Friday, April 30, 2010

Arroz Poblano - A "Cinco de Mayo" Recipe

Civil War reenactments reminds me a lot of "Cinco de Mayo". Why? Well, both commemorate battles. While some participate with great fervor others couldn't really care less. In the Mexican state of Puebla the celebration is relevant, since that was the location for the memorable battle the holiday commemorates. It was an important turning point in Mexico's history, a Mexican Gettysburg of sorts. South of the border this holiday is known as La Conmemoración de la Batalla de Puebla and it is really a minor holiday. The name doesn't necessarily rolls of the tongue, does it? Maybe that is the reason "Cinco de Mayo" (the date of the battle) has become the popular name for this holiday.

There are many other reasons why "Cinco de Mayo" is more popular in the United States than in Mexico. One of the reasons was the promotion of this holiday by South West authorities after the Mexican Cession of 1848. It was a way to "boost" the moral of the Mexican population now living in US territory but it was also a way of steering new citizens away from any nationalistic sentiment associated with Mexican independence, celebrated the 16th of September. To this day some folks in the South West still get nervous any time a Mexican flag is waved in US territory. The State and city of Puebla however, are more interesting than just one battle.

Puebla has amazing gastronomy, the mixture of Indigenous and European influences. The culinary delights of the city of Puebla are far from tacky "Mexican" restaurants, frat boys wearing sombreros and clever marketing inviting people to drink. In honor of this city I present you Arroz Poblano, a classic recipe from Puebla. The roasted Poblanos give this rice a nice bite that is actually quite tolerable, even by those not fond of spicy foods. Traditionally prepared with sour cream, cheese and chicken stock, this version of Arroz Poblano uses no animal products. It is by no means any less delicious. To prepare it, you'll need the following ingredients:

  • One cup of long grain rice
  • Two cups of vegetable broth
  • One fresh ear of corn
  • One roasted poblano chile, prepared as you would for rajas con papas
  • One green onion or scallion, including the green part
  • A tablespoon of roasted garlic
  • A bunch or cilantro
  • A tablespoon of olive oil
  • salt and pepper to taste

Optional garnish
  • A teaspoon of Better than Sour Cream by Tofutti
  • A few drops of lemon
  • Chopped cilantro or parsley
  • Extra poblano slivers and corn kernels

Start by roasting and slivering a Poblano pepper as instructed in the recipe rajas con papas. De grain the corn using a sharp knife. Place a cutting board under the corn to catch all the kernels and save for later. Using a knife, scrape the corn husk in a sauce pan as shown in the picture.

Boil the corn husk and corn scrapings, together with the onion, cilantro, broth and half of the roasted pepper. Boil for about 10 minutes until everything is soft.

Remove the corn husk and discard. Puree everything else in a blender. If necessary add more liquid in order to obtain two cups of broth. Strain the flavored broth and save for later, try to keep it warm.

Fry the rice in the olive oil at low heat. Use a large sauce pan that has a good, tight fitting lid. Stir the rice continuously until it starts turning a nice golden brown. Pay attention the the way the rice smells, before it is done it will start to smell nice and toasty - but don't over fry it or it will turn bitter. Turn the heat off and let the rice cool a little bit. Add a tablespoon of roasted garlic.

If your flavoring broth is cold, heat it up. Add two cups of the warm broth to the sauce pan. Stir in the pepper slivers and the corn, and salt and pepper to taste. Turn the heat back up until everything starts to bubble. Don't stir too much once you add liquid, or the rice will break. Add a spring of cilantro and cover. Turn the heat down. Simmer for twenty minutes using a very gentle flame. Make sure you don't lift the lid or you'll let the steam escape and your rice will be chewy.

After twenty minutes check to see if the rice is done. Take a spoon full of rice from the very top of the sauce pan and check if the grains are soft. If the rice is still hard add a bit more liquid, cover, and steam for another 5 more minutes. I the rice is done you can fluff it with a fork, but don't stir it too much or it will get mushy.

Before serving you can add a bit of sour cream and cheese. This recipe uses no animal products, so I use a bit of Better than Sour Cream by Tofutti that has been thinned a bit with a few drops of lemon juice.
Serve your rice and garnish it with a little bit of chopped cilantro or parsley, and extra peppers and corn if you wish. Enjoy! Feliz Conmemoración de la Batalla de Puebla!

