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It was a balmy spring evening in Batopilas and the air was rich with the scent of orange blossoms. As Lorena and I walked from our hotel to doña Mica's house for dinner, the town's narrow streets were dark and virtually deserted. Approaching the municpal building, the old French clockworks delicately chimed the hour. On the ground floor, Martin Arias tipped his hat to us, then shifted his heavy rifle and leaned against the wooden doors securing the jail. Skirting the plaza, the only 'action' in sight was a boisterous co-ed scramble between the basketball hoops. Other than the usual gaggle of Tarahumara, rancheros and teenagers clustered around the door of Guero and Mila's hamburger shop, Batopilas was all but dead to the world, the very picture of a sleeping Mexican village.
As usual, we found doña Mica seated at the kitchen table, puffing on a cheap, malodorous Faro.
When we pushed the porch gate open, the old woman looked up, then cried out in mock horror, "Oh, no! The rabbits are here again!"
"Is it true that you serve vegetarian food here?" I teased back, "or just abuse?"
Doña Mica's hands flew to her cheeks. "Carlos!" she laughed delightedly. "You really got me that time!"
While we took our usual places at the oilcloth covered table, doña Mica went to the nearest stove and began lighting the gas burners with a flaming napkin. A few feet away, her vintage Monarch wood range gleamed in the light of a kerosene lamp like a beautifully oiled rifle.
"Hay café, Carlos!" Mica said placatingly, "Hay café!" She placed my favorite heavy china cup in front me. Nearby, her own heavily scarred brown plastic mug was half-filled with tepid café de calcetín . With regular doses of cigarettes, caffeine and cholesterol, this tireless seventy-four year old great-grandmother continually snubbed the findings of modern medical science.
Lifting my cup, I took a great noisy slurp of coffee. As was our custom, I followed the first taste with loud exclamations of approval. Doña Mica beamed as I cried, "What a miracle! Now this is coffee!"
In fact, this was no dilettante's brew but a potent, heavily sweetened infusion known in northern Mexico as 'sock' coffee.
Every few weeks, doña Mica chased the hens out of her combination woodshed/chicken coop. Using only the finest hardwoods, she stoked up a hellishly hot fire between three large rocks. When the flames had subsided and the coals were twinkling with sparks, she poured handfuls of raw green coffee beans mixed with crude brown sugar into a broad, shallow earthenware comal. Squinting against the smoke and sparks, and with a Faro dangling from one side of her mouth, doña Mica toasted the sugared beans until they became a black, viscous mass. After toasting, the beans were cooled into a black, glassy lump, like fragments of molten obsidian. Under the watchful eyes of a greedy rooster, she then carefully ground the carmelized beans to a fine powder on an ancient stone metate. This process not only required great skill and split-second timing, it consumed prodigious amounts of time and expensive firewood.
The actual brewing was simple: heaping tablespoons of rich ground coffee were mixed with hot water in a long cotton 'sock', then boiled to death in a tall aluminum pot. Depending on when it was first made, the strength of this coffee varied from Turkish to absolutely tongue-twisting. All things considered, doña Mica wisely concluded that it was better if her precious 'sock' coffee wasn't served to just anyone.
"I thought you wouldn't be coming tonight." doña Mica said. "So I don't have dinner for you." She stood at the corner of the table and fixed us with a steady, unblinking stare. "What can I feed my rabbits tonight?" Looking deep into my eyes, her voice took on a distracted, slightly dreamy quality. "What would make them happy? What can I fix in a hurry? Chilaquiles?"
I was about to vote an enthusiastic "Sí!" but she cut me off. "No, they just had that a few days ago. We need something diffferent." Without breaking her stare, Mica reached for her mug and took a sip of coffee. "I wonder if my rabbits would like.... sopa de papas y queso?"
This was a game that could go on for hours. Before the words "potato and cheese soup" had left her mouth, Lorena and I cheered our approval.
Potato Cheese Soup
1/2 cup chopped onion
In Batopilas, as in most of rural Mexico, conveniences such as refrigeration are relatively new and unreliable. For the most part, people still depend on bulk foods that are cheap, versatile and easily stored. Less than twenty years ago, every item of food and hardware that came to town from the outside world was packed in by mules. Even though Batopilas now has a few relatively well-stocked stores, with canned and packaged foods, Doña Mica's menu leans heavily toward traditional staples such as eggs, dried beef, greens, cheese, corn, potatoes, chilies and onions. Creating quick meals from this larder is especially challenging, yet virtually every customer who sits down at her table arrives unannounced.
1/2 cup chopped onion
Doña Mica's dishes are not only quick to prepare, they are also sparing of expensive ingredients. She shops with a sharp, frugal eye. "When I go to buy honey," she tells me, "I always say to the storekeeper, 'Hey? How much honey have you mixed in with these jars of water?' They laugh a little," she adds. "But they know...."
Swinging Bridge Jalapeño Sauce
Paco is the municipal judge in the old mining town of Batopilas at the bottom of the Batopilas Canyon. When he and his wife, Rosita, invited us over to their "Swinging Bridge" restaurant one evening to feast on quesadillas, we also demolished a large bowl of this simple, irresistable sauce.
Cook the following ingredients in water for about ten minutes, then blend or mash them into a sauce:
fresh jalapeño peppers
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