A man who leads a life of danger

Whenever I touched on the issue of bilingualism in The Sun-Sentinel, the excellent and friendly Ft Lauderdale daily, a deluge of troubled missives and phone calls would follow. Broward County was where the notorious "Anglo flight" from the encroaching Latinamericanness of Miami headed some decades ago. And the Anglos -- in the literal sense of English-speakers -- were touchy. Boy, were they.

Whenever I wrote about just about anything in The Miami Herald, the also excellent but far less friendly daily where I worked later, a deluge of online comments -- by then we were fully into the digital age -- would follow that quickly degenerated into name-calling. And not just across the Anglo/Latino divide. Miami was far more contentious than Ft Lauderdale, perhaps because it was more urban, but mostly because it was, I must admit, more Latin American. The insult hurling took place among Latin Americans of various nationalities who were pissed off at Cubans. And among Cubans themselves who were, typically, pissed off at each other.

Unlike in the city north of Miami, where I tried to reason with my touchy non-Latino readers, in Miami itself I stayed out of the fray. My editors wanted me to exercise my privilege to delete the abusive comments, but I insisted that these folk came from countries, including my native Cuba, where freedom of speech was curtailed and I didn't have the heart to censor them. In the end, my editors did the censoring themselves.

We live in contentious times. I no longer write for dailies, though I read them online. But I don't follow the comments. I'm disturbed enough by the news, I imagine my Miami compatriots and fellow Latinos are still yelling at each other online, which I think is less harmful than firing squads and torture dungeons. On Facebook I tend to unfollow -- never unfriend since that would be unfriendly -- those who rant, either on the right or the left. But even those who don't are up in arms and I wonder if I should just get out of social media. Then again I wonder if I should just stop reading the news and devote myself to literature and hunting butterflies, like Nabokov (though literature is not nice, I know, killing and pinning butterflies seems just plain nasty).

Contentiousness is not with me. Probably old age, complicated treatments that keep old age keeping on, and simply the heartache, and the thousand natural shocks/that flesh is heir to. Though more probably the fact that contentiousness doesn't sit well on me. Oh, I've been contentious all right, but when I recall those incidents I am profoundly embarrassed by what a rogue and peasant slave [was] I!, to stay with the Dane. What a fool!

Am I then meek and humble like Assisi's Francesco? Hardly. More battered than saintly. St Francis was a reformer by lifestyle and, therefore, example. But he was a conservative with no desire to challenge anything or anyone. That came later at the hand of more contentious types, like Martin Luther. I don't challenge, but I'm no conservative. Until recently, Papal arrogance irked me. As does the arrogance of secular power. But reform and Reformation and revolution have a way of assuming arrogance. My suspicion is that it was always there, among the reformers and rebels. Perhaps it's congenital. And perhaps those who have the arrogance-of-power gene are the ones who gravitate toward reform or revolution, and those who don't, like the sweet Francesco, are happy to serve the Popes of this world, religious or secular, as long as they can pursue poverty and stigmata.

We live in the times of Counter-Reformation. La Contrareforma, a Spanish invention. A contrarreformista has taken the reins of this country -- a sloppy metaphor since he never took Stagecoach Driver's Ed -- and others are poised to do likewise abroad. In the Arab world the Reformation was so short-lived, a mere season, that it's likely to be forgotten, while the Counter-Reformation has been swift and merciless. And increasingly, other entities rage. Not hard to imagine a sci-fi scenario of corporations, crime cartels and savage theocracies waging apocalyptic war. Not to mention dynasties, that family value the Enlightenment supposedly ended and now it seems it's the Enlightenment that ended.

Should I pray for stigmata? Or would that be an act of rebellion, of contentiousness? I no longer live in South Florida, land of inter and intra ethnic name-calling, of dueling languages. I live among the rank and file of the Contrareforma. I go about incognito. Secret Agent Man. Nonviolent old ronin. Filling insurance forms in doctors' waiting rooms, under the English translation of my baptismal name, which for complicated reasons I've explained elsewhere is the one in my Social Security card. They've given me a number/and taken away my name.

