A Visit to Another World…The Church at Chamula

I think of this day often, even though it happened nearly a year ago. I haven’t written about it because I wasn’t sure of the words to describe it. I obviously didn’t take this picture. I had handed my camera to another American woman who was standing close by because I really wanted some momento of this amazing place. Otherwise, my camera had stayed in my shoulder bag during our visit to San Juan Chamula, a Mayan village on the outskirts of San Cristobal de las Casas. I had been warned by everyone who had ever visited Chamula to be very careful about taking pictures there. The people of this village believe that if you take their picture you steal a part of their soul. They are especially serious about not taking pictures inside their church, which you see in the background of this picture. Of all the villages around San Cristobal, to me Chamula was the most intimidating. I definitely didn’t want to offend anyone. Chamula is said to be the Mayan community most resistant to change. The missionaries who came here to convert the Mayans finally found it was so hard to change these people that they abandoned the church and gave up on the project. There are some reports that this entire church has been excommunicated. And, it seems that to the Chamulans, that is a big “mission accomplished.” Chamula is a government unto itself, and functions outside of Mexican law. The town enjoys autonomous status and no outside police or military are allowed in the village. In Chamula, the rules for living are very strict and anyone who varies will be exiled.

Fred and I visited Chamula twice. This photo is from our second visit, when our friend Arnold Myint had come down for a visit. Me…”Arnold, you have got to see this church.” Arnold…”I’m not that interested in going into churches.” Me…”Just trust me on this one.” Arnold (after a visit to the inside of the church)…”That was amazing.”

The church in question from the outside looks like any other church in any Mexican village that you might see. But, that’s from the outside. What goes on in that church is something else entirely. As in most of Mexico, the Catholic religion has been somewhat blended with traditions from the indigenous past. In Chamula, the Mayans totally seem to dominate. The fact that tourists like us are allowed to visit the church while the rituals are going on is rather remarkable, and makes the whole scene even stranger. It costs 20 pesos to enter. That’s about $1.25 in US money. It seems that anyone who visits San Cristobal certainly wants to visit, and since anyone who goes to the southern state of Chiapas ends up in San Cristobal, that adds up to quite a few pesos. I think it is great that the people can earn money, as their area is one of the poorest regions in the country. It is also one of the most beautiful and abounds with craftsmanship.

When you enter the church it seems there are no windows. It is very dark, even on a sunny day, and the room is lit by hundreds of candles. Quite an atmosphere, and I’m sure everyone who enters would love to take photos—but, like me, they are afraid to do so. The people come in to the church on Sundays to conduct many different kinds of rituals. There are no pews, everyone sits on the floor, which is covered with pine needles. It seems like a very dangerous fire hazard to combine pine needles and open flames, but that’s how they do it. The people sit in small groups, independent of each other. On this particular day, there was some sort of festival going on and the church had two different brass bands, playing two different songs, blasting away. In one of the bands, two of the musicians were albino brothers, which added to the visual amazement. The whole setting was like that of an hallucination. A main part of what goes on has to do with removing evil spirits. Some of the villagers are curanderos–healers. They have the power of shamans. If a person is sick, or possessed of an evil spirit, the curandero (and some of the healers are women) passes a live chicken over the affected person. Then they kill the chicken (right there, with their bare hands). The chicken has absorbed whatever the problem was, and now the person is thought to be freed. There will be many dead and living chickens inside the church. There is a street market on the way into town where chickens are sold. They have their feet tied together. Another part of their ritual involves burping. They believe that they can burp up evil spirits. In order to provoke the burping, Coca-cola is consumed. Along one part of the wall there is a large stack of cases of Coke. Another beverage used during the rituals is pox, a local liquor made of corn, sugarcane, and wheat. So, the word is that by mid-afternoon many of the people in the town are pretty well on the way to being drunk. Walking around this church is an experience I don’t think I’ll ever forget. I have never seen anything like it. It was fascinating and disturbing, especially when the chickens were killed.

Outside the church, in the big courtyard, there were food vendors, and families gathered to eat. They had perfected the art of totally ignoring the tourists, unless they had something to sell to them. The people all dress alike. The women wear very fuzzy black wool skirts that are tubes that they bunch around their waists and hold up with a sash. They wear satin embroidered blouses in bright colors. This is a look that were it to ever make it to fashionistias (which I doubt that it will) one would say that it would take a very tall and thin woman to pull it off. The Mayan women are quite short, yet some of them manage to look very elegant in these costumes. The men all wear western boots, cowboy hats, and tunics of the same fuzzy wool. Some of the tunics are black and some are white. I believe that the white ones are worn by the elders, the men who run the town.

Chiapas is a very faraway place, even to people who are in Mexico. I feel very fortunate to have  seen it and to have visited so high in the mountains (7,200 feet) that I was walking in the clouds. When Fred and I took this journey last year we didn’t know that at the end of it we would be sure we wanted to make Mexico our home. And now, here we are, settling in to San Miguel de Allende, a much more approachable city (in every way) than San Cristobal. But, this morning I am remembering Chamula, and loving the exotic and foreign side of this big and beautiful country.

blvd..World-Class Wonderful at a Belmont Bistro

Today Fred and I had a Labor Day lunch at blvd, Arnold Myint’s neighborhood restaurant on Belmont Boulevard. The meal I had was an explosion of perfection–some of my very favorite things all in one meal–pimento cheese, watermelon, street corn, and yes, a Mexican Coke! How could I ask for more? Easy…I took a piece of apple pie home for dessert later. (That pie is the best apple pie ever, and I consider myself an expert on apple pie.)