The illustrations at the beginning of the recipe are from a painting titled "La Venta" by Primitivo Miranda. Via the Women of the Independence and Revolutionary Wars of Mexico.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

La Doña Maria Felix - An Inspiring Muse

After surviving tragedy and heart break, "Doña Bárbara" (Madame Barbara) becomes a cold-hearted, rich land owner and cattle trader that dabbles in witchcraft. She wears the pants, and also carries a whip and a gun. The cigar smoking diva is not afraid to crush her enemies under her boot. Is she capable of ever falling in love? After portraying this character, Mexican actress Maria Felix was forever nicknamed "La Doña", becoming a diva of legend that inspired many artists for years to come. This post is about the artwork La Doña inspired, and her legacy in the worlds of fashion, music and literature.

Queen Maria
April the eight was Maria's birthday. She was born in Sonora, during the tempestuous time of the Mexican revolution in 1914. As a young student, she was named queen of her school's carnival. That gesture made her reflect on the merits of beauty "beauty is something somebody else has to bestow upon you". Many awards and recognition would follow. Maria was an adventuress, humanitarian and actress. She was better known for her roles in the Mexican Golden Age of Film, during the 1940's to the 1950's. With an eyebrow perpetually raised she portrayed the roles of strong willed women in movies with titles as fiery as her personality: "Juana Gallo" (Rooster Joanne), Doña Diabla (Lady Devil) and "La Mujer sin Alma" (The Woman without a Soul). Maria had a second wave of films and television appearances, well into the 1970's.

Maria also worked in Spain, France, Italy and Mexico with directors like Luis Buñuel, Jean Renoir, Yves Ciampi, Carmine Gallone and Luis Saslavsky. Some sources cite her her inability to speak English as a reason for not crossing over to American audiences. Maria, however, remembered her visits to New York with affection. School girls would stop her to ask for her autograph. "You look like someone important" the young students answered, when Maria questioned their reasons. Once, at the Metropolitan Opera a complete stranger approached her. "What you are wearing is stunning. But only a woman like you can wear it", the stranger said. Maria actually knew enough English to get by. She also spoke French, and Italian, along with her native Spanish. She never worked in the US out of conviction. The reason for her dissatisfaction with the Hollywood film industry were the stereotypical roles often offered to her. "Do you really think I could pass as a Cherokee Indian? In my country I can play the role of an Indian. In foreign lands I play the role of a queen" "I was not born to carry a basket" La Doña would say.

Muse of Music and Literature
Maria's love affairs and marriages caused as much controversy and scandal as the roles she played. She married four times. When she married fellow actor Jorge Negrete, the most famous actor in Mexico at the time, she caused a media frenzy. Tragically, he died of hepatitis, while Maria was in Europe filming a movie. She lost her famous husband just 14 months after their wedding. She also caused a commotion when she married composer Agustin Lara. Lara was not a handsome man, his face was forever scarred by a night club browl, yet Maria was madly in love with him. He dedicated several love songs to her, among them were:"Humo en los Ojos" (Smoke in Your Eyes), the hypnotic "Palabras de Mujer" (A Woman's Words), the lively "El Chotiz de Madrid", and the most famous one, "Maria Bonita", a waltz that became Maria's theme song of sorts. The melody was played for Maria with violins every time she entered Maxim's, her favorite restaurant in Paris.

Maria had many literary friends in France, among them were Paul Sartre and Colette. In Mexico authors like Octavio Paz (winner of the 1990 Nobel Prize for Literature), Carlos Fuentes, Carlos Monsivais, Elena Poniatowska and the poet Pita Amor also wrote about her. Henry Burdin's book "La Mexicaine" was based in Maria's life.

Couture, canvas and alligator scales
Mexican muralist Diego Rivera created the above painting for Maria. "Muy Malo" was not the original name given to the painting by The Maestro, but it does reflect the feelings of Maria for the portrait - "It is very bad". It is rumored that Maria had a handy man retouch the artwork with ordinary house paint in order to cover up her figure. The sketch below, also by Rivera was a study for the movie "Rio Escondido". Maria also patronized Diego's famous wife Frida Kahlo. In am interview Maria admitted purchasing Kahlo's paintings in order to support the artist and her growing medical bills, but she never cared much for Frida's paintings.

Maria Felix was voted one of the best dressed women of her time by Italian and French couture associations. She kept Isabel Barrera, a petite cosmetologist nicknamed "La Topolina" on staff full time. Isabel's job was to glue each individual eyelash on La Doña, long before fake eyelashes were available. "Fake eyelashes were my idea" Maria writes in her biography. Maria lived in Paris at the end of her film career. She was a skilled equestrian that owned a stable of 100 racing horses inherited to her by Alex Berger, a Swiss Banker and Maria's fourth husband. Even during her later years, she would cause a commotion with her beauty and outlandish outfits at the races.

