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1940s Archive

Mexican Mornings

Originally Published June 1947

It was the morning that I had to go to Mexico City on which Lord Freddy chose to disappear. Maria de Jesús, who arrived at six o’clock, hadn’t seen him. Napoleon wasn’t around, and the puppy wasn’t there either.


I watched Maria make breakfast chocolate an wondered where he could be. Watching her prepare Mexican chocolate was always fascinating, for it was almost a ritual. She dissolved 2 squares of bitter chocolate in 1/2 cup of boiling water to which she added 1/2 cup of sugar, 2 cups of milk, a pinch of salt, a bit of nutmeg, and a dash of cinnamon. All the while she had this over the charcoal flame, she beat it with her wooden molinillo (an egg beater will do just as well) until it was very hot and very smooth. Just before she removed it from the fire, she beat in a stiffly whipped egg white. Real Mexican chocolate is always thick.

I had just taken the first sip when around the corner of the house into the garden came Freddy—but such a Freddy as I’d never before seen. His white shirt and ducks were splashed and stained with mud; even his face was smeared, and his pale fine hair was in wild disarray. Napoleon, who trailed after him, was equally unpresentable, and the puppy, who leaped enthusiastically on me, left woeful paw prints on my fresh dressing gown.

Lord Freddy smiled amiably at me from mud- flecked glasses and held up a basket. “We have,” he announced, “been frog-hunting in the river since four o’clock. I am very fond of frogs’ legs for breakfast and thought you might be, too—a sort of farewell party before you go to Mexico City.”

“Well, really,” I began, not knowing exactly whether to be pleased or rather cross.

“There are many rather fahncy ways of cooking frogs’ legs,” said Lord Freddy authoritatively, “but for breakfast they should be simple.” He looked dreamily in the direction of the mango grove. “Frogs’ legs à la Château Baudimont,” he murmured. He turned his myopic blue eyes toward me and said with the candor of a child, “You see, I was in love with the Countess of Sera Frascatti—she was an American—and I was her guest at the Château. The Count was away—he was always away shooting pigeons in Spain or spending the season in Paris—and the Countess was having trouble with the servants. One morning tea didn’t come up. I put on my dressing gown and got the Countess, and we searched the Château from top to bottom. It took rather a time as it is one of the biggest in Lorraine, and there wasn’t a servant left in the place. We were hungry by that time, but all we could find in the kitchen for breakfast were brioche and frogs’ legs.”

“Who,” I inquired, “cooked the frogs’ legs? You or the Countess?”

“We collaborated,” he replied seriously. “Fortunately they were skinned, so we didn’t have to do that. We just got a pan of water boiling, salted it, and put in the juice of two or three lemons. We cooked them for about four minutes, then the Countess patted them dry in a towel—she had beautiful hands. Then she salted them lightly, added a bit of pepper, rolled them in a beaten egg an Italian bread crumbs, and fried them in very hot olive oil for about five minutes.”

“Sounds to me,” I said, “as though your Countess might have been a waitress or something at one time.”

“Oh no,” he assured me gravely, “her father owned a large chain of restaurants in Chicago. She was very clever and very beautiful.” He shook his head meditatively as though to bring himself back to the present—to the brilliant Mexican morning. “I say, my deah,” he apologized, “you just run along and pack. Maria and I will have breakfast ready in no time at all.”

As I packed, I could hear their chatter: Napoleon’s asking Maria if we were really going to eat the poor little sapos; Lord Freddy’s few halting phrases, and Maria’s laughter. I finished packing a fur jacket to take with me (Mexico City having an altitude of something between seven an eight thousand feet, at that season had cold nights), and went out to breakfast. Lord Freddy heaped my plate generously, and I told him after the last leg had been picked to the bone that, although there had been no brioche and no countess, I considered his party highly successful.

The entire household came to my room to watch me finish the packing. There were last-minute instructions to Maria as to what Freddy liked most, what to cook for him, and a dozen household details. Then there were instructions to Freddy, chiefly about household finances: to keep track of them as closely as possible so we could share them equally. Lord Freddy counted out the pesos in his wallet and looked a little surprised. “I say,” he exclaimed, “I’ve got jolly little left. Where do I cash a traveler’s check?”

