Saturday, August 28, 2010

Food: Passionate About Pitahaya

It's pitahaya season. Being a northerner I hadn't been aware of this fruit, also known in English as dragon fruit, until I moved to Yucatán. When I first saw a pile of red and green, splotchy, fairly unappetizing looking pitahaya in a small Mérida restaurant I was not tempted. However when eventually I took a sip of agua de pitahaya I was hooked on this wonderful fruit.

Mmmmmm. Just the thought of taking a long drink of sweet, cooling pitahaya juice on a hot summer afternoon makes my mouth water. It's delicate, subtly sweet, and as it is often served, mixed with a few drops of lemon juice and poured over ice, it is a truly native Yucatecan refreshment.

Pitahaya is a member of the cactus family, and grows over rocks, walls, and on large shrubs and trees. There are three varieties, red, yellow and pink. Pink seems to be the variety most seen around Yucatán. The plant can extend along the ground, but continually sends shoots upward in search of support and sunlight. A stem that encounters a solid vertical object promptly sprouts clinging roots and grows upward. In my yard pitahaya grows up the stone walls, as seen above, and also has climbed and entwined itself with a large nopal cactus plant.

Propagating pitahaya is easy. A section broken off and set on the ground will send out new roots and branches. If the plant finds support and plenty of sunlight, it will begin to flower and produce fruit within a couple of years. I planted some sprigs of pitahaya about three years ago and it first flowered last year. Pitahaya usually produces from June through August. This year I have had lots of fruit and the plants are still flowering in late August, so I can expect to enjoy pitahaya through September.

A pitahaya flower is large, measuring at least as broad across as my hand open with fingers widely spread. It also is very short-lived, blooming one evening, reaching full splendor overnight, and beginning to wilt as the morning sun warms the air. White pitahaya flowers set aglow by a full moon are a fantastic midnight sight. Bats are the primary pollinators, although in the morning as the petals fade, bees also can be seen getting their fill.

Timing is extremely critical. If it rains during the critical flowering and early fruit-forming stage, the fruit will rot. As pitahaya begins to mature, it is a favorite food of insects and various birds, which make small holes order to eat the interior portions of the fruit. Once perforated, the fruit begins to spoil.

When mature, pitahaya is picked promptly and can be peeled or cut in half and the heart scooped out. I love it chilled as part of a fruit salad, but my favorite way to enjoy pitahaya is as a drink. The heart of one fruit is mashed (not blended) in a glass of water. A little sugar and lemon juice are added. Agua de pitahaya is a chunky concoction which is both sipped and chewed,

and for this reason is usually served with a straw and a long spoon. The seeds add texture and crunch in much the way poppy seeds do to breads or muffins. I also have heard that pitahaya can be cooked and used in a variety of dishes. I have yet to try this, but am looking for recipes.

Reportedly pitahaya is high in phosphorus, Vitamin C, iron and calcium, and the fats contained in the seeds aid in digestion.

Pitahaya is a tasty and healthy delicacy available in the gardens and markets of Yucatán this time of year. It is an unusual plant, one that is interesting to observe in the garden and a treat to consume during the summer growing season. I love this fruit. I would be missing a great pleasure still had I not overcome my initial reluctance to try it.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Crafts: The Dollmaker

One sunny, comfortable July afternoon about eight years ago I was helping my friend Katharine Collins shoot a video segment for a documentary about the Otomí culture in San Ildefonso Tultepéc, in Mexico's Querétaro state. That day I met the subject of our interview, an Otomí woman I know only as Doña Isidra. I have been stopping by to visit her from time to time ever since.

I suspect that Isidra could be at least 80 years old, but it is hard to tell, as is often the case with old people who live in the country, have worked hard since childhood, and remain energetic into their seventh, eighth or ninth decades of life. It is trite to say that the face of an old person, especially an indigenous one, is leathery and lined, but that's the best way to describe Isidra. Her hair remains startlingly black. Her colorful traditional Otomí clothing and stylized hair braids exactly match those of the cloth-faced straw dolls she carefully makes and sells to help support her family.

A few weeks ago on a day identical to the one on which I first met Doña Isidra, I was in her neighborhood with a couple of friends who are interested in traditional handicrafts, and decided to drop in for a visit. We were in luck; she was home. After saying hello I commented to Isidra that she had been so busy the past couple of summers that I had missed her when I stopped by. She chuckled, yes, she'd been busy, and usually goes to Mexico City in July, participating in the annual pilgrimage to La Basílica de Guadalupe there each summer. That means that this diminutive elderly woman throws a bedroll and a few other things in a bag or wraps them in her shawl (I somehow don't see her wearing a backpack) and as an act of religious devotion goes out of the door of her rural house and walks from there somewhat more than 100 kilometers, or more than 70 miles, to attend mass.

