either the avo-deal has a
life of its own or has evolved into retail loss-leader diversification without
rationale, like hustling star fruit and plantains makes sense because Frieda
Kaplan has written it on her stone tablets. Not to be unnecessarily tough on
Friedaís Finest; man what a sticker program, which may yet prod a doubting
public to eat more winter squash. Not organic though. I took a nice meeting
with them ten years ago on that subject: not enough margin to share in the
pipeline. In a word, savvy. Friedaís already walks and talks like uncommon
product, somehow making production practices immaterial because of all that
purple hype: a strange halo of wholesomeness graces these exotic experiments
on behalf of the global palate.
Avocado production is a big NAFTA battle ground. Being fairly freeze
intolerant, they wonít thrive much above San Luis Obispo on the California
coast, and their prime growing areas, particularly the flat ground around
Escondido and Ventura, has gone under the blade, leaving production to the
tender hillsides, which are more susceptible to a host of management problems,
including harvesting and erosion of the already thin and unstable soils. They
also donít like smog. Stateside scarcity leads at least to dependably steady
prices. I remember the avo-rollercoaster years when growers just let them
drop. And then, there was Angie.
Meanwhile, today in Mexico, where they are native, avo export is a built
machine stymied by protectionism masked by phytosanitary fears. I am
completely in conformance with the idea of not importing another exotic baddie
where they arenít already, but the idea of bringing a disease into the US on
the fruit begs one to imagine how a spent avocado shell will get pitched into
a disease-free orchard and engender the calamity. Stranger disasters have
happened, and some of them were unintended reversals of theory.
Instead of shipping them whole, the going industry here is sending frozen avo-
puree, either because of the fresh export restrictions or because trucking a
highly perishable product of which a significant portion is not utilized,
except as compost, ends up being too great a percentage of the actual value.
Fifteen dollars a box, FOB Uruapan sounds like a money maker to me though.
Five or six bucks per to get it up to Nogales or Laredo and to cross it, five
per to shove them around some more, and thatís guacamole. If that sounds too
simple, it probably is. Two years ago when I was rambling around in Michuoacan
I saw whole mountains planted to three to five year old Hass orchards, and
observed quite a few commercial nurseries filled with trees close to planting
I readily own up to my schizophrenia over globalization. Is the export market
supposed to make sense, is the most cogent question. Will the Free-For-All to
come be self-equalized by the market valves, self-activating with textbook
facility instead of historical upheaval? Consumers can generally take or leave
the avocado, but people who have planted them and waited five years to market
them are less likely to shrug it off if corporate fields in Chinzamvia throw
the fruit at the consumerís basket for momentary pennies, waiting for market
monopoly to kick in. Round and Round it goes, and where it stops, nobody
knows. But those who pretend are better paid than popular journalists.
How the Hass outclassed the rest of the field is intriguing as well. Ever
eaten, or for that matter seen a Bacon, a Rincon or a Fuerte? None of them
have bumpy black skins. The bumpy helps the shelf-life, the black tells you
they are ripe without having to mash them into guac at point of purchase. I
think they tend to have if not a superior flavor one that isnít inferior to
any other, and the Hass tend to be not as watery as Bacons and Rincons. My
grandparents had a massive Fuerte in the backyard which we ate from and made
dubious charity from among the passive neighbors in the middle-class southern
California town where they lived for decades.
" Uh, yeah sure, Morris. Thanks, and say hi to Edna for us," Mr. Blankenship
might mumble, semi-startled to suddenly have a 15 pound bag of them thrust
" Are you sure he likes them, grandad? " I cautiously inquired as we returned
to the Pontiac.
" Seems to!" He said, hopefully defiant.
In 1972 I odd-jobbed for a millionaire coot in Escondido, hauling empty
picking bins into and full ones back from his avocado orchards. He had
carefully pinned a recording plate on every tree and measured each yearís
yields, hand-punching the year and yield in each patinaed plate. Some of his
Hass trees each gave over a ton of fruit in their prime. But he had made his
fortune in salvage when storm water flushed a 40ís-era army base full of first
cut redwood planks onto his riparian ground. I think he was prouder of that
than of the trees, but he was already sideways with reality.
Years later, Steve and Ben Moore let me live in their avocado orchard, where I
gained much admiration for this exceptionally sustaining food. Seven years
among the Hass, and the only thing Iím spoiled over was the price. If they hit
the ground, they were either mine, Miguelís , the Moores, or a lucky find for
a coyote. A key market rule is that grounders donít get shipped.
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