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Thursday, February 10, 2011

Fuck you Bourdain- an article I wrote for the westword in 2010

The bar where I was meeting my chefs before the show was packed. The hearth-fire lighting glowed in prisms of condensation on the windows; jackets and scarves were hanging on hooks and draped over chairs. The five of us squeezed around the corner of the wide, hickory-topped bar, aged and oiled by elbows and worn smooth with conversation. I ordered my October-through-January standard: ten ounces of the Great Divide's Hibernation Ale pulled off the tap and a shot of Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey with two ice cubes. In Denver our air is thin, but our intoxicants are not. We have a culture of strong beer and strong whiskey, and I am extremely fortunate to be able to imbibe the creations of people I know and respect. This connection makes the love and appreciation of the drink that much deeper — and the buzz that much warmer. People continued to flow into the bar, blowing on their hands, stomping the snow off their shoes, looking for a place to sit. Like I said, the bar was packed, standing room only. I was happy with this, because it was my bar.

Going to the show was not my idea. Sure, I'd heard of the guy, but I wasn't really familiar with him, had never read his books, never seen his TV program. But my chefs were unanimous in their desire to see him. "Why pay seventy dollars a ticket to see a guy talk about what we do every day?" I asked. They remained unified, though, so I acquiesced and ordered tickets the same way 90 percent of people order wine: I looked at the cheapest and most expensive offerings and chose something right in the middle. The balcony.

The crowd outside the Buell was younger and more stylish than I expected, which lifted my hopes — until I found out they were going to see Ray LaMontagne in the theater next door. "Are you guys sure you'd rather not see Ray?" I asked, trying to push a last-minute agenda. But my chefs are savvy to my tricks and held fast to the original plan.

The crowd inside the Buell looked as if they'd spent some quality time on the couch. I think I saw Jason Sheehan, Westword's meat-toothed restaurant critic, all shifty-eyed, lurking in the corner, wearing a black trench coat and a fan boy T-shirt, doing some serious mouth-breathing.

Grabbing another round of drinks, my crew and I headed for our seats. I don't think there is an American alive who can sit in a balcony and not look around for John Wilkes Booth. We joked, did a few assassination reenactments, started talking about Kennedy and vampires. Texts starting arriving from friends who'd scoped us from seats below and invariably made reference to Lincoln. We gave them delicate rodeo-queen waves and settled in.

John Hickenlooper, the mayor of Denver, who's steeped in restaurant cred, introduced "Tony," the best-selling author of tell-all restaurant industry books, and presented him with a beer to the city, a well-selected Great Divide Titan IPA.

Tony started out by admitting that the scene in little ol' Denver doesn't suck as bad as it used to, and then, casually sipping his beer, revealed, "I don't prepare for these engagements."

Damn, really? Seventy bucks a ticket to see this dude wing it? I strained my ears for the strum of Ray's guitar.

He continued by trashing celebrity chefs. He threw some shots at a short, round chick with an annoying voice who has a cooking show, bagged on a dude with spiky blond hair and sunglasses on the back of his head from some other Food Network show. The crowd, obvious fans of cooking shows, prodded him on with sardonic laughter and hoots of agreement. I, however, was completely lost. Not only had I never seen Tony's show, but I'd only watched one Food Network show in my life, and that's because I was on it. And that show sucked.

After the crowd-pleasing Food Network ribbing, he carried on about his show on the Travel Channel, everyone's dream job: travel the world with your mouth and your guts. His stories of eating his way through parts of Vietnam, Morocco and other exotic locales were told with an easy confidence; he spoke of sitting at the table, sharing food and drink with people and learning about their culture. "When in another country, I eat what I'm offered because I don't want to insult the host," he said (or close enough). He allowed those words to settle in, then followed with this: "Which is why I have such a problem with fucking vegetarians." The crowd erupted in hoots and hollers of support that seemed to carry on for minutes. I heard guffaws and saw high-fives being exchanged; was that Sheehan pumping his fist in the air? Our friends below looked up to see our reaction. What could we do but smile?

Really, though? Fuck you, Bourdain. And fuck you, too, John Wilkes Booth.

I recall that evening while sitting on a wooden bench in front of a food stall in the Mercado Juárez in Oaxaca City with mi socio en negocios, my business partner, Dave Paco. We order two copas de mezcal as an aperitif, to celebrate successfully navigating the labyrinth that is Mexican bureaucracy and finally becoming a legal business in this country. We wave off the training wheels of orange slices and chile salt and sip the liquor. Mezcal is not tequila; mezcal is magic. If you were to lick the perspiration off Mother Earth's upper lip after an afternoon delight, her sweet sweat would taste of great mezcal.

