Thoughts of Mexico and Tacos

Usually this time of the year I am in Mexico.

About nine years ago, I co-created a course for international faculty interested in teaching in English. Most of these faculty members aren’t English teachers, and their English proficiency varies. Commonly, they teach business, philosophy, economics, psychology, chemistry, heath sciences, engineering, communication, dentistry, or myriad other disciplines. They want to teach, however, in English because they feel the pressure of globalization and believe English is necessary for them and their students to succeed in a globalized world. It takes a lot of intelligence, courage, and perseverance to do what they are doing. Over the years, over 150 faculty members have participated.

So every year I travel to Mexico City and Villahermosa in early May to orient new faculty members to the course, which begins online in mid-May and then takes place face-to-face in Chicago for three weeks in late June and early July. I also meet with faculty members from past years to see how they are doing professionally and personally.

That is, I did all of this for the past nine year until this year.

Trump’s first 100 days have adversely affected many people, some more than others, and some in ways that the damage done will be lasting if not permanent. This is not been the case for the faculty with whom I work or for me, but Trump’s policies and rhetoric, in general, have had an adverse effect on my course, the Mexican faculty members, and me.

The value of the peso nosedived with Trump’s election and his continued threats to Mexico, making the cost of coming to Chicago exorbitant for the universities that participate. Although DePaul only breaks even for my course, the de-valued peso has, in effect, nearly priced out Mexican universities, forcing them to cut back and cancel many other programs they have with U.S. universities. Add to that cost, the increased difficulty in getting visas and international faculty and students being afraid or apathetic about coming to the U.S. and you have the fuller Trump effect.

My course will survive and go on even as we only have half as many faculty members this year as in years past. Part of being able to go on, however, is to forego my trip to Mexico and pass the savings on the Mexican universities.

None of this is probably of much significance to most people, nor should it be when, as already noted, the effects of the Trump administration are more detrimental to others. I present this here because (1) normally I would now be in Mexico and (2) Cinco de Mayo just passed, and I want to say something about the Mexican professors I have met over the years and to offer them a tribute. They are some of the most intelligent, kind, humorous, and decent people I have ever met. I miss them, and I miss Mexico.

So in honor of them, and the country of Mexico, this weekend we celebrated Cinco de Mayo by making the quintessential Mexico dish: tacos (not these ones, however; ours are further down. These are tacos from El Reyna Mariscos).

Before talking about the tacos we made, I have one disclaimer: I’ve had superb tacos in Mexico (as you can see), but I know, too, that there is much more to Mexican cuisine than tacos, much that I would normally choose over tacos. This past weekend, we chose tacos because (1) they’re easy to make; (2) we hadn’t had them in a while; and (3) Mexican tacos stand apart from tacos made anywhere else in the world.

After going to the grocery store on Saturday, we decided on tacos with skirt steak for that night, and then on Sunday night, tacos with shrimp.

Beverly marinated the skirt steak in olive oil, garlic, and cilantro for a few hours before I grilled it alongside split jalapeños, ramps, and ramp leaves. I grilled each side on medium high for about 3 minutes, ensuring a pink interior. Beverly made guacamole with finely chopped onions and tomatoes and lime. She also made an arugula and kale salad and Spanish rice. For tortillas, we use only corn, warmed over the stove in a bit of olive oil. It can’t get any simpler.

We finished up the leftovers of steak for lunch the next day by putting the skirt steak, jalapeños, and ramps on tortilla chips with melted cheese and salsa.

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On Sunday night, we did it all over again, except we traded skirt steak for shrimp (sauteed on the stove) and Spanish rice for potato and carrot fries. Instead of guacamole, we had sliced an avocado and mango. And instead of a salad, we shredded arugula with Parmesan and lime for the tacos. Again, it was simple, and again it was exquisite.

Both nights, we topped off our meals with strawberry pie, freshly made by Beverly. Strawberries are in-season in Mexico as they are in the U.S., and most likely ours came from the U.S. But just know, 30% of our fruits and vegetables come from Mexico, and of course know too, Mexican and Central American labor plants, nurtures, picks, cleans, and packs nearly all the fruits and vegetables grown in the U.S. Think about that next time someone complains to you about Mexican imports and Mexican labor.

It is ridiculous how easy and simple it is to cook good, fresh food, and we can thank Mexicans for being a big part of that. Similarly, there is no reason a taco is not made of the freshest ingredients. Why anyone would buy a taco at a fast food restaurant is beyond me.

And if skirt steak and shrimp aren’t your preference, try pork, chicken, fish, or even beans. I’d also recommend the corn tortillas over any other because the flavor is distinct; the texture is not doughy or starchy. Besides, corn or maize tortillas are more common in Mexico, with flour being more of a Northern Mexico or Southwest U.S. thing.

Also, forget the sour cream and lettuce, and any other vegetables (except grilled jalapeños and ramps, which bring out the flavor of any protein) and stick to the basics—a protein, salsa, and a bit of avocado or guacamole. And use corn tortillas because they have a taste that complements the protein. In the end, it’s the tortilla, protein, and salsa you want to taste.

And, of course, in the end, you can choose your friends but you can’t always choose your leaders. When those choices collide, always go with your friends.

Viva la Mexico, its people and its food.