Meat | Mexico | Living in Mexico

Meat


WARNING!


This post contains images captured in carnicerias (butchers' stalls) in Guadalajara's Mercado Libre. They illustrate how meat looks as purchased by a majority of Mexican families. But to Norteamericano eyes, some of these pictures may be disturbing. I myself find them to be fascinating illustrations of cultural differences between rich people who buy beautifully marbled steaks wrapped in transparent plastic and poor people for whom tripe is a Sunday-only treat.

If you become queasy when viewing internal organs or detached animal heads, you may want to skip this post. On the other hand, you could suck it up and broaden your horizons.

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Who does not like prime rib?

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Does that look good or what? Makes my mouth water. Viewing well-cooked meat whets most appetites. When they can afford it, most people would pick prime rib over pasta primivera any day.

It's the preparation that makes this roast so appetizing. The meat is ready-to-eat. When we see it, we quickly become ready-to-eat-it.

Our appetites can be stimulated by unprepared food as well. Check out this display from Bailey's General Store on Sanibel Island.

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Sirloin, New York, rib-eye, t-bone steaks, a rolled rib roast. I'm getting hungry just writing about it.

[I have to make an aside here. Looking for this photo, I searched Google Images for "meat case." Among the returns, I got a picture of O. J. Simpson. Really.]

Pictured here is raw meat: inedible now, but we're not put off by it. In fact, we're attracted to it. We know what to expect when it's been grilled or roasted.

This meat has been artfully trimmed. You'll need either a good imagination or a journeyman's understanding of steer anatomy to visualize the animal it came from. We're a long way from our roots here. These abstract shapes have nothing to do with actual animals.

I'm quite sure Mexican people would be attracted to this meat as well. But I'm guessing that more than half of all Mexicans have raised, slaughtered and trimmed their own meat at least once in their lives. Some of these people begin salivating when they see a feathered chicken run across the yard. They see meat differently than Norteamericanos.

Here's a display that just wouldn't work in the Twin Cities. But my Mexicana friend Patty told me, "When we see that, our mouths start to water."

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So, what's for dinner tonight? Well, I didn't ask what species that hanging carcass was, but the long, limp things are intestines. Braided intestines.

Let's pause here and imagine a conversation. Anilu says to her butcher husband Lupe, "You know, our stall looks a little drab."

Lupe asks, "Well, what do you think I should do?"

Anilu answers, "Well, we need a little sizzle, a little cachet. It wants to look fancier, I think. I know! Why don't you braid the guts? They'll look real nice that way."

Now, I know you're all disgusted at this point. How could those Mexicans be such savages? I mean, are those things clean? I bet they taste just awful! God! Eating pig guts!

Well, what the hell do you think chitterlings are? Yep. Good old American southern cooking. Personally, I like my chitterlings and hog maws fried. But they are fattening. Easy to eat too many...

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What a wonderful place the Mercado Libre is. A few minutes of wandering the aisles, and I became so aware of how limited our U. S. diets are: McDonalds and Arby's and T. G. I. Fridays. On the weekends, throw a steak or some burgers on the grill. On a health kick? Then make it salmon steaks. Farmed salmon. The line-caught stuff is too expensive, and besides, it's going extinct.

I recall being served kidneys and beef tongue as a child. Didn't like 'em, but hey, I was a kid: I didn't like most foods. But as a young adult, I grew to like calves' liver—with lots of bacon and fried onions, of course. My Swiss friend Sylvia Reusser served me sweetbreads, once. They were very good and at the same time, revolting. Thymus gland? I don't think so.

But Mexicans eat the whole animal, and I truly mean the whole animal. Nothing goes to waste. Muscle meat is expensive. Tripe is cheap. And menudo is delicious. Hence: there's a market for stomach lining.

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Manteca is the name of a town in California's San Joaquin Valley. It's a bustling, growing community. Housing developments are springing up on the outskirts, and young engineers and programmers, priced out of Silicon Valley's overheated housing market, are van pooling for two hours each way every day.

Manteca is a nice place to live. Its name means "lard."

On the lower left of the photo above, priced to sell at only $14 pesos per kilo, is a bucket of 100% pork lard. Not like that stuff in the stall down the way, where they cut it with goat lard.

On the right we have calves tongues. Tongue is big in Mexico. Even in Santa Rosa, CA, taco stands offer tacos de lengua. As my son John says, "Mmmm. Tacos de lengua. The taco that tastes back."

And in the middle, we have... we have... unh... steer penises. I think you make a sort of ox tail soup with them, except you substitute... you know... for the tail.

Well, people do eat penises, you know. There's a restaurant in Seoul, Korea that specializes in them.

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People eat feet, too. Especially pigs' feet. You can get pickled pigs' feet in your local supermarket. Probably. Especially if Germans live nearby.

I once ate in a restaurant in Paris called Le Pied de Cochon. It wasn't until I was seated that I realized the the name translated to "The Pig's Foot." Not relishing a bony foot for dinner, I searched through the menu looking for an alternative. An expensive dinner caught my eye: "The Feast of Saint Sebastian."

