Saturday, October 28, 2017

Mole Day

Did you celebrate Mole Day this past Monday?  I almost missed it, but a friend pointed it out to me in his blog.  The day evidently celebrates the number of avocados that can fit in an Erlenmeyer flask, or some other strange chemistry term.  My friend, who evidently knows no more chemistry than I do, chose to celebrate little furry critters that tear up lawns.

I’ve never lived anyplace where I would run into moles, but I suspect that being a good Texan, I would be inclined to shoot them.  Hell, I don’t even slow down for speed bumps because they look too much like armadillos.

So, I celebrated Mole Day in true southwestern style: The Doc and I went to our favorite Mexican Restaurant—Habanero’s—where Felix prepared mole poblano for us. 

Naturally, I will explain.  Mole (pronounced MOH-lay) means sauce in Spanish, but that is a completely inadequate definition of the word.  France has sauces that are meant to lightly enhance the flavor of a main ingredient.  Hollandaise sauce enhances fresh blanched asparagus.

With mole, it is the other way around.  Mole is cooked and it is a complex mixture of multiple ingredients—usually chilis and nuts.  Once prepared, it is the bulk of the meal, the meat is just a delivery vehicle for the sauce.

The word actually comes from the Nahuatl (the language of the Aztecs) word mōlli, meaning sauce or stew.  Today, the word survives in guacamole (literally ‘avocado’ and ‘sauce’) or molcajete, a native mortar (literally ‘sauce’ and ‘bowl’). 

There is a vast difference between salsas and mole.  A salsa is a concoction of chopped raw ingredients that is meant to spooned on the top of a taco, which is why, in America, salsas are now outselling ketchup.  A mole, by comparison, is a carefully prepared and cooked dish by itself.  If salsa were a beverage, it would be beer.  Mole would be a delicate anejo tequila, aged in an oak barrel.

Which makes it impossible to understand why, if you mention mole to most Americans, they say,  “Mole?  Oh, yeah.  The chocolate sauce.  No thanks.”

First off, there are many, many different kinds of mole—not just Mole Poblano, that does indeed have a small amount of chocolate among the thirty assorted ingredients that a good cook will carefully mix together over the two days that the dish requires to prepare.  Reducing the complexity of mole poblano to a mere chocolate sauce would be the equivalent of referring to roast suckling pig as bacon served with an apple. 

Coming home from the restaurant, I was reminded of the original name for Mole Poblano, mole de olor, or the fragrant sauce.  This, of course, was because my wife had brought half her dinner home in a box.  This seems to be some sort of rule my wife has, since we never seem to leave a restaurant without a box.  Tonight, smelling the dark brown mole sauce, I decided my wife had the right idea.  (Come about midnight, I may have a midnight snack.)

There are many, many competing stories about the origin of mole poblano.  One version says that Montezuma served Hernan Cortez mole con guajalote (turkey).  Another version has the nuns at Puebla’s Convent of Santa Rosa working frantically to prepare a dish to honor a visit from the Archbishop.  While carefully roasting peppers and walnuts, adding stale breadcrumbs and chicken stock, a box containing chocolate was accidentally knocked over, spilling its contents into the chili sauce. 

Note.  Perhaps this is why when I visited the town of Puebla back almost fifty years ago, a friend told me that the only people who made mole better than his mother were all nuns.  I can’t confirm this as, so far, I have received none from nuns.

While the mole poblano literally means the sauce of Puebla—where the convent is located—the state of Oaxaca also claims to be the origin of the spicy dish.  Oaxaca calls itself the “home of seven moles”, all of which contain chili peppers but not necessarily chocolate.  And while all of them are delicious, most are almost impossible to find north of the border.  Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to find a good Mexican restaurant that offers an authentic dish of mole.

What you can find in most grocery stores are two varieties of bottled “Mole Sauce”.  Not only is this redundant, but it is a pale reflection of the dish that normally takes more than a day to prepare.  If you buy your sauce in the jar, you can choose between Mole Poblano and Mole Verde—literally green sauce—which is made from pumpkin seeds. 