Damned good coffee

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This morning I pressed the same button twice on the espresso machine by mistake and the water kept running into a very watered down brew. My sister, who as she does every morning came from her house next door to have a buchito (sip) of espresso, called it zambumbia, but she drank it anyway. I turned my eyes up and apologized to my father's spirit for having committed such a crime.

Like most, probably all, Cubans, dad had very strict notions about coffee. It had to be very strong (and loaded with sugar); anything else was zambumbia and basically undrinkable. In Cuba the word originally named water sweetened with sugar syrup, and according to historians it was given to slaves to bolster their energy. On Sundays the drink was fortified with aguardiente -- sugarcane eau de vie -- for the slaves' partying. This spiked zambumbia was probably an ancestor of the mojito.

Mutatis mutandi, the sugar-water's name got applied to watered-down coffee. At least it was where my father came from, a sleepy town in the middle of sugarcane country. Its two plosive b's allow the speaker to exaggerate the bombast, laced with scorn. That's how my father pronounced it. For scorn he definitely felt. And he just wouldn't drink it.

Curiously, he'd drink American coffee. Some aspects of American life fascinated dad in our first trip to the US -- Miami in the 50's. Two of them were Walgreens drugstores, which unlike Cuban pharmacies were all-night department stores with a coffee shop; and American coffee, which he believed was so weak that it could not rob him of sleep, so he'd drink it at night at a Walgreens counter before going to our hotel to sleep. Soundly.

He never thought of this radically watered-down coffee as zambumbia. It was a whole other species, and from the start he'd call it "coffee" even when speaking Spanish, while the Cuban version, the kind that could be ruined if it became the dreaded zambumbia, was always café. Many years later when he and my mom visited New Orleans they sampled the coffee at the Cafe du Monde and didn't like it, though I think it was my mom who most objected to the chicory in the brew.

Cuban coffee is nothing but sweetened espresso. Some will add sugar to the ground coffee before brewing, which is possibly more authentic. And, of course, it wasn't always espresso. By the time I was old enough to have it, usually with my dad, at Havana's sidewalk coffee stands, it was made by big Italian machines. At home and outside the city however, coffee was brewed in cloth bags. Eventually home devices were introduced and Cubans became as hooked on the stacked Bialetti coffeemakers as Italians -- today available in every Miami bodega. Trouble is that by then Cubans were also hooked on the crema, the coffee foam created by those powerful commercial machines. We call it espumita and this is how it's made at home.

You watch the little Bialetti on the stove until the first few drops slip out of the upright spout. Immediately, you pour those drops, and only those drops, in a cup with the sugar you want for the coffee, and you beat it all vigorously with a spoon until a thick fudge has formed. By then all the coffee has been brewed, so you pour that into the cup. Presto! A head of foam rises to the top. 

Today many home espresso machines have enough pressure to create foam -- and better tasting coffee. But they tend to be pricey. I remember wandering through a gourmet shop once and watching the demonstration of an $1,800 Italian machine that ground the beans, made the coffee and disposed of the grounds. This was years ago, so I imagine it'd cost more now. I sampled the espresso it made and, yes, it had a head of crema and tasted good. But at that price I'd expect it to teach me Italian and read me choice passages from Dante or project Antonioni films on the wall.

The first espresso maker my family owned was small but heavy, made of stainless steel, and it brewed decent coffee, but no espumita. We bought it at Havana's Sears and brought it with us to the States. We used it for years. When I got married my parents gave it to me and I used it for years. I don't know what became of it. It was certainly indestructible. Since then I've gone through many. These days I use one that takes pods, a truly guilty pleasure because the pods are expensive, I feel like a sloth for skipping the work of filling a coffeemaker with ground coffee (never ground my own), and the company that makes it is very politically and ecologically incorrect (you know which one).

