Christmas Joy in Cigar Boxes

Recipe for a Christmas Memory

Candy is childhood, the best and bright moments you wish could have lasted forever.

Dylan Lauren 

Mama ushered in the holiday seasons by recruiting anyone whose hands were not otherwise occupied to shell pecans. The pecans were used liberally in the Thanksgiving dressing, cranberry salad, and pecan pies, but the biggest and prettiest ones were set aside for Mama’s Christmas specialties: divinity, marshmallow cream fudge, and date loaf. She would fuss and sweat in the kitchen for days, sometimes discarding whole batches that didn’t meet her high holiday standards.  These imperfect batches were happily devoured by less-demanding family members like me.

Perfect specimens, which were off limits to family, were saran-wrapped and artfully arranged in beautifully decorated cigar boxes, along with a few store-bought peppermint sticks and pieces of ribbon candy. These were hand-delivered to special people: neighbors, teachers, employers, merchants, the pastor, and the church secretary.

I never cared much for divinity, a mysterious tricky mix of egg whites and sugar, although I would eat most anything that contained obscene amounts of sugar, as long as shredded coconut was not involved. The recipe for marshmallow cream fudge was printed on every jar of the sticky stuff that was its star ingredient.

When I got married, I imagined coming home for many Christmases to learn from Mama the arts of candy-making and Christmas joy-box preparation, but she survived only one Christmas after my marriage, and the recipes, which she seldom used because she knew them by heart, were lost in a jumbled box of papers under her bed that she had intended to put in order someday when she had time. After Mama died, I pestered relatives and friends for the mysterious date loaf candy recipe. Several volunteered their versions, but none were a match for Mama’s. Cookbook and magazine recipes for just about anything called for ingredients like cardamom or capsicum that I’d never heard of and that were not easily available at the local A & P. Mama’s recipes were made from simple ingredients that we had at home all the time. She called them “staples.” Sugar. Butter. Flour. Vanilla. And the things she made from them were delicious.

Date loaf, however, was a Christmas joy beyond belief: sugar, butter, milk, vanilla, dates, and pecans combined, cooked, wrapped in a damp dishtowel overnight, and transformed into a small taste heaven. But I didn’t find the recipe in the box under the bed, and nobody else had the recipe.

I searched the internet for years with no success. Until today. Someone posted her great-grandma’s recipe, and it is THE ONE.

HELEN RUTH RICE LESH’S (AND SOMEONE ELSE’S GREAT-GRANDMA’S) FAVORITE DATE LOAF RECIPE

Stir together in a saucepan and cook over medium heat for about 20 minutes, until a small amount dropped into cold water forms a hard ball. Do not stir after it begins to boil.

  • 2 cups of white sugar
  • 1 cup of milk
  • 1/4 cup of butter

Remove the mixture from the heat and stir in

  • 1 cup of chopped dates
  • 1 cup of chopped pecans
  • 1 teaspoon of vanilla.

Dampen a piece of cheesecloth or a gauze dishtowel, lay it flat, and pour the candy mixture into the center. Roll the cloth around the candy to form a log. Refrigerate 8 hours. Remove the cloth, and the candy is ready to be sliced and packaged (or devoured). 

Mama would put the rolled up cloths on the outside window sill because the weather was cold and refrigerator space was always at a premium post-Thanksgiving and pre-Christmas.

Happy Holidays!

December 12, Guadalupe Day

The Virgin of Guadalupe is arguably the most popular religious and cultural icon in Mexico and throughout Latin America.  The dark-skinned Virgin is known as Queen of Mexico and Empress of the Americas. Many children, boys and girls are given the name Guadalupe (Lupe, Lupita), sometimes in combination with names of the Holy Parents, as in María Guadalupe or José Guadalupe. December 12 is a special day for everyone who is named Guadalupe, and especially for the lady whose name they share.

On December 12, 1531, Juan Diego was lost in thought as he walked across a hill near the Tepeyac Desert on the outskirts of  Tenochtitlán. He was astonished to see a beautiful young woman walking toward him. She was wearing a beautiful garment, and she seemed to appear from nowhere.

There is no record of the words the young woman said, but Juan Diego, a recent convert to Christianity, understood that she wanted him to build a chapel on that spot. Juan Diego ran to the bishop to tell him what he had seen and heard on Tepeyac Hill. The bishop was less than enthusiastic. "If this is true," he said, "bring me a sign that this is a holy vision."