While I frequently use the bottled sauces, I know that I’m not getting real mole.  It is kind of like eating a bowl of chili.  I know that I should make it from scratch, but it’s easier to just open a can of Wolf Brand Chili, even though the ingredients include about as much oatmeal as meat.   Adding a bottle of mole poblano and chicken to the crockpot is just way too easy, and a career as a state employee ruined me for real work.

By the time you read this, it is about time to start planning the menu for your Día de los Muertos party.  Obviously, you should prepare a mole—just be sure to serve it with a good Mexican beer.  I suggest Tecate or Negra Modelo. 

As we say here in New Mexico, "La comida Mexicana sin cerveza es como hacer el amor sin  besar."  For you pendejo gringos, that means "Would you like refried beans with that?”

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Enrique de Malacca

As children, we learned in school that Christopher Columbus proved the world was round and that Ferdinand Magellan was the first to circumnavigate the world.  It probably won’t surprise you when I say that both statements are incorrect.

Columbus is back in the news:  The old sailor would be astonished to read some of the stories about him in today's newspapers.  The debate seems to boil down to just two camps:  Either the old sailor was a monster who was responsible for the murder and enslavement of millions of natives or he was a great navigator and explorer.  The truth, of course, is that he was neither.

Columbus did commit grievous crimes against the Amerindians, who had also committed their share of murders and thefts against the Spanish explorers.  Viewed through the lens of his own time, Columbus was better than average when compared with the rest of the Spanish conquistadors, but that is admittedly a low bar.

But what about the horrible diseases he is accused of bringing to the New World?

It is true that the natives of the New World had no immunities to the diseases of the Old World and it has been estimated that 90% of the estimated 100 million Amerindians living in North and South America died of diseases introduced unwittingly by the Spanish.  A lot of the protests against Columbus center around this, but people tend to forget that pretty much the same thing had already happened in Europe.

The plague, for example, is very much a disease of trade.  The disease could not travel across Asia, as the infected, flea-ridden rats died long before they could reach a settlement where local rats could be infected.  However, as soon as the faster-moving trade ships reached Europe from the far East,  the Black Rats ran down the hawser ropes, and the Black Death burned its way across Europe, killing approximately 75-100 million people during the 14th century alone.  

Farther away from the sea, the plague did not reach the cities until the camel caravans grew large enough that the strategically-located caravansaries provided periodic breeding locations for colonies of rats and fleas, enabling the disease to spread to the interior.

Wherever commerce goes, disease always follows.  Columbus may have initiated trade to the new world, but he was no more responsible for the inevitable result than Marco Polo was for the plagues devastating Europe.

If you want to find fault with Columbus, let's talk about his appalling math skills.  Despite the commonly believed myths (most of which were spread by an outrageously inaccurate biography written by Washington Irving—the same liar who had George Washington chopping down cherry trees and flinging dollars across rivers.), no educated person believed that the world was flat in the 15th century.  As early as the second century BC, Eratosthenes had even accurately calculated the girth of the planet within one degree.  Columbus—and everyone else—knew that you could reach China by sailing west from Europe.  The difference was that while nearly everyone knew it was too far to reach with the primitive sailing ships of the time, Columbus had convinced himself his destination was only three thousand miles away—within the range of Spanish caravels.

Part of Columbus’ problem was that he did not know that Arabic miles are half again as long as Roman miles.  By mixing together the two distances, the explorer managed to move—at least in his own mind—the location of Japan about 8000 miles eastward.  If he had not been lucky enough to stumble across a couple of continents located exactly where he believed he would find China, without a doubt his exhausted crew would have starved to death long before they sighted land.

Nor was is  the only error committed by Columbus.  According to his calculations, the approximate location of Cuba is roughly where Boston is situated. In January 1493, he carefully recorded in his log the sighting of mermaids, which he described as "not half as beautiful as they are painted".  He had actually sighted manatees, but I'll forgive him that mistake since by that time he had been at sea for over six months.  

None of the above is likely to settle the current arguments about Columbus, but I have a possible solution--let's start celebrating a different explorer, one whose accomplishments are above reproach, but who is fashionably politically correct. I give you, Enrique de Malacca, sometimes called Henry the Black.