These are some of Maria's dresses, designed by Dior, Balenciaga and Hermes, photographed at Christie's in New York City.

Here is a white Dior dress that shows how slim Maria was. An admirer once gave her a highly decorated clergy robe. Instead of displaying it, Maria wore it as a skirt. "My waist is smaller than a priest's neck" she said. She also collected antique Chinese costumes, furs and vintage textiles. The painting on the background is "La Maja del Tarot", created by surrealist painter Leonora Carrington. It portrays Maria as a Tarot card, possibly the Priestess or the Empress.

Here is another painting by Carrington, a triptych titled "Sueño de Sirenas" (Mermaid Dream). In the painting the artist depicts Maria as three mermaids. The artist would say that the mermaids were ebony, mother of pearl and fire - all had symbolic meaning. In a way, the portrait had captured La Doña's complex personality, and it was one of her favorite paintings.

Mexican painter Chávez Marión created for Maria "My Zodiac Sign" as well as "Simbolo de Pesos". French-Argentinian painter Leonor Fini created for her the paintings titled "Detras de la Puerta" (Behind de Door), and "Reina de Fuego" (Fire Queen). Stanislao Leprin created a couple of paintings for her, among them "Mujer Pajaro" (Bird Woman). Bridget Tichenor collaborated with one of Maria's lovers, Franco-Russian artist Antoine Tzapoff to create "Domadora de Chimeras" (Chimera Tamer) and "Caja de Cristal" (Crystal Box), pictured below.

La Doña also loved jewelry. She favored designs that depicted snakes and other reptiles. One of her most impressive pieces was designed by Cartier Paris, in the shape of an articulated snake. The piece of platinum and white gold was encrusted with178.21 carats of brilliant diamonds. Legend states that she walked into Cartier carrying a baby crocodile inside a jar, as a sample for her next commission. She asked the stunned jewelers to replicate her pet (in the same scale) using gold and jewels. "I advice you do it quickly. He is growing fast" she instructed. Here is the necklace created for La Doña.

This piece was also perfectly articulated. The twin crocodiles could be worn separately, as pins, or together, as a necklace. One of the crocodiles was covered with 1,023 yellow diamonds, the other was decorated with 1,060 green emeralds. Since La Dona's death, these pieces have traveled the world as part of "The Art of Cartier" collection. In 2006 Cartier debuted a collection called "La Dona de Cartier" in honor of Maria Felix. No other actress has received such tribute from the house of Cartier. Here is a portrait of Maria, wearing the legendary necklace.

Maria was said to have refused Nefertiti's crown, promised by Egypt's King Farouk, for a night of love. Maria refused the king by saying "I would rather sleep with your servant out of my own free will. At least I find him attractive". Here is a necklace with a portrait by Antoine Tzapoff. Below is also a portrait of Maria titled "Amazona". It was framed in hand tooled silver, and was adorned with butterflies. The painting with Maria's simian friend is also by Tzapoff.

Maria absolutely adored Jacob Petit porcelain, she had an extensive collection and during her life she was almost giddy every time she talked about it. In this portrait, also by Maestro Tzapoff, she is seen with two of her beloved Jacob Petit porcelain urns.

Love makes you trade pearls, for a rebozo.
Maria died on 2002. She was buried at "El Panteon Frances" in Mexico City, with the remains of her parents and son Enrique, also an actor. When I was very young I was fortunate to see her son Enrique in the dark comedy "Dracula" based in Bram Stoker's work and on Ed Gorey's illustrations, and "Man of La Mancha". Even then I could tell that Mr. Felix had inherited some of his mother's elegance and talent. At 8 years old I also recognized something different about him, and I identified with that difference. Enrique Alvarez Felix died of a heart attack in 1996, leaving Maria heart broken and without a direct heir to her fortune. These mother and son photos were taken for Life magazine.

Maria died on her birthday, she was 88 years old. Sheila Whitaker wrote and obituary for the British paper The Guardian. She called Maria "the incarnation of the strong, sexual woman, who would, nevertheless, be tamed by machismo before the end of the movie." Whitaker referenced "The Taming of The Shrew" and the film Enamorada, that loosely followed the plot of Shakespeare's play. "As with Shakespeare, in the end, the heroine is tamed and nationhood re-enforced" writes Whitaker, not fully understanding the complexity of Maria Felix and the roles she played. The tamer of chimeras had also tamed Mexican audiences, and maybe the taming was mutual. French author Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote it best, in his book "The Little Prince". "If you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world..."