Lord Freddy had only British ones; there was no bank in the village, and I depended upon a certain Spanish merchant to cash mine which he did reluctantly, with a considerable charge. That was one of my reasons for a visit to Mexico City, to establish credit with the Mexican branch of the National City Bank of New York.

“You’d better take one of mine. Senor Feliu knows them; with yours there might be difficulty.” Just why I countersigned one for a hundred dollars when a smaller one would have done just as well, I don’t know. Perhaps it was just the last-minute rush and the general confusion which the combination of an Indian cook, a British lord, a Siamese cat, a Mexican boy, and a miscellaneous puppy can create.

I remained away from my strange household longer than I had expected as even in modernized Mexico City things are still done on the mañana pattern. The banking was easily arranged, but the matter of renewed visas took time. Both Lord Freddy’s and mine needed a six months’ extension, and the Señor who took care of such things was out for lunch. Come back, please, later in the afternoon. Later in the afternoon he was in conference in the Jefe’s office, and by the time he came back to his own it was time to leave. Please come back tomorrow. Tomorrow was a holiday and therefore lost. But the day afterward the renewed visas were a fait accompli, not however without much questioning as to Lord Freddy’s status. It was well known, of course, that all Americans were muy honrados, but the British? Were they to be trusted? Was I certain this man who I said was my cousin was not in reality a spy? It stretched my imagination somewhat to imagine Freddy in the role of a secret agent. The thing that clinched the matter favorably was the fact that Lord Freddy loved the hot, spicy Mexican food.The bus which took me home arrived at nine in the evening, down, down from the cold heights of the Mexican plateau to the tierra caliente—the tropic village of Tamazanchale.

I found Freddy in the living room by the long, oil-lamp-lighted table, drinking coffee and eating cake. Wha Lin was rolled in a sleepy ball beside his Spanish grammar, the puppy was curled at his feet. We sat late while I told Freddy about Mexico City and he regaled me with tales of all the household activities. Had Maria fed him well?

“My deah, superbly! I’ve lived like a king. How d’you like the cake? It’s called marquezotes after a marquis because it takes so many eggs.”

Freddy insisted upon showing me the recipe:

Beat the whites of 10 eggs until they are stiff but not dry, and beat the 10 yolks until they are a golden yellow. To the yolks add gradually 1 1/2 cups sugar and 1 teaspoon vanilla, and still beating, add 1 1/2 cups cake flour which has been sifted with 1 teaspoon salt and 1 teaspoon baking powder. When it is all thoroughly mixed, fold in the beaten egg whites. Turn the batter into a loaf pan lined with wax paper and bake in a moderate oven for about 40 to 50 minutes.

“And I’ve kept careful accounts,” said Freddy proudly. He brought out a large school copybook in which he’d made everyday lists of Maria’s purchases; the Spanish spelling of the strange fruits and vegetables was fearful and wonderful, but apparently in their own way they had done the job. I could picture them, Maria de Jesús counting on her fingers as she could neither read nor write, and Lord Freddy seriously itemizing every expense. To the collection of bills and papers, I added the new visas and all the banking documents I had collected. Freddy took out his wallet and handed me the hundred-dollar traveler’s check I’d given him before I left. “Mexico is a wonderful country,” he remarked. “I did not need it—a little money goes a long way here.”

I had started to gather up things an put them away for the night when the puppy saw fit to nip the end of Wha Lin’s tail. With an outraged yowl she leaped on the table, narrowly missing the kerosene lamp and scattering papers in all directions. In the dim light Lord Freddy and I scrambled around, and, everything finally retrieved, Freddy took his candle and went to bed.

