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Food Finds

Discovering Mexican foodstuffs beyond the mega-mart, on the shelves of Palomas supermarkets and little tiendas de abarrotes.

 

Maybe the most important thing about food in Mexico is that so many people don't have very much of it. But what is really remarkable is that there's hardly anybody among the poor who won't offer you a little something to eat or drink when you're in their presence.

It might be just a glass of water or a can of Sprite in the punishing heat, or a little piece of hard candy, or an empanada they just made. And sometimes it's more than that.

I once stopped by a place called Colonia Oaxaca, just before you get to Janos, to say hello to a couple I'd met about a year earlier. The woman brought me into her kitchen where she was cooking, and in the course of our conversation fed me, bit by bit, an entire meal. The only thing I remember is a kind of cottage cheese she made using silver-leafed nightshade, a yellow berry I have in my backyard, as a curdling agent.

She then, astonishingly, invited me to sleep overnight, in her own bed. Her husband would sleep in another room, she said, and her 23-year-old son would sleep in a bed kitty-corner to ours across the room. I'm sorry to say I giggled a little, and said I had to go home that night. But it gave me a new appreciation of the Mexican generosity that sometimes knows no bounds.

There's something about sharing food with foreigners that goes beyond just getting familiar with a culture. I vaguely associate it in the back of my mind with the religious concept of communion, which gives it a meaning beyond the ordinary. So I'm on a bit of a mission when I shuffle through the aisles at the supermarkets and little tiendas de abarrotes in Palomas and elsewhere, studying and squinting at the labels of 90 percent of the products on the shelves.

The stores look pretty drab and even a little unhealthy sometimes compared to our big chains and mega-markets with their sleek, spiffed-up decor. But I keep picking out things that delight me and spice up my plain American diet.

One of my first discoveries along these lines, about a decade ago, was the Mexican cake mixes. They make a firmer cake than American mixes, more like cakes you get in a chic cafe than the fluffy, insubstantial American kinds. Probably because I didn't follow directions, I didn't have a whole lot of luck with the pure Mexican brands. The stove-top variety I made turned out blackened on the outside and looking like pudding inside. But with the Latin American line that Betty Crocker makes, I made some nice cakes, especially the orange flavor.

But right now, the only cake mixes on the shelves in Palomas are pure American Duncan Hines. As you can imagine, fluffy has become more appealing to Palomas than those prosaic old-fashioned firm cakes.

I like to stop by La Favorita Bakery and pick up a plain, round roll that they simply call pan (bread), for about 20 cents. They're as good as any pastry when they're fresh out of the oven, which I've learned is about 3 or 3:30 p.m. Yesterday I stopped by at a little after 5 p.m. when the concha rolls were still warm. They're a common pastry in the form of a seashell, and are amazingly soft and airy when fresh.

A lot of food items are cheaper in Palomas, mainly those made in Mexico. Instant coffee there sells for almost half the American price. A few years ago you could buy a Nescafe brand called Ristreto that had an intense and almost-brewed taste (Sabor intenso, it said on the jar). But Palomas people weren't interested in it and they stopped carrying it. My Palomas friend Martha breezily advised me I could buy it at a certain store she knew down in Piedras Negras, Coahuila, across the Rio Grande from Eagle Pass (a distance of only about 500 miles).

Most food is cheaper in Mexico, but some things are more expensive, like the cake mixes, for example, or sadly, like milk, which is considered as essential for children there as it is here and costs close to $4 a gallon, even though it's produced in Juarez. Palomas stores also almost never have sales.

 

There are lots and lots of varieties of candy on the shelves, some of it so super-sugary it's not very good. But I've found some that are classics. Chocoretas, sold in bags near the check-out counter, come in round pieces almost like M&Ms with a light green mint coating and chocolate insides.

Another favorite of mine is a filled chocolate called Glorias. They're filled with a caramel-like Mexican specialty called cajeta and wrapped in deep red cellophane with an elegant twist at the top. Glorias have a sublimity that's hard to describe, true to their name. I became aware of them when reading a rhapsodic piece about them in a Mexico City magazine.

Most of what I buy there is snack stuff, but I occasionally pick up a packet of noodles with poblano chile sauce or of tortilla soup, when they have these things. Or I'll buy a can of mangos, or corn niblets with chile bits.

But most things I buy are a bit more frivolous, like some cookies called Flor de Naranja (Orange Flower). They aren't orange; they're orange flower — ever so delicate, so typical of the flower-and-fruity tastes of Latins. They call to mind the neat, geometrical orchard of orange trees I saw from the tower of the Seville Cathedral about 15 years ago. There's something courtly and romantic about Mexican tastes sometimes.

My most recent find, within the last month, is a sauce called Salsa Arriera, my new secret passion. It's a brand available in the US, but it goes for half the price in Mexico. It's made with chile arbol, which gives it a smoky taste and brown color. The girls at the checkout at the Saguaro supermarket give me confidential smiles when I say chile arbol makes a good salsa.

Though I feel sometimes that I must have about exhausted the shelves of the grocery stores in Palomas, I think there's a kind of inevitability, or a law, to these discoveries I make every few months. It's like the way you find unexpected kinds of wildflowers in the Chihuahuan desert that you've never seen before. It's a well I keep drawing from that doesn't go dry.

I can't imagine what the next little item will be, but I know it will appear like clockwork, according to those mysterious underlying laws that prevail here at the border.

 

Borderlines columnist Marjorie Lilly lives in Deming.

 

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