"On your travels, have you ever offended someone because you don't eat meat?" I ask Dave.

"Offended anyone?" He cocks his head, then says simply, "No."

I ask him this question because before he, my wife, Michelle, and I opened Osa Mariposa, a travel hostel in Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca, he spent five years traveling the globe. Not the REI khaki zip-off pants, collapsible trekking poles in Nepal, photos in front of Angel Falls, eco-tourist kind of travel the globe, but the live on ten dollars a day, ingratiate yourself in the community by learning the language, sleep with local girls and work under the table kind of way. He's had a book published about his two-and-a-half-year journey from Los Angeles to Tierra del Fuego, called Walk(; another book is coming out about his travels through India, Thailand, Japan and more. After all his travels, his Facebook friends page looks like a casting-call list for a Benetton commercial.

The abuelita who works the market food stall asks what we would like to eat. For me, it's easy: flor de calabasas stuffed with queso Oaxacana. Even though the dish is vegetarian, the sweet little grandmother cooking the food does not seem offended at all. But Dave's a vegan, and now his ordering dance begins: Tú tienes comida sin carne, sin queso? (Do you have food without meat or cheese?) I have witnessed this dance a hundred times before with Dave, and the response is always the same: Si, tenemos comida con pollo o pescado. (Yes, we have dishes with chicken or fish.) Then Dave's patent reply: Gracias, pero sin pollo y sin pescado. (Thank you, but without chicken or fish.) The grandmother gets a little concerned at this point: No carne, no queso, no pollo y no pescado? she asks. Sí, perfecto, solamente verduras, only vegetables, Dave concludes.

In all the times I've witnessed these exchanges, I have never seen the grandmothers take offense. Quite the contrary: There's invariably a tenderness and a grandmotherly smile. I imagine her saying to herself, Pobrecito, él no es más grande que un pito de abeja. The poor child is as skinny as a bee's dick.

The grandmother's long silver hair is braided with colorful ribbons and tied around her head like a wreath. Her small body moves efficiently in the compact kitchen as she pulls ingredients from ceramic bowls and cooks on a simple propane burner. She shuffles over to another stall to borrow an ingredient and then returns to the cooking. The food arrives at our table. My plate is beautiful: huge yellow squash blossoms stuffed with a gamey white cheese and fried in an egg-and-flour batter, then topped with a piquant green salsa and served with the ubiquitous black beans and corn tortillas. What she presents Dave with is even more magnificent: a plate-sized tlayuda, a popular Oaxacan dish that's like a large tostada. The crisp corn tortilla is topped with black beans, sautéed mushrooms, nopales (cactus), lettuce, avocado and tomatoes. Solamente verduras. Then she sets down a bowl of smoky salsa that has such kick it should be applied with a steady hand, and wishes us buen provecho: good appetite.

The afternoon turns to night as we continue to get mezcalized, a clean fade that leaves you in control of your faculties and, if you don't mix in any other type of alcohol, sin hangover. We move on to Los Danzantes, a restaurant where we hook up with Horacio, a local bartender who invented the canallegra, a mezcal cocktail with cinnamon sticks and citrus. Around the corner from Los Danzantes is a tiny mezcalería where Juan Pedro tours us on different types of mezcal — from sweet and smoky to strong and earthy — and between varieties has us sniff coffee beans to clear our senses. Hungry again, we have dinner at Biznaga, where I scrape my plate clean of the succulent mole tamarindo. By midnight we are at a club dancing salsa to a ten-piece Cuban band with Lucia, Salvador, Maria andSantiago.

Through my travels, as a vegetarian and not, I am becoming a citizen of the world. I do my very best to never offend a host, and, minus a non-food-related incident on the Amalfi Coast, don't think I ever have. Anthony Bourdain's "fucking vegetarians" comment, while an obvious crowd-pleaser, was naive, implying that foreign countries have a homogeneous culture that can be offended by one particular act. In every country, in every city, in every town, there are a variety of cultures. There is the dominant one and then there are the glorious and varied subcultures. In my travels, I seek the subcultures. The subcultures are where I thrive, where I spend my time, and by running two vegetarian restaurants and a vegan bakery in Denver, they are where I make my money.

