In the land of Carlos Slim, obesity

Mexico has captured the dubious title of world’s most obese nation.

This story has been getting a lot of play in the overseas press, and obscures the complexities around the topic, including the links between poverty and obesity. 

Some of Mexico’s poorest areas are also where it has the highest rates of diabetes and obesity. This is partly due to the rise of convenience stores, the power of food and beverage conglomerates like Bimbo and Coca-Cola and a more fast-paced lifestyle. I did an article on the soaring rate of diabetes in Mexico a while back.

Certainly here in Mexico City, the rise of roadside stands serving greasy food and sugary drinks is a contributing factor. With phenomenally long commutes, hardworking Mexicans here have little time for anything but cheap roadside food. No longer do they go home for home-cooked meals at lunch. 

The Global Post story of my colleague Dudley Althaus kicked off the spate of coverage on the obesity. Now, 32.8 percent of Mexicans are obese, pushing U.S. citizens down the world "globesity" list.

The sad thing is, fresh fruits and vegetables are so abundant and cheap in Mexico. I went to a neighborhood market Saturday and filled up a large bag with myriad fruits and vegetables. They all look so much fresher and riper than the normal assortment of plastic-wrapped, wax-covered stuff at the U.S. supermarket. And the cost? About 10 bucks.


A break for the dishwashers

PhotoIf the aesthetics don’t both you _ and they don’t bother me _ one of the common experiences of eating out at street stands or inexpensive restaurants in Mexico is getting served food on plates encased in plastic bags.

This saves the dishwashers plenty of work and water.

They just take off the used dirty plastic bag and put on a new one. The plate is ready for reuse. Here’s a fish taco I ate the other day – off a plastic covered plate.

I have not seen this done in any other Latin American country. But the plastic covered plates are ubiquitous in Mexico.


The need for a new 'green revolution'

Some half a century ago in the arid hills 30 miles north of Mexico City, an American agronomist and humanitarian, Normal Borlaug, developed the hybrid seeds and new ideas that became known as the “green revolution.”

Borlaug and other scientists would pass on to nations in South Asia the high-yielding varieties of grains that averted starvation among one billion people.

Today, the world needs a new “green revolution.” I heard about it at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center where Borlaug did decades of work before winning the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize. That's a new bioscience facility at the center above.

I was there on a different matter but fell into conversation with Kevin V. Pixley, an American who is the director of the genetic resources program.

Here’s the key takeaway: The world population now is 6.8 billion people. By 2050, estimates say it will hit 9.2 billion. But by 2050, the developing world will need 60 percent more wheat and twice as much corn. Yes, double. Demand will soar.

“Not only is population growing but, thankfully, poverty is declining,” Pixley explained. “So what happens in India when people start to have a little more expendable income? Well, first of all they want to eat a little more dairy products. They want to eat more chicken, in the case of India. If you go up to China, they want to eat more pork and more beef.

“Those foods – the dairy products and the meat products – require several times more grain than a human (does). If I feed myself on maize and soybeans, I can eat a few kilos a week. But if I’m eating beef and chicken, those beef cattle use many kilos to produce one kilo of beef. So you need a lot more food to maintain a higher standard of diet, which of course is desirable. We want this to happen. But it does imply a lot more food than if you’re eating a basic diet of basic grains.”

But guess what? It’s harder than ever to produce more food. Water tables are falling, extreme weather is increasing, climate change is coming, and new pestilent diseases have emerged.

“We have a new epidemic in Kenya, maize lethal necrosis. We have a new disease of wheat in Brazil called wheat blast, which is completely new,” said Thomas Lumpkin, the director of the maize and wheat center.

Lumpkin laid out what may happen if scientists can’t bring about a new green revolution: “Failing to meet it will be disastrous for millions of people. … We have all the ingredients for a new global food crisis, even a political crisis.”

“We’ve already seen how high wheat prices fueled the revolutions in the Arab world – in Libya, in Egypt. I’m sure you can remember the 2007 tortilla crisis here in Mexico. The world must grow more food with less inputs, with less land, with less water, with less labor, with less fertilizer.”

Lumpkin cited the “enormous challenge” of meeting greater demand for grains. If a new green revolution comes about, it is likely to sprout from the high-tech laboratories and 200 scientists at this agricultural center in Texcoco, in the arid plains north of Mexico City.


Mexico's biggest killer? Diabetes

More than 100,000 Mexicans will die this year from diabetes, and it is partly caused by massive consumption of soft drinks. According to this compelling Reuters investigation, no other country in the world consumes more sugary sodas than Mexico. Mexicans on average drink 728 8-ounce sodas per year, far higher than the 403 8-ounce sugary drinks consumed in the United States.


Long live chiles en nogada!

