Jazz and Cocktails: The Divas Go Mexican

Besides my passions for food and art, I have always been a jazz buff. As a teen growing up in New York, I would stalk the jazz clubs, listening from the street, sneaking into festival concerts during intermission, going to every free performance I could manage. I saw so many ‘greats:’ Diz, Basie, Bill Evans, Stan Getz. You name ‘em, I saw ‘em. But it was the singers I really fell for. To me, Sarah Vaughan was a Goddess and I saw her innumerable times. And Ella, Anita, Carmen, Betty Carter... the list goes on. How quaint, you say. But what does all this have to do with ‘Good Food in Mexico City’? Well, read on, my friends...

Merrill at Midnight
Helen Merrill is my favorite living jazz singer. And it was a thrill when, on a recent jaunt to New York, friend and music journalist Jim Gavin (author of the excellent Stormy Weather: The Life of Lena Horne) arranged a dinner for the three of us. Almost 30 years ago, as a young foodie and jazz enthusiast, the best employment I could garner was to work the swing shift at a smoke-filled jazz club in Cambridge. I’d arrive home at 4 in the morning and, hopelessly hopped up on coffee and drink orders, I’d put on some of Helen’s old LPs, listening with headphones to her mysterious, hazy vocalizing. Her intense blue bebop and reworking of melody, the intoxicating balance of space and sound, always jibed especially well through ‘the wee small hours’. She’d breath ‘Lazy Afternoon’ with a musical sigh: “…there’s not another human… in vieeew…but us twooooo,” and I’d agree. I only had a few old scratchy LPs from the ‘50’s – the early ‘80’s was a bleak time for jazz and little was available. So I figured she must be long dead, a tragic diva lost to the pitfalls of the ‘jazz life’. This couldn’t have been further from the truth. Helen was, and is, very much still here, putting that myth to rest and having produced an enormous body of work over a career that spans 65 years. After her early successes in the New York jazz scene, Merrill--Bronx born of Croatian immigrants--spent time living and recording in Italy and Japan, returning to the US in the ‘70’s. She’s made more than 40 albums, all of them exquisite, but the most famous is her first, recorded in 1954, and simply entitled ‘Helen Merrill’. It features the trumpet master Clifford Brown (who did die young, in an auto accident) and was arranged by the then unknown Quincy Jones. When I asked Helen why this disk is so famous – in jazz circles, anyway - and appreciated, she paused before responding, “I don’t know, really…we were just a bunch of young people having a good time.” “It’s the mood it creates”, I suggested. “Even the upbeat songs are imbued with pain and longing – and that blue cover adds something as well.” On the angst-ridden cover, a black & white Merrill, tinted blue, screams ferociously into the microphone. “I cried when I saw it,” she lamented.
Helen knows I live in Mexico and she wanted Mexican food, assuming I’d lead her to the best. Naturally, I don’t pay much attention to the Mexican restaurant scene north of the border. But this being an emergency, I sent queries to several local chefs. It was Zarela Martinez (whose ‘Zarela’ is now closed) who suggested a new place in the Village, Empellón. This homey, classically decorated spot was the dream of former pastry chef of WD-50 and Alinea, Alex Stupak, who, despite being a gringo, appreciates the complexity of the Mexican lexicon and wanted to do something about the paucity of sophisticated Mexican food on the east coast. It opened only recently--and to much acclaim. The menu is intriguing, offering many classics reinvented.
“I want a Margarita,” Helen declared when she arrived and was seated at our corner table, a spot we would occupy for the next 5 hours. I ordered her a classic one, but she complained that it didn’t have enough tequila - “it’s not working” – so she joined me in a straight shot for round two. I loved our ceviches which followed, one of octopus with ‘parsnip and salsa Papanteca (chile arbol, chipotle, pumpkin seeds). The other was a black bass with beets and guava puree that was not cloyingly sweet--rather, tantalizingly perfumey. We followed with an array of artsy tacos: a simple chicken with yucca to add a sweet crunch hit all the marks. Why didn’t they think of it down here? Lamb barbacoa with salsa borracha was an artisanal version of the pit-roasted Bajio classic; it conjured the earthiness of the original. And the duck confit with swiss chard and guajillo was something you’ll never find here in Mexico or at your local taco truck--but it would make any Frenchman happy, the meltingly soft roast meat caressed and prodded by the mild, non-spicy sauce – a winner. We never even got to the main dishes. Unfortunately, the two rooms get raucously noisy and service is perfunctory. But the food is good. Chef Stupak’s re-thought classics, while reminiscent of the originals are modern, unpretentiously creative and successful--like a Helen Merrill album. We practically closed the place down, finally leaving at 1AM. “Jazz people don’t go to bed early,” Jim opined. We talked of jazz and life, of feeling like black sheep for our ‘odd’ interests, and of the future. When I asked Helen if she will record any more, she replied, “I’ve done enough. But,” she mused, “who really knows…”

