Do you like to cook? I sometimes do, depending on my mood and time available. Obstacles for me in enjoying any meager culinary skills I might have are my two children: who are very picky, complain about almost everything I put in front of them and usually refuse to try new things. Spending the time and energy in cooking (and the resulting clean-up) is hard to do often times in my household because usually my reward for said effort is my hubby and I arguing with our two kids to actually eat during the entire meal – start to finish. Does this happen to any other families?
There’s a ton of research available on the Internet about the importance of families eating meals together – and in fact the United States is notorious for nixing these family get-togethers to their own detriment, according to this article which offers this: “the average American eats one in every five meals in the car, one in four Americans eats at least one fast food meal every single day, and the majority of American families report eating a single meal together less than five days a week. It’s a pity that so many Americans are missing out on what could be meaningful time with their loved ones, but it’s even more than that. Not eating together also has quantifiable negative effects both physically and psychologically…” Yeah, yeah yeah – I get it – but I’d also like to invite the author of this article over to our casa sometime for dinner – and see what the effects of arguing, threatening, complaining and whining has on the family’s psyche – not to mention my own culinary self-confidence.
This article also goes on to offer this: “… In many countries, mealtime is treated as sacred. In many Mexican cities, townspeople will eat together with friends and family in central areas like parks or town squares.” I completely agree with this statement. During Mexican mealtimes, I will see at many of the street side vendors crowds of families eating, smiling and conversing. I’m not positive but I’m pretty sure they aren’t arguing and bribing the children to actually eat. At hubby’s workplace here, they have a pretty big cafeteria that is usually always filled with employees sharing their lunch together. It’s a very friendly, festive atmosphere. Coming from an office setting myself in the U.S., I can attest to the fact that it was a very rare event at my old office that anyone shared a meal together in the break room. We usually ate at our desks, and I also know that hubby did this as well at his office back in the U.S. Also typical here are many moms at the school will visit and sit with their kids at lunch. At our schools back in the U.S. – parents weren’t even allowed into the cafegymatorium – let alone be able to sit and enjoy the meal with their children (I remember asking once if I could wave to my daughter through the window of the door – and was told no). Here it’s totally different – and just like at hubby’s cafeteria, the festive lunchroom is filled with children and adults alike – laughing, talking and eating together as they dine. The atmosphere is as much of a bonding family time as it seems the act of breaking bread.
A quick lesson on Mexican meals – which continues to be hard for us Americans to adjust to:
Desayuno: a light breakfast eaten first thing in the morning
Almuerzo: a heavy breakfast or brunch, usually eaten sometime between 9 am and noon
Comida: generally eaten between 2 and 4 pm, comida is the main meal of the day
Cena: final meal of the day, could just be a hot drink and some bread, or a nice meal at a restaurante, usually eaten between 7 and 9 pm.
Why is this hard to adjust to, you ask? Examples: we go to a restaurante at noon to eat lunch, and it’s not open yet. We go out to dinner with local friends, and in trying to comply with their customs and eating late, end up with our girls passed-out next to us snoring with their heads on the table because it’s so late – although I’ll admit the snoring is much more pleasant than the complaining – if we then didn’t have to deal with the subsequent hair in our food (which, come to think of it, I really hope was from our kids’ heads).
So besides trying to cook for a mostly ungrateful audience (hubby likes my food at least), is the added adventure of shopping for groceries in a new culture with a new language. Shopping used to be one of my absolute favorite activities in the whole-wide-world.
Then I moved to Mexico.
My hubby is so amazed at how much money we are saving now. The stores and brands I’m used to are not found in our local area. Shopping online is not reliable, especially with the added shipping costs. And I’m a little disappointed in the grocery stores here. I figured the produce would be a lot fresher here – but it’s not and I don’t know why. Many fresh fruits I used to buy back in the states I have to buy frozen here. You have to be vigilant in reading the sell-by dates for everything. Before learning that the hard way and accustomed to being a lazy shopper, I would come home with moldy bread (the entire loaf, not just a slice or two), chunky milk and curdled yogurt. Shopping takes a tad longer but I’ve become a really good-grocery detective in finding those tiny-dates printed SOMEWHERE on the package. Speaking of milk, most stores sell this white liquid in boxes on the shelf, at room-temperature (not cold in the typical plastic cartons). I’m not sure how they can do that, but I still buy it cold – I’ve never purchased a box of wine, let alone milk. I do miss doing our grocery shopping in the U.S., where I didn’t have to closely inspect the sell-by-dates, constantly practice my meager division skills on all the prices to figure out how much the items cost in terms I understand, all the while listening to annoying uncensored pop music over the loudspeakers.
But I’m trying to make the best of it – learning to identify some of the produce I’ve never seen before (cactus, roots and other items that I can’t pronounce, let alone figure out if they are a fruit or vegetable). For long shopping trips I’ll bring along my earplugs and listen to my own music as I traverse around the store. One good thing I’ll share about shopping in Mexico: the selection of top-shelf tequila – and it’s pretty cheap here, too. A few shots of 100% de agave Herradura tequila and you don’t hear the kids’ complaints anymore.
Living in a port-city in Mexico – we’ve been told that the seafood is very fresh. I can attest to that because I can swear some of the seafood on display at the grocery store (like the photo above) are still blinking when we walk by. You’ll also notice in the above picture there are no sneeze-guards around the fish selection – no tongs to pull out which fishy-carcass you want to buy. No gloves. Even if we enjoyed eating pescado (which we don’t) and I knew how to cook it (which I don’t) I’m not sure I’d consider buying from this display – I’m usually worried to be bitten as we walk by, let alone reaching a hand in.
Speaking of fresh fish, here’s another sight I recently saw at the grocery store and just had to snap a photo of:
I have no idea what this is – but it looked pretty yucky. I think it’s just fried fish bones? The smell was appalling. Not that I will, for any reason, be buying any fried fish bones, but if anyone can tell me what this is and what it’s for, I’d be really interested to know.
Going back to raw meat, another area of our new grocery store that freaks out us germophobe-Americans is the mutant-chicken box. I’ll treat you to a photo of that:
It’s this large metal display filled with these monster pollo-breasts and parts – it’s really gross. I have no idea how they pump up chickens here to get so big and I have to assume this meat is just filled with hormones and other additives to get so large. Plus, it’s really cheap, which makes me feel bad for the folks I see taking some selections. Unfortunately, I have been unable to find any hormone-free, range-free meat here. I do the best I can with what I can find to make healthy selections for our family – and stay away from these icy-fresh-monster-meat displays. Actually, in a shopping trip with a neighbor who was nice enough to give me a tour and show me where to find the fresh tortillas (OMG: amazing, by the way! The freshly made tortillas here, be them flour or corn, are so delicious that it’s totally worth it to deal with moldy bread and chunky milk), she told me to NEVER purchase ground beef unless I see the butchers grind the meat before my eyes. At the time I thanked her for the advice and we moved on to a different part of the store. But since then I’ve been haunted. What else could they be putting in the ground beef? I’m adding that to a few other Mexican mysteries I hope to never figure out (like the alleged tombs at the school, why such flimsy fencing to keep back the cocodrilos and why no one moves out of the way for ambulances).
Thanks to the fact that our local grocery store is actually a Texas-based store, I can find a good amount of products in English – which is very helpful to a struggling Spanish-reading and speaking person like me. A guaranteed way of ruining any dish you are creating is to mix up cumin and cinnamon, and yes, I’m speaking from experience – so being able to accurately read some labels is immensely helpful. Many of the products do have their cooking instructions in English – but the problem is that those instructions are covered with stickers that offer those same instructions in Spanish. For example:
I simply wanted to know at what temperature and for how long to bake these egg rolls. The Spanish informational instruction stickers are super annoying, and you can’t see my broken fingers nails in this photo – or my pain at breaking my nails to try and obtain the baking instructions so I can provide my kids with a well-rounded selection of items they can turn their noses up at. These are the same stickers that are commonly used on gifts/toys – common items that you would typically want to scrape off the price – but are next to impossible to remove. You have to do it by layers – you know the kind I’m talking about. And it’s getting annoying that I have to Goo Gone® so many food packaging so I can get to the instructions. Yes, yes, go ahead and say: “well that should just make you work harder at learning Spanish”. Thanks – got it. In the meantime, this is just another added layer of the problems I face in trying to cook in our new home.
Speaking of leaning español, our Spanish teacher, as a gift to our family, has offered to come to our house and cook a meal for us. Back in the U.S. that would have been weird, but it’s not here, and in fact, it’s a very generous offer. She’s not just offering to put some ingredients together for us on a plate. She’s offering to share an event with our family – a shared meal that is so important in this culture. We’re excited for many reasons: I’m sure she’s a fabulous cook, so we are excited to enjoy the end result. But I’m excited to watch and see how she cooks her authentic food and hopefully learn some Mexican cooking tips. We’re also going to enjoy the time spent with her – she’s a hoot and we usually laugh a lot in our Spanish lessons (and for me it will be a nice change because although we laugh, our lessons are still stressful for me with her and hubby tag-teaming in correcting me in stereo every five seconds when I’m struggling with my pronunciations).
I’m really excited for her gift to our family, and hope that besides making our tummy’s happy, it will be good for our family’s psyche. Without the complaining, to sit and laugh and enjoy each others company over good food, which is so common here in Mexico. I’m hoping that this Mexican family tradition can make an appearance on our American menu more often.