Monday, February 22, 2016

Trekking the Birthplace of Food II

Outside the bus window is a deceitful desert. Hot dry air and dusty bone-colored land totally conceal a vast subterranean river network draining the ice melt from Mount Pico de Orizaba. Bald moonscape mountains surround this Tehuacan Valley. Verdant springs pierce the dead crust in myriad hidden locations known only to odd species of cactus with swollen tree-like bases and weird species of trees with thorny cactus-like trunks. Many such plants exist only here.

Cutting through the hills up close reveals them to be crumbly stratified rock with cacti beard-stubble on top. The mountains rise higher and higher. Arid pink-stone layers smushed together by time look like the perfect environment for preserving fossils. No wonder the world’s oldest corn survived here.

A much younger local specimen occupies the seat next to me: a teenage girl with smooth chocolate skin, Native American cheekbones, and firm petite curves. She has a warm but shy smile. Angelita tells me how lacking in opportunity her small town is, how smothering of all individuality her big family is, how hard it is to learn English without a partner, and how hard it is to get a U.S. visa without a sponsor.

I get the point. In Stockholm Syndrome, a kidnapping victim bonds with the perpetrator after the fact, but what do you call it when they beg for abduction beforehand? Angelita is quite pretty. Still, she’s too young for me, both in terms of having meaningful relationship and clearing police check points. (I’m a romantic and a pragmatist.) So, what am I doing trapped for hours on this bus between ancient fossils and adolescent girls? Let me explain.
Brace yourself for a wildly irresponsible generalization. The world can be oversimplified as three civilizations that used three rivers (The Nile, The Indus, and the Papaloapan) to irrigate three grasses (wheat, rice, and corn) and make three beverages (coffee, tea, and chocolate). Maize is the CORNerstone of American culture.

Ancient people in what is now Mexico crossbred and domesticated wild grasses into maize over 5000 years ago. Life was forever changed. Exhausted and hungry hunters and gatherers without time for hobbies (beyond watching grasses have sex) were now footloose and carbo-loaded.

Cities were soon built. Lean and mean migratory tribes, who previously stalked wild herds and harvests, settled together in corn-growing centers that offered folks the chance to marry someone who wasn’t their cousin. Imagine the thrill! With abundant food, intellectual types devoted themselves to art, literature, philosophical bullshit, and calling the farmers hicks. Thus, high culture was born.

The earliest corn fossils known are 7000 years old and come from caves near Tehuacan in the state of Puebla. So that’s where I’m headed. My intention is to pay homage to those long-ago plant matchmakers who spared my lame jokes from being the corniest things in the Americas, but I also remain open to any opportunities for crossbreeding that might come my way. Let’s just say fertility is my middle name. (It’s not; we’re just saying that.)

The Tehuacan Valley is a high desert biosphere with over 200 cactus species surrounded by even higher mountains. Yet, this remote region can claim widespread impact. Jeans are made locally for The Gap, Old Navy, and Guess. Peñafiel and Garci Crespo mineral waters come from nearby springs. Still, one can hardly imagine the area ever topping its ancient contribution to global culture: edible corn. Feeding a hemisphere is a tough act to follow.

Like the Sacramento River where the California Gold Rush began, or the Mississippi Delta from whence sprang the blues, or the Boston Harbor where new world independence ignited, so is the watershed of Tehuacan Valley that gave birth to new world food. I am nearing sacred ground. He who has ears to eat let him hear – and give thanks. (Corn may have been domesticated slightly earlier at lower and wetter elevations, but such sites didn’t preserve fossils well enough to confirm this at present.)

I have no idea what to expect on reaching this historic site, but I do have a vivid conception of what was happening here thousands of years ago. Imagine a typical rainy season. Dark clouds and fierce winds are hurling down the Tehuacan Valley, as family clans loaded down with children and food supplies hustle for the cave shelters from every direction across savage unpredictable terrain.

Early arrivers are already unpacking. A teenage boy grabs the driest sleeping spot he can find among the caves then wonders what a certain girl he hung out with the previous rainy season looks like now. He deeply hopes she’s one of this year’s returning survivors.

His sister is busy cooking gourds and squashes while hanging the precious few strips of dried meat they have left from hunting season – venison, turkey, and dog. She absentmindedly chews on a stem of grass. The stalk has a good flavor, but it’s too woody to consume and the tiny fragile husk that allows wind to release the seeds makes it impractical for cultivation. This is corn’s wild ancestor.

The teens’ father thinks the grain could be selectively bred for edible and farmable qualities. This would feed everyone he claims. No one should have to die (as he remembers his grandmother did) when the hunt comes up empty. Still, his shaman father-in-law warns him about tampering too much with nature, while his wife says he must stop dreaming and focus on his real job.

How many rainy seasons did people stare out of cave mouths at the drizzle before some of them got bored enough to patent new-and-improved maize? We don’t know. Did they do it to feed the hungry, to make a fortune, or to impress the babes? We don’t know.

Yet, that mundane can of corn that moderns keep in the pantry for a culinary last resort represents more cultural advancement than the paintings in The Louvre or the inventions in The Smithsonian. So, here I am following those ancient footsteps up the valley toward the caves. Curiously, it’s starting to rain.

Arriving in Tehuacan presents a bustling commercial city packed with stuff to buy. Some outlying barrios are trashy, but the historic downtown is more than agreeable. I walk from the bus station past greasy taco vendors and pirate music hawkers to the Hotel Casa Real.

These accommodations are cozy. The lobby has soft worn leather couches with an understated style and comfort that can’t be overstated. An intricately-carved oak cabinet revels in suit-of-armor motifs. A bronze Native virgin with pottery jars sits across from a mahogany Saint Francis with forest animals. There’s an oil painting of succulent fruits, a candle, and a mandolin.

Yet, most eye-catching of all is a glowing stained-glass window of budding grapevines, classical columns, and a regal peacock. Everything is rich and ornate. Nothing is faux or commercial. The ceiling is wood-paneled and the floor is inlaid marble. A Persian carpet looks so old and raggedy that it must have been purchased from ancient Moors during their occupation of Spain. I dig this hotel. Free internet and breakfast buffet never replace history and culture.

Every turn of the Casa Real corridor unveils a bubbling stone fountain or a potted plant rainforest. My suite has a sparkling bathroom of chrome, crystal, and mirrors that transforms a teeth brushing into a holy ritual at the temple to a healthy body. I plunge onto the king-size, cherry-wood bed and sigh.

Breakfast finds me in the hotel’s central patio restaurant amidst rustic quilted tablecloths and blue-and-white Talavera pottery. The papaya, watermelon, pineapple, and cantaloupe fruit plate is juicy and the café Americano is strong. Sugary fibreless juices cannot replace nature’s healthy and sensual seed-packets. There’s a reason Adam and Eve weren’t tempted by a smoothie.

Likewise, I don’t wish to go to heaven, if there’s no coffee there. Of course, I may not be on the guest list anyway. Somewhere along life’s journey, I got confused about the map. I now seem to be barreling down a highway right behind AC/DC. Hopefully, I haven’t passed the last U-turn option.

When I must eventually explain my erratic and reckless driving to the cosmic highway patrol, I plan to bring a gift, open with a joke, and meekly suggest that overlooking the infractions of a guy like me would instantly give hope to millions. It’s a desperate ploy, but it’s all I’ve got. “Your Honor, I didn’t see the stop sign because I was drunk and my moral speedometer has never functioned all that well” seems unlikely to impress the court. Light a candle for me, would ya? We will continue my quest for the birthplace of food and the source of redemption in my next post.

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