Daily Outtake: Cleaning the Fridge, Making Wild Mushroom Risotto, and Remembering the Mushroom Man of Mexico City

Text & Photos:
Julie Schwietert Collazo
**
When Orion, our one-year old, is awake, I get no writing done, save the shortest of emails, as in, “Thanks.”

This morning, I dropped our five-year old, Mariel, at school, and walked home, shuffling the order of assignments I needed to tackle today: a revision for GOOD; edits on an AFAR project; a new piece (my first) for VICE; two chef profiles for The Latin Kitchen; finalizing the transcription of my interview with Ruth Behar for Los Angeles Review of Books; and working on the text for the website of a friend. Plus, there are appointments for phone and in-person interviews to be made, published pieces to be promoted, and a couple ideas to pitch out to editors.

In short: a full work day.

I turned the key in the lock and heard “Ahhhh,” the “Good morning” sound Orion makes, and immediately started reshuffling. For four hours, at least, I wasn’t likely to get much of anything done- at least not in the writing department.

I could pack him up and head out to the library or I could go tackle something else on the “Rest of My Life” to-do list… something like doing a deep clean of the kitchen, Orion’s favorite place. He could pull pots and pans out of the cabinet while I scrubbed and consolidated and organized. And so it was settled: we would clean the kitchen while Francisco and Olivia slept and Mariel learned something, we hope, of value at school.
**
A few days ago, I’d spilled a cocktail shaker inside the fridge (of course) and in the process of cleaning up that mess, I’d found a package of dried wild mushrooms that have been taking up residence there since 2012. I put them in a bowl, poured hot water over them, and let them steep, moving the bowl from one place to another over the next two days while I decided what to do with them.

As we finished cleaning, I was confronted once again with the mushrooms. Either I had to use them or lose them, so I picked Orion up and headed to the computer. “Mushroom gravy,” I thought, but Google returned something better. Yes, wild mushroom risotto. Perfect for an overcast fall day.

Wild mushrooms and arborio rice. (Photo: @collazoprojects)
Wild mushrooms and arborio rice. (Photo: @collazoprojects)

We had all the ingredients (well, most of them; those we didn’t have could easily be substituted- red onion for shallots; two slices of bacon for pancetta) and so I set to chopping and stirring. Orion, hoisted over the stove, stirred enthusiastically. I felt accomplished: here we were, in the middle of a workday, making risotto for lunch. We even had a salad leftover from last night’s dinner and a Riesling from Long Island, picked up during Francisco’s visit there last week.

My little helper, enjoying the fruit of our shared labor. (Photo: @collazoprojects)
My little helper, enjoying the fruit of our shared labor. (Photo: @collazoprojects)

I served a bowl for us to share and Orion climbed atop the table, not willing to wait for spoon or fork to be lifted to his mouth. Hand dipped in the risotto, and then the wine, he grinned and laughed, and I was reminded again of how grateful I am to be able to work from home, even if it means continually reordering most of my days to shape themselves around my kids’ needs.
**
Making the risotto also reminded me of a curious encounter I had while walking with Mariel in Mexico City a few weeks ago.

Hurrying along from one appointment to the next, I was distracted by a sudden pop of sunset orange splayed on the sidewalk. Mushrooms! There was a blanket topped with gorgeous, damp mushrooms and a basket of beautiful, plump morels, the biggest I’ve ever seen. Leaning over them was a man whose face was wrinkled by years spent in the sun. Ever the writer (no off-switch, remember?), I started chatting him up, building up to the ask: his contact information. I was too busy to stand around and learn more about his mushrooms at that moment, but I wanted to know more… maybe even write a story about him and his wares, displayed humbly on a sidewalk in one of Mexico City’s ritziest neighborhoods (hey, the man is no dummy). But he rejected my request, as was only right. If I wanted to know more, I had to come back, he said. No website, no email, and no, he wouldn’t give me a phone number. Only his name: Francisco. Si, Don Francisco, I will be back. Back to learn all about your mushrooms.
**
If you’d like to make wild mushroom risotto, this is the recipe I used. As I said, I substituted bacon for pancetta and red onion for shallots. And the mushrooms I used were a mix– I don’t really think you have to use the specific ones she calls for here; whatever you have on hand will do just fine.