That was the ticket. No pigs' feet for me. I was hungry. A feast sounded about right. I called the waiter over and ordered it. He gave me a concerned look and talked to me for several minutes in rapid-fire French, none of which I understood. I said something like, "Yes, yes my good man. Now run along and bring me my dinner."

Some time later, a plate arrived with a variety of meats on it. A nice slice of ham. A fried pig's ear. A breaded and roasted pig's foot (damn). A piece of cheek. And something else in the middle of the plate... what was it?

I cut a bite and put it in my mouth. Bony. Chewy. Gristly. I looked closer. Hmmm... a pig's penis.

For the rest of the meal, I couldn't get over how good the pig's foot tasted.

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Ever eat head cheese? C'mon, it's just lunch meat. Nowadays, we buy it at the deli counter, but it's possible that your grandmother actually made it. There's a great recipe in the old edition of Becker and Rombauer's The Joy of Cooking. Unfortunately, the recipe has been dropped from the modern version. The old one had some unforgettable lines about, for example, scrubbing the teeth well with a stiff brush. Cooks.com has a whole bunch of recipes with instructions like "Cook ears until well done." You just won't find sentences like that in Gourmet Magazine.

They don't make head cheese in Mexico as far as I can tell, but they do use cabezas in tacos and other treats. First you go to your local carniceria and select a nice head.

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This one looks pretty good. She has a sweet, gentle expression combined with a hint of mystery—kind of like Veronica Lake.

So you buy it and bring it home. Now what? You could do worse than to follow the advice at Cooks.com:

"Clean hog head by removing eyes, ears and brains. Saw into 4 pieces. Put in large pot and boil until tender. Remove meat from broth. Pick out bones..."

If you are of the Moslem or Jewish faiths, you'll of course want to avoid the pigs' heads. Not to worry. The Mercado Libre offers goat, sheep and cow heads as well.

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Take your pick.

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Now we're gonna get kind of gross. Check out this sign:

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Those of you with classical educations, having studied Latin, and those of you in the healing arts, have a pretty good idea of what's on offer here.

When I lived in California, I was always tempted when I saw Mexican chorizo in the market. But this raw sausage always seemed to have an unwholesome liquid-y texture when I palpitated it, and one look at the ingredient list was enough to cross chorizo off my list: "Beef lips, beef salivary glands..."

But labios (lips) are a treat here. Just look at the price. $34.99 pesos per kilo. Almost double the price of the calves' tongues mentioned previously.

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But Oh!, do these look disgusting. They may make Patty's mouth water, but never mine. Sort of look like sea anemones, don't they?

Let's get through a few more quickly. Here we have steer trachea, a most unlikely category. "Mom! We're out of steer trachea!"

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Then, there's bofe de res—steer lungs. At $2 pesos per kilo (eight cents a pound), lungs are not highly valued. Mostly used as pet food, I think. When I looked up bofe in my Spanish dictionary, I saw a sample usage: "Al perro le dan de comer bofe con arroz." (They fed the dog lungs with rice.)

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Let's move on now to prepared meats. Just as the photo of rib roast slices was more appealing than the picture of uncooked beef, I find myself more apt to consume foods that are already prepared, where I don't have to consider the "before" picture.

How about some roast goat? Or is it sheep? Something with horns.

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Or maybe some ready-to-eat locally made cesina.

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$120 pesos per kilo. Beef jerky is expensive wherever you go.

Now, what's this? Looks like scallop ceviche. Seafood in the meat department?

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They look a little too long to be scallops. The sign says botana viril. A first pass at translation might be "virile snack." Sorry. That's not enough information to get me to try it.

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Viril has other translations. It can mean "back" or "tail" or it can refer to the tip of the penis. I asked Patty what they were. She said "nerves." Spinal column nerves. "Chewy. Like pulpo." (Octopus.) "You eat them for the texture."

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One time Jean and I were driving through a tiny village in Yucatan; a place where most of the houses were lozenges of poles supporting a palm thatch roof, with dirt floors and three rocks in the center of the single room for a stove. There, we passed by a carniceria whose entire stock of meat was displayed on a wooden table out in front—a heap of ropy beef baking in the tropical sun. It looked as if the steer had been butchered with a grenade. The guy in this stall appears to subscribe to the same meat-cutting methods.

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For me, the Mercado Libre is the real Mexico. I won't be posting many pictures of cathedrals because 1) it's been done to death, and 2) like Ronald Reagan said about Redwood trees, "You seen one [cathedral], you seen 'em all."

I'm far more interested in how people live—especially the common people. Knowing what their houses are like, how they dress, how they play and what they eat provides real cultural insights that you'll never get on the tourist routes.

The way of life depicted in these posts is fast disappearing, and thank God. Everyone deserves a chance at the good life. But the good life isn't here yet, and the way Mexican people live today will shape how they think and how they relate to Norteamericanos for generations to come.

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