1940s Archive

Mexican Mornings

Originally Published May 1947

Maria de Jesús Mondragon came padding on bare brown feet out to the garden where I was breakfasting early before the heat of the day had begun. She waved a fat letter at me.


“It must be,” she said, “the letter very important.”

Although the postmark was San Francisco, the handwriting looked somehow foreign. It was. It was nearly an hour before I called to Maria to make fresh coffee.

When she brought it, I said, “In a few days we are going to have a visitor. We must make ready the guest house for him; we shall need to buy a few more straw mats for the floors and new stuff for window curtains. He is,” I added, “my cousin.”

Que bueno,”—“How good”—she exclaimed. “A caballero Americano.”

“No,” I explained, “Freddy’s English,” and added somewhat acidly, “He’s an English lord.” But this explanation didn’t quite come off because I didn’t know how to translate the title into Spanish. I even looked it up in the dictionary which gave Señor, which after all is a title any man can use. It also gave Señor Dios— Mr. God, which wouldn’t do—as well as Jesus Christ, and master, owner, husband, none of which seemed to fit Freddy.

The next few days were busier than I like them to be in a tropic climate. Maria de Jesús and I scoured the tiny guest house, Napoleon did innumerable errands; the dog and the cat just got in the way. Sabio chewed up one of the new straw mats and chased Wha Lin who knocked over and smashed the eight-day traveling clock I had put in Lord Freddy’s room just to prove I was, after all, a civilized person.

He had written that he’d fly as far as Monterrey and arrive at Tamazanchale by bus on a certain evening at nine o’clock. For the occasion Maria de Jesús borrowed a pair of my high-heeled red shoes which were much too small for her; I think she would have liked my fur coat although the night was stifling. Napoleon’s mother had scrubbed him till he gleamed like polished copper, and Maria had even given the pup a bath. I stopped her before she could inflict such indignity on the Siamese.

The bus was only two hours late, so naturally that night we didn’t see much of Freddy. The general impression was that of a blondish, rather frail man of indefinite age, with light blue eyes behind thick-lensed glasses. The most definite thing about him was his very Oxonian accent. He didn’t, he said, speak Spanish.

It must have been about midmorning when I next heard Freddy’s English voice lifted in a somewhat dismayed, “I say, my deah, what is this?” I left my own little house and went to the guest cottage next door.

“Come in, come in,” said Lord Freddy impatiently. He was sitting up in bed, his fair, rather scant hair tousled, his blue-striped Bond Street pajamas rumpled, looking still half asleep. Wha Lin was cavorting about wildly under the bed, batting something around. Evidently she’d been hunting early that morning.

“That horrible cat of yours,” said Lord Freddy, “has something very dead she’s been trying to give me.” He rubbed his eyes and remarked somewhat irrelevantly, “I like animals, you know, and I can’t bear to see her tossing that poor little dead thing about.”

I got down on my hands and knees to see what she had, but Wha Lin, in a coy mood, fled to the other side and jumped on the bed.

“Ugh,” remarked Freddy holding up a dead baby chip-munk by the tail. “Take it away.” Wha Lin, having delivered her present, sat down to wash her paws.

Then suddenly an astonishing thing happened. The chipmunk squirmed and squeaked—a small and frightened baby squeak. The little thing was tinier than a small mouse. An expression of astonishment which soon changed to consternation spread over Lord Freddy's face as the wrigglings became more violent and it took two hands to quell the strugglings of the furry little cyclone.

“It’s alive,” Freddy finally announced with all the solemnity of having made a great discovery.

I didn’t seem to be able to find a box or any kind of receptacle for a chipmunk and was still hunting when again Lord Freddy’s voice was raised in consternation. “I say, my deah, this is …. this is …. extrao-o-rdinry…”

Wha Lin was again sitting on Freddy’s bed gazing at him with rapt attention in her wide blue eyes. Freddy with a frantic and very un-English gesture held out both hands and said, “That bloody cat of yours has brought me another one. For God’s sake, can’t you find something to put them in?”

Suddenly it occurred to me that Wha Lin’s wire-fronted traveling box would do, and I flew to get it. It still had the old turquoise blue sweater in it—an ideal home for two baby chipmunks. I set it on the bed; Lord Freddy carefully deposited them in it and closed the lid.

“They will,” I told him tartly, “make nice little playmates for you. Now I’ll get your coffee.”

Freddy, putting generous amounts of sugar in his coffee, inquired gravely, “Are mornings in Mexico always, ah … fraught with such interest?”