Uber: A three city review

Uber car service in Mexico City.
Uber car service in Mexico City.

I heard about the car service Uber when it launched in New York in 2011; friends and acquaintances who were early adopters described the service as addictive, and I could see why–the appeal of having your own non-surly driver who wouldn’t bitch or sigh or raise an eyebrow if asked to chauffeur you across the Queensboro Bridge, for starters. A company rep had given me a promo code at a trade show and I downloaded the app, but didn’t even make a trip. Uber’s rates didn’t seem competitive compared to taxis, which I avoided anyway, preferring the subway, Citi Bike, or my own two feet to get around the city.

Fast-forward to last month, when I was chatting with my friend Cristina about my upcoming trip to Mexico City. Did I know Uber had launched in the capital last year and that it was fabulous? No, I had missed the news and I remained dubious, despite her enthusiastic endorsement. Still, I downloaded the app again (since I’d deleted it, having decided I’d never use it) and found myself curious enough to try it out when I landed at the airport a couple weeks ago.

I jumped on the airport’s WiFi network (Infinitum has a growing number of WiFi hotspots around the capital and you can “prueba el servicio–“try the service”– for free once a day.) and hailed my Uber car. It arrived in about two minutes, as the app informed me it would, and I knew the driver’s name, what he would look like, the make and model of his car, and his license plate number… all before he pulled up. Already, I was impressed; one of the persistent problems (and some would say, dangers) of taking a taxi in Mexico City is knowing whether a driver and his or her car are legit, much less knowing who he/she is. Uber eliminated that problem entirely, and right away, I could see the numerous advantages that presented to both the passenger and the driver.

Before we pulled away from the terminal, the driver asked me if I wanted a bottle of water and whether I needed to charge my phone. I said “yes” to both, and he produced one of several chargers, including one that fit my iPhone. He pointed out the newspapers in the seat pocket in front of me, noting that they were mine to enjoy, should I want them… and I did.

He asked where I was going and I told him; he punched the destination into an iPhone and away we went. This was novel for Mexico City, too; being such a gigantic metropolis, it’s very common for drivers to get lost or to ask the passenger for directions or–this has happened to me several times in Mexico City–to simply give up after trying to find a destination, depositing the passenger at a curb with a mumbled apology and a “Suerte!”

The car was gleaming, inside and out, and still had that new car smell, and the driver was spiffy, too, dressed in a suit. No 5-o’clock shadow on his face, his hair slicked back… what WAS this? It was different and, frankly, I liked it.

I explained to the driver that I’m a writer and asked if I could interview him about his experience with Uber. He was obliging and I turned on my recorder, letting him chat away about how much he loves driving for Uber. A former taxi driver, he feels more professional and more safe: “We never have to exchange cash,” he says, “and you know that here, someone will kill a taxi driver for a hundred pesos” [about $7.50 at the current exchange rate]. Uber stores the passenger’s credit or debit card information and calculates the charge at the end of every trip. The charge automatically processes by the card company and Uber emails the passenger a receipt. Two more problems eliminated: that of making change (Mexican taxi drivers rarely have the change to break bills, even ones that a visitor might consider small, like 100 pesos) and that of getting a receipt (drivers of street hail taxis in Mexico City rarely have receipts).

I used Uber at least six more times during my four days in Mexico City and every trip was exceptional. The drivers were professional, the cars were in perfect condition, and the trips went off without a hitch. The rates were generally competitive with taxi fares, and for what I was getting, I didn’t mind when they exceeded what a typical trip might cost (during times of high demand, rates are adjusted–upward, of course–for service).

Did I miss the street hail taxis of yore? Of course, I did… but only in the way that your dad misses the days of walking uphill to school in the snow, both ways. Which is to say that I missed the idea and the image of the street hail taxi–especially the green and white Beetle taxis that hurtled down the streets when I lived in Mexico City–but I didn’t actually miss the experience of the street hail taxi.