Arnold has been quite busy lately. He did extremely well on the recent series of Food Network Star and always has several projects in the works. When he came back from Los Angeles a few days ago he literally hit the ground running. He has been working on the menu and in the kitchen at blvd and the results are pretty swell. In fact, the food there has never been better. I am really enjoying the changes. There are plenty of options for a vegan/vegetarian and the carnivores will also be very well-fed. There are choices for happy hour snacks (2 for $8), Sunday brunch, lunch, and dinner. Each occasion has its own menu. I can’t possibly mention everything, but I will tell you about some the things I have tried. There is a green bean and pine nut salad that I have had twice. It is very generous, and very delicious balanced meal. There is an entree that is pure poetry; he calls it a “charred cabbage steak.” Even if you aren’t a vegetarian, you should give this one a try. And the other entrees go all the way from shrimp and grits to a New York strip steak. With many (well portioned) small plates—do not, I repeat, do not, miss the okra fries, decadence worth every fat gram—to choose from along with salads, and sides, you can put together a table top feast. All the prices are reasonable, and the servings are not stingy. This is not one of those places where you drop a small fortune and leave hungry.

There are some wonderful Sunday brunch options, too. I really wouldn’t miss anything that has to do with biscuits. Fred and I had a brief visit with Arnold yesterday (probably one of the few times he has sat down since being back in Nashville) and he talked about making biscuits. It was a very sensuous conversation. I woke up this morning and started thinking about those biscuits. He is perhaps the only person I have ever known who could describe making biscuits in such a way that makes you just want to roll up your sleeves, get your hands in the dough and the biscuits in your mouth. But, I think I’ll just skip the rolling up the sleeves, hands in the dough part and let Arnold do the cooking.

If you are in the mood for a drink, blvd is your bar. The cocktail menu is remarkable. I am partial to the Pinky Lee, a pink grapefruit nectar that can be done with vodka, gin, or tequila. (Of course, I have only tried it with tequila.) There is a rim on the glass with kaffir salt and sugar. It is a perfect balance of sweet and salty. The wine list is mostly French, and pretty extensive for an unpretentious neighborhood bistro. There is also a wide variety of beers, and some interesting non-alcoholic drinks as well. I could forgo my afternoon cocktail easily for one of those Sprecher’s sodas–I haven’t tried them all because I can’t get past the ginger ale. And speaking of French—the fries here are simply the best in town. There is a variety, and they will all make you happy. One more thought; while you’re there you just might want to do some shopping. There are some fun food products for sale, especially Arnold’s Smoked Salt, Smoked Vinegar, and Herbs de Provence.

The restaurant at 2013 Belmont Blvd is becoming my go-to place. If it’s been a while since you’ve been there, or if you’ve never tried it, you really need to check it out. Open every day from 11 am until 11 pm, with Sunday brunch served 11-5. And, note, there are half-priced bottles of wine on Sundays. Reservations are first come, first served. You might decide you’d like to sit outdoors and watch the world go by on Belmont Blvd. And don’t worry about parking because there is a valet.

Perfect Poaching….a close up of a beautiful thing.

Time for a little cooking around this house. Here is a beautiful meal that is wonderful for breakfast, lunch, or a light, easy dinner…Avocado Toast with an Egg. This one is so easy you don’t need a recipe. Just look at the picture. Toast your favorite bread, find a perfectly ripe avocado and mush it up, and top with a beautifully poached egg. Your side dish can be anything you like….here we have sautéed greens and mushrooms. It could have been chopped tomatoes, steamed asparagus, or no side at all.

For most people, poaching eggs is a great mystery. I pride myself on this skill, and that is the way I usually cook them. I recently poached 15 eggs at once (a pan on every burner) and that was quite a feat. I am enclosing a video for you about poaching eggs. (I have never tried the method using cling wrap.) Give egg poaching a trial and error. It may take a few errors to get it down, but once you do, it’s quite easy.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pAWduxoCgVk       This is the link to the egg poaching video. And, I do have to add a disclaimer….the dish in this photo was prepared by my friends, Candace Keller and Arnold Myint. I just was around to eat it.

A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream…Serving Fabulous

This being my birthday week, I decided to have a very small dinner party on July 3. I like to keep the group small enough so that everyone can interact around the table. When I mentioned this to my friend, Arnold Myint (who is an amazing celebrity chef–catch him on Food Network Star, Sundays at 8), it started his wheels turning. In fact, he decided to turn it into a fantasy trip to someplace far more exotic than our back porch. I always love to be involved in Arnold’s projects because his inspiration always inspires me. He is an artist, and food is his medium. He starts with whatever the menu idea is and builds a whole ambiance around it and he doesn’t miss a detail. He works fast. He enjoys people and loves to feed them. And, no matter what he is serving, it will come out looking like a picture. There is nothing like having Arnold take charge of the kitchen.

We moved all the furniture off the porch and set up low tables and pillows. Everything was candle light. The feeling was intimate and the food was delicious. We had Persian Pickled Cucumbers, Radishes with Feta Dip, Mushroom Caviar, Pea Salad with Dill and Mint, Cauliflower with Chickpeas and Lemon, Curried Cabbage, Mashed Lentils with Red Pepper, and Naan Flat Bread. The dessert was a beautiful Green Tea and Lime Cheesecake that we picked up at Avo. Everything was perfect as the late afternoon drifted into evening and we sat on the pillows, eating and drinking and enjoying each other’s company on a perfect summer night.