Twisted Sister
The next night I attended the performance of another jazz legend, the great Annie Ross. Annie sings Tuesdays at the Metropolitan Room in Chelsea and is the author of that classic crazy-girl tune, ‘Twisted’ (“My analyst told me…that I was right out of my head…the way he described it… he said I’d be better dead than live…”), recorded by many others but ne’er as well. British-born Annie got her start in the movies and made a name for herself in the ‘50’s by setting words to bop jazz instrumentals and later as member of the trio Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. You might have seen her in the Altman film Short Cuts, where she plays a pessimistic version of herself. Her good looks, humor, swing, timing, and cool material made her the original hipster. And so she remains. This evening we were astounded to find a special guest in attendance: none other than Jon Hendricks himself. (Lambert died in the ‘60’s.) It was a reunion of sorts, and the two blew the roof off with a couple of renditions of their old Basie and Ellington concoctions – as Annie herself proclaimed, “I’m 80 and he’s 90…we’re doing the best we can." Neither of their voices is strong, and those high notes don’t come easily anymore, but the rhythm and musicality are intact. Annie’s showstoppers were a haunting, introspective version of 'Lush Life' and a raucous, show-stopping rendition of that sad diner’s lament ‘One Meat Ball’ (“Little man felt so ill at ease, he said: ‘Some bread sir, if you please.’ The waiter hollered down the hall: You get no bread with ONE MEAT BALL.”). After the show, I chatted with Annie and the topic naturally returned to food. She’s apparently a great cook. And when she heard I’m from Mexico and ‘in the food life,’ she told me she has the BEST guacamole recipe going. I pleaded with her to send it to me and she replied, “Honey, I’ll tell you right now.” And here it is:

Annie’s Guacamole
Take a nice firm avocado and cut it in half, discarding the pit and skin
Mash it with a potato masher
Sprinkle on some lime juice and salt
Grate in some onion (here she’s insistent: “don’t chop, GRATE”)
Mix lightly and serve
“That’s IT!” Annie’s words, accompanied by a sweeping gesture.

And so you see, all roads DO lead to Mexican food. “The song has ended, but the melody lingers on.”


Mexican Street Food? Just Say 'Sí'

Here in Mexico City the phrase "street food" can connote a kind of low-class, unsavory, health-risk from which tourists and locals alike are warned to stay away. Now, foodies on the cutting edge, perhaps feeling the economic crunch, are busy promoting this popular cooking. Restaurants with names such as Street in L.A. and Fonda in N.Y. are pulling in crowds. Anthony Bourdain and the Los Angeles Times are touting the world's street food as trendy, reminding us that the best cooking is often found in the most humble places. We fearless global eaters could have told them.

Some of our most cherished culinary moments may be of downing a hot dog or pretzel, an ice cream or a knish, that is, if we are an American. For the Japanese, it may be a steaming takoyaki ball; for Egyptians it's a fragrant bowl of fuul. And for Mexicans it's a tamal, an atole or a taco de chicharrón. Sold from a basket, a cart, an improvised stand, a truck, out of a doorway, on the beach, in a market stall, all are street food. The common factors are that the food is cheap, ready to eat and portable.

According to streetfood.org, street food constitutes up to 40 percent of the daily diet in the developing world. In many countries where people can't afford to eat in sit-down restaurants, all kinds of food are available, any time of day, and practically anywhere. And in large urban settings, people often just don't have time to sit down.