In 1511, Portugal was desperately trying to seize control of the Spice Islands, the source of fabulous wealth for maritime traders.  Most people have forgotten that when Columbus sailed west from Spain, that he was in search of a faster and safer route to the Spice Islands. At the end of the 15th century, if a sailor could return to Europe with a couple of bushels of nutmeg, mace, and cloves, he could comfortably retire from a life at sea.  While Columbus and Spain explored westward, Portugal sought to control the eastward passage to the Spice Islands--actually the Malaysian Archipelago--by seizing control of Malacca, situated to control access to the Malaccan Straits.

One of those who participated in this raid was Ferdinand Magellan, who during the battle, captured a young man, whose name originally probably had been Panglima Awang.   Finding him unusually intelligent and possessing a gift with languages, Magellan made the young man his personal slave, christened him Enrique, and took him back to Europe.  Long before he arrived, Enrique had learned to speak Portuguese.

The young slave's knowledge of the Spice Islands and his ability to act as a translator made him an invaluable aide to Magellan during planning the expedition to circumnavigate the world.  There is evidence that Magellan took Enrique to meet King Manuel I when he unsuccessfully sought royal patronage for the expedition to find a route to the Spice Islands by sailing west.

When the Portuguese king refused to fund such an expedition--just as he had refused to fund Columbus' trip--Magellan turned to the Spanish court, where King Charles I agreed to finance the expedition.  

In 1519, five ships left Spain,crossed the Atlantic, and sailed down the coast of South America.  After a trying voyage of eighteen months, Magellan finally reached the Philippines, where he was promptly killed by unappreciative natives, so he obviously did not sail all the way around the world.  But...remember Enrique?

Enrique, a slave, had come from the Philippines and had been taken by force to Europe, where he eventually joined the Magellan expedition, which then took him west, back to the Philippines—making him the first person in human history to circumnavigate the globe.  

And absolutely nothing is named for him.

Sadly, our hitherto unknown explorer fairly quickly vanished from the written record.  Magellan had promised Enrique manumission in case of his own death, and the surviving copy of his will confirms this.  However, when Magellan died, the other sea captains refused to honor Magellan’s wishes because Enrique was just too valuable as a translator.

Enrique, furious at not being freed, waited four days before deserting the ships, and disappearing among the multitude of Philippines islands.  No further records of one of history’s great explorers exist.

So, I offer this suggestion:  Let us stop celebrating Columbus or Magellan, and, instead, honor the humble, forgotten slave, who was, in fact, the first man to travel around the world.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Puerto Rico, Waiting in Heavy Harness

Puerto Rico is back in the news, an event that happens so rarely that most Americans forget that it is out there, much less that it is part of the United States.   And forgetting about Puerto Rico is something America has been doing for well over a century.  

While most Americans know that the US acquired the island after the Spanish-American War, very few can tell you why we got the island.  In large part, it was a minor by-product of our desire to annex Cuba.  And you are probably asking, “How did Cuba get into this?”

The Spanish-American War started over American concern about the incredibly harsh treatment by the Spanish towards the Cuban people.  The fact that American businesses had invested heavily in Cuban sugar plantations that were losing money because of the protracted revolution, the desire by some expansionist Americans to acquire additional territory, or even the many businessmen who lusted after a new market were all secondary reasons...At least in theory.

Few Americans remember that Puerto Rico had already been given semi-independence by the Spanish before the war started.  Nevertheless, U.S. Naval ships bombarded San Juan Harbor and American troops invaded the island.  After weeks of maneuvering with few casualties on either side, Spain surrendered the island, which along with Guam and the Philippine Islands was eventually ceded to the U.S. as territories in the Treaty of Paris. 

NOTE.  There are at least nine Battles of San Juan.  Two of them are naval battles in which old Spanish forts were destroyed by American naval gunfire during the Spanish-American War.  These battles should not be confused with the Battle of San Juan Hill in Cuba or the Battle of the San Juan River in Nicaragua, the fight in Peru, or any of the battles in Puerto Rico during the XVI, XVII, or XVIII Centuries.  Latin American countries possessing territory named after Saint John are strongly advised to change those names.