New York
Fresh from my fantastic experiences with Uber in Mexico City, I returned to New York, more eager to test the service here. I still expected the rates to be somewhat higher than taxis, so when I landed at JFK, I requested an Uber and selected the option to calculate the projected trip cost. The price was competitive and so I confirmed my request… but the car was at least 16 minutes away. Grr. The taxi line was long, but I’d wait it out. Why taxi drivers are complaining about Uber when there still seem to be incredibly long lines at both area airports is beyond me.

A couple days later, headed back to the airport again–LGA, this time–I requested Uber again. A female driver pulled up and my family and I tumbled into the back seat. The level of professionalism and polish I’d enjoyed in Mexico City just wasn’t there. The front passenger seat was filled with kid detritus; she had obviously just dropped her kid off at school. There was no bottled water, no phone chargers, none of the extras that made the value of the trip in Mexico City worth every peso.

Miami
Eager to convince my skeptical husband that Uber really was worth the money, I requested another Uber at the airport in Miami. This driver arrived with a towel stretched across the back seat. “Um, I feel pretty uncomfortable,” Francisco whispered to me, pointing out that while I felt my experience in Mexico City had been highly professional, in the U.S., our experiences so far had felt like we were being picked up by a friend of a friend: someone who was pleasant enough, but who wasn’t really making a tremendous effort to provide an experience worth paying for.

Because I needed to pay with a credit card and because I needed receipts for work, I continued using Uber during our Miami trip, making at least eight trips over the course of two days. None was exceptional and two drivers declined to give me a ride once they showed up, citing that since I have children, they would need car seats. One driver called en route to say that traffic was so slow he suggested I just cancel my car request and walk back to my hotel, which I did (and was charged a $5 cancellation fee). The cars in the Miami pool were of varying quality. One Crown Vic looked like it just rolled off the back lot of a police precinct. On more than one occasion drivers, though equipped with iPhones just as in Mexico City, didn’t come to the correct pick-up point or seemed confused about the correct drop-off point, even though I’d entered both accurately into the app. It was a good thing the driver who thought I was going to Fort Lauderdale double checked with me verbally before he actually drove there.

The Take-away
So will I use Uber again? If I’m in Mexico City, absolutely. In New York City? Only when I’m in a pinch that a taxi can’t get me out of. In Miami? Next time, I’ll rent my own car.

Have you tried Uber? Where was it and how was your experience?

Hotel Stay in Mexico City Can Support Social Development Projects Across Mexico

Text & Photos:
Julie Schwietert Collazo
**

One of the rooms at El Patio 77 in Mexico City.
One of the rooms at El Patio 77 in Mexico City.
There are very few hotels I return to over and over again. In fact, I think the only one I’ve stayed in repeatedly is El Patio 77, a bed and breakfast in Mexico City, and the capital’s first “eco-friendly” B&B.

I fell in love with El Patio 77 the first time I stayed there. For one thing, the owners, Diego and Alan, felt like old friends right away. I must have sat in the kitchen drinking coffee and talking with Diego for at least an hour, but probably two. And the B&B is lovely; every room is named for and inspired by a Mexican state, and most of the furniture is vintage, repurposed, or upcycled. The main level of the B&B is also an art gallery. Breakfast is fantastic (I love, love, love the molletes) and rates are super affordable. Plus, El Patio 77 is close to a neighborhood fruit and vegetable market, as well as a Metro stop.

I’m always evangelizing about El Patio 77 to friends or travelers who ask me for advice about where to stay in Mexico City. I’ve even written about it for National Geographic Traveler. I’ve never written about it here, though. I’m happy to do so now in order to share a special project that El Patio 77 is supporting and that their guests can support, too: Paz Paz Bus.

Paz Paz Bus is a school bus staffed by artists, teachers, and other professionals who will travel “to marginalized areas in Ajusco and Xochimilco, as well as Huichol communities in Jalisco and Maya communities in the Yucatan… to work on water quality and social development projects.”

If you stay at El Patio 77 between now and March 18, you’ll be supporting the Paz Paz Bus project. You’ll also get some sweet extras that aren’t usually part of the room rate, including dinner. To make a reservation to support Paz Paz Bus, email elpatio77[at]gmail[dot]com and mention the Paz Paz Bus promotion.

To learn more about Paz Paz Bus, read this article on Latina Lista.

Travel Postcard Wisdom: “I told you you should have come.”