Juan Diego, a bit downcast, returned to the hill, hoping that the young woman would show up again. He didn't have to wait long. There she was.

"I need a sign to show the bishop," he said.

"Pick up those roses," said the young woman. "Take them to the bishop."

("Roses?") thought Juan Diego. ("Roses don't grow here, and especially not in this cold.") But when he looked down, he saw a rose bush in full bloom.

Juan Diego was wearing a tilma, a blanket-like outer garment made of cactus cloth, so he used it as an apron to collect the roses. The beautiful dark-skinned heavenly lady arranged them with her own hands. 
He hurried back to the bishop, holding the flowers closely in his garment. When he reached the church, he released the garment to allow the miraculous roses to fall to the ground. An image of the young woman had been imprinted on the cloth.

The image, they say, is the same one that hangs today, almost five hundred years later, in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe on Tepeyac Hill, one of the world’s most visited shrines.

Although many people are devoted to the story of her miraculous appearance, The Virgin of Guadalupe has been controversial among religious  historians, including a number of noted Catholic scholars. There is no mention of the image in Church historical records until 1556. At that time, Francisco Bustamante, head of the Franciscans who had custody of the shrine, attributed the painting to native artist Marcos Cipac de Aquino.

The chapel was built on the site of a temple to Aztec mother-goddess Tonantzin, which had been destroyed by the Spanish in 1521.  Indigenous converts came to worship there, but they continued to call the Virgin Mary Tonantzin.

Montufar and the Dominicans prevailed.  The Franciscans were relieved of custody of the shrine, the church was enlarged, and the image was mounted and displayed in enhanced surroundings. 

In 1883, noted historian and biographer Joaquín García Icazbalceta, after an extensive investigation of documents for Bishop Labastida, stated his conclusion that Juan Diego, who first appeared in the historical record in a written story in 1649, never existed.

Nevertheless, Pope John Paul II beatified Juan Diego in 1990, but in a 1996 interview with the Catholic magazine Ixthus, Guillermo Schulenburg, abbot of the Basilica of Guadalupe, said that Juan Diego was “a symbol, not a reality.”

Schulenburg, who was 83 years old at the time, was forced to resign. In 2002, Juan Diego was declared Saint Juan Diego Cuahutlatoatzin.

Dia de los Muertos en Mexico

All Saints’ Day (November 1), All Souls’ Day (November 2) and the Celtic prequel of All Saints’ (Hallows’) Day, Hallowe’en (October 31) celebrate the dead and usher in the harvest throughout Christendom. All Souls’ Day, or Dia de los Muertos, has enjoyed an astonishing surge of popularity in Mexico since 2000.

There is much speculation and many a theory about the indigenous roots of the Day of the Dead in Mexico. One popular idea is that it can be traced to Aztec worship rituals for Mictecacihuatl, “Lady of the Dead,” Queen of Mictlan. According to Aztec legend, Mictecacihuatl was sacrificed as an infant and married to Miclantecuhtl, king of the underworld, which she was allowed to leave once a year to return to the world of the living. The Aztecs celebrated Mictecacihuatl’s return with death festivals and traditional dances, to honor her for her protection of the bones that created life and to seek protection for those who died.

Extravagant all-night graveyard celebrations and watches take place in many parts of Mexico, such as Patzcuaro and Oaxaca. Many families take the opportunity to remember deceased loved ones by taking flowers to their graves. Home altars or ofrendas were set up in homes where fervent Catholic faith encouraged the belief that souls might materialize to eat the Bread of the Dead and drink their favorite tequila. Nowadays, even non-believers decorate their homes with ofrendas to celebrate the season and remember loved ones. Public altars for celebrities or beloved figures in a business or school are now seen often. They are a way of keeping this tradition alive.

One reason for the surge in popularity of the Dia de los Muertos is UNESCO’s 2008 inclusion of the Mexican Day of the Dead in the “Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity,” and in part because of the profit potential of transforming traditional practices into pop culture through modern advertising. Flowers for gravesites, food and beverage for dead and living, sugar skulls, and decorative cut paper are sold widely during the season, but there has been a recent proliferation of goods and services: manufactured costumes, professional Catrina face-painters, party venues, and knick-knacks manufactured in China. The 2017 Disney/Pixar film Coco increased international awareness of the festivities, romanticizing them with nostalgic stereotypes of Mexican life and culture.