But it makes crema/espumita. Possibly there's a circle in the inferno for my sins that the divine Tosco che per la  città del foco went around chatting up the damned could not have foreseen. But espresso is one of my addictions. And sloth is another.

¿Y tú cómo estás? Encantado de la vida

I saw Peter O'Toole, already aged but gorgeous in a bespoke suit, on Charlie Rose once. The actor had recently recovered from a serious medical episode, but when asked about it he dismissed it in a tone that clearly said, it's distasteful to talk about one's health issues in public. I admired his display of impeccable manners as much as I admired his clothes, and swore I'd be like him when my time inevitably came -- bad health, not a turn with Charlie Rose.

I'm about to break my vow. Done it already, really, for I have written a book-length manuscript that's waiting to be published about my experience with prostate cancer. I justified this breach of taste by telling myself that a) it would do a world of good to prostate cancer patients and their loved ones to read an honest (balls out, in fact) account of the experience, and b) it's really a big sexual romp so it can be read as porn, a genre that needs no justification. But I don't think I have anything instructive left to say, and if you're looking for salacious writing here, click on something else.

First, a recap, truly boring so I'll rush through it. I've had surgery, radiation, hormone therapy (a misnomer, for that sounds like you get more, while, in fact, you get it taken away), acupuncture and Chinese medication, three newfangled treatments with sci-fi names, more radiation to shrink metastasis, a shift toward constant rather than intermittent ball-busting and penis-shrinking hormone treatment, and chemotherapy.

How am I doing? Pretty damn good. Except for impotence, chemical castration, fatigue and nausea. I don't count hair loss because though there's no baldness in my family I really like my shaved head, but I'm a sucker for badassery. I'm old now and these vicissitudes and more were likely to start visiting me anyway. Besides, prostate cancer, second cancer killer of American men -- first is lung cancer -- is, paradoxically, cancer lite. Which doesn't mean it won't kill me.

It boils down to very slow growth, which gives one a chance to take action: all I listed above. It does, however, require constant monitoring, and that I do. Given to the obsessive self-awareness of a Javier Marías narrator, I was born to monitor myself. And so I do. I have come to realize that, like the nuns in Pedro Almodóvar's Dark Habits, I've devoted my life to "cultivating my personality." And in this late, though I'm still hoping not last, phase, I don't cultivate. I curate myself. And not just my personality, but all of me, mostly my body.

Right now, to start in medias res, I am undergoing the side effects of chemotherapy from two days ago. That means fatigue to the point of inertia, accompanied by loss of willpower -- not that I had much to begin with. And nausea. Sartrean? No. Just yucky. Appetite is gone and with it the desire or even the ability to cook, my big joy. So it's instant noodle soup for dinner, or even breakfast cereal.

It only lasts a few days at a time, this malaise. Thanks to it I've gone down in weight to what I consider my personal best, though it's a hell of a way to achieve it. Fatigue discourages exercise -- I was about to write "prevents" but I do have to take some responsibility. Since what results from all of this is a slim flabbiness, I'm not happy about it. I take steps to remedy it, but that willpower issue . . . 

Do I enjoy curating myself? God (and any love partner I've had in this long life) knows I am self-absorbed under any circumstances. Now just more so. Could I take a lesson from my late idol Peter O'Toole and not dwell on my infirmities? I don't know. I concur with what I took to be his views on the matter when he dismissed Charlie Rose's question about his health. A gentleman doesn't talk about such things. I suppose I am no gentleman, for here, dear patient reader, I have inflicted my rumination about myself on your self. My most heartfelt, no, abject, apologies. 

Sabor a mí

I just had a whore's lunch, or so I've been told it is. Arroz con huevos fritos. In another place and time it was fast food, the simplest item of the Cuban menu, so basic that Cuban restaurants and coffee shops seldom carry it: it's too home-cooking. You make white rice, which every Cuban cook can do blindfolded, and you fry some eggs in semi-deep fat, burn them, as they say since Spanish food became trendy, and mount them on the rice. That's it. Well, no, you accompany the dish with a side of maduros, sautéed ripe plantains, and maduros cook quickly. The point of this Cuban a la puttanesca is you can make it between customers.