Here is a spoiler alert, for those that haven not seen the film, Enamorada. At the end of the movie Beatriz Peñafiel (Maria Felix), the rich Hacendado's daughter, is getting married to a foreigner she doesn't love. Rebels evacuate the town's plaza, to go fight for La Revolucion, commanded by the dashing General Jose Juan Reyes (masterfully played by Pedro Armendáriz). Earlier El General gives up the love of Beatriz by symbolically releasing her fiance, who was carrying her wedding dress in a suitcase. "Some times, it is wise to not fight" he says. Upon hearing the cannon fire from the approaching Federales Beatriz has an epiphany. Her string of pearls snaps, a wedding gift from her fiance. She runs out of the ceremony, wrapping herself in her maid's humble rebozo. Outside, her eyes meet those of Jose Juan. The black and white photography and close ups of their faces are stunning. Among explosions and gunfire Beatriz catches up with El General, while a revolutionary march plays on. They walk side side by side, he is on a horse, she is on foot. She is by no means a defeated woman. After looking at each other, they both stare into the horizon, proud and hopeful. She had left a life of riches and luxury for the love of a man, and the love of an ideal. She had done it out of her own choosing. "Love does not consist of gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction" Saint-Exupery also wrote. Would this revolution benefit men and women alike? Some times we have to take chances, love being the riskiest chance of them all. At least that was my take when I saw the film, many years ago.

The Legacy
Maria's extravagant, flamboyant style still intrigues people, even after her death. Actress Eva Longoria has expressed a desire to portray Maria on film. Frankly, I think her type of beauty is very different than Maria's. A better choice to play Maria would be someone like Brazilian actress Morena Baccarin. This is a photo of Polish model Daria Werbowy styled to look like Maria Felix, as the seminal character "Doña Barbara".

Maria had expressed a wish to have her beloved "La Casa de las Tortugas" (The House of Turtles) in Cuernavaca become a museum, where all her treasures would be housed for the enjoyment of her fans. Another request was for her makeup girl, La Topolina: "Barrera, make sure that when I'm dead, you put my eyelashes on, as you always have". Sadly, Isabel was not allowed to see La Doña's body the day of her death.

Antoine Tzapoff and Maria Felix,
at La Casa de Las Tortugas,
© De Gyves & Allen Productions

Scandal continued to follow La Doña, even after her death. 28 year old Luis Martinez de Anda, Maria's personal assistant inherited her belongings and half of her money. Antoine Tzapoff inherited Maria's silver Rolls Royce and Diego Rivera's paintings. Son Enrique's former assistant, Juan Tellez was also a beneficiary. Benjamin Felix, Maria's brother had Mexican authorities exhumate his sister's body on August of the same year, under suspicion of foul play. Upon laboratory analysis, it was reported that Maria Felix had died of natural causes. Several lots of her belongings were auctioned at Christie's in 2007, spreading Maria's treasures to the four corners of the world. Maria's other wish remains unfulfilled.

American writer Luisa May Alcott once said "It takes very little fire to make a great deal of smoke nowadays, and notoriety is not real glory." Today the media bombards us constantly and without pity. Selfish starlets and politicians noisily splash about in the pool of fame just famous for being famous. Even the mediocre can have fifteen minutes of screen time. So, who cares if Maria never worked in the US? What if we don't have a museum in Cuernavaca? Maria Felix is alive. She continues to live in the hearts of those she tamed. She was one of the biggest unknown stars the silver screen has ever seen. She speaks to us from beyond the grave, and her lesson is clear. Becoming a muse takes real courage, as well as conviction. It is even more difficult to become art itself - it takes originality, and imagination. Art, unlike fame, is eternal.

Feliz Cumpleaños, Doña!



Here you can see a montage of the movie "Dona Barbara"

Maria's Jewels (and additional images) via Lady Like

Daria Werbowy's images appeared in a recent spread of V magazine. Photos courtesy of

The image from the film "Enamorada" comes from The Evening Class, a film blog of fellow San Franciscan Michael Guillen. He has a great atricle"Hecho Por Mexico" about the films of Gabriel Figueroa.

Here is an article about Maria's husband Agustin Lara. Read about his career, his most famous compositions and his love life. It also mentions the performers he influenced, among them Placido Domingo.