This is Mexico's Independence Day. Streets are quiet as people rush to be with their families or crowd into city and town squares for the traditional "Grito de la Independencia." In the Mexico City area, restaurants often serve the dish you see above: chiles en nogada. It is patriotic, after all, with the colors of the national flag. But it is also extraordinarily flavorful, or as my fellow blogger over at Mexico Cooks! notes, enough to make you stand up and yell, "Viva Mexico!"


Tomatoes, apples and U.S. swing states

Let’s take a moment to ponder tomatoes, apples and U.S. electoral swing states. They are related. And Mexico plays a role.

We’ll start with tomatoes: In June, a group of Florida tomato growers appealed to the Obama administration saying they’d been subject to unfair trade practices by Mexican tomato exporters. They asked for the end of a pact that had governed the price of Mexican vine-ripened tomatoes since 1996.

Tomatoes are big business. The U.S. imported well over $1 billion worth of tomatoes last year from Mexico, the main food import from South of the Border. They are also big business in Florida.

And of course, Florida is a swing state in this election year. So a trade war may be in the offing as President Obama looks to secure key Florida votes. The Commerce Department is accepting comments on what it should do until Sept. 4.

Business is weighing in. On the pro-import said is the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas.

“Special interest groups are using election-year politics to try to start a trade war that will disrupt a 16-year track record of success for bringing fair prices to consumers and healthy variety to family dinner tables,” the group’s president, Lance Jungmeyer, said in a statement a week ago.

Florida’s commissioner of agriculture, Adam Putnam, is backing Florida’s growers. He sent a letter early last month demanding relief for growers from his state.

“Already suffering from weak demand in a difficult economy, Florida’s tomato growers cannot compete in a market flooded by unprecedented imports of tomatoes from Mexico at prices well below the cost of production,” Putnam wrote.

So where do apples fit in? Well, Mexico is a major importer of apples from Washington State. But Washington is not a swing state in this election. It is solidly democratic. If the Obama administration favors the Florida tomato growers, Mexico may retaliate against apple growers from Washington.

Here’s what a columnist for something called The Wenatchee World wrote:

“Trade war talk should scare us. Trade is a two-way street. Washington apples go in while tomatoes go out. Tomatoes are Mexico’s largest agricultural export, and Mexico is the largest export market for Washington apples. When Mexico is upset, apples can get nailed.”

Also from the department of unintended consequences, this Spanish-language story notes that 350,000 Mexicans are employed in the tomato industry, many of them in Sinaloa state. If they lose their jobs, where will they head? North?


Where chefs shop in Mexico City

My wife has been bugging me for a while to accompany her to the Mercado San Juan in Mexico City’s central district. She’d been with friends several times and described it as a market for gourmets because of its extraordinary variety of foods.

The market has a long history and is beloved by visiting cooks. As Rick Bayless wrote not so long ago: “Folks in the know refer to it as the chefs’ market because of the wide range of meat, fish, cheese, fruits and vegetables—all of it of breathtaking quality.”

PhotoWe went Saturday, accompanying a visiting daughter, with two goals. One was to buy some fresh, fat shrimp for an evening dinner. Secondly was to have baguette sandwiches at Gastronomica San Juan, stall No. 162 (Remember that if you visit Mexico City!).

This market is worth going out of your way for. If you want exotic meats or insects for your table, they are here. Ant eggs, kangaroo, crocodile, grasshoppers, boar, freshly butchered lamb, pheasant … the list goes on. The fish and seafood stands were loaded with all variety of ocean and freshwater fish and seafood.

If you’re vegetarian, skip those sections and visit the vegetable stands. Wow! What displays. What I loved was not the fresh veggies so much as the edible flowers on display, and not just flor de calabaza but other flowers. The Triana coffee stand had a great variety of coffee (and often attracts movie and TV stars. See this entertaining YouTube video about it).

But go to either Gastronomica San Juan or the stand next to it, La Jersey, to get a fresh baguette filled with all kinds of cheese and cold cuts. These places are a delight. You can find all manner of artisanal raw milk cheeses, imported parmesan, pecorino, fontina, aged manchegos and others. With the sandwich, they hand you a little glass of table wine. Then you stand there, savoring the sandwich and enjoying the aromas and colors of the other stands.

Click here and here to read what others have written about the market.


Tijuana's culinary renaissance

Did you know the venerable Caesar Salad had its birth in Tijuana?

I certainly didn’t before last week. The cradle of the Caesar Salad is the Caesar Hotel on Avenida Revolucion in the middle of Tijuana, just blocks from the border. 

It was there where an Italian immigrant, Caesar Gardini, tossed his namesake salad for the first time in 1924. Gardini had left San Diego because of Prohibition. A true Caesar Salad as you probably know is made of romaine lettuce and croutons dressed with parmesan cheese, lemon juice, olive oil, egg, Worcestershire sauce, garlic, and black pepper – all mixed tableside.

