1940s Archive

Mexican Mornings

Originally Published July 1947

It was still early when Maria de Jesús padded down through the mango grove with a brimming market basket riding sedately on her proudly erect old head. If you saw Maria only from the rear, you would have thought she was a woman of not more than thirty. Even when her seamed brown face wrinkled into laughter, it was hard to realize that she was an old woman. I once asked her how old she was and she answered, “Quien sabe?” Who knows? She herself didn’t have the slightest idea, or concern over the matter.


Lord Freddy strolled out to the terrace to watch the unpacking. It had become a daily ritual for him to make notes as I jotted down expenses in the housekeeping ledger. The notes for that day read six bisteces—the little beef filets that Maria broiled over charcoal and which almost melted in your mouth. There were lettuces, sweet rolls, figs, tomatoes, cucumbers, various kinds of platanos—bananas—to roast, fry, and eat raw. Also pineapple, little squashes, cactus fruit to make candy, and avocados. And there was a carton of Delicados, Mexico’s finest cigarettes.

But that morning Maria had a surprise for us. Like a child she concealed it until the last moment. As I started to close the account book, she said, “Todavía—not yet, Señora. I have made the transaction extravagant this morning.” She opened her own little shopping bag and tumbled on the table big fat mushrooms—the first I’d seen in Mexico. “They come from the Sierra,” she explained. Then she brought out a brown paper cornucopia of pine nuts. “For the almuerzo,” she announced, “we shall have the bongos rellenos de piñones.” Mushrooms stuffed with pine nuts.

There must have been about 2 pounds of mushrooms which Maria carefully wiped and peeled. The stems she chopped fine and browned in 2 tablespoons of butter with 1 minced onion, 1 cup of soft bread crumbs, and 1 cup of chopped pine nuts, for about 5 minutes. The mixture had been seasoned lightly with salt and pepper, a pinch of orégano, a dash of Tabasco, and 1 tablespoon of lemon juice. The mushrooms were then stuffed with this and arranged in a baking dish. Over each mushroom was placed a strip of bacon, 1/2 cup cream poured into the pan, and the whole baked for 25 minutes in a hot oven. We had to use canned milk as cream is an unknown commodity in Mexico except in good hotels in the cities. Milk always has to be boiled, therefore no cream.

Lord Freddy had eaten two of the bongos rellenos and had glanced up to compliment Maria on her triumph when it happened. His fork dropped to his plate with a clatter; his face was ashen and his teeth began to chatter violently. His whole body shook like an aspen leaf in the wind. Malaria. Freddy had told me that he’d had it before in Africa; I’d had my experience in South America, and Maria knew the paludismo only too well. We got him to his room and into pajamas; we piled on him every blanket or cover we had in the house, including my fur coat. The day was unusually hot, but with that strange phenomenon which is malarial fever, the cold of death settles in the bones, and no tropic sun can bring warmth until the chills pass.

They last about an hour; there follows the reaction of violent perspiration, then mercifully one can usually sleep. Not the least strange part of it is that one often feels rather well on waking, well enough to keep a dinner engagement. Freddy was up for tea that afternoon, taking large doses of quinine with it.

The whole matter worried me as the rainy season was beginning, and we were only a matter of a city block from the river. The risk of being reinfected again and again by the deadly little anopheles mosquito was not pleasant.

“Freddy,” I said, “as much as I dislike the thought of leaving, I think we should find ourselves a place in the mountains where it’s higher and cooler.” Freddy gravely agreed, and the rest of the evening we studied maps.

Often when Maria de Jesús found a little lull in her days, she hung over my typewriter, asking me if I thought I could really make a book—a big one like this, picking up my Spanish-American dictionary—and obviously doubting it. Tiring of so weighty a matter, the Indian woman would help herself to a cigarette, squat at my feet, and say, “But the Señora should go to mi tierra—La Tierra Bondita, the Blessed Land. There she would find many stories to put in a book. It is high in the Sierra where are the pine forests and orchards … where the little houses have shingles the color of gold…” Her voice grew soft, nostalgic, and her stories had the quality of fairy tales.

Over breakfast the next morning I broached the subject of Zacualtipán, Maria’s girlhood home, to Lord Freddy, and the decision was made. Zacualtipán it should be. Perhaps we could persuade Maria to come, too. Actually, I still think that was the greatest factor in the decision, for it was difficult to imagine life in Mexico without Maria to share it.

When I talked to her of it, she went into transports of delight—to go again to the cool mountains, the tierra templada, where her friends and family still lived after these many years. She would have to sell her doll’s house by the river, and then by the grace of the Santissima Maria, she would come to us in the mountain village.

It is one thing to make a decision in Mexico and another to carry it out. The matter of transporting our household which seemed a simple thing, took on gigantic proportions as the days went by and no arrangements materialized. Maria de Jesús went to everybody in town who owned a truck, and many were the promises that Si, si, Señora, Señor Diaz or Don Joaquin would come surely on Tuesday to make arrangements after he returned from Monterrey. The distance was not so great, only about seventy-five miles as the crow flies over the mountains, but by the only available roads, it was a trip which with good luck could be accomplished in eighteen hours. As it was, it took us just six days after we finally got started.

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