Thursday, May 24, 2007

how the churro was globalized

Last week my dad and I watched the second presidential debate here in them Mexican city of Puebla. He was a Mormon missionary in Mexico 54 years ago, and I have accompanied him on his first trip back since then. I egged him on to make the trip, picturing another sunny time of idleness, reading, and looking at murals and women like the one I had last year when I came by myself. My legs are a lot tireder this time, for I hardly had time to recover from my 2 days and three nights on the bus (New York—Mexico City) before dad, 75 good years and fresh off the plane, was outpacing me to the Alameda, the Zocalo, and Coyoacan. Even today he is souvenir-hunting in Cholula while I rest in a lefty cafĂ© and bookstore watching people walk by in the sun.

After an hour and a half spent heads bent toward the computer monitor while tiny Bush and Kerry went at it in tiny voices, we straightened up and walked out into the night. “Well, Bush didn’t fold,” said Dad, and both of us noted how much better he was this time while secretly revelling in the many scenes of Kerry rhetorically hurling Bush to the mat. Our pleasure in these debates has been furtive, tentative – afraid to let it show too much for fear it will jinx Kerry in the 3 long debateless weeks before the election when Karl Rove’s trivialities about “character” and machismo will try to displace any thoughts of issues.

Still, it was in good spirits that we walked home. On the way, I caught sight of a churreria, and suggested we get something to eat. After all, the two sandwiches traded hurriedly back and forth as we hunched over straining to hear over the traffic behind us, hardly counted as dinner. We sat in a tiny table in the corner and tried to figure out how to order the spiny sticks joyous in oil and sugar. I ordered a torta of “enchiladad meat” whatever that was, and the handsome waiter explained that the churros were sold by the piece, not the coil. “Well, how about 6 then,” I said, and he asked, “Would you like some of our chocolate?” I was confused, and he explained it was their specialty, a hot chocolate. I agreed.

We sat and watched a man paddling a blob of paste in a huge basin with cheerful brutality. A boy of 9 or 10 sat nearby talking to him.

“You’d think a machine would be easier,” I said.

“They could really use a Bosch mixer,” said Dad, referring to the hardy German bread mixing machine at our house. But maybe the demonstration of human labor was part of the attraction about the place. It was, after all, located in the historic downtown of pastry-pastel buildings, of key lime, flan, blueberry chiffon and cremsicle colors, and tourists of all stripe sauntered about. The beauty of the colonial buildings, cruelly built with the labor of the poor, standing as they do interspersed with industrially made buildings 10 years old and already shabby, seems to attest to the greater preciousness of things made with blood and sweat. But I dont know if the owner considered this or not in having the employee attack the paste with a battered, blunt paddle. The labor reminded me of the team of noodlemakers I had seen some years before in a shop in Gansu, Western China. Far from the weak-sister image that the word “noodle maker” may conjure up in English, these young men revelled in the violence they directed at the willing dough; shirtless, they wrestled, stretched, pounded, and slammed the blob into fine filaments of astonishing tensility. Delighted at my evident delight, they redoubled their vigor. Believe me, noodles enter the mouth with a different fanfare when their human production occurs right in front of you.

This man’s work elicited our curiosity as well. He scooped the pasty dough into a cylinder, which he attached to a hand press which swung out over the bathtub sized vat of oil. He lit the gas burners underneath and began turning the wheel. An endless worm of dough swam fizzing into the oil. With a metal rod in his other hand. He agitated the strip of boiling dough in a circular direction, keeping it from sticking and gradually guiding it into a coil. He kept on, the churro cobra coiling it bigger and bigger as if he were a cowboy with a lasso that never stopped growing.

Only when it was 3 feet in diameter did he hook it up from the oil, a golden brown, and place it in a lamp lit metal tray. Faces of passersby appeared at the open window, peering in at the sight of production and its promise of an intimate cheer. The sandwich came, tangy and spicy but calmed a bit by avocado; the chocolate went cinammoned and rich down my throat, and the two of us munched the sugared churros with relish. A girl appeared at the window, her boyfriend clasping her from behind, and she was so beautiful I was spirited away momentarily from my conversation with dad – about buses in the old days, or about that throat-scratching corn drink they had to drink politely in Costa Rica, or about the way Bush milked 9/11, alienating this life long Republican for the first time.

Then I remembered something outrageous from my recent stay in Taiwan.

“Speaking of globalization,” I said, “the churro reminds me of its real meaning. When I was in Taiwan, I went to a pizza place that had just opened. I was surprised to see “churro” was under “desserts.” But you know what really blew me away? Right next to “churro,” the menu said, in Chinese, “a snack from Disney Land.” I was like, “What? What happened to Mexico?” Dad laughed and shook his head.

Globalization had indeed allowed and stimulated the trade of products, including cultural products, all around the globe. But this trade passes through American corporations, and so the lowly churro makes it to Taiwan as a product of Disney, not as a Mexican sweet. The nerve! I remember thinking. The churro, born of poor but ingenious Mexican parents, was being passed off to Taiwanese as the posterity of an American entertainment mogul! And deliberately done or not – the nerve!

Globalization is an intensification of trade and production of particular kinds. Local production for local people has declined. Artisanal production has declined. A side result of this intensification is an erasure of origins, or a forgetting. The churro was not misrepresented by the pizza chains owner because he or she was stupid, but merely because the churro had become known to him at Disneyland. I half expect to see some trendy Mexican restaurant offering duck noodles or cong you bing as the “latest thing out of LA.” In any case, would Taiwanese consumers have been intrigued to see the name “Mexico” next to the churro? Or merely puzzled, the word producing a blank spot on the screen of stock fantasies that makes up the world? And would a Mexican consumer’s pleasure in biting into a good cong you bing be enhanced or blunted at encountering the odd, empty name “Taiwan” on the menu? What the people of the world know of each other is – unless they are neighbors – only known through the mediation of the United States. Mexico is Speedy Gonzales or Antonio Banderas to “overseas viewers”; Taiwan is more than likely a blank spot in most people’s minds, except as it appears in the “Made in Taiwan” label on manufactured goods.

No comments: