Sunday, March 25, 2007


Charoses is one of the ritual foods for Passover -- as shown on this photo of last year's Seder plate. It represents the mortar the Jewish slaves in Egypt used to build the pyramids. Every Jewish cook uses a slightly different recipe. In every country and region, Jews have used the locally available ingredients in these recipes. In Egypt and the middle east, dates, almonds, and raisins made a mortar-like paste. In Eastern Europe, grated apples and honey combined with nuts for a very different taste, same symbolism.

My mother made charoses with grated apples, sweet wine, walnuts or almonds, honey, and lemon juice. I don't think she had a recipe or even a consistent ratio of ingredients.

I've tried lots of other recipes, including the Marrano Jews' recipe in the book A Drizzle of Honey. This fascinating book reconstructs recipes for Spanish-Jewish and Marrano Jewish dishes based on the testimony of victims of the Spanish Inquisition.

Several Charoses recipes appear in Claudia Roden's Book of Jewish Food. Wherever you have your Seder: I encourage you to try a new charoses recipe along with your old one!

Spring is Here

The Dexter Dairy Queen is now dwarfed by a big brick building next door, and the whole town is redefining its identity as new housing tracts fill in so much former farmland. The funny plastic shingles of the DQ roof and the little windows where you can order your gourmet treats are unchanging.
On our way from a walk in the park, we stopped here for a mint Oreo Blizzard and a French Silk Blizzard. We ate them at the picnic table outside. The sun shone on us and on our Blizzards.

The choice was challenging: we could have had a donut from the Dexter Bakery.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Kitchen and Bath

We just had the kitchen and bath replastered and painted, worn-out light fixtures replaced, and a shower installed above the bathtub. Here's the new shower with curtain and overhead fixture. The paint doesn't show up in photos as it's all white again, so no photo of the kitchen -- but I'm cooking a lot since last week I hadn't much access.

Sunday, March 11, 2007


Hooray for Jim & Ellen!

Friday, March 09, 2007

More on Maya Plants

The birds in the cage above were in the back yard behind the Maya home we visited. The homes were small and seemed crowded along the street, but their back gardens were much larger than I expected. They had caged and free-range fowl, fruit trees, and other garden crops, as well as a children's play space with a hammock.

Following up my trip to Yucatan, I have been trying to learn more about ancient Maya crops and cuisine. Although Maya civilization relied mainly on corn, it's amazing how many still-familar foods they ate with it. Chocolate and vanilla are the most exciting legacy of the Maya -- I've already mentioned them and many other foods, such as both domestic and wild turkeys. They cooked meat on a grill above a fire, or in a pit dug in the ground.

At right is the ancient Maya corn god, symbol of the importance of their staff of life. This was one among the large number of gods in the Maya religious tradition. Of course they had no old world grains such as barley, millet, wheat, rice; and no Andean grains like quinoa either. If the corn crops failed -- as happened apparantly in the dry periods that drove the population from the earlier cities -- they had only a few famine greens to eat.

The Mayas used corn in a variety of ways. They made beverages, some fermented, some flavored with various spices. The thickness of corn beverages ranged from thin gruels to thickened pudding-like dishes. For the nobles, these may have resembled the chocolate and cornstarch pudding I made a few weeks ago. For common people who didn't get to eat chocolate, the flavoring was most often chile peppers. Like the Maya today, the ancients thought a meal was complete only if it included chiles.

The ancient Maya wrapped tamales in many kinds of leaves or corn husks. They filled them with beans or squash fillings. I find it interesting that avocado leaves are apparantly an intersting source of flavor when used this way. Tortillas, the most basic of foods, came in various shapes. Some had to be eaten fresh off the griddle. Others could be carried on the roads on the long walks of merchants and soldiers.