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
**
While searching for our packed-so-well-they’re-elusive Christmas ornaments earlier this week, Francisco found a box of books I’d also been looking for. And inside the books were two precious postcards I was sure had been lost in one of our inter-country moves.

Postcard from Xochimilco, circa 1956.
Postcard from Xochimilco, circa 1956.

I’m a fits-and-starts collector of many things, including postcards. While I rarely go looking for objects to add to my collections, when I find a good one, I don’t deliberate; it’s coming home with me.

Such was the case with both of these postcards, one bought in an antiques market in Mexico City, the other bought in my hometown of Spartanburg, South Carolina.

Message from the top of the Empire State Building.
Message from the top of the Empire State Building.
Not only did each postcard depict something iconic about two places I have called home and love– the trajinera boats of Xochimilco in Mexico City and the Empire State Building in New York City–each was also from the same decade (1946-1956), and each had a simple, single-sentence message that packed a philosophical or poetic punch.

They’re just too good to keep to myself.

My favorite is the one from Mexico City, inscribed by “Geo” (what George goes by “Geo” anymore?!): “I told you you should have come.”). George and his two female companions look as pleased as punch to be floating down the canals of Xochimilco, so the recipient of the postcard had to have been kicking himself upon its receipt.

And you do agree it was a he, don’t you?

Don’t be that guy- the one who doesn’t go, who just receives postcards saying, “I told you you should have come.”

What do you collect? What’s a prized piece in your collection? Tell us in the comments.

Interview with Martha Ortiz Chapa: The B-roll

Text & Photos:
Julie Schwietert Collazo
**
My first article for The Latin Kitchen, Latina Magazine’s recently launched website that aspires to be “the premiere online destination for Latin food, cooking, and entertaining,” was published last week; it’s an interview with chef Martha Ortiz Chapa, owner and executive chef of Dulce Patria, one of Mexico City’s alta cocina restaurants.

Chef Martha Ortiz Chapa at her restaurant, Dulce Patria, in Mexico City. September 2012.
Chef Martha Ortiz Chapa at her restaurant, Dulce Patria, in Mexico City. September 2012
After my interview, but before the piece was published, I had interesting conversations about Chef Ortiz with a few foodie friends who know Mexico City and its restaurants well.

The consensus among them was that no one seems to take the chef seriously; that is to say, for some reason, they don’t quite allow her admission to the same league as one of my other favorite chefs, Enrique Olvera, and the other chefs de renombre in Mexico’s capital.

It wasn’t because she is a a woman, they insisted; rather, they seemed to agree that the “Wow” factor of Ortiz’s food is more in its presentation and the setting in which it is served than in the food itself.

I couldn’t disagree more.

More points for presentation or substance?
More points for presentation or substance?
While the setting and presentation are almost theatrical in their attention to detail, I’ve always thought the food at Dulce Patria held its own, too; I’ve eaten at the restaurant three times and it’s been consistently good.

Since my first visit, I’ve admired Ortiz’s eye for las pequenas cosas that other chefs miss, and after interviewing Ortiz at the restaurant in Mexico City last month, I came away more intrigued and impressed by her, convinced that people don’t quite get her because she’s both too much and not enough for them at the same time.

What I mean is this: they don’t see her subtle touches, the influences and intentions that go into everything she does– the novels she’s read, the paintings she’s seen, the operas she’s listened to, which inspire her to create her menus; the conversations and exchanges she has had with people in Mexico’s interior, especially cooks and artisans, and how those encounters compel her to continuously create opportunities for others who don’t come from her background of privilege.

The showcase of the experience of eating at Dulce Patria, then, becomes not a distraction, exactly, but it does obscure everything that underlies what it takes to create that experience… because Ortiz is sure enough of herself that she doesn’t feel compelled to over-explain.

Plus, I think she’s a little bit of an introvert.

After spending almost two hours interviewing her last month, I came away with an even deeper appreciation for Ortiz and for Dulce Patria. The interview was also a reminder to me of how important it is for us to ask one another questions and to have conversations rather than make assumptions based on our own observations, which are, of course, inevitably framed by and filtered through our own experiences and world views. I hope that the interview dignifies Ortiz and gives her the recognition and honor she deserves.