There is another reason, a more sinister one, for the upsurge in the popularity of the Day of the Dead: a surprising increase since 2001 in the number of adherents to a leaderless cult, the worship of Santa Muerte. La Santa Muerte is a female deity of sorts, evolved from much older images of the Grim Reaper with a touch of various versions of the Virgin Mary. The skeleton image was enhanced by lithographist Jose Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913), whose creepily playful late nineteenth and early twentieth-century drawings in turn inspired the elegantly dressed skeleton, known as a “Catrina,” among the crowd in Diego Rivera’s 1946-47 mural, Sunday Afternoon Dream in the Alameda.

Although the faithful in this cult represent a cross-section of Mexican society, it has become especially popular among drug dealers and other delinquents, who, with a mix of Catholic ritual and magic formula, request her blessing in life’s trials and tribulations as well as in their dubious enterprises. Many cultists consider themselves devout Christians, but Catholic hierarchy deeply disapproves of the cult.

On the positive side, keeping memories alive and reconciling the natural fear of death with acceptance of its inevitability, a celebration of the lives that make every death meaningful, and a touch of humor, music, and partying make life and death more bearable.

Sources

Reyes Ruiz, Claudia, Historia y actualidad del culto a la Santa Muerte

José Guadalupe Posada: Skulls, Skeletons and Macabre Mischief

The Aztec Origins of Día de Los Muertos

Evolution of All Hallows’ E’en

In 601 A.D. Pope Gregory the First decreed that Christian missionaries should not attempt obliterate potential converts’ native beliefs and customs, but rather consecrate their sacred rituals to Christ, allowing them to continue their practices with a veneer of Christian worship. Theologians and religionists are still arguing about whether this was such a good idea, but there can be little doubt that the resulting mosaic of belief fragments is fascinating to see, and of all the holidays in modern Western cultures, Hallowe’en is probably the one that reveals the most about our ancient spiritual roots.

Natural cycles of life and death, light and darkness, warmth and cold, planting and harvest, are underlying themes of all religions. Hallowe’en, as it is celebrated in the United States of America, brings together ancient Celtic harvest feasts, invocations of the spirits of dead loved ones, and Christian remembrance of souls who have passed through this world and on to the realms of eternal reward or punishment.

Samhain was a Gaelic festival that marked the approach of winter. Cattle were brought in from summer pastures, and some were butchered to provide food for the barren winter. Bonfires were built to protect and cleanse the atmosphere and to hold back the dark of the coming months. Samhain was a time when spirits could more easily penetrate the veil between the living and the dead.

Bountiful harvests were enjoyed and celebrated with feasts, and attempts were made to communicate with the deceased who, it was held, came closer at this time of year. Places were set at tables to welcome them home, and unpredictable spirits and fairies were offered food and drink to ensure health and fortune for the living family.

In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III designated November 1 as the day to honor all the saints, or All Hallows’ Day. In 1000 AD, November 2 was set aside as All Souls’ Day to remember all the dead.

Traditions and rituals from many cultures, along with commercial innovations have accumulated through the centuries to characterize the many ways the holiday is celebrated today. Living people, especially children, in costumes act out the visitation of spirits and disembodied souls for a few hours, some of them with earthbound grudges and unresolved conflicts. Jack-o-lanterns and bonfires create light against the gathering and terrifying darkness. There are many origin stories to explain the incorporation of sweets, treats, and mischief into the holiday, but my guess would be that they persist because people enjoy an excuse for having some fun.

My First Year in Mexico

“Aren’t you scared?” Alfonso, my new brother-in-law, asked as we concluded a family visit near the Texas border before my husband and I headed for the city with the strange-sounding name: Guadalajara.  Of all the things I had felt as I left Texas to move to another country, scared was not one of them.

The drive was long, but I was overjoyed to be in the interior of Mexico at last.  A twelve-week college missions trip in Juarez, barely across the Texas border, with a weekend side trip to Chihuahua, had made me want to see more. We stopped in Monterrey, where I met my husband’s Tia Chucha, then we drove on to San Luis Potosi, where we stopped for the night. I’m not sure that I clapped my hands like a child when we finally saw the lights of Guadalajara in the distance, but I was that excited.

Some friends who had already been there for a year invited us to stay at their house while we looked for an apartment, but we didn’t get their letter with the address of their neighbor who would give us the key. We knocked on the door of the house across the street to ask if perhaps they were the designated keepers of the key. They weren’t, but they insisted that we stay with them, and for a week we had a bedroom, breakfast and dinner with that generous family.