There are few things Cubans love more than this simple dish. Its austerity connects it with a Spanish favorite, fried eggs over a bed of fried potatoes. When I met the great American writer of Spanish cookbooks, the late Penelope Casas, she and her husband told me that while researching one of her books they asked Spanish chefs and restaurateurs what was their favorite dish. Invariably they said fried eggs with fried potatoes, something their mothers made, sometimes with a side of chorizo. My Spanish/Cuban identity makes me waver between the criollo and peninsular dishes, and while my palate usually gravitates toward Spain -- I love those Spanish spuds, sliced in thin rounds and fried in olive oil -- nostalgia drives me toward arroz con huevos fritos.

We Cubans don't top dishes with fried eggs, what's called a caballo (on horseback), as often as other Latin Americans, but a fried egg over picadillo and white rice is irresistible. Picadillo means hash, and ours is ground meat -- usually beef, but veal is divine, and some cooks add a bit of ground ham to the beef -- cooked in a sofrito, plus usually olives, capers and raisins. All over the Hispanic world this is a favorite filling for empanadas and millefeuille pastelitos, one of the delights of my childhood. However, Cubans often skip the pastry and serve the picadillo over rice. Fried egg is optional, while other options include adding baby peas -- Cubans are hooked on Le Sueur -- and diced carrots, or small potato cubes fried. The latter stretches the dish but it's also quite delicious. No matter what version, it's always served over white rice,

Arroz con picadillo and arroz con huevos fritos are nearly always accompanied by maduros, as is the classic arroz con pollo, a fancier Sunday dish. Fried dishes go with tostones, twice fried green plantains, and with anything accompanied by moros y cristianos -- black beans cooked with the rice, in the style of West Indian rice and peas. Roast pork, usually served with frijoles negros, calls for yuca (cassava) con mojo. The Cuban menu pairs other dishes with different tubers: boniato, ñame, malanga. As with other culinary traditions, these pairings are perfectly matched.

Cuban dishes echo through the Caribbean Basin and the rest of Latin America. A Brazilian feijoada tastes very much like Cuban frijoles negros, though with the addition of a variety of meats. And in fact, according to the late Nitza Villapol, old frijoles negros recipes included meats, just as in Brazil. Our neighbors Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic offer dishes very similar to Cuba's. A Puerto Rican asopao de pollo is like a very wet arroz con pollo, for example. And no one makes better tostones than Dominicans. Theirs are like the best fries, crunchy throughout, no mealiness in the middle.

The criollo menus are basically cuisine paysanne, even if some of the more elaborate dishes are served on special occasions. There is a repetitiveness to them that I imagine can bore, such as the ubiquitous sofrito in Cuban dishes. But aside from the nostalgia factor for those of us away from home, there's something seductive about the flavors, Something that encourages second helpings and the languor that suggests a siesta. What else it suggests on a steamy tropical afternoon is something that has to be tasted.

 

Broken Blossoms

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Straddling two cultures can cause a certain dissonance, particularly if the cultures are not that dissimilar. Chinese New Year is not January 1. So what? One could celebrate both separately in the tradition of each. It's when you feel you have to choose that things gets dicey.

Take superstition. Except for the Stevie Wonder song, I'm not into it. Not because I'm too rational, but because I'm too forgetful and careless. But if I were superstitious, which day would I dread? Friday the 13th, as Americans believe, with the horror movies to illustrate it? Or Tuesday the 13th (no movies)? In fact, Tuesday is an all-around bad luck day. En martes ni te cases ni te embarques, ni de tu casa te apartes. On Tuesday neither marry nor travel, nor leave your home. Fortunately, I follow neither English-language nor Spanish-language notions on these matters.