The tides of Tijuana’s destiny – gambling in the 1930s, prostitution and cantinas in the 1940s, quickie marriages, divorces and abortions in the 1950s through the 1970s, and drug cartels in the 1990s and last decade – have created an image of vice that some in the city are trying to shake.

Until 2010, the Caesar Hotel seemed to be in inexorable decline.

But I’m happy to report that the hotel and restaurant have been lovingly restored and are worth going out of your way – far out of your way – to visit.

See the photo I took Saturday afternoon before the evening rush. The waiters are in white aprons, starched just like the tablecloths. The black-and-white floor is retro classic, going hand in hand with the polished wood bar and walls. The chandeliers, paintings, huge copper coffee machine and pleasant din of a busy restaurant all add to the experience.

But that’s only the half of it. The food was really good, starting with a classic Caesar Salad. I had Seafood Newburg while one companion had seasoned bone marrow and another classic tortilla soup. We watched as the bartender whipped up tamarind martinis and served handcrafted local beer. The famed culinary Plascencia family took over the Caesar a few years ago, and their elegant touch is everywhere. Little wonder that the restaurant ranks No. 1 among 97 on tripadvisor.com in Tijuana.

A newer restaurant, Mision 19, is run by Javier Plascencia, one of the sons of patriarch Juan Jose Plascencia, and was just featured in The New Yorker. Click here and here and here to read more. 

IMG_1783Nearly all the clients when we were at the Caesar were locals, not foreigners coming from across the border. Word still hasn’t seemed to filter up to San Diego that there is good reason to head south. A culinary renaissance is taking place.

I went to another restaurant, La Querencia, for lunch and was so awed at the quality that I went back again the next day with friends. Here are a few pictures. I had a tuna tostada with shallots, avocado and shitake mushroom that had me licking my fingers, followed by a venison hamburger. I think the bill was something like $12. Chef Miguel Angel Guerrero isn’t quite getting the press of Plascencia. But if I lived in Tijuana, I’d be making trips to his restaurant as often as I could.  



Exploring 'retro' diners in Latin America

Who says time travel is impossible? In Latin America, it can happen all the time. 

IMG_0497The other night, my wife and I and another couple decided to go to the Covadonga Cantina in the Roma district of Mexico City. This place is widely rated as one of the best traditional cantinas in the city. I had yet to visit.

As soon as one walks in the door, one hears the exuberant sounds of dominoes slapping down on the tables. It’s a huge salon, largely unchanged for four or five decades. At some tables, people play dominoes. At others, they drink and watch football on TVs on the walls. At still others, they eat Spanish (not Mexican) food.

It really seemed to be a blast from the past. The center of our table was discolored from the domino games that had been played there for decades. Although none of us had played in years, we asked for a set and amused ourselves for much of the evening.

Click here and here and here to see what others say about Covadonga. Part of what I loved about the place is that it was packed, and clients seemed to be equally divided between young urban hipsters and oldtimers who'd probably been coming for decades.

IMG_0493I had another marvelous experience of visiting a diner straight out of the 1950s recently. It was in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, at the Skandia Restaurant in the Gran Hotel Sula. I’d been there 15 or so years ago and still remembered the place. I went back earlier this month … and nothing had changed. It was clean, tidy and I felt like I was on a movie set for Grease.

Behind the Formica counter was the Hamilton Beach mixer. The pie stand stood at the ready with the day’s treats. If you like terrazzo floors, grilled cheese sandwiches, waffles dusted with confectioner’s sugar, big slices of apple pie, donuts and milk shakes, head down to San Pedro Sula. 



Mexico: Our wines as good as yours

I get what seems to be an endless stream of email pronouncements from the press office of Mexico’s Congress. Most I simply delete with barely a glance. But occasionally one catches my eye.
Yesterday, one came over the transom with this headline:

Mexican wines are of equal or greater quality than imports: Deputy Vega Delamadrid

Hmm, interesting. I’ve tasted a few Mexican wines. They are all right. But I’d never consider buying one. It seems they all cost double what an imported wine from, say, Chile or Argentina might cost.

Turns out that Francisco Arturo Vega De Lamadrid, a lawmaker in the Chamber of Deputies, heads a commission to promote vineyards. Yesterday, 20 Mexican winemakers set up shop in the grand central courtyard of the Chamber to present their case.

What has the deputy worked up is that imported wines pay less in taxes than national wines, giving them an advantage. Various taxes and inspection fees add 31 percent to the cost of Mexican wines, he said, while Spanish vintners pay only 14 percent tax in their domestic market. In Chile, vintners pay 25 percent and in Argentina 19 percent.

The deputy said only 30 percent of wine consumption in Mexico is of domestic brands while 70 percent is imported.

Mexico’s wine production in 2008 was worth only $140 million, he said.

No doubt that Mexico could give a big boost to production. It’ll take time, though, to boost quality. And it is a far stretch to say they are as good as foreign wines. 



This blog is written by Tim Johnson, the Mexico bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers.

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