I am very proud of Denver's culture of strong beer and strong whiskey, but if you don't drink, don't worry: I won't be offended. We'll find something else to share.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

My Life in the Playboy Mansion


Chapter 1
Our home Apa

As my mother's cervix ripened; the rains continued to fall. The cinderblock foundation of our home settled as the baby's head dropped into position. The rainwater penetrated deep into the soil of the mountainside until the mountain itself liquefied.

When my mother's water broke so did the mountains.
As my sister slid through the birth canal the earth flowed like a river on top of our home. Mud and earth covered our windows blocking the grey morning light. I could no longer hear the roosters crowing, or the dogs barking, or the oompah oompah of the neighbor's radio. I never knew quiet until that moment. The only noise was from the hiss of the propane stove that boiled the water. The only light was from the stove, an orange tinged blue light, like from a ring of candles. In our home, buried underneath the mud, my sister was stillborn and my mother dying.

My father, who had delivered me nine years earlier in the same room, panicked. "Run! Get help!" he screamed. His voice was a thud, absorbed by the thick dampness of the walls. The door bulged inward on the verge of release. I was rooted in place staring at my father, "there is no place to run too." I said.
I heard the sound of shovels. My mother, with the grey baby on her chest, exhaled her last breath between clenched teeth.

"Turn off the stove, Horacio, or we will suffocate," my father said as he pulled a thin sheet over the bodies.

The sound of the shovels stopped for a moment and then started up again. Then stopped. We waited for them to start again. We waited in the dark silence. We waited. They did not start again.

"Candelas," my father whispered, "her name is Candelas Isabell Morales Gutierrez. Candelas for the light that she was born into and Isabell for her mother."

I too had named my sister. A secret name. I had secret names for everything. Everything.

In the dark I tried to picture where familiar things were in our home. I reached out a hand and felt the leg of a wooden chair. This was the chair my mother sat in to spin wool. It's secret name was Gira. I knew the table where we eat, mida, was above me. And my bed, mimo, to the left would still have my backpack, chuchi, on it. I soon oriented myself in the room. I gave a secret name to the situation we were in. I wondered how the sheet that covered my mother and sister felt about it's morbid responsibility.

Gasca, the valiant wooden door showed amazing strength as it held back the tons of mud and earth. Gasca creaked uncomfortably as it pleaded to the hinges to hang in there.

"Where are those damn shovels?" Gasca asked. "I can't hold much longer."
The furnishings, unable to move, encouraged him to hang in there.

The side of the house that faced the mountain buckled. "I wish I could have been stronger," it apologized as a window shattered releasing the mud, roots and leaves that covered the television and small lace covered table.
Still groping in the dark for familiar things I perched up on the balls of my feet as the floor began to fill with muddy water.

Gasca surrendered.

Our home, Apa, filled with mud.

Chapter 2
The little paca

Apa’s furnishings, animated by the intrusive flow of mud and earth, coordinated and conspired to protect me. Mida the table, knocked on her side, boxed me in with her legs as we were pushed toward the far wall of our home. Mimo, my bed, separated from her frame, tumbled on top of Mida creating a roof. The two golden velvet chairs that my mother and father sat in to watch TV flanked the sides and the thin white sheet that covered my mother and sister abandoned its post and covered the makeshift structure like a thin skin.

I am here father! I shouted, I am safe in here, mi apacita, my little home. My voice sounded as if I were yelling under water.

I reached out to find familiar things but I found none only the cold balled fist of my baby sister. She too had been pushed in to my little home.

In the dark I waited to hear my father’s voice, the sound of shovels, or see the light of day. The only noise I heard was the gritty rasp of the apacita moving slowly down the mountain in the thick flow of mud and earth.

A neighbor girl Theresa, who my father called a marimacho, a girl who plays like a boy, kept a large snake in a chicken wire cage behind her house. One day, while I watched, she feed the snake a rodent. The little paca seemed hypnotized by the snake as it allowed itself to be eaten head first. My smirk of detattachment that I wore to impress Theresa, was a ruse to hide my true feelings of horror. I could see the little paca struggling inside the gullet of the snake, its legs kicking frantically. I gave the paca my eyes so I could see what it saw. I put myself into the paca and felt the breath being squeezed out of me. Knowing I was sensitive Theresa stared at me seeing if I would pass out or cry. I just stood there staring, never dropping my smirk.

“Let’s go throw rocks at dogs,” she suggested finally.