What is an issue is flowers. Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee enthusiasts will recall the flower seller who says, in Spanish, flores para los muertos in Streetcar Named Desire, repeated as a gloomy joke in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. That's who flowers are for, besides for lovers, where I grew up. For the dead. In my home city, the flower-shop district was right next to the cemetery. To send flowers to a hospital bed, I learned, was tantamount to wishing the patient dead.

My father, who was horrified by the American custom of sending them to the hospital, went further. He didn't even like them at funerals, and he left specific instructions that there should be none at his. I believe it was his floraphobia that accounted for my never sending flowers to the hospital beds of convalescing friends and lovers, for which I've been accused of being insensitive -- by lovers, friends are usually cool. I probably am, but this is an aspect of culture to which I never assimilated.

Sending them to love objects, on the other hand, is no problem. Well, it is a problem because I am forgetful and careless and, yes, insensitive -- self-absorbed, which is the same thing. But there are no cultural taboos to stop me. Just character flaws. And once, just once, I had a woman send me flowers. That was a big surprise. I confess it embarrassed me, this reversal of traditional gender behavior. It put to the test my "evolved male" stance. It still does. As well she knows.

 

Let's Go Whaling!

She was a grad student in English. He was a grad student in Spanish. They met. They dated. They married. Like all couples, they had things in common besides attraction. One of them was literature. Alas, different literatures, in different languages. Though she didn't read Spanish, he read English. And that's where the (good-natured) debate began.

"How can you be a student of literature if you've never read Moby Dick?", she would chide him. She pulled her punches, for she was an avid Joycean and she could've mortified him for having never read Ulysses, never mind "the Wake", as hipster lit majors called the mostly incomprehensible master work.

But he had a riposte.

"You've never read Don Quixote!"

And so it went, the Melvillean vs, the Cervantine. The battle of empires in a grad student household. Because the Brits sank the Spanish Armada and later the Americans did the same to Spanish ships in the Bay of Santiago, and because as a result of such battles their debate was in English, he felt she had the upper hand. No, she never read Don Quixote, and he, true to the stubbornness hard-wired into his Spanish DNA, refused to read Moby Dick.

The marriage did not last. No marriages did in those times, though it had nothing to do with their literary positions. There were two wonderful children, whom they loved and who loved them back.  And time passed and took its toll. The English major, the Melvillean/Joycean, was struck down by a terrible illness and she died. The Spanish major lived to tell the tale, right here, right now.

Oh Susan, how I wish you could read this so you'd learn that your ex-husband finally overcame that petty, in spite of its deep historical roots, adversariness and is now reading, and most of all enjoying, The Whale. Slowly, I admit. I've just met Ahab. Moby Dick is still out there in the waters. But I like it. A lot. I'm savoring it. I still believe Don Quixote is seminal, to all literature, including American -- when I finally read Huckleberry Finn, another bone of contention between us, I saw, to my surprise, that the boys discussed Cervantes. But I think I told you that. That was years ago and you were still here.

Now you're not. I still am and I still read. When I stopped being an academic I stopped reading books I felt I had to in order to qualify as an intellectual. I still read classics if I feel like it. In fact, I only read if I feel like it, lately a lot of Scandinavian noir, maybe because it chills my overheated tropical mind. And you knew I always needed chill. So did you, girl, but we won't go into that. I have a whale to catch.

What You Need

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I finally saw the two documentaries that feature The Rolling Stones in Havana. One bears the unfortunate title of Olé Olé Olé!, which might be a soccer chant but also suggests Latin America is a land of toreadors, true for Mexico and Colombia but certainly not for Cuba. In fact, the film is all about the buildup to Havana while the Stones, or los Rolling, as they're called in Spanish, tour other Latin countries. It's beautifully filmed and it had the collateral effect of showing ruined Havana has its own weird esthetics. 

The second one, Havana Moon, is the Cuban concert. Trouble is that's almost two hours of the geezers -- my age -- doing their golden oldies, which, frankly, sound better in their original recordings. Though some numbers included minor Latin percussion, I felt there was a missed opportunity to enrich "Sympathy of the Devil" and "You Can't Always Get What You Want" with some Cubans on the drums that ramp up the beat in the originals and go so well with Jagger's trademark strut.