We found a place to live–a furnished third-floor apartment and took care of business at the medical school and the American School of Guadalajara, where I had been hired to teach sixth grade. The apartment was cool and comfortable, but it was too pricey for our budget, so we moved down the street to more affordable old-fashioned suites. Bathroom and kitchen were decorated with beautiful blue tiles, and the yard had full-grown banana trees.

In February, we heard there was a vacancy in an apartment building on Morelos Street.  The apartment was unfurnished, so it was less expensive than ours, just 600 pesos or 48 US dollars, and it was bigger, with three bedrooms, an open patio for washing and hanging clothes, and a maid’s room with its own tiny bathroom.  We moved in with a formica table, plastic-covered chairs, and a bed, gradually acquiring other pieces of furniture as we were able to pay for them. We found a woman to come clean the apartment once a week. When our first son was born, she came to work for us full time. Esperanza stayed with us through four more houses and fifteen years.

Teaching sixth-graders at the American School of Guadalajara was a challenge.  I had to master the science and math lessons just ahead of the students, since I was prepared to teach English and journalism.  The students spent half a day in an all-English self-contained classroom and the other half in all-Spanish.  I had two groups of all-English.

The school was a two-story cinderblock building around a large open courtyard with open-air hallways facing the courtyard.  Behind the buildings was an open yard with a soccer field, a volleyball court, and basketball hoops.  The office and library were near the entrance.  A teacher’s lounge, bookstore, and snack bar were located in the classroom building.

The students wore uniforms–dark blue pants and pinstriped shirts for the boys, pinstriped shirtwaist dresses for the girls, navy cardigans for all.  They were well-behaved.  Monday mornings students, teachers, and staff gathered in the courtyard to salute the U.S. and Mexican flags, carried proudly by as they were paraded by a color guard, chosen for their good grades and excellent citizenship..  They stood up when teachers entered the classroom, and they said “Thank you, Miss!” when they were dismissed. There was a break between the English-Spanish switch, and “lonches” (sandwiches made with a bolillo (French bread) split in half and filled with ham, lettuce, and jalapeno chiles) were available at the snack bar, along with other treats.  There was no formal lunch hour, since the students were out in time to go home for traditional mid-day meal around three o’clock.

Edna Mardus was the librarian. She was usually surrounded by kids, whom she knew well enough to make tailor-made recommendations of books she thought they would like.  My school librarians had always seemed to be in charge of protecting the books from our grubby hands!  In the teacher’s lounge, Edna had book recommendations for teachers too, and she always had interesting stories of her own to tell. So did her husband, Fred, who taught math, physics, and chemistry. Fred and his identical mirror-image twin were born in South America on February 28, 1904, to Hungarian parents.  He loved to tell what the one-in-a-bazillion odds were of someone like him and his twin brother being born.  In 1968, the whole school celebrated Fred Mardus’s 16th (64th) birthday.  The well-traveled Marduses were gifted storytellers.

They were the first of many people with amazing stories that I met during my years in Guadalajara.

Guadalajara, Guadalajara (song)

Different styles, one song–a tribute to the fragrance of Guadalajara’s rain-soaked earth and early morning roses, to the nearby places–Lake Chapala, Tlaquepaque, and Zapopan, where we couldn’t go sometimes because of the rain from the hills, to potters and mariachis and beautiful women wrapping their shawls around themselves. Guadalajara, the most Mexican of places.

Composed by Pepe Guizar in 1937

Guadalajara, Guadalajara,
Guadalajara, Guadalajara…

Tienes el alma de provinciana
hueles a limpia rosa temprana,
a verde jara fresca del rio,
son mil palomas tu caserio,

Guadalajara, Guadalajara
hueles a pura tierra mojada.

Ay ay ay ay! Colomito Lejano…
Ay! Ojitos de agua hermanos,

Ay! Colomitos inolvidables,
inolvidables como las tardes
en que la lluvia desde la loma
no nos dejaba ir a Zapopan.

Ay ay ay ay! Tlaquepaque Pueblito…

Tus olorosos jarritos
hacen mas fresco el dulce tepache
junto a la birria con el mariachi
que en los parianes y alfarerias
suena con triste melancolia.

