Monday, June 25, 2012

American Food Frenzy

In the recent past, several people have asked me what I miss the most about growing up in Western New York, now that I am a permanent resident in Mexico. I have always responded with predictable answers such as..."my friends" or "my family." But, If I were to be completely honest, I would have to confess that I miss the food from my childhood almost as much.

My hometown, Buffalo, New York has a long history of attracting European immigrants of almost every ethnic persuasion.
 As a result of their presence, Buffalo posesses a  rich and colorful culinary tradition. People from Italy, Poland, Ireland, Greece, Germany, Puerto Rico and the Ukraine have made a significant impact on the cuisine available to Buffalonians. In the more recent past, restaurants offering Chinese, Thai, Indian, and Jamaican have become almost ubiquitous.

Living  in Mexico, I often find myself in a trance-like state, wistfully daydreaming the day away,  visualizing the foods that I miss the most. I can't help thinking about about my good friend, Anna's family tradition of making pierogis filled with farmer's cheese or sauerkraut at Christmas time,

 the cucidatis (Italian fig cookies) that were a common sight in the Italian bakeries during the holiday,

Lombardo's pasta bolognese topped with freshly grated Parmiagiano Reggiano, my mom's corned beef and cabbage, Vargas' slow-roasted pork with a side of plantains and rice,  and the annual trips to the Broadway Market to purchase fresh Polish sausage with marjoram.

 I fantasize about Italian sausage seasoned with fennel from Scime's, Sinatra's mile-high lasagna, Casata cake (a Sicilian tradition, "cassata cake" refers to a sponge cake soaked in syrup or rum, filled with strawberries and custard, and covered with sweetened whipped cream) , Wegman's submarine sandwiches, Nick's Texas Red Hots (The Texas hot is a regional specialty in Western New York and parts of Pennsylvania. This Buffalo regional favorite consists of hot dogs smothered in a spicy meat sauce with mustard and chopped onion),

 the Towne Restaurant's souvlaki, hot roast beef sandwiches on kimmelwech rolls (the beef on weck sandwich is a variety of roast beef sandwich found primarily in Western New York. The meat is traditionally served very rare, sliced paper thin and piled high atop a kimmelweck roll, a special bun topped with rock salt and caraway seeds. The roll gets  dipped into au jus. The usual accompaniments include super hot horseradish, a dill pickle spear, and french fries. A local bar owner is said to have used the roll to create the beef on weck, with the hope that the salty top of the roll would make his patrons purchase more drinks.), and

 Lagniappe's  Cajun gumbo. I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about Ted's hot dogs and deep-fried onion rings, my mother's faschnaut kiekels (a Pennsylvania Dutch donut),

 meatloaf sandwiches at the Allen Street Hardware Cafe,the Catholic tradition of Friday night beer-battered fish fries, as well as the obvious and world renowned Buffalo chicken wings.

I miss the food festivals that are a yearly summer distraction. The Taste of Buffalo, my favorite, is the largest two-day food festival in the United States. This food extravaganza, which started in 1984, attracts thousands of people from far and wide who come to sample the delicacies offered by Buffalo's many restaurateurs. The Sorrento Cheese Italian Heritage Festival was always another excuse to stuff my face. For four glorious days every July, Buffalo's streets are transformed into "Little Italy." With over a half a million visitors attending each year, this event offers visitors every conceivable Italian goodie, as well as fun activities such as... cooking demonstrations, live musical entertainment with Italian crooners like Frank Sinatra Jr., Sicilian puppet shows, Tarantella street dancers, grape stomping contests, and daily processions. My husband, Tony, used to be there every day.

Having a past filled with all these sumptuous food experiences is a  down-right curse. Now, I've said it. Unfortunately, Mexico's restaurant offerings, at least in the eyes of this newcomer, are a bit repetitive and often poorly prepared . The food that I have encountered, thus far, leaves me feeling unfulfilled, a bit homesick, and maybe just a tad weepy. I can only get so excited about a taco.

This point was driven home for me last week on a recent road trip to Queretaro with my dear friend Marsha. We were cruising along the carretara when out of the corner of my eye, I spotted the blue and white IHOP sign.

 This restaurant is a very recent addition to the area. Before I even knew what hit me, the words "take the next right turn" tumbled from my mouth. Without any discussion, Marsha gleefully complied. Within a minute or two, we were sitting in IHOP's parking lot, both of us grinning from ear to ear. Our excitement was palpable. Visions of waffles and strawberry pancakes with bacon danced in our heads.

How could anyone get that excited about American fast food, you ask? Deprivation does strange things to a  body. I've never considered myself a fast food enthusiast. Actually, one might be justified in calling me a food snob. We have a McDonald's here in San Miguel de Allende and I pride myself in being able to walk by without so much as a second glance.

Something hit the both of us, that day, like a ton of bricks..... something I will call "American food envy or possibly frenzy" and we had it bad. We practically ran into the restaurant. As we approached the receptionist, we were politely told that there was a ten minute wait. I would have waited twenty. I can't speak for Marsha.  The line of people snaked out the door.  We weren't the only fools excited about eating at IHOP.


                  By the time we got to our seats, my mouth was watering   like a dog with a bone.

 We stared at the menu, as if transfixed, as the smiling waiter delivered the insulated "pitcher" of piping hot coffee.