Be that as it may, I think the concert was important. The audience was more than massive and more than one generation lost in space, from the Stones-age geezers who'd been waiting a lifetime to see this before they died to youngsters worshipping at the altar of rock while its high priests -- cardinals by now -- officiated. 

Three newsworthy Cuban events happened within a relatively short space of time, short in relation to the longevity of the Revolution. Obama's visit, the Stones concert, Fidel's death. There are solid arguments for their irrelevance. Obama was an outgoing US President, his legacy now trampled; few people actually saw him; a wave of repression followed his visit. The Stones came and went, and even if I like it, it's only rock and roll. By the time Fidel died he was practically embalmed, having survived practically all his enemies, never mind all the premature rumors that chronically roiled Miami.

But is that the whole story? I don't think so.

Culture does not move on the same track as politics, even if they sometimes come very close or even intersect -- and crash. Its effect is on the psyche. What does it do to Cubans who saw Obama, live to a few but on media to the others, to catch an American president who's, like, cool. And then compare this leader of the enemy to the north with their own once hip but now ridiculously outdated gerontocracy. Those who have met Fidel back when he was still vital say he had charisma. Even in his advanced old age he remained a touchstone. No one has ever accused Raul Castro of either. Young, agile both physically and intellectually, sassy in his walk, gentlemanly in his demeanor, the mulatto leader of the free world, Obama was the quintessence of what Cubans admire. He would not be out of place dancing in the comparsas in tails and top hat with Los Dandys. What did it do to my fellow Cubans in the island to experience this cool cat? How might it influence which way the wind blows?

Let me jump to Fidel. A touchstone, yes, but he's gone. Nothing to touch. And a lot of bad memories. Even though nothing changed with his death, it felt as a turn of the calendar pages. An era ended. Whatever the Revolution was is now over, held together by structures but not by myth. A myth -- if there ever was one -- is Che Guevara. His death in revolutionary action enshrined the myth. Sure, he has a lot to answer for, but there's no longer anyone there to answer. Myths don't need to answer. Fidel didn't answer for anything either, but his was not a heroic death; instead, he crumbled in plain sight. Che will always be Korda's photo. Fidel will always be a decrepit old man who abdicated and died. And that, dear friends, is not the stuff of myth.

And then los Rolling. It was the concert, yes, with all the trimmings of arena rock, con todos los hierros. But it was the crowd. Cuba is not a happy place. Blame whomever your ideology tells you to, but Cubans have plenty to be unhappy about. This malaise I noticed on my first visit back. Everyone seemed like they were having a bad day, though it's become more like a bad lifetime. And now here was a humongous crowd of Cubans in a state of happiness, practically ecstatic. If those wrinkled old artists who just do the same numbers over and over again -- giving the lie to the young Mick Jagger's assertion that he never wanted to become that -- had a perfect audience it was the Cubans, hungry for generations -- literally hungry too -- for their live performance.

And the takeaway? ¿Quién sabe? The Cubans had a taste of what's commonplace outside their island: the ecstasy of rock and roll. And if there's one thing we love, just love, it's ecstasy. We practice African-based religions where an altered state is commonplace during rituals -- being possessed, "mounted" in religious parlance, by the orishas, the African deities popularly known as saints. And we love to get high. Perversely, I've always told exiles that the first thing coming to a post-Revolution Cuba is drugs. Not that there aren't any now. But just you wait.

Will this experience with the College of Cardinals of rock have a lasting influence? When the Berlin Wall fell and Soviet Communism ended, many observers commented that rock and roll had as much of a hand as anything else. An esthetics, an ethos, coming from the US originally, that had traversed the world and had its roots in the African-American experience. Instead of dialectical materialism, funk. Instead of the dictatorship of the proletariat, love. Instead of militarization, peace.