One of the few remaining documents in Maya script dates from the era just after Spanish conquest. At that time, the docment records, the Aztec overlords received Maya tribute of cotton, feathers, cocoa beans, and honey. The Maya ate not only the beans, but also the white and highly perishable substance that comes in the cocoa pod, as shown at the right. Cocoa requires a great deal of processing to extract the flavor and preserve the beans; then the beans must be crushed and heated properly to prepare a food or beverage. The Maya had methods for doing all of this.

Now, what about honey. From my reading, it seems that little is known about how they prepared and used honey, and that they don't seem to have sweetened their chocolate beverages with it. The native bees of the area are stingless -- I don't know much else about them. Our guide pointed out the ones on the tree in the photo, but I have my doubts about whether these are the species that can be used for honey. In any case, it was important enough to have been sent as tribute.

Finally a word on the two other tributes: feathers and cotton. Feathers --especially those from the colorful quetzel bird -- created the beautiful headdresses shown on the friezes in Mayan ruins that we saw. I'm unsure if the current fashions in embroidery that one sees on Maya women date from pre-Columbian times, but it's known that they cultivated cotton and gathered the fruit of the Kapok tree that produces another type of fiber. I'd love to know what the cotton garments of the Mayan warriors really looked like.

Additional references: Michael D. Coe, The Maya, New York, 2005. Sophie D. Coe, America's First Cuisines; Austin, Texas, 1994. Foster & Cordell, eds. Chiles to Chocolate, Tucson, Arizona, 1992.

Monday, March 05, 2007

News For Curious Cooks: Ancient chillis

The history of chile peppers and their development as food in Mexico and Central America, which I've been thinking about in my earlier post today, has been in the news recently:

"The human diet must have gotten a little boring when our ancestors first learned to cultivate grains and root crops and began to lean heavily on these starchy staffs of life, after millions of years of eating this and that as hunter-gatherers. So when did humans start spicing up their monotonous new diet? Very early--in the Americas, even before the widespread use of cooking pots, according to a new report on the archaeology of the chilli 'pepper.' A group of fifteen scientists led by Linda Perry of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History published their results in this week's Science." So writes Harold MeGee in News For Curious Cooks: Ancient chillis

See also in the same blog: News For Curious Cooks: Chilli pungency: Tracking it back

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Maya food and plants

The Europeans who first encountered Maya people with rubber balls were amazed -- they had never seen a bounce! The sacred ball game played on the ceremonial courts involved a rubber ball that was tossed through a large stone ring. (Above: one of the courts at Coba that we visited last week.) At the end of the game, the captain of one of the teams became a human sacrifice -- some say the winner had this honor, some say the loser.

At least four agricultural products come directly from the Maya: rubber, chocolate, vanilla, and chicle -- the original basis of chewing gum. These products were native to the jungles in what is now Guatemala and Honduras where their civilization began.

Trade in cocoa sustained the economy of many of their cities, and cocoa beans were even used as a medium of exchange. They were so valuable that archaeologists have found counterfeit cocoa beans made of clay to look just like the real thing. Mayan gods, kings, and warriors drank a foamed cocoa beverage, flavored with a variety of things including peppers -- but not sweetened. Chocolate dates to the pre-Maya Olmec civilizations of the area. The earliest proof: chemical analysis revealed chocolate residue in a Maya spouted vessel dating to 2600 years ago. Oddly, today Mexico no longer is a major producer of cocoa beans.*

The Maya abandoned many of their big cities several hundred years before first contact with Europeans. Some combination of drought, overpopulation, wars, and loss of confidence in the increasingly repressive theocracy caused this abandonment. Monuments, ball courts, and paved roads reverted to overgrown jungle. Nevertheless, the Maya continued to cultivate and use their remarkable crops as well as corn, beans, squash, peppers, avocados, turkeys, and perhaps dogs -- products whose cultivation began elsewhere in the New World. They hunted or trapped fish, iguanas, lizards, snakes, birds, small monkies, and the peccary. The latter is a wild piglike animal that ranges from the southwestern US down through Central America -- the picture shows an ancient pot with a Mayan god, Itzamnaaj, riding on a peccary.
In native restaurants, like the one we ate in last week, the local cuisine incorporates old-world products -- beef, cheese, chicken, pork, rice, wheat, cane sugar -- with the new.