“Mexico,” I told him, “is not a static land. Volcanoes have been known to spring from the earth before breakfast. Revolutions are as common as spontaneous combustion. This may be the land of mañana but there’s always something afoot today.” Having delivered my little lecture, I departed to inspect the contents of Maria’s market baskets.

There was a beef tongue wrapped in fresh banana leaves, ripe figs, cactus fruit, mangoes, limes, pineapples, several kinds of platanos—bananas you eat raw and the kind you cook—the inevitable black beans, green beans, and lettuce, maiz for tortillas, avocado pears, a bunch of assorted fresh herbs, and pats of goat’s cheese also wrapped in leaves.

The charcoal fires were replenished and Maria had water boiling for the tongue; she had just asked me if I thought el Señor Ingles would like cazuela de lengua for dinner when Freddy appeared, immaculate in white shorts and shirt with embroidered crested pocket. In place of the thick-lensed spectacles he wore a monocle. Maria looked startled; whether it was the shorts or the monocle, I don’t know. But I did know that American women had been arrested for appearing in public in shorts; I couldn’t guess what might happen to a British lord.

“Do you,” I asked Freddy politely, “like tongue stew in the Mexican manner?”

“I really don’t know,” he said, taking a cigarette from a monogrammed gold case. “How does your cook make it?” He smiled at Maria, and I couldn’t help observing that he had a certain charm. “I take,” he added, “quite a serious interest in the culinary arts.”

Using me as interpreter, Maria plunged into an explanation of just how a proper tongue stew should be made. When the tongue has been boiled until tender, she said, chop it fine. Two large onions that have been minced should be browned in oil or butter until golden, then mixed with the tongue and two cups of the stock. To this should be added a teaspoon of allspice and a cup of pumpkin seeds that have been roasted, shelled, and chopped. Then a cup of green chile, as in la salsa de chile verde; then let it simmer for an hour over a slow fire in a clay olla.

I could only hope that the spicy, tongue-tingling concoctions Maria de Jesús put together wouldn’t be too much for a Brussels-sprout, cold-potato English palate. But since luncheon, which included fried platanos and Mexican black beans highly flavored with wild marjoram and coriander, seemed to meet with his lordship’s approval, I hoped that dinner might go off as well.

The heat of the day had somewhat subsided when Freddy and I, trailed by Napoleon and the puppy, started out on a tour of the village. Some of my trepidation about having an English lord as a house guest for any length of time vanished during the course of the ramble. He was interested in everything Napoleon, as guide, pointed out to him; they carried on long conversations— neither of them understanding a word the other said.

Then we strolled on to Don Esteban’s inn near the river. Freddy was enchanted with the view from the terrace—the blue river, the green tangled hills, and the flamboyant trees just coming into blossom. Don Esteban, who spoke English rather well, sat with us and, somewhat to my astonishment, the English lord and the Mexican innkeeper were soon chatting as though they’d known each other rather a long time. It almost made one believe in the theory of democracy. Don Esteban left but came back with a bottle filled with a pale green liquid.

“This,” he said to Lord Freddy, “is a drink you will find nowhere else in the world except Tamazanchale, because the tree from which it is made grows only in this region. It is palo de chile—really aguardiente—aged in wood with the bark of the chile tree which gives it the sabor y olor, flavor and bouquet.”

Freddy tasted and retasted. “It is,” he finally announced, “really exquisite; it could be world-famous as a liqueur. It is tingling, provocative, exotic…”

Don Esteban plied him with more. As the afternoon and the contents of the bottle waned, conversation between the two men soared to rarefied philosophic heights. Women and love were discussed in the abstract; religion and morals. Don Esteban’s Chinese wife passing in the background shot him venemous but unnoticed glances. When we finally rose to go, Don Esteban wrung Lord Freddy’s hand; with a smile both sad and nostalgic he implored his new-found friend to stay long in the House of Frogs.

“It is a good place to live, these tropics,” he said, “And there are three things a man can do. He can sleep, he can drink, and he could go crazy.”

Freddy was gayer on the walk home than I ever knew an Englishman could be. He loved Mexico and wanted to stay. When we reached the terrace where the odor of the tongue stew drifted invitingly on the still warm air, Freddy’s spirits soared again, and grasping Maria de Jesús by the arms, he waltzed her around and around much to her delighted astonishment. Mexico and the British Empire would seem to have made a happy alliance.…

One day we decided to walk to the village for luncheon as Maria was late with the marketing. Don Esteban waved us to a table on the terrace, and dropped down into a chair.

“The cook has just finished making a tamale pie. Will you try it?”

“Ah,” murmured his lordship after the first bite. “Interesting.” He slowly ate nearly all of it before he said, “What’ve you got in it?” And took out his notebook.