Visit Antoine Tzapoff, Maria's last sentimental partner. Some of the images in this article are the copyright of Mr. Tazpoff. Please visit his website and admire more of his paintings, some of them are for sale.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Cesar Chavez Celebration

A group of young people painting a mural during the Cesar Chavez parade and celebration last week. Thanks to everyone that supported the event, and the Spring Crucero Artero at Galeria de la Raza!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Juchitan Style "Garnachas"

We have sunshine again! Sunny days remind me of vacationing in Tapachula, my mother's home town in Chiapas. In order to beat the heat of preparing food, dinner was not eaten until late. On such warm nights we used to have dinner at an impromptu restaurant set up by some neighboring ladies that people referred to as "Las Juchas". These large and jovial neighbors seemed almost magical to me. They wore beautiful colorful embroidered huipiles, and they wore their family's fortune around their necks, in the form of large chains adorned with gold coins called centenarios. These women were known as "juchas", since they came from town of Juchitan, in Oaxaca. These mysterious ladies have been the inspiration of many artists, among them Tina Modotti, Francisco Zuniga and Diego Rivera. One could say their way of dressing, and their food is a form of art too!

"Juchitan de las Mujeres" by Graciela Iturbide.

Our neighboring ladies would set up large wooden benches and tables outside their home, right on the side walk. They prepared three simple meals for their guests; fried potatoes and chicken smothered in tomatoes, enchiladas prepared with black Oaxacan mole, and little garnachas. If you were greedy (like me!) you could get a taste of all three. A metal tub full of ice and sodas, mineral water known as Tehuacan, and beers completed the simple meal.

I have no idea why garnachas are not popular in the US. They are delightful little mini corn cakes, one could say they are the predecessors of what came to be known as "nachos" here in the US. Unlike nachos, garnachas are semi chewy, not crispy. They are smaller than a "sope" or a "gordita" and ticker than a tostada. They could be called savory silver dollars - or how about golden savory centenarios? In honor of our Juchitecan friends, I'll give you this vegan garnacha recipe. It creates about 12 garnachas, the recipe can be doubled. You'll need the following ingredients:

One cup of tortilla making corn flour. You can buy Masa Harina or Maseca at MexGrocer.
One cup of vegetable broth
One package of cooked black beans (prepare one day in advance*)
1 bay leaf
1 spring of epazote
1 serrano chile (optional)
2 cloves of garlic
half of a white or yellow onion
Salt and pepper to taste
One cup of vegetable oil for frying
About a cup of tomato gravy similar to the one used for Sopa Seca
Chopped cilantro and chopped onion, to garnish
Optional: Cabbage salad (Prepare at least 3 days ahead of time**)

*Prepare your beans ahead of time. Sort out any impurities, wash and soak overnight. In a large pot, cook the beans in plenty of water. Add more water as the beans cook and the liquid evaporates. Once they are very soft (in about one hour) you can season them with salt, pepper, half the onion, garlic, a bay leaf, epazote spring and a serrano chile. Cook them for about thirty - forty more minutes until most of the broth is absorbed. Mash some of the beans with a potato masher in order to thicken them. Remove the onion remains, the bay leaf and the epazote and let them cool. If you can, try to find fresh epazote. It tastes wonderful with black beans, and it gives Mexican food a characteristic and authentic flavor that can not be replicated with any other herb. To me, a vegan or vegetarian Mexican table can't exist without epazote. In San Francisco I find it at Evergreen Supermarket.

Prepare your masa by adding some warm broth to the corn flour and kneading with your hands. You may add more or less liquid, in order to achieve a nice soft dough. You'll need about one cup of broth for every cup of flour. Make little masa balls about the size of a large grape. Once you have several balls flatten them with the palm of your hand. Poke the garnachas with a fork, this will prevent them from puffing too much. Shallow fry them in vegetable oil on both sides. Continue frying your garnachas in small batches. Drain them in a paper towel.

When you are ready to serve add the black beans as a topping. If you want, you can also smother them in tomato gravy. Garnish with chopped cilantro and onion. Garnachas are generally served with a vinegary coleslaw called "repollo". It is similar to the Central American salad known as "curtido", that is served with pupusas.

**To make the repollo: finely shred a red cabbage and one small red onion. Place it in a jar or a large lidded plastic container with salt, pepper, fresh thyme, a bay leaf and one mashed clove of garlic. Cover with enough white vinegar. Let your cabbage salad marinate for 3 - 5 days. Drain well before serving.