Wednesday, September 17, 2008

No hablo español

I'm ashamed to admit that I speak basically no Spanish, living as I do in a town where the phonebook has 74 entries under “Chavez” and only 14 under “Jones.”

Frequently, people call me on the phone and speak Spanish. So that I could be polite to them, I asked a Spanish-speaking friend of mine to teach me how to say “I don't speak Spanish.” I studied on it for several minutes until I was confident I could pronounce it correctly.

However, when I used this phrase to answer phone calls in Spanish, I could never get anyone to believe me. They would continue in Spanish, and I would repeat my magic phrase “No hablo Español,” and they would go on in Spanish, and a good time was had by none.

One day it occurred to me that maybe I was doing too good a job pronouncing it. Next time I got into this situation, I used a horribly exaggerated Texas accent: “No-oo HOB-low ess-puh-NOLE.”

That did the trick. Since then, every Spanish-speaking caller has believed me right away.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Two matanza surprises

Here in the central Rio Grande Valley, I've often heard the word “matanza” used to describe a large party in the traditional Hispanic culture. Generally it involves one or more whole pigs, roasted in a pit.

This word has twice led me to surprises.

One day a few years ago I was getting my teeth cleaned. I happened to mention to the hygienist that I was from Socorro, and she replied that she had family there, and was planning to attend a matanza that weekend.

“With a pig, and everything?” I replied.

“White people know about the pig?”

This was my first surprise: that a Hispanic person didn't consider herself white. She certainly looked Anglo to me.

The second surprise took a while to reveal itself. There is an arroyo in Socorro County that drains a huge area, arising at the foothills of the Magdalena range twenty miles from the river. It passes on the south side of Socorro, and has often flooded badly. In former years it has killed more than one resident. Two years ago it ran again, and trashed a large area. On top of much flooding, it took out a power pole and left a goodly area of the county without power for days. Here is a view up the arroyo, looking at the I-25 and NM-1 bridges. The Magdalenas are visible in the background.

Early news reports referred to this arroyo as Brown Arroyo. However, as usual around these parts, there is an earlier name in Spanish: Arroyo de la Matanza.

Finally a bilingual friend of mine clued me in: matanza means “slaughter.” The party is called that because it centers on the slaughter of a pig. And the arroyo is called that because it is a killer.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Restaurant review: Rioja, Denver

This is a review not only of a world-class restaurant, but another lovely big-city amenity: Denver's light rail transit system.

Staying with friends in Littleton on the south side of Denver, we wanted to have a nice meal downtown. The light rail system drops you right in downtown, and was a great low-stress alternative to driving and parking in the heart of the city.

A round-trip pass from the Lincoln station at the south end of the line to Denver and back was $8. The cars were attractive, clean, well-lit, and easy to use. We didn't have to wait long.

On a pleasant summer evening, there were lots of pedestrians in downtown Denver. Those of us who live in towns like Albuquerque with miserable mass transit are easily impressed by amenities like free shuttles and pedestrian-only streets. We even got rained on briefly: not a real downpour, just enough to be refreshing.

Our hosts are devoted foodies, and knowing that we'd only have time for one meal in Denver, they picked Rioja. The chef, Jennifer Jasinski, was right by the maitre d' station chatting with customers, and she came by our table twice to discuss our options. A very nice lady and, judging by the food, one of the great food artists of our time. The menu verbiage for the appetizer:
Fresh bacon: cardamom spiced Kurobuta pork belly, madras curry scented fresh garbanzo bean pureé.
Maybe this doesn't sound good to you, but it was one of the most exquisite appetizers I've ever had. The garbanzo puree smoothed out and complemented the richness of the bacon.

Flight of artisan blue cheeses: Bleu de Sassenage, Blue de Basque, Crimificato Verde Capra, house made curried date roulade, crispy pancetta frisee, red wine black pepper reduction.
Lest I not have room for dessert, I skipped the salad course and tried the flight of three bleu cheeses: one each of goat, sheep, and cow. The goat was really smooth and rich. The sheep version was my favorite: quite sharp, with a firm texture. I hesitate to describe the cow's-milk version as "middle-of-the-road", but it was between the others in creaminess and sharpness. All three were excellent examples of the style. The presentation was everything a foodie could ask for: one slender, crisp bread stick, a tablespoon of superb microgreens, a splash of red wine reduction on the side, and a mound of fig jam as a pedestal for a circle of crisp pancetta.

Scallops are my favorite seafood. I'll take good scallops over any form of lobster, crab, shrimp, or fish with fins, so it was a relatively easy choice to order the scallops. They were so wonderful, they recalled to me the best scallop dish I'd ever had: teriyaki scallop at Sanppo, a Japanese country-style restaurant that existed for many years in San Francisco at Post and Fillmore on the north side of the Japan Center. Rioja's scallops were perfectly tender inside, with just a bit of crunchy browned top. There were three scallops, each perched on a crunchy risotto cake, and adorned with a small dollop of smooth, rich green curry sauce. I wish I could enumerate all the ingredients of the vegetables and sauce in the middle of the plate. There were some slices of mango, a couple of beefsteak leaves (shiso), assorted greens. But there comes a point where one doesn't really care to dissect the dish, because it is such a glorious gestalt.

As a chronic chocoholic, choice of dessert was relatively easy (compared to choosing among all the riches on the dinner menu). Called "chilled s'mores pot de creme", it was a gorgeously rich chocolate custard in a ramekin with a layer of flame-caramelized house-made marshmallow, and two sticks of house-made graham cracker. Everything a chocoholic could ask for.

And now, back to the mass transit review. It might have been a good idea if we'd checked the baseball schedule before choosing our route back to Littleton: a Rockies game had just gotten out, and the light rail station near Union Station was wall-to-wall people. I had to strap-hang for well over half the ride back home, even though the transit district had added more and longer trains. With the cars near capacity, it got rather hot and sweaty in there. Still, it beats the heck out of driving.

For a small-town boy like me, seeing a reasonably well-organized big city is rather mind-boggling. Given the recent spike in gasoline prices, the transit district is finding itself overstressed. Even in cities, funding transit projects has been a hard sell for a long time, but now everyone is clamoring for more. Gov. Bill Richardson of NM is starting to look a lot more like a genius with his push for the RailRunner transit system, now open from Belen to Bernalillo and scheduled to open to Santa Fe late this year. It is unfortunate that the lead time for new transit routes is measured in years, when gas prices can double in a year.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Now that we're organized, what do we do?

I'd've set this up a long time ago if I'd known it didn't cost me anything.

Currently on vacation in Colorado, and my hosts told me that this
service is free. I'd been considering putting up some random essays,
and this is a nice low-pressure place to stow them.

The title of this post is an old Shipman family trope. We would pack
the car for a vacation and Mother would say, "Now that we're organized,
what do we do?"

Once we got underway, Dad's ritual was borrowed from his father, as
he said, "We're off, in a cloud of powdered horse manure!"

Dad and Mother were both born in 1918, so Dad's dad might have
come by his horse manure quite honestly.