Devising another ruse I told her I had chores to do. My arms and legs swung wild and free as I ran home.

At night in my bed I would torture myself with the thoughts of what that little paca must have been feeling as it was forced down the dark, constricting tunnel in the gullet of the snake. On those nights my sheets weighed a ton and I could not take deep enough breaths. On those nights my mind contemplated infinity, eternal life, the after death that never comes, like the endless journey of that little paca if the snakes tail was stuck in its own mouth. Eternal digestion.

In my apacita I panicked and flailed my arms and legs. I screamed and cried.

Horacio, I heard my father say, blow out the candle or you will suffocate.

Like the TV being turned off I fell asleep. For how long I slept I do not know, but when I awoke I was very, very far from home.

Chapter 3
Nessa the soul thief

The mudslide slid far, far down the valley depositing me and a collection of uniquely Mexican offal on the shore of the Pacific Ocean. My exposed apacita, was steamy in the tropical humidity. Pushing aside the mattress roof I saw the sun muted through the filter of the tightly stretched sheet. Poking the thin membrane of sheet with my index finger I tested its tensile strength. The sheet stretched and eventually tore. I parted the sheet with my hands and gasped on a breath of fresh air. My head, soaked with sweat and caked with mud pushed through the thin gash of my apacita. I squeezed my shoulders out and my body quickly followed. Like a fish I flopped on top of the mud mound that carried me so far from home.

It took no time for the seabirds to find me. Cautiously they approached craning their necks, poking at pieces of trash that were stuck in the mud. I could not move my arms or legs, they felt like skin sacks filled with jelly. As the blood began to find my extremities I felt as if I were rolling in a cactus patch. Eventually I balled my fists and wiggled my toes.

Cepillos, chiclets, dulces…
From down the beach the song was sung in a passionless cadence over and over.

Cepillos, chiclets, dulces… Cepillos, chiclets, dulce…

A small, barefoot girl, dressed in a long black skirt embroidered with brightly colored thread, a ruffled blouse and a brightly colored shall shuffled slowly down the beach carrying a tray filled brushes, gum, and various candies around her neck. The sun glinted off her silver front tooth as she continued her song.

Cepillos, chiclets, dulces…

A black curtain of rain clouds darkened the sky behind her as the sun continued to shine on her face. She sang as she approached the littered mud pile.

Her song, a dirge, frightened me. Her shuffling walk never varied. Slowly she approached. Forcing my limbs to cooperate I perched unsteadily on the edge of my submerged apacita.

When she reached the base of the mud pile I expected her to put down her tray and climb the mound, but she did not. She shuffled up the steep sides, defying laws of inertia, never breaking cadence with her song or her shuffle.

Cepillos, chiclets, dulces

Within seconds she stood in front of me. Sheets of lighting flashed on the distant horizon above the ocean.

She pushed the tray of treats in front of me as an offer, her silver tooth flashing.

“I have nothing,” my words leaked out.

“Nada?” she asked, craning her head as if she were a seabird ready to stab a freshly hatched sea turtle whose shell had yet to harden as it blindly ambled down the beach toward the ocean.

“Nothing,” I repeated.

“Friend, that is simply not true. You do have something.” The wind blew her straight black hair in front of her face.

I smelled the burnt acrid scent of coffee.

“I have nothing” I lied.

Like a shining nugget of gold left on the floor my soul was exposed and unprotected. She reached toward it.

I fell backward into my apacita.

As if the wind had picked her up she rose above me and then slowly descended into my little home her hand stretched out like a talon plucking a rodent from the ground.

I rolled over and clasped the small balled fist of my baby sister. I took her in my arms and embraced her. The soul thief reaching for my golden soul put her hand into my sister instead.

Lighting flashed and the wind howled. A powerful rain began to fall. The soul thief released a howl that drowned out the brewing tempest. She recoiled violently as if kicked in the chest by a giant. Her scream reached a furied pitch when she hit the bottom of the mud pile. Crumpled at the base of the mound she forced her fist into her mouth and began to consume herself. Within moments she had masticated her entire body and the tray of brushes, gum and candy. All that remained was a small bag of roasted coffee beans and the silver tooth.

Gently I placed my sister in the bottom of the apacita as it filled with rain and mud. I covered her with the tattered sheet. She was buried in the mud pile.

I too had named my sister. A secret name, I have secret names for everything. Everything. My sister’s secret name is Poa, my savior.