It wasn’t until after breakfast the next morning when I was putting accounts in order that I discovered the loose hundred-dollar check to be missing. I called Freddy in from the terrace where he and Maria were inventing a Mexican stew which I later christened La Confección de Federico y Maria. We both searched the living room thoroughly and then he started on the garden. I consulted Maria de Jesús. Had she seen a small slip of paper like this? and I showed her the book of checks. Her eyes widened when I told her it was worth five hundred pesos. She evidently disbelieved me. “How can a scrap of paper be worth the fortune of five hundre pesos?” Maria was innately an extremely intelligent woman, but her economic horizon was limited by her salary of fifteen pesos a month—or three dollars—which was the current village payment. She immediately betook herself to the street which she searched down to the river. She consulted the neighbors who lived on the brow of the hill behind the garden—the barber, the Indian laundresses, and the mule driver’s family. None of them had seen the fabulous slip of paper, but the news spread like wildfire through the village that there was a fortune in the form of a scrap of paper somewhere in the neighborhood. The only conclusion we could come to was that a gust of wind had carried it off, or else the puppy had chewed it up.

The procedure then, of course, was to write to the National City Bank in New York, which had issued the check, and to the branch in Mexico City, telling them of the loss and asking stoppage of payment or cancellation, or whatever they did in such cases. The whole affair was rather awkward as traveler’s checks are supposed to be countersigned only in the presence of the bank clerk or individual cashing the check. Also I went to the merchant Feliu, to Don Esteban, Federico, and others to whom I thought anyone finding the check might go in an attempt to cash it.

As weeks went by, the correspondence from both banks mounted. I made out four copies of Affidavit of Claimant which were very long, legal, and impressive-looking. There were dozens of questions concerning the status of the lost check. When did I discover its loss? Was it countersigned? Did I part with it in connection with a wager or game of chance? What are the full particulars, exact time of theft, place, and circumstances surrounding loss? Outline in detail the efforts you have made to recover said check.

I endeavored in a closely written page to convey to the austere main office of the National City Bank of New York and its busy sucursal in Mexico City a graphic picture of a lamplighted thatched house in a tropic village, a British lord, a Siamese cat, and a mongrel pup for which I’d paid forty cents. The only thing I didn’t include was the recipe for marquezotes. It succeeded in reading rather like the setting for a juicy murder story. I ended the document rather lamely by saying that I suspected that the puppy had eaten it.

Then I discovered that this opus had to be sworn to by a notary public in the United States; failing that, by the nearest American consul in Mexico. That meant a four-day jaunt either to Mexico City of Monterey which would probably cost the greater part of the hundred dollars. The alternative was to have the affidavit notarized by a village authority whose seal and signature would then be authenticated by the Governor of the State of San Luis Potosi, and in turn would be verified by the American Embassy in Mexico City. This, I discovered, would take trouble and time, to say nothing of expense. Lord Freddy and I held long and serious conferences as to the next steps of procedure after each new form I filled out and after each letter that came from either of the banks. Finally we decided, since in all probability the puppy had eaten the check, we could let the matter drop until such time as I returned to New York and could take up the matter personally with the bank. In the meantime Lord Freddy devoted himself more seriously than ever to the culinary arts, and his notebook grew ever fatter with newer and hotter Mexican and Spanish dishes.

It must have been at least three or four months later that again we became absorbed in the matter of the lost check. We had left the tropic village to stay for a time in the higher and more healthful atmosphere of a cool mountain town, and to us there came a letter from the embittered American Don Federico. Apparently gossip and speculation about the check had never died out in Tamazanchale, and Don Federico’s letter sarcastically stated that our belove Maria de Jesús whom we had so much trusted was reputed to have the check and was trying to cash it. Lord Freddy’s calm reserve was completely shattered for a few minutes as he waxed vehement in her defense. We both missed the Indian woman, whose gay laughter an vital presence had been so much a part of our lives.