“Are you,” I asked somewhat suspiciously, “going to write a cookbook?”

Lord Freddy almost blushed. He took off his heavy-lensed glasses, polished them meticulously, and said, “Er—actually, I’ve been thinking of doing that. Y’know, our inheritance and income taxes in England are rather beastly, and I understand one can make quite a spot of money in America with a really good cookbook. I thought I’d compile one of different nationalities’cooking. I already have some quite topping dishes. … French, Chinese, various nations.”

When later Freddy lent me his precisely kept notebook, I found Don Esteban’s recipe, rechristened Aztec pie, which apparently he considered more romantic than tamale.

To 3 cups of boiling water, add 1 teaspoon salt and stir in slowly 1 cup yellow corn meal; cook for 30 minutes, stirring constantly. When it is cool, add 1 cup chopped ripe olives. In the meantime mince or grind 1 pound of tender round steak and chop finely 1 onion, 1 green pepper, and 1 clove garlic. In a heavy frying pan heat 2 tablespoons olive oil, add the well-mixed steak and vegetables, and cook slowly until brown. Add 2 cups cooked tomatoes, 1 teaspoon chili powder, salt, and pepper and simmer the mixture for about 10 minutes. Then butter a large casserole and pour in half of the corn meal mixture; add the cooked meat mixture and cover with the remaining corn meal. Bake in a moderate oven for 30 minutes.

We sat long after we’d finished the Aztec pie over mangoes and black coffee. Don Esteban’s inn, situated as it was on the main highway to Mexico City, was not only a popular but a highly democratic place. To its dining terrace overhung with a flamboyant cape of bougainvillea came all manner of people—not only the villagers, but such assorted travelers as one sees only in Mexico.

Don Porfirio Montemayor, the mountainous one-legged old man who owned the drygoods store, heaved himself up the steps on crutches. He had worked on the “tracques” in Texas as a youth, but in spite of having lost a leg, he had acquired a smattering of American slang of which he was inordinately proud. He paused by our table for a moment’s chat. When he left, he extended a hamlike hand to Lord Freddy. “Oh boy, oh boy,” he said, “Que le gusta nuestra vida aqui.” May you enjoy our life here.

Freddy solemnly replied, “By gad, sir, by gad, I do.” Señor Montemayor evidently appreciated this return of wit, for as he heaved himself off he turned and grinned, “Twenty-three skidoo.”

An enormous truck filled with bellowing bulls drove up, and four men debarked to occupy a table at the far end of the terrace. The one who wore a pink satin shirt and who carried a guitar shoved his huge sombrero to the back of his head, wiped his face with a bandanna, and proceeded to strum the instrument softly and sing in a rich passionate tenor, “Mi amor, mi amor of the faithless heart. …”

Don Federico, the American who kept the not-so-popular inn across the river, came up the path with tired step. He seemed more withered and bitter than ever as he joined us to drink coffee. He had just seated himself when an Indian, two huge bunches of bananas slung over his shoulders, appeared and stood respectfully just beyond the ter race rail waiting to bargain with Don Esteban.

“How much do you want?” asked Don Esteban.

The Indian’s lids dropped over his inscrutable black eyes; he dug his bare toes into the earth and murmured, “Quien sabe?” Who knows? It was fully fifteen minutes before Don Esteban acquired the two bunches for about forty cents in our money.

Don Federico’s thin lips twisted into the semblance of a smile. “Quien sabe,” he said acidly. He turned to Lord Freddy. “It’s always this way in Mexico. My cook’s husband has promised for a month to come and do some repair work for me. Every day I ask her will he come tomorrow. The answer always is ‘Quien sabe?’ I asked my cook if she thought she could buy eggs and chickens today as it’s market day. Do you know what she said?” He paused rhetorically.

“She said, ‘Puede ser que si; puede ser que no; pero mas seguro es—quien sabe?’” It may be yes; it may be no; but more sure is—who knows?

Lord Freddy sipped his coffee and said, “That seems to me to be an excellent philosophy—particularly for Mexico. Who really knows whether one will be able to buy chickens today? I myself have no idea what I can or will do this particular afternoon of my life.”

Two elegant young women in sheer black were leaving the inn with their pomaded escorts. A sudden stifled scream focused all eyes on them and led their riveted gaze down the pathway leading to the terrace.

An enormous black dog approached waveringly, head weaving from side to side; a bubbling slaver dripped from his mouth. He stopped uncertainly, half circled, the black lips curled back in a half snarl, half growl to show long, white fangs. Then blindly he lunged toward the terrace.