Around here, such a walk is not a big deal. During the month of July, thousands of pilgrims, or peregrinos, pass through San Ildefonso on their way to Mexico City on the same mission. Isidra simply waits until a group of women pilgrims comes along on the highway near her house, and joins in. Life in the hilly, rugged countryside where she has lived all her life, has kept Isidra in training.

We told Isidra that we were interested in buying dolls and embroidery, and she brought out a couple bags of work. The embroidered designs, which feature stylized flowers, maguey plants and birds, have been handed down by the Otomí through the generations. The embroidery is used on the women's own clothing, and on clothing, napkins, tablecloths and other handmade items that are made for sale.

As we selected embroidered napkins, servilletas, and dolls for possible purchase, I asked Isidra how much she was charging for the dolls these days. She looked off in the distance and talked for awhile about how prices for materials had gone up, and I prepared myself for a huge price jump, when she quoted a price of thirty pesos each, which is less that two and half U.S. dollars at the time of this writing. I believe that when I first purchased some dolls from Isidra eight years ago, the price was twenty pesos each. Considering the time that has passed and the fact that prices of everything have gone up, the dolls are still a fabulous deal. We bought the four dolls she had, and a few embroidered servilletas.

I asked Isidra if I could take a picture of her with the dolls I had just purchased. As she composed herself, her faint smile changed into a formal, serious line, and she
squinted a bit in the bright sun. I was impressed by how much the dolls resembled their maker. Nowadays these same types of dolls often are seen in the city with round cheeks, bright plastic eyes and happy V-shaped smiles applied to their faces, the traditional design made "cute," an apparent marketing ploy, better to appeal to tourists. But Isidra's dolls are the real thing. Just like their maker.

For more information on the documentary "More Than Dolls," by Katharine Collins, visit this web site:

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Nature: Close Up

I haven't posted much recently because I've been traveling and had quite a bit of work. I got home early last week and was submerged in piles of details for a few days, but on Friday I got away and spent some time in the country. The "excuse" was to get some potting soil and incidentally to explore a highway I'd never been on. After more than three weeks living out of a suitcase, teaching summer school to adolescents and spending a lot of time in airports, bus terminals and cities, I needed some quiet time.

After buying an icy refresco in a small pueblo about 40 minutes south of Mérida, we pulled onto a side road that runs a long distance through fields and trees where I was assured no one would care if I filled a few bags and buckets with the rich red soil found there. Working close to the earth, digging, and sorting out rocks and roots with your hands you end up noticing things that otherwise you wouldn't. The rivulets of sweat that I couldn't wipe from my eyes because my hands were too dirty did not keep me from spying this iridescent blue-green beetle about the size of a walnut scurrying away from the shovel. It must have been under some leaves we disturbed with the pick axe. After detaining it long enough on a stick to take its picture, I let it go.

The next resident found under the leaf litter was this fat caterpillar, in its curled position looking a lot like a prehistoric Ammonite shell fossil, and just as still as one. No matter what I did to prompt it to move so I could see the motion of its many centipede-like legs, it showed no signs of life. We left it where it lay and replaced the protective blanket of leaves that we had disturbed.

Digging through leaf litter we found a lot of scorpions, alacranes in Mexican Spanish. It looked as if eggs had just hatched. There were many small scorpions such as this one, posing next to the tip of my pencil. I don't believe I have ever seen another this tiny. Small as it was, I did not touch it, assuming that although tiny, its venom still packs a punch. I did not want to test the theory.

A nearby tree was the next thing to catch my attention. The peeling bark of this tree sloughs off in large sheets, leaving fresh light-colored new bark beneath. As the newly-revealed bark ages it turns green in patterns created by the stencils of the fallen bark, then slowly assumes the rough reddish-gray color seen here. Then it, too, dries, separates, and falls in large curling pieces to leave new white under bark exposed to the air and light, beginning the process once again.

Once I started looking at the trees I saw this butterfly, at first with its wings folded and exposing only the dull gray undersides, which blended well with the tree bark. Suddenly it began to open and close its wings, flashing me with these bright neon-blue stripes. From a distance this movement contrasted against the shaded dark side of the tree really does resemble a light being switched quickly on and off. The butterfly did not seem disturbed by my presence. I was able to approach closely and take my pictures without startling it.

I often have the opportunity to observe tourists and it seems that they are normally drawn to in-the-face spectacular, big things, like pyramids and breathtaking ruins, the architecture of historic Mérida, long white beaches, red sunsets, and contrived, garish, over-the-top attractions like Las Vegas and theme parks. One of the nicest aspects of living in Yucatán is that, along with treasures like Chichen Itza, the coast, beautiful cenotes and lovely colonial towns, there is a never-ending wealth of smaller attractions awaiting discovery, not quite so obvious, but just as rewarding.