The island of Puerto Rico is 108 miles long, about 40 miles wide, and at the end of the war held more than a million people.  Despite its size and population, it was never even considered for possible statehood.  While hopes of annexation of Cuba would remain for several years, it was not seriously considered for Puerto Rico.

The great Cuban poet José Martí once wrote:  "Once the United States is in Cuba, who will get it out?”  Martí wasn’t so much worried about the U.S. taking Cuba as he was that it would just never leave.  It turned out the same was true for Puerto Rico.  In spite of a strong desire of the Puerto Rican people to have independence, the U.S. has simply kept them—for the good of the Puerto Ricans.

Simply put, the US did not believe the backward peoples of these newly-acquired territories were capable of self-government, of self-rule, or of handling their own lands.  They would have to be ruled—much as Great Britain was ruling India and France was ruling Viet Nam—until the local "savages" were capable of handling their own affairs.  Don’t take my word for it, here are quotes from the policy-makers of the day:

A New York Journalist wrote: "If we are to save Cuba we must hold it.  If we leave it to the Cubans, we give it over to a reign of terror--to the machete and the torch, to insurrection and assassination."

Admiral William T. Sampson agreed: "Cubans have no idea of self-government--and it will take a long time to teach them."

As did General Shafter: "Why those people are no more fit for self government than gunpowder is for hell."

Major Alexander Brodie: "The Cubans are utterly irresponsible, partly savage, and have no idea of what good government mean."

Major George M. Barbour: "The Cubans are stupid, given to lying and doing all things in the wrong way.  Under our supervision, and with firm and honest care for the future, the people of Cuba may become a useful race and a credit to the world; but to attempt to set them afloat as a nation, during their generation, would be a great mistake."

Governor-General John Brooke: "These people cannot now, or I believe in the immediate future, be entrusted with their own government."

Cuba would eventually be granted a limited self-rule, one where less than 5% of the population was allowed to vote in the first elections.  In Havana, the United States set up an extremely paternalistic form of limited government that was permanently equipped with training wheels and American-mandated safeguards.  U.S. micromanagement practically guaranteed bad government, eventually leading to the first military revolution in 1933.

Puerto Rico and Guam were not so lucky.  They were simply territories with appointed governors for over fifty years.  In the beginning, their people were denied American citizenship--a restriction that ended in 1917, just in time for 20,000 Puerto Rican males to be conscripted into the Army for WWI.  While the US government denied there was any connection between the two events, citizenship was granted after the US Army claimed that Anglo soldiers lacked immunity to tropical diseases and would thus be unable to defend the Panama Canal, where most of the Puerto Rican soldiers were sent.

Several lawsuits concerning these matters prompted the Supreme Court's incredibly bigoted ruling in 1901, in the Insular Cases.  In the Court's opinion, the peoples of these newly-acquired islands--being of both racial and ethnic minorities--would not “understand Anglo-Saxon principles” and as “alien races differing from us in culture and modes of thought” would be incapable of self-government.  It would be half a century before the Puerto Ricans would be allowed to vote for their own governor and almost as long before a Puerto Rican was appointed governor by the President.

NOTE.  The bigoted Supreme Court justice, Henry Billings Brown, who wrote that crap is the same racist jackass who coined the phrase “separate but equal” in the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson case.  In a 'supreme' case of irony, the home he built in Washington D.C. now houses the embassy for the Republic of Congo.

The Insular Cases specifically noted that these reservations on citizenship should be short-lived as Congress should be working to provide solutions.  After more than a century, Congress is still working on it.  During this time, we have fought two world wars, given women the vote, flown to the moon, and put something claiming to be cheese in a can, but we still haven’t quite solved this problem.  According to the US Census, there is not one single person in America still alive from when we started working on that problem.  Lest you think all of this is old news, the Obama Administration successfully used the Insular Cases in court arguments in 2015 to deny Puerto Ricans voting rights.