Then Don Esteban wrote that he had heard someone had tried to cash the check at the Spanish merchant’s, Feliu, to whom I wrote at once. In the course of time he replied that a certain José Martinez had presented the check for payment and naturalmente he had refused. I then wrote to José whose answer came in record time:

Very Señor Mine:

In my power is your appreciable dated 26th of the present by the notices of Señor Feliu. It is certain that I have check and am near to negotiate. I encountered thrown out in the street and precisely I carried it to him to ask if is good or no, and he told me is good. Said check is legally authorized. If you give me the half of value, I will send to you, but if not, I will hold in my power without guilt or responsibility, because I found and is mine for having encountered. Awaiting results of proposition by next Saturday the date of 9th, or I shall proceed to that which my necessity obliges me. Offering myself your friend, I remain at the disposition of Ud. (your grace), your attentive and assured servant.

José Martinez

“Santissima Maria,” murmured Lord Freddy when I had finished translating. “Threatening, no? Doesn’t the bloody fool realize that he can’t cash it?”

My next move was to write both the Chief of Police and the District Attorney in Tamazanchale to ask them to use their authority to have the check returned. After a considerable length of time had elapsed, both these gentlemen wrote, regretting profusely that they were powerless in this unprecedented situation. José was adamant in claiming that the check so carelessly thrown out into the street was his by right of discovery. The fact that every merchant and innkeeper in the village had refused to cash it for him did not deter him in his resolve to turn the piece of paper into a fortune of five hundred pesos. Both officials advised me to come to Tamazanchale to deal with José in person.

So it was that Lord Freddy and I decided to go down to the tropic village for the week end. As the crow flies we were only about seventy-five miles away over the mountains, but in point of traveling it might as well have been a thousand, for it took us two very long days to get there. The bus from the remote mountain village of Zacualtipan broke down on the road, so we missed connections in Pachuca and had to spend the night there, reaching Tamazanchale late the next evening. Don Esteban gave us supper and regaled us with all the details of the lost check.

Promptly at nine o’clock the next morning, we presented ourselves at police headquarters where we had an hour’s polite and labored conversation with the Jefe while he sent a minion in search of José Martinez. José shambled in at noon. Lord Freddy and I at once recognized the gentleman because of his broken jaw which had never been set and which waggled when he spoke, making his speech totally unintelligible. Maria had long ago given us his story. He was one of three brothers who had quarreled among themselves over the family property. It was said that their father’s very sudden demise was due to a little overdose of poison. The mother died of a broken heart; one brother was subsequently found murdered in a lonely field, but José himself suffered only a broken jaw.

The District Attorney joined us, as well as most of the police force. As the afternoon wore on, the two village lawyers dropped by to participate in the case. I had brought all my bank correspondence, and the Chief of Police got out all his and proceeded leisurely to read aloud all the data in Spanish. My correspondence in English I laboriously translated. José Martinez sat glowering in a corner, clutching the dirty, rainspotted check, determined to have at least half the wealth which he considered rightfully his. Freddy’s eyes behind their thick lenses grew steely every time he looked at the man. As the interminable discussion dragged on and on, it became evident to both Lord Freddy and me that a considerable portion of village officialdom felt that they were entitled to a share of the five hundred pesos. Half for José the murderer, and a cut of perhaps fifty or seventy five pesos for all the others involved.

Finally Lord Freddy’s patience broke. He abruptly got up from his chair ans made a vigorous speech about the deplorable lack of integrity in public officials. His strangely mild blue eyes were icy cold when he added that not all foreigners were rich fools. The speech which was in English naturally was understood by nobody but me, but its meaning was unmistakable when Lord Freddy strode to the astonished José Martinez and gently but firmly extracted the check from his grimy paw. He took a ten-peso note from his wallet an offered it to the chagrined José who shook his head until his broken jaw waggled in a most revolting manner. Freddy dropped the note on the desk of the Jefe de Policia, put on his sun helmet with a flourish, and with curt good afternoons marshaled me out.

Our week end of check-collecting had stretched to eight days by the time we were again at home in the mountain village. I had kept careful account of expenses. When I totaled the amount, I took it out to the garden where Freddy was having tea with the dog and the cat.

“H-m-m-m-,” he remarked. “So actually your forty-cent puppy has cost eighty-three dollars and sixty-five cents.” He patted the little dog's head affectionately and said, “Perhaps for a purebred Aztec it isn’t too much after all.”