Friday, October 04, 2013

The Sea, The Seafood, The Food

Last year I had the extreme misfortune of getting stung by a Stingray. The Eastern Pacific Round Stingray (Urolophus halleri) is common in the shallow waters of the Gulf and in the Pacific off of Baja from April through November. 2012 was apparently a banner year for them, I got it once, MLW got it twice and some little girl swimming close to us got it too. I knew that because of the way she howled as she limped out of the ocean. While it hurt a lot, a real lot, the pain went away within an hour and the whole episode became nothing more than an interesting tale to relate to friends back home. Particularly friends who think that sharks are waiting there to eat them.

But here we are a year later, and for the past month or so the site of the one-time wound has been bugging me. Not hurting per se, but just a feeling that something isn't right. Like there is something embedded in the inside of the arch on my right foot. Kind of a "presence." At first I attributed it to Yoga, figuring I was working those taut little muscles by trying to balance on one foot with my hands at Heart Center. But then I got used to doing that and the feeling didn't go away.

It got worse as we headed south, stronger but still not painful until our arrival here when my foot seemed to want to migrate back to the sea. I'd doze off for a nap and find my right leg off the bed, foot pointing at the ocean, toes trying to gain purchase on the tile floor. It took two hands and all my strength to stop what seemed to be an inexorable migration back to the spawning grounds. Only when I donned my bathing suit and jumped in the water, did the craving end. My foot, now a part of the littoral ecosystem, had found its way home like an Eel returning to the Finger Lakes from its birthplace in the Sargasso Sea.

These days I concentrate very intently on not pissing off any of the Stingrays that might be around. I can probably manage one foot with an unbreakable bond to salt water but two might be tough to govern so I spend my time doing the "Stingray Shuffle," bobbing up and down constantly on my tip toes giving fair warning to any little beast buried in the sand. It was in this preventative state that the Mean Fish started its attack. 

MLW noticed it first, reporting that something had bumped her leg. We'd drifted a few yards south of our Stingray-free zone and I thought perhaps we'd innocently entered some fish's territory. We moved back and that's when it started going after me - a hit on my left leg, a hit on the right. Not bites, but very strong pokes with what must have been its bony fish nose. Then two on the back and one on my left arm. The final shot to my shoulder was enough for me - swim time was over. I fled the sea and huddled under my towel on the seawall fantasizing about getting a net, catching the Mean Fish and throwing him on the sand. I'd stand there poking him with a stick while he gasped for breath asking him how he liked it. I'd return him to the ocean when he agreed to leave we humans alone. And not one minute sooner. 

We've known Alejandro for years. He's been our chief provisioner for all the time I've been coming down here and he and his dad served MLW and her family in for the time before that. In his salad days, Alejandro would show up in his truck with shrimp and vegetables. Over the years he expanded his offerings to include tamales and orange juice. In the early days, we'd bring enough food to get us through to the first day when we'd find him in the parking lot and then we'd restock our larder. Back then we rarely ate out due some combination of frugality and my fear of interacting with local restaurants. While those limitations are now gone, we still buy fish from him whenever has it. He no longer brings vegetables due to stiff price competition (Americans are cheap) with two new supermercados and we don't buy shrimp because we cannot support the destruction of the Gulf. He also downscaled his truck, now relying on condo guests to ferry him and his coolers back into town.

He showed up during our first cocktail on the seawall at sunset. He had fish he said, Dorado and Snapper so we went off to have a look. My dealings with Alejandro have always been a bit tense for me, he's a mathematical genius who can do currency conversions so fast that I have no idea if I'm getting ripped off or not. Of course it's never a big deal in terms of amounts, but I do like to have an idea of how much stuff I'm buying (volume) and how much it's costing (price per volume) and how my dollars are converting to pesos (cambio.) 

What he had looked pretty good so I said we'll take a bag of each. The asking price was 110 pesos per bag. He started talking about the exchange rate and said he'd give me 13 on the dollar, a full peso more than the toll booth in Nogales was offering. He tore open a bag and made MLW smell it for freshness.Then he took 2 more bags out and said he'd give me a special price if I bought all four - 410 was the quote and he wanted dollars. It must be a pain to go all the way home with a cooler full of frozen fish pieces so I said fine.

I had a handful of 5 dollar bills and 20 peso notes. I tried to multiply times 13 to work it all out but came up short. He put the money in discrete piles and said "This pile is 130, this pile $10" in order to make it clear for me. I finally realized I was 50 pesos short no matter how we separated the bills so leaving MLW there as collateral, I went back to the condo to grab a twenty not only to fill the gap but to make the math simpler. 

When I got back he and MLW were discussing he poor building practices in Acapulco that had resulted in widespread destruction during that double hurricane they had last week. In my absence, the "good price" had changed from 410 to 440, perhaps to cover the cost of the plastic bag he'd given MLW to facilitate the carrying of 10 pounds of fish back to our freezer. I asked about that and we decided to settle on 430 which meant the exchange of a 20 peso note for a 10 peso coin, more complex math that left me even more addled. In the end we got a bunch of fish for $30. 

When we were here last February we found a new Italian restaurant. Unfortunately it was closed so we made a plan to try it on this trip. It was open last night so we went. The owner met us out front and made a big deal about how giant our Suburban is, feigning being crushed between it and the wall in front of his dining area. We chose an inside table on the promise of air conditioning, sat down and ordered wine.

The owner told us that he was from San Diego and that his wife was from San Carlos and that they'd made a plan that when she completed culinary school they'd move back down here and open a place. Four years later, here they are. 

I ordered a Malbec for MLW and a Chardonnay for me - the only couple in the world in which she drinks red and he drinks white. I tried to make that joke with the waiter but it got lost in translation. They brought bread, sort of an empty calzone, and I sliced my finger open on the broken edge of the olive oil cruet. We decided to warn them about this imminent danger lest some litigious patron make a far bigger deal out of it than I intended to make. The sight of all that blood on my napkin prompted them to bring me a band-aid that I accepted gracefully. We had a nice chat with the owner about his business and how he had gained enough Mexican patrons to get him through the slow months of summer. We talked about eating late in Spain and Italy and about how Tapas would fail here because everyone thinks that "small plates" are Tacos. In short, it seemed like he was making it work with food that's not common regionally and significantly different than the common fare. And not relying solely on vacationers to make it work.

Dinner came - Osso Bucco for me and Chicken Piccata for MLW - and it was delicious. As good as anything Italian I've eating in the US. We gilded the lily with a Pannacotta served on a compote of raspberries and blueberries. A really nice dinner, we paid (in pesos to remove the question of exchange rate) and promised to come back.

 

1 comment:

McPhilly said...

Good to know, if I'm ever fortunate enough to take a trip to Baja