People born or living in Guam, the Virgin Islands, or Puerto Rico are "citizens".  They can move to any of the fifty states, but until they do, they cannot vote for a president, a senator, or a real congressman.  They have a "representative" in Congress, but he does not get to vote--he only has the right to speak in the House.  At the time of the Spanish-American War, the people of Puerto Rico had legitimate representatives in the Spanish Legislature, so they have actually lost rights since the war.

That bears repeating:  Puerto Rico has a larger population than twenty-one of the existing fifty states, but cannot vote in national elections.  Puerto Rico has a larger population than every other territory that joined the United States, but has virtually no chance of becoming a state.

You might be interested to know that, as an American citizen, you can vote in presidential elections while you are in Mexico, England, or any other foreign country, with the assistance of the local American embassy.  Sailors vote while serving at sea on American naval vessels.  Astronauts have voted from the International Space Station.  As a citizen, you lose that right while visiting Puerto Rico or Guam, where no American citizen—regardless of origin—may vote in presidential elections. 

The Treaty of Paris—which ended the Spanish American War and formally gave Puerto Rico to the United States—was ratified February 6, 1899.  That same month Rudyard Kipling published The White Man’s Burden:

Take up the White Man's burden-
Send for the best ye breed--
Go, bind your sons to exile
To serve your captive's need;
to wait in heavy harness
On fluttered fold and wild--
Your new-caught sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child.

Kipling specifically wrote this in response to America's new imperial responsibilities to the peoples living on their newly conquered islands.  I have a question for you—Was Kipling serious or is this grand satire?

Are you sure?

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Midnight in the Oasis or Why Can't My Toyota Get Pregnant?

Currently the stock market is having a bull market, meaning that stocks are overall rising in price while the market generally has confidence that business conditions will remain favorable.  If stocks were mostly declining in price, we would call this a bear market. 

No one knows the precise origin of these terms, but there are a couple of good theories.  The most commonly quoted origin has to do with the differing ways the two animals attack.  Bulls spread their feet, lower their heads, then charge while thrusting their horns upward.  Bears, however, attack with powerful downward blows of their front paws. 

On the other hand, my favorite explanation goes back to the late seventeenth century and the start of the London Stock Exchange, which was originally just a bulletin board in a coffee house on which prospective businesses would advertise for investors.  When the business climate was good, there were lots of bulletins, or “bulls”—as opposed to times when conditions were less favorable, so that the board would be “bare”. 

That’s a cute story, and while I like it, I also doubt it.  It's not really important:  never let the truth get in the way of a good story.  Four hundred years from now, the recent presidential campaign will probably be regarded by historians as an urban legend while the movie Titanic will be considered a documentary. 

In any case, the wrong animal is being used to symbolize a good economic market:  it should be called, "a camel market".  After all, international trade was literally started on the back of a camel. 

Interestingly, the world’s camels all originally evolved in North America, which is now totally devoid of any wild camels.  While humans were migrating eastward over the Bering Land Bridge to North America in search of large game, some of that large game was migrating westward across the same bridge to Asia.  As the population of people expanded in North America (reaching roughly 100 million by the time of Columbus), horses and camels vanished completely from the new world.  While no one can prove it, they may well have not just emigrated to Asia but may have been hunted to extinction here by the new two-legged immigrants from Asia and their descendants, too.

It is strange to think of camels as "American", but in reality, they are more American than apple pie.  Apples originated in Central Asia (you know, where camels are still used).  That is just as well, since "American as camel pie" conjures up the wrong image.

In the Old World, the camel’s future was still in doubt.  The camel is slow and an easy target for all sorts of predators. While there are herds of feral (escaped domesticated) camels almost everywhere—half a million in Australia, alone—wild camels can only be found in the Gobi Desert.  After the brief experiment with camels in the American Southwest in 1859, feral camels were still periodically sighted there as late as World War II.

Camels would probably have become extinct had it not been for the camel’s ability to give milk.  That’s right!—Long before people rode camels, they raised them for milk, wool, and meat.  Camel milk is so rich that you can live on it for a month without any other form of sustenance and in Somalia, camels are still far more likely to be eaten than ridden.