Decisions, decisons..... This was tough. There were so many options. The menu was pages long with gorgeous color photographs. All we could do was giggle like school girls.

I almost selected this cheery item, until I found out that I was looking at the kiddie menu.

Marsha had the breakfast sampler platter which included farm fresh eggs, breakfast sausage, hash browns, and a side of, light as a feather, buttermilk pancakes.

Yes, the photo is blurry. Marsha's right arm kept moving!

 I chose the crispy waffles (that brought back childhood memories of the powdered sugar  waffles  at  Crystal Beach Amusement Park in its hayday) topped with strawberries and bananas along with home fries, breakfast sausage links, and two perfectly cooked sunny side up eggs.
If anyone at IHOP see this and wants me to star in their next commercial...I am available.

The selection of syrups...butter pecan is my favorite

 Oh, and of course, we didn't forget the freshly squeezed orange juice. I sound like a commercial, for Christ's sake. While the food took a while to arrive (I considered pounding on the table for a second or two but, thankfully, came to my senses), it was certainly worth the wait. To say we were both in heaven would be a gross understatement. I took many photographs to record the moment and the sense of excitement that we both shared. It was crazy but, very real.

Sated, we asked for the check. My head was spinning in disbelief. Who knew that I missed American food to this degree? I guess I am not a food snob, after all. Good old American chow will always have a special place in my heart, if not in my tummy.

Monday, June 18, 2012

El Dia de los Locos

San Miguel de Allende has an astounding number of fiestas and grand parades every year. One of my personal favorites is the tradition of El Dia de los Locos (translation....The Day of the Crazies), which is held the first weekend after the feast day of Saint Anthony of Padua on June 13th.

This unique parade originated in the 19th century as an expression of faith and devotion. Historical accounts suggest that during colonial times, San Miguel was surrounded by fields of orchards. The Franciscan friars, connected to the local monastery, had introduced the laborers to Saint Pascual Bailon, the patron saint of field workers. The friars began to hold a special celebration for the orchard workers as a way to honor San Pascual Bailon.

Today's Locos parade has its roots in  the festivites and merriment of the original orchard workers' fiesta where the local people danced as a way to give thanks to God and San Pascual Bailon for the year's harvest and to ask for continued prosperity in the coming year. During the first fiesta, it is said that crowds of observers  swarmed the dancers and in response,  some of the early participants started to disguise themselves as scarecrows to keep the crowds at bay.   The Sanmiguelenses began to call the dancers,"locos", a tradition that continues today.

As this parade grew and  evolved, the dancers started to dress in not only scarecrow costumes but, other creatively conceived and constructed attire intended to represent beloved cartoon characters, local and national political figures, extra-terrestrials, devils, superheroes, animals, as well as parodies of famous people.

The present day spectacle involves hundreds of  crazily clad dancers who gyrate and  boogie to the frenetic music that blares from crazily ornamented parade floats stacked till bursting with loud speakers. The marchers fling candies as well as other sweet treats to the delighted throng of local children. In contrast, various jauntily clad brass bands march in military fashion along the parade route.

Let me share my experience of today's parade. I arrived rather early to insure that I had a ring side seat.... picture-taking was my top priority. I found a perch on the sidewalk, towards the end of the parade route, and proceeded to watch the crowd. (I would discover later that my husband had managed to find a prime spot atop a large wad of recently chewed bubble gum. Removing the gum from the sofa at home would prove to be quite a chore).There were countless strolling vendors who offered a variety of tasty goodies such as ice cream bars, homemade potato chips served with lime and hot sauce, pretzels, bolis (frozen popsicles), 

 strawberries and cream, and sodas. There were the usual children's pull-toy hawkers

and a new twist..... umbrella salesmen. These amiable fellows sold both brightly colored paper parasols and traditional cloth umbrellas.

 I felt compelled  to acknowledge their entrepreneurial spirit in anticipating the people's need for shade. Later, I would recognize that the umbrellas had a more important purpose. They were intended as a tool for catching the candy being jettisoned through the air by the enthusiastic parade walkers (an inverted umbrella is better than a catcher's mitt).....
 or for some people the umbrellas served another even more important function.... specifically, the shielding of vital organs (this will all become clear in a minute.)

 I started the event sitting next to my husband but, within half an hour, as the crowds swelled, two small children and a nursing mother with small baby in tow managed to squeeze between us. The ability to cram one's body into tight spaces is a special knack that the Mexican people have surely mastered.

The close proximity of  the youngsters  made the experience all the more delightful as their enchanted screams pierced the air. Avoiding being hit in the face with the flying candy became quite challenging and at one point, an airborne juice box managed to collide with my noggin. I wonder who thought throwing juice from the floats was a good idea?

                     Pointy Toed Boots, a phenomenon that I can't begin to explain


The dancers bobbed and weaved and, of course, sweated profusely under the weight of their costumes. Occasionally, a particularly proud dancer would stop for a picture taking session. The on-lookers eagerly cheered each group's passing and shouted "dulces, dulces" in hopes of being the happy recipients of some sweet treats.

The most curious aspect of the parade is the large volume of male participants who dress in women's clothing. This practice is quite common and the men seem to delight in cross-dressing. The more flamboyant the outfit, the happier they appear.

Mayhem, madness, and children's sticky fingers aside, el Dia de los Locos is a blast that shouldn't be missed.