Ay ay ay ay! Laguna de Chapala…

Tienes de un cuento la magia,
Cuento de ocasos y de alborada
s de enamoradas noches lunadas,
quieta, Chapala, es tu laguna,
novia romántica como ninguna.

Ay ay ay ay! Zapopitan del alma,
nunca escuché otras campanas
como las graves de tu convento,
donde se alivian mis sufrimientos

Triste Zapopan,
misal abierto donde son frailes mis sentimientos.

Ay ay ay ay! Guadalajara Hermosa…
Quiero decirte una cosa:

Tu que conservas agua del pozo
y en tus mujeres el fiel rebozo,

Guadalajara, Guadalajara
tienes el alma mas mexicana..

Ay ay ay! Ay ay ay! Ay ay ay! Ay ay ay!

Guadalajara… Guadalajara.

Progenitors of La Raza

The conquest and fall of Mesoamerican civilizations, celebrated by some, lamented by many, gave rise to a new race, la raza, the mestizo. The patriarch of this new race is Spaniard Don Hernán Cortés Monroy Pizarro Altamirano. The mother is a Nahua slave, first called Malinalli, later baptized Marina by the Spanish when they received her among a group of twenty female slaves. She had first been given to Alonso Hernández Portocarrero, but when he was called to return to Spain, Hernán Cortés took her as his slave, Nahuátl-Mayan interpreter, and lover. Their son, Martín Cortés, considered one of the first mestizos, was born in 1522. In addition to interpreter and lover, Malinalli eventually became war councilor, diplomat, and spy for Cortés .

Malinalli is known in history as Malintzín, Malinche, or Doña Marina. She was still a child when her life took an unfortunate turn as her father, a cacique of some influence, died, and her mother remarried and soon gave birth to a son. In order to establish that son as ruler, her mother sold Malinalli as a slave, and she eventually came to be owned by a Mayan ruler in the Tabasco region, where she learned the Mayan language. Her native language was Nahuátl. The concession of the twenty slave girls was made when the Spaniards defeated the Tabascans at the Battle of Centla.

Malinalli eventually learned Spanish, but she began her work as Cortés´s interpreter even before she had mastered his language, with the help of a shipwrecked Spaniard, Jeronimo de Aguilar, who had been held in captivity by Mayans and was rescued by Cortés in Cozumel. Malinalli translated from Nahuátl to Mayan, and de Aguilar translated from Mayan to Spanish. There is considerable evidence that Malinalli was much more than a simple translator and concubine for Cortés. The soldier and historian Bernal Diaz del Castillo called her a great woman. Indigenous drawings of the time seldom show Hernán Cortés without Doña Marina by his side, and she is even portrayed alone, directing events without him.

While much appreciated by the Spaniards, she has been maligned as a traitor to her own people, and even today, a person who reveres foreign cultures, goods, and people, is called in derision a “Malinchista.”Whether a hero, a traitor, or simply a victim of circumstances, this Mother of the Mestizo Race was surely a very intelligent woman whose strength and independent spirit were far ahead of her time and circumstances.


(PHOTOS: Malinche, Hernán Cortés Monroy Pizarro Altamirano, Martin Cortes, their son, the first known mestizo.)

Beyond Burritos and Margaritas: Mexican Foods You May Not Have Met Yet

Tortillas, beans, rice, and chiles are staples in Mexican households and Mexican restaurants all over the world, including Mexico, but Mexicans enjoy many exotic foods that you may not have heard about. Here are a few of them.

Pitaya

A deliciously sour-sweet watery and nutritious cactus fruit.

Guanabana

Smells like pineapple, tastes like strawberries and apple with a touch of citrus, with a creamy texture, like coconut or banana, and generous amounts of Vitamins B and C.

Huitlacoche

A delicious and nutritious edible “disease,” huitlacoche, the fungus known in English as corn smut, can bring a higher price than the corn on which it grows. Raw or roasted, it makes delicious tacos, quesadallas, enhiladas, and other delicacies.

Flor de Calabaza

This beautiful flower can be cooked or eaten raw, made into poppers, or used as an ingredient in vegetarian pozole.

Nopal y Tuna

It may look like something to avoid, but this is a feast in the desert. The tunas (cactus pears) taste as sweet as jam when they are ripe, and they can be found in an explosion of different bright colors. The leaves, known as nopales in the mercado, are a rich source of protein an fiber. They can be scraped, chopped, seasoned, sauteed, and enjoyed in a variety of dishes.

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