Street food recipes tend to be traditional, unaltered by globalization or modernization. While it is found all over the world, especially in Asia and Latin America, perhaps only Thailand vies with Mexico for such astounding variety. In the sprawling metropolis of Mexico City, at practically every corner, beloved dishes are cooking as you walk by, the heavenly aromas drawing you in.

Regional variations abound. In the high altitude center of the country, where our capital sits, the earthy roasting fumes of grilled meat tacos and a large variety of corn-based snacks pleasantly interrupt the (mostly) clear sun-drenched air. On the Pacific shores, seafood is the thing, from sparkling tangy ceviches to crispy fish tacos, or whole fresh fish splayed, slathered with chili paste and grilled as you listen to the waves roll in. The Caribbean coast also takes advantage of the ocean, with Spanish, African and indigenous influences evident. The variety is infinite.

When I first came to Mexico, almost 25 years ago, I was told not to go anywhere near the food I saw on the street — and I didn't. "You'll get sick," the pessimists assured me. "Don't drink the water," they admonished, fingers wagging. Having grown up in lower Manhattan surrounded by Italian, Jewish, Chinese and Hispanic immigrants and their cuisines, I was an early aficionado of "the authentic": foods prepared by and for people according to their long-held traditions. So I was dying to eat everything I saw and smelled in Mexico. But I held off and stuck to the nicer restaurants, with few exceptions. But I always felt I was missing out. Years later, when I moved to San Miguel de Allende in the heart of Mexico's central plains, I studied Spanish five days a week. Every morning, on the way to class, I would pass a festive, bustling stand that sold huaraches, large oblong slabs of corn masa (dough) dry-roasted on a griddle and heaped with smoky grilled meat, avocado, tomato, onion, queso fresco and various salsas. This stand was always busy, the savory fragrance perceptible a block away. My mouth would water like a hungry dog. I always passed it right by without availing myself, proud of my righteous self-control. "Don't eat on the street.” those voices echoed. Period. No exceptions.

Then, as the years went by and I moved full-time to Mexico, I just broke down. How could I, a self-described foodie, live in such stern abnegation in the face of this veritable banquet taking place 24 hours a day, I asked myself. 
I started with the seemingly safe and graduated to the hard stuff (chicharrón or pork skin and lengua or tongue tacos became my favorites). I now look at small stands and market stalls as micro-restaurants where I can see what's being cooked, and by whom. The raw ingredients are right there before my eyes. Most of these operations specialize in one dish so you're assured they know what they're doing. I feel as safe eating in these places as in restaurants. Sure, there are rules to follow -- stick to busy places, avoid food fried in old oil, seafood sitting in the sun. But when I finally got over my fear and prejudice, a whole world of "real" Mexican food opened up to me. I have never gone back.

Have I ever gotten sick? Well, yes, a few times. Last time was after a buffet dinner at the home of an American friend. Go figure. Now, an incredible "authentic Mexican" feast has been spread before me, a dream-like cornucopia, an impossible buffet. Crusty corn-fragrant sopes piled high with spicy chorizo, potatoes, lettuce and spiky salsa. Hand-made quesadillas filled with everything from squash blossoms to huitlacoche (corn fungus). Steaming hot tamales filled with mole or salsa verde. Crispy tostadas heaped with fresh ceviches of crab, fish or shrimp. And the tacos, the endless variety of them! Tacos de guisados, stews, red, yellow, green and black, spooned into hand pressed tortillas. Tacos al carbón, meat grilled to smoky perfection and augmented with freshly ground salsas. Gamey barbacoa of mutton scooped right out of the maguey leaf in which it has been roasted and garnished with chopped onion, cilantro and lime. And that Mexico City classic, tacos al pastor, a legacy of the Lebanese immigrants whose lamb shawarma was "Mexicanized" to include pork and pineapple.

So what about that legendary stand in San Miguel de Allende? I still dream about it. Years ago the plaza was remodeled, chasing away the vendors. It disappeared forever. My loss - and theirs.

Note: See my many previous posts and/or my book for advice on where to eat street food in Mexico City. And for my New Yorker readers, I heartily reccomend the 'antojito' truck that parks on Roosevelt Av. between 74th and 75th St. in Jackson Hts. Queens.

A note to my DF readers:
The 'Mercado de 100' will take place this Sunday, June 26, from 9:30-2:30 in the Plaza Rio de Janeiro, Colonia Roma.