Chapter 4

One Monarch butterfly in flight is silent. One thousand Monarch butterflies in flight are silent. When one million Monarch butterflies descended from the Sierra Madres and alighted around me I heard flattery. Their dusty wings kissed my skin. Blushing I ascended into the sky enveloped in the red and black cloud of butterflies. As we rose above the shore, back toward the mountains of which I just slid down, they sang a gentle song to me.

Horacio the beautiful
Sees the secret life in beds
Loves the chair
and the hat on his head.

Horacio the beautiful
Who translates insects
Was born unto the world of time
To be reborn in the world of secrets

Horacio, Horacio
The monsters know
The monsters know

Will they eat you?

We do not know
We do not know

Despite the gentle caresses of butterfly kisses I shivered at hearing the word monsters. I admit, I do not have a secret word for everything. Monsters are monsters. I feared the monster under the dark stairwell with the drippy skin and sunken eye, the monster on the other side of the door who waits with a machete, or the one under my bed, less a physical thing and more a vapor to be inhaled, or behind the tree blacker than death. A monster is a monster and monsters petrify me.

As the Monarchs peeled away I was lowered onto the dank forest floor of Cloud Mountain. The lower trunks of the tall grey pine trees were wrapped in clumps of old man’s beard moss and grotesque shingles of fungus. The high branches allowed only shafts of light to find the forest floor that was covered by a tapestry of different types of mushrooms and a deep layer of decomposing organic matter.

From the lower branches of the pines hung thousands of neon green cocoons from which sticky Monarch butterflies unfolded and began flying silently beyond the treetops toward the unfiltered sun. Hanging from a thick lower branch of the tallest pine tree hung a cocoon much, much larger than the others. As I watched the large cocoon began to tremble from the movement within. Soon the sack separated introducing a newborn baby that clung to the silky strands of the frayed cocoon.

A breeze whistled through the forest and picked up the baby as she surrendered her grip. Up and up the baby rose above the treetops were she caught soft wind currents surrendering like a leaf in the wind. I could hear her laugh as she rolled around with the butterflies above the trees, soaking in the sun.

Her descent was as gentle as her ascent. As she reentered the realm of pine trees she delicately avoided the braches occasionally allowing the wind to carry her back up again. While a small baby at the treetops, the lower she descended the older she became. By the time she was half way down she had transformed into a striking woman with obsidian hair, powerful arms, golden eyes and skin the color of rich desert soil. The farther down she floated the more silver came into her hair and wisdom into her eyes. By the time she touched the earth, landing as soft as a cat, she was an old women with sagging breasts, and long grey hair, she had thick whiskers on her lip and chin.

I was repulsed by the sight of her naked body. I looked at my feet as she fitted her discarded cocoon as a shall around her shoulders and ran her fingers through her hair tying it into a bun. When I looked up again I recognized the women as Maria Sabina, the shaman of Cloud Mountain.

“You poor sad child”, she said gently offering a knotted brown hand toward me. “I have a gift for you.”

She wrapped me under her shall and held me tight. My tears released in a torrent like the rains that softened the earth around my apa. Maria Sabina, her stretched skin hanging off in folds was soft and warm, she enveloped me completely in her cocoon shall as I cried and convulsed. It was completely dark. Soon I fell asleep.

Maria Sabina was waiting for me in my dreams.

I reached out to take her proffered hand as we tumbled together through the ever-expanding universe.

“Everything is everything,” she said as we lost ourselves between the immense space between the stars.

Here it all was. And in that moment I was not in pain, or sad. I did not know happiness or loss. I, for that, moment was a part of it all.

“Is this the gift?” I asked.

“No, this can not to be given,”

Under the shall Maria Sabina’s skin became taut against her muscles. Her warm breath on my neck smelled of cinnamon and fresh roasted coffee. Wrapping my arms around her tighter I imagined the beautiful brown skinned women who drifted past the middle branches of the great pine tree. Maria Sabina embraced me tighter. Her warm breath on my neck and soft finger on my back awoke a feeling more compelling than anything I had ever felt, more compelling than the universe itself.

Neither fully awake nor asleep I was caught in between the dream world of universal oneness and the physical world of passion and desire.

“Horacio,” The dream Maria Sabina said. “Our gift to you...,”

“...our gift to you is the gift of choice,” whispered the beautiful Maria Sabina under the shall, her soft hands clasping mine.

…and so began my life in the Playboy Mansion.