I finally did it.
Two years in Mexico and I finally did it.
It took me a while to buck up my courage, but I reached way deep down and said to myself, “Self, you know you gotta’ do this. If you truly want to call yourself a Yucateco… Yucateca?... Yucatecan?... ah hell, if you truly want to call yourself a Mexicano…Mexicana…shit.
Just gotta’ do this.”
I’ve been avoiding this since we moved to Merida. I would walk to the market…the one in Santa Ana Park or Santiago Park…or even the main one (Lucas Galvez?), I would walk in and see the hanging corpses, the split open flesh dripping red over the table and then snaking its way to the closest hole in the floor. Entrails piled in the corner and in barrels waiting to be picked up by – whom? And the stench! My God, the smell makes you want to hurl. And yet, I’m supposed to purchase some of these dead corpses and turn them into some type of dish that won’t make Bobby Flay run for a toilet.
So yesterday was the day I was going to take the plunge.
All during my walk to Santiago Park I kept making like Jack Handy and trying to calm myself with my own DeepThoughts. And it kinda’ worked. By the time I approached the back side of Santiago Park I was feeling that finally buying one of those (fresh?) chickens in the market was going to work out just fine.
As I turned the final corner on Calle 70, which runs behind the Park, I was feeling positively elated at the big step I was about to take. I almost skipped around the corner and headed South and there, right in front of me, was a man suffering from exactly what I feared I might be in the not-too-distant future. He was bent over, one hand on a light pole, the other on his knee as he projectile vomited onto the sidewalk.
Oh yeah! This is a GREAT omen!
I quickly crossed the street and almost ran past the spot where the man stood heaving in a herculean effort (if I do say so myself) to avoid looking at and – please God – smelling the results of his liquid gift to the city.
I began searching my mind for a better thought to push out the vision my imagination was trying to cram into my brain. But like always, this only backfired and my thoughts were filled with the image that I always use to punish myself. Suffice it to say that seeing your parents in flagrante delicto when you are 17 is one of those images you can return to again and again in your life when your mind forces you to a dark place.
I drug myself into the little market area inside Parque Santiago. I began first in the fruit and vegetable section. I made my purchases of a pineapple, papaya, cantaloupe, and bananas, then turned to face the dreaded meat room.
I walked down the little walkway and turned into the room, noticing a band saw on my left that looked like it MAY have been cleaned at the turn of the century – the 20th century, I think.
A few feet further was one last poultry seller still open at the late hour of 1:30 PM. The room was hot and smelly, and I was terrified of contracting some animal-borne disease just by being in the room, let alone eating anything that had been hanging out in it.
I approached and one of the two women behind the counter left her lunch to assist me. She looked up at me and knew right away the kind of Gringo she was dealing with.
After what seemed an eternity I managed a little, “Si”. Was that me that said that? It sounded like a 9-year-old little girl who was about to cry.
I looked down on the counter to see a chicken languishing on the table, already sliced in half. Each half had a breast, thigh, leg, and more flies hovering about than I’ve seen in the bottom of a very recently used septic tank (but that’s a story for another time).
The chicken had a nice amount of meat on it, so that was a positive. The flesh was shiny, not dried out. I noticed all the fat was still on the specimen as my eyes pored down the breast, past the thigh and down to the legs with…their feet!
I tried to be non-chalant about the whole thing – like this was something I’d done a million times before. I said to the young woman, “I’ll take it all”, then remembered where I was and tried to use my oh-so-excellent Spanish.
“My God, this chicken has feet”, I thought. “What am I supposed to do with feet?”
Now look, my uncle was a farmer and I spent a couple weeks with him and my aunt each summer when I was a teen, so I learned a lot about farming and milking cows and slaughtering hogs and I know chicken have feet. But, my God, this chicken had feet!
The woman seemed to sense my distress about what to do about the feet, so she picked up a cleaver and cleanly chopped them off with a quick 1-2. It didn’t make me feel much better, but at least I wouldn’t have to deal with chicken feet. I mean, I know you can make soup with them or even fry them, but I am NOT about to each chicken feet. You know they walk in their own poop, don’t you?
The woman plopped the chicken pieces into a plastic bag and nimbly tied it as they seem to do with all plastic bags, here. The bag was clearly wet and slimy from chicken guts, and I started looking at my own recyclable cloth bag I had brought with me to carry home my purchases for where to put this bag of chicken without making a stinking, sticky mess before I got home. But then I looked up to see the woman place the first bag into another, stronger bag with handles for carrying. Guess I underestimated her.
I paid for the chicken – 70 pesos – not bad at all – thanked her and headed out the opposite door of the meat room and started my trek back home. I kept my right eye closed as I hugged the walls next to the very narrow sidewalk opposite Mr. Vomit in an effort to keep from seeing that horror scene again, but I only managed to fill my brain with that horrible image of 85-year-old Mrs. Probst on her front porch in a lovely house dress – and nothing else – sitting with her legs spread wide open for all the world – and teenage boys - to see.
I think I need help.
Upon arriving home I immediately stuffed the chicken pieces into a pot, filled it with water, and got it cooking as soon as possible. I probably over-cooked it out of my irrational fear of poisoning Steve and myself, but it made for a nice, rubbery addition to a chicken-broccoli-rice casserole we ate on for a couple of meals. And guess what? I’m still here! All my body parts still work – well, if you don’t count the knees – and we don’t, yet, feel any repercussions.
So I did it! I made that great leap from the grocery store and its scrawny, over-yellowed, shrink-wrapped, perfectly cut pieces of chicken (with no feet), to just about the freshest, juiciest, plumpest natural chicken you can find anywhere. Next week: fried chicken, chicken panuchos, and even chicken salad!
Who knows, I just might fit in around here after all.