As usual, it was impossible to fit all of the highlights of the interview into the piece that was published, but it feels selfish to keep the ones that didn’t make the cut to myself. Even here, there’s not everything– the emotion of her voice, for one thing, and the long, beautiful stories and legends from Mexican history she shared (above all, the stories of Mexican women)– but it’s something special, I think.

Here’s the B-roll:

ON READING, THE IMPORTANCE OF STORIES, SENSUALITY, AND MEXICAN CULTURE
Chef Ortiz:
“I love to write. I love to read. I adore reading. I leave [the restaurant] late at night– sometimes I hear the staff say, ‘Ay, la Senora said she was going out with someone named Paulaster.’ And I say, ‘No, no, not Paulaster! Paul Auster!’ I love Mahler, and I carry a photo of him, and people see it and say, ‘Oh, I’ve seen him! Isn’t that a famous union leader?’ ‘Wasn’t he our math professor?’ And I said, ‘Obviously not!'” [laughing]

Julie:
“There are so many stories to tell, right?”

Chef Ortiz:
“Oh yes. Many. I love telling stories. That’s what life is. And to give the gift of beauty. Beauty in the form of true feelings from the heart. Beauty is the love of one’s country. The love of art and an artisan. Of words. For me, it’s important to tell a story [through my menus]. Every month, I tell a story. I think carefully about the words I use for my plates because they are important; they are baptizing the food.”

Dulce Patria Menu
Dulce Patria Menu

Julie:
“It seems like it’s important to you to tell distinctly Mexican stories….”

Chef Ortiz:
“Yes, as well as stories through a feminine lens. It fills me with pride.”

Julie:
“How so?”

Chef Ortiz:
“I have never feared the sensuality of food, of Mexican food. Mexican food is very sensual…. I am very proud of my heritage. I’m very proud of being Mexican, of being a woman, and of being a cook.”
**
ON MONEY
Chef Ortiz:
“Money for the sake of making money is the cheapest thing there is. I am not a chef who is unaware of the poverty of my country. On the contrary, I don’t think any of us can live in peace until we recognize that poverty and work, each of us, to do something about it. We have a lot of work to do.
**
ON RELATIONSHIPS AND FAMILY
Chef Ortiz:
“I’m twice divorced. Twice. And I’m very happy. For men, it is very difficult to see a woman who comes home from work at 2 and leaves again at 6. I love artists. My first husband is a remarkable painter, a very good one and my second husband is a musician…. I never had children. I have a six year old niece who wants to be a senator. She’s aware of politics everywhere. I adore her. I asked her what I could get her as a gift, and she said, ‘The Constitution.'”
**
ON HOW SHE BECAME A CHEF
Chef Ortiz:
“I studied political science, not cooking…. If I could have studied anything else, it would have been curation. I love art. I could see myself putting together a Lucian Freud exhibit at MoMA. But in Mexico at that time, there wasn’t a degree for that. But look, in the end, I became part of that world. The kitchen is an artisan’s workshop.
**
ON HER FIRST RESTAURANT, AGUILA Y SOL
Chef Ortiz:
“I was very, very proud that this ultra-Mexican restaurant of mine was above Louis Vuitton!”
**
ON WHAT SHE EATS AT HOME
Chef Ortiz:
A delicious tortilla and yogurt for breakfast. And a delicious tortilla and yogurt for dinner! The yogurt because my stomach hurts since I drink so much coffee.
**
ON TRAVEL
Julie:
Do you travel a lot within Mexico?

Chef Ortiz:
Yes. I love going to Michoacan. I love Oaxaca, Guanajuato…. I love to talk with people in markets.

ON HER PURPOSE IN LIFE
Chef Ortiz:
I like to be in touch with people. And give them beauty. I think that’s my purpose in life: to gift beauty.

**
If you speak Spanish and would like to listen to an exceptionally beautiful story Chef Ortiz tells about her relationship with women in Michoacan, feel free to email me at collazoprojects[at]gmail[dot]com for the audio file.
**
My friend Karen accompanied me during this interview and has written a few beautiful posts about Mexico City (it was her first visit!) on her blog. I especially loved this one.