Somewhere about six thousand years ago, people began milking camels and probably didn’t start riding them or using them to carry cargo until about 3,500 years ago. 

At this point, the camel assumed a new role—in international trade.  The Silk Road was the trade route that connected the Mediterranean to the Far East.  It was the trade route for goods from China, Korea, and Japan, passing through Central Asia (picking up those apples), then coming through India and the Middle East to the Greeks and Romans.  It was how the fortunes that could be made with land trade stimulated ocean travel and eventually led to the discovery of the New World.

Without the camel, it is doubtful that trade along the Silk Road would have developed as it did.  The distances were great, water holes and oases were few and remote, and the route was frequently too rough for horses and mules.  While everyone knows of the camel's ability to go days—even more than a week in an emergency—without water, few realize the true logistic efficiency of the camel.

One camel could carry 500 pounds of freight, and a single camel herder could easily handle eight to ten camels in a caravan, moving as much as two tons of cargo up to sixty miles a day.  Caravans crossing Asia frequently had as many as 500 camels.  The profits this trade brought prompted people along the route to construct caravanserais for the travelers.  If you are unfamiliar with the word, think "motel" but usually constructed with an inner courtyard for the protection of the camels. ("I'm Aladdin for Cameltel 6, and we'll leave the lamp on for you.”)

If you are like me, you can read all that and it sounds great….But, what does it mean?  I’m just a poor dumb ol’ country boy, and if I’m going to understand what I’m reading about the Silk Road, I need to put this in perspective.  I need numbers I can understand.

Historians who study logistics have a method of studying the relative efficiency of various forms of transport.  Saying that a camel could carry more freight than a horse doesn’t really tell you much, since you could always add more horses to your supply train.  A better method is to tell you how many miles a ton of material could be carried with a ton of fuel.  This is known as ton-miles per ton-fuel.  (Don’t worry, I’ll do the math for you.)

For a reference point, let us compare camels to wagons and steam-powered railroads at roughly the time of the American Civil War.  I‘m arbitrarily picking that date, since we are all at least a little familiar with the kind of wagons and trains used during that period.  Let’s compare those methods of travel to camels (AKA "ships of the desert").

A team of six mules drawing a wagon carrying 1.5 tons of supplies could travel approximately 333 miles on one ton of food, but since the mules aren’t traveling through Virginia, they will need to carry a lot of water with them.  Working mules need eight gallons of water a day, so the mules pulling that wagon will consume a quarter of a ton of water every two days.  After we do the math, that mule-drawn wagon has an efficiency of 180 ton-miles per ton-fuel—only 56 per mule.  In contrast, a Civil War-era freight locomotive could travel only thirty-five miles or so on a ton of fuel, but its payload could be as high as 150 tons, yielding 5,250 ton-miles per ton of fuel consumed. (Steamboats, incidentally, did even better.)

Okay, now, let’s look at camels:  A camel needs more forage a day than a mule, but can go days without water.  Accordingly, a camel can travel about two months on a ton of food, but can only carry about 500 pounds.  After we do the math, the camel gets an impressive 430 ton-miles per ton fuel!  A single camel is more efficient than two wagons and a dozen mules.  That means a dozen camels is as efficient as a steam-powered train. 

Let us look at this another way.  Just for fun, let us take the example of my Toyota Pickup.  I can carry 1000 pounds and get 15 miles per gallon.  Gasoline weighs 7 pounds a gallon, so a ton of gasoline is about 286 gallons and will allow my truck to go about 4290 miles carrying half a ton of cargo.  This yields a ton-miles per ton of fuel ratio of about 2143.  This makes my truck only as efficient as 5 camels.  No wonder they are still using camels in the desert.  (On the bright side, my Toyota is about as efficient as 12 wagons and 72 mules, which explains why  no one is seriously using mules anymore.) 

One last point in favor of the camel.  While my truck has a radio, it cannot be milked or eaten in an emergency.  Nor is it capable of reproducing itself no matter how many times I let it play with other pickups.