Tortillas made from corn have been a staple of the local diet for millenia. The photo shows a Mayan mother and daughter forming tortillas in the outdoor kitchen of their home, which we visited. They cooked them on an open fire.

Maya sauces combine habanero peppers -- hottest of all peppers -- with other peppers, tomatoes, and spices. For tourists they seem to omit the habanero and the sauce is rather bland. I'm not sure if the ancient Maya also had the other famous new-world foods: potatoes and tomatoes.

Mayans love to eat raw habaneros, even for breakfast. The hot chile, along with chocolate, was a food for the ancient Maya gods -- sometimes in the same beverage. Habanero is considered the signature taste of the Maya people today. "If I don't have an habanero I may not eat" was the remark of one Maya.*

Chicleros are modern gatherers of chicle, the sap of the tree that still goes into some brands of chewing gum (though synthetics have mostly replaced it). These forest explorers know every bit of their territory, and in the past, they often helped identify the location of ancient cities covered with jungle growth. In Coba, we walked past piles of dressed stones covered with vines and trees -- trees even grow in the monuments that have been restored, as illustrated above. Our guide pointed out various trees, but not rubber or chicle trees (sapodilla family). They probably grow in the denser jungle of the south, not in the drier limestone soil of the Yucatan.

Unfortunately chicleros also have also cooperated with looters, who compete with archaeologists for access to unexplored tombs and ruins. Archaeologists want to dig in undisturbed sites in order to establish chronology and context. Looters want to dig first to obtain the pottery, the carvings, and the jewels buried with the ancient kings -- they know both the untamed jungle and the unchecked black market for the art work.

* Sources: Amal Naj, Peppers: A story of hot pursuits, New York, 1992, quotation p. 182. Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe, The True History of Chocolate, New York, 1996. Article from National Geographic (2002): Ancient Chocolate Found in Maya "Teapot"

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Restaurants in and near Cancun

Chicken and beef plates in a Maya restaurant on our tour of Coba:

We were told this was real Maya cuisine. However, it must be modern, not ancient Maya food, as the rice, beef, cheese garnishes, and lettuce would be old-world additions to the corn tortillas, tomatoes, and beans of the ancient Mayas. I'll say more another time about the agricultural products the Mayas gave us. The best of these I think is chocolate, food of the Maya gods. Also on the table: Coca-Cola and beer. Orignially, 100 years ago, Coke contained the new-world product cocaine. American Coke today contains corn syrup and vanilla -- both of new-world origin. I have heard that Mexican Coke is made with old-world sugar cane! And I guess the beer is old-world.

The OK Maguey Cantina Grill in Kukulkan shopping mall has a nice selection of modern Mexican cooking. The waiter brings a tray with avocado halves, chopped vegetables, and lime, and makes guacamole at the table in an interesting mixing bowl:
We drank a margarita at Casa des las Margaritas in La Isla shopping mall, a huge outdoor mall beside the lagoon -- live music included all the old favorites, even the Mexican Hat Dance (once done on pointe by Anna Pavlova, we learned by googling). The food was also quite enjoyable.
Two of the many displays of chiles at Casa des las Margaritas:
Various dishes at the wonderful Laguna Grill -- we ate there twice:
Cherry tomatoes and lettuce on skewers (background: grilled tomato with mozzarella between the layers. Not pictured: the martini gyoza which is served in a martini glass along with two tempura shrimp.
Lobster, grilled shrimp:
Fish and potatoes mashed with olives:
One of the delicious desserts -- turron of chocolate with ice cream topping:
And the crocodile who visited under the lagoon-view deck where we ate: