March 2010


In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, Amy and I plan check out the Irish pub in town for the first time tonight.  We’ve generally avoided going to Irish pubs outside Ireland because we fear they won’t really be much like the real thing.  Sometimes it can be easy to tell when the pub owners really don’t have a clue, such as with the pub in Madrid that had a nice window display on Prince Charles and Princess Diana.

Instead of going to a pub we could cook ourselves an Irish meal, but just what would that be?  I just read  Francis Lam’s article “St. Patrick’s Day controversy:  Is corned beef and cabbage Irish?” and the article makes clear some things we already knew:  corned beef really isn’t so much Irish as Irish-American, and food is not central to Irish culture.  When we lived in Cork, we were rarely invited to people’s homes for dinner and instead socialized in pubs.  We were invited to the house of our friends Denise and Michael for an Irish meal once, and it consisted of bacon (Americans would probably call it boiled ham), potatoes, cabbage, boiled turnips, and mushy peas.  The food was great, the boiled turnips surprisingly so, though I don’t think I’ll ever be a great fan of mushy peas.  There was no corned beef to be seen.

Food plays a much more central role here in Mexico.  During our Mexican cooking class, our Spanish-language teacher, Eli, said that the women who would be teaching us cooked in the same way as he remembered from his childhood, with love.  The cooks here really do seem to care more about the food they make, and how it’s accepted.  Last night, we went out to eat and Amy left a little soup in her bowl while I left a few scraps on my plate.  The cook came out and asked us if everything was okay, and seemed a bit concerned that we hadn’t eaten every last bite.  We know how to say we’re full in Spanish, which is useful, because cooks seem almost hurt if food is left on the plate.  This was even more true in Mexico City.

In Ireland it was nearly impossible to go to a restaurant that served “Irish food,” though many pubs had a carvery lunch on Sundays, which seemed to consist of a meat and two veg, usually boiled.  In Mexico, most of the restaurants serve Mexican food, and we eat at our favorite taqueria two or sometimes even three times a week.  That’s as it should be, though – gringas de pastor beat mushy peas any day of the week.

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There are two permanent indoor markets here in San Miguel:  The Mercado Ignacio Ramirez is located in Centro and the Mercado de San Juan de Dios is a few blocks outside of Centro towards the bus station.  We frequently do our shopping for meat and vegetables at the Mercado Ignacio Ramirez, and one of our favorite lunch spots is found in the Mercado de San Juan de Dios.

Mercado Ignacio Ramirez

The biggest (and in my opinion the best) market in San Miguel is the Tianguis del Martes or Tuesday Market.  It is huge, crowded, overwhelming, and exciting.  Need some fresh papaya, oranges, or chayote?  No problem.  How about a remote for you television?  No problem.  A new (or used) pair of underwear?  A slotted spoon?  A pirated DVD? A rusty dull knife?  Table and chairs?  No problem.  The market has it all.

Baskets at the Tuesday Market

Fresh produce at the market

In addition to chock-a-block stalls, there are people wandering the aisles with new mop heads, racks of shoe laces, and woolen shawls for sale.  Shouting over the chatter of the crowds are the men hawking their wares, sometimes with a megaphone for extra emphasis.

And then there is the food.  Pat and I experience our travels primarily by walking through the various neighborhoods and by eating the local food.  One cannot completely experience Mexican cuisine unless you are willing to try some of the local street food.  Not only is it economical, but it is often much more flavorful.  In an effort to stay relatively healthy, we try to patronize places that are busy and where we can see the food being cooked in front of us.

I don’t know the name of our current favorite place to eat when we are at El Tianguis.  You just have to remember which section of the market they are in and look for the women’s bright orange aprons.

Carnitas at the Tuesday Market

Their specialty is tacos de carnitas (pork), and they are quite tasty – especially with the fresh shredded cabbage, salsa and homemade guacamole.  The first time we ate there, I was asked if I wanted my meat seca o con grasa, and I said con grasa.  I didn’t know what it meant but seca (dry) sounded boring.  She also asked if I wanted it surtido, and again I said yes not knowing what surtido meant.  When the plate arrived, I realized that con grasa meant with fat.  It took a bit of work to separate the meat from the fat, but it was moist and delicious.  I didn’t find out what surtido meant until I ran across it a few days later while reading David Lida’s book, First Stop in the New World.  According to Lida, surtido means that you are getting a mix of pork product, which could include organ meat and who knows what else.  With this new-found knowledge, the next week I ordered our meat blanca y seca (white and dry).  It was still good, but not as flavorful as it had been the week before.

There are many other tempting options for lunch at El Tianguis, and I am sure that someday I’ll try them.  But for now I can’t get enough of tacos de carnitas surtido y con un poco grasa.

Within 2 minutes of gringos meeting for the first time in San Miguel, the question arises, “Do you live here?”  The answers range from, “Yes, I’ve lived here full-time for twelve years, “ to “No, we’re just visiting.”  For us, though, the question is hard to answer.

We don’t live here in the sense of planning to stay forever, or owning property, or having a long-term lease, like so many of the people we meet.   We don’t get any bills here, and our apartment, which is located below a hostel, is a temporary home.  But then again, everything is temporary for us right now and for the next 15 months or so.  After leaving Ireland in June, we didn’t spend more than 6 weeks in any location until we came to Mexico, and now that we’ve been in this country for around 4 months, it’s as much home as any place.

Sure, we do sometimes talk about the way things will be when we “go home,” and we mean go back to America.  What’s confusing is that while we’re likely to return to live in Oregon when we go back in a little over a year, we doubt we will return to Corvallis.  It was recently ranked as one of the top ten overpriced housing markets in the country, and we can’t afford to live there.  So, we think we’ll end up in Bend, Oregon, on the other side of the Cascade Range, where houses can be found for around 40% what they cost in Corvallis, and it’s sunny almost 300 days out of the year (Ireland ruined the rain for us).  So Corvallis was home but probably won’t be again, and Bend is a place we’ve never lived in, though we plan to, which makes it hard to really think of either as home.  I guess that means San Miguel is home.