With piercing shrieks the young women fled into the inn followed by their escorts as Don Esteban appeared. “Por Dios!” he shouted. “A mad dog!” And dropping the platter he carried, disappeared with great rapidity for so fat and usually slow moving a man. Don Federico had risen so hastily that the table went over with a crash of glass and crockery. He dropped down behind it on hands and knees and reached for the overturned chairs to use as a barricade. Don Porfirio reached for his crutch as a weapon, but lost his balance and fell helplessly back in his chair. The gentlemen who shepherded the bulls disappeared with great dispatch down the rear terrace steps.

Lord Freddy had paled a little, but with great calm and even a certain amount of dignity was herding me toward the kitchen entrance when we collided with Don Esteban’s Chinese wife. She caught sight of the mad dog, which by that time was on the steps, and promptly fainted.

Don Esteban appeared cautiously around a doorway. Perspiration poured down his fat face which had taken on a slightly greenish hue. In one trembling hand he carried an enormous silver-handled revolver. As he edged closer he held it out to Freddy. “Por Dios, hombre,” he implored; “Shoot. I shake too much.”

The dog was blindly circling in the center of the terrace. Lord Freddy examined the strange weapon with what seemed to me an almost Godlike deliberation, took careful aim, and fired. The crazed animal went down without a sound. For a moment there was a little twitching, but just before the glazed eyes closed, he looked in Freddy's direction, and I could have sworn there was a grateful look in them.

The sun was at its afternoon's hottest as we walked back through the village. The way home had never seemed so long, and I was more than ready for a siesta. Lord Freddy, however, seemed in the best of spirits and hummed to himself “Mad Dogs and Englishmen Go out in the Noonday Sun.”

Maria de Jesús had taken her metate; the little table-like stone affair on which tortillas are rolled out, and the stone “hand” which is really a rolling pin, out into the garden and was busy crushing various highly aromatic ingredients to a fine paste. Lord Freddy sniffed and got out his notebook.

“It is the mole sauce,” said Maria, “for the hen I am boiling. It is not the sauce muy elegante; it is the sauce very simple because to make the fine one would require all day.”

I shall not soon forget the picture of Lord Freddy with a Siamese cat on his lap, a mongrel Mexican dog at his feet, and Maria de Jesús, brown and wrinkled, grinding at her metate as Indian women did before the conquerors came, taking down the recipe for mole sauce:

Crush on the metate (a food-grinder can be used) a handful of salted peanuts, 1/3 cup almonds, 2 teaspoons benne seeds, ½ teaspoon cloves, 1 small stick cinnamon, 3 tortillas (toast does just as well), and 1 ounce bitter chocolate. Add 4 sliced chili peppers, 1 sliced onion, 2 peeled tomatoes, and 1 clove garlic, and work the whole into a thick paste. Dilute the mixture with 2 cups chicken broth and simmer gently until the sauce is of the proper consistency, 30 to 40 minutes. If a thinner sauce is desired, add more broth.

We had just finished the last of the chicken and were mopping up the sauce with bits of crisp roll when a knock came at the door. Maria first ushered in Don Esteban looking as I’d never seen him—formal in his buttoned-up shirt and blue cravat—followed by a delegation of the most important citizens of the village: the district attorney, the chief of police, the presidente, three lawyers, the superintendent of schools, and the priest, all carrying flowers.

Don Esteban made the first speech. It was in Spanish for the benefit, I judged, of the other callers who spoke no English. It reached flights of fancy and flowery elegance which for days afterward taxed my memory and my powers of translation for Freddy’s benefit. Freddy, it seemed, had saved Don Esteban and his inn from disaster and dishonor in so bravely shooting the mad dog. He had protected women, children, and innocent bystanders from horrible death. He had saved the village from tragedy; he had practically saved Mexico.

The district attorney and the three lawyers in their speeches naturally touched upon the more legal and mundane aspects of the averted catastrophe. The presidente spoke of the more international phases of the incident. He even included me in this, saying that if more representatives of foreign culture, such as the noble Lord Freddy and the American gringa, could live so amicably in this our great country of Mexico, international understanding would grow apace.

I do not remember quite what the superintendent of schools said, but the village padre seemed a little bored.

With much shaking of hands, with many abrazos and pattings of shoulders, the delegation finally backed out the door still bowing. Lord Freddy looked at the small mountain of flowers on the table and, turning to me with a puzzled expression, said, “How really extraordinary. Can you tell me, my deah, what is this all about” He had not understood a word of the extremely high-flown oratory.

“Freddy,” I said, “I'm much too tired tonight. I'll give you the lowdown in the morning.”

“Ah,” murmured Freddy as he wandered off to bed, “thus is Mexico.…”

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