Yes, yes, so much of it floundered and continues to do so. No matter. I'm not here to prescribe. I'm here to observe. Maybe what's coming to Cuba is unmitigated disaster. It's possible. Or simply no change. That I don't believe. The wheels of history roll on and regardless of where they're headed, they gather no moss.

 

 

 

 

El Salón México, Part 3

The reason my feelings toward Mexicans are warm is simple. I have a Mexican grandson. Well, half Mexican, one quarter Cuban and one quarter Hoosier. That has meant a slew of Mexican in-laws, added to another flash mob of in-laws in Mexico from my own marriage to a Cuban whose uncle migrated to Mexico City and his descendants are now third-generation. My grandson's father, my son, shares with me a passion for Mexican food, and also like me he likes it best at the vernacular level, which doesn't prevent him from an appreciation of the very trendy Baja Med movement, precisely from Tijuana, where the boy's mom comes from and which is mutating from its earlier image as a less than dignified border town to a foodie destination.

In fact, even before that transformation set in, Tijuana had darn good eats, and my son and my new in-laws took me to sample everything from the best street tacos to the toniest Baja Med -- accompanied by very good Baja California wines. I had already visited Tijuana and knew some of its dining spots, some of them surprising, like Los Arcos, a big, brightly lit restaurant one would suspect was a tourist trap, except the entire clientele was Mexican. And Sanborn's, a local branch of the famous chain of stores, where the cocktail lounge was a soft refuge from urban hustle and the food was authentic and quite good.

In Miami my son and I were always on the lookout for the best taquerias and taco trucks. And on weekends we'd drive down to the mostly Mexican farmer's market/flea market in Homestead, which is full of small downhome restaurants serving the most authentic chow. At the market I would buy fresh nopales cactus, peeled on the spot by the vendors, and was always on the lookout for verdolaga (purslane), a delicious green I'd learned to eat in Mexico. The vendors were kind and helpful, amused that this Cuban was so enthusiastic about Mexican cooking. They taught me a simple and delicious recipe for verdolaga and also told me how to cook items that I'd simply ask, what is this?

This was all peasant food, which is my favorite from any culture, including the US. Haute cuisine is a whole different matter, though distinctions blur. The great writer about Mexican cuisine, Diana Kennedy, has sadly commented on how dishes are disappearing at a fast rate with the disappearance of Mexico's myriad indigenous cultures. These are sophisticated cuisines, and I'm aware that the "authentic" dishes I look for while I turn up my nose at Americanized combination plates (wrongfully called Tex-Mex since tejano food is quite wonderful) are but ragged remnants of vanishing Mesoamerican cultures.

Still, I'll make do. And, yes, I'll enjoy the real Tex-Mex, like the weekend barbacoa I've had in San Antonio. And nuevomexicano cuisine, the food of New Mexico, one of America's greatest. I've had fantastic burritos in Tucson, but only when I drove deep into the barrio -- eggs with machaca/carne seca are the best. For that matter, there's nothing wrong with American-born items like Arizona's chimichangas, though I find them daunting. Or even chili con carne, though I prefer a red chile from New Mexico, and like Mexicans and Mexican-Americans I like my frijoles de la olla on the side better than mixed with the meat.

Such a gastronomic treasure house, Mexico. Tamales: I can't count how many kinds. Restaurants that specialize in pre-Colombian dishes, everything from grasshoppers to the worms we know from the bottom of mezcal bottles. And tacos, forget it! I'm fond of the nasty bits: head, tongue, chitterlings, and though not as forbidding but very tasty, cheeks. It gets more intense, so I'll stop here. No prairie oysters for me. Heat, yes, up to a certain point for me. Chilies are incredibly varied and what's important is not the heat but the diversity of flavors. And some dishes are mild, or somewhat milder. But that's what cerveza is for. Pacífico Clara goes well not just with Baja fish tacos (dude!) but everything. Tequila? I prefer white or reposado. The practice of keeping the bottle in the freezer is for me. I have one in mine right now.

So, ¡salud! And, ¡viva México, cabrones!