Grocery shopping has never been my favorite activity. I can stretch what’s left in the bottom of the veg bin or back of the pantry for days just to avoid the grocery store.
grew up in the 70’s and totally missed out on the pre-industrial food shopping experience in the US, after which grocery shopping became the final step in a food system designed for efficiency, profit margins and rationalizing ag subsidies.
From the shopping experience itself, to the quality of the food, grocery stores are not designed with people in mind. Especially busy, harried, female type people who are most often the ones dropping by the grocery store after work or early on a Saturday, with fussy toddlers or sulky teenagers, who know the promise of “Just need to pick up some milk” is going to result in an hour in the store, a huge cart of groceries, and your mom having at least 3 conversations with neighbor ladies doing the same schtick.
Or was that just my experience?
When I come back to the US after being gone for awhile, I always wince at the sheer number of choices available from the center aisles of the store, the majority of which are not really that good for you. How many different kinds of bread, or tuna varieties, packaged processed doo-dad snacks, or just plain soap do we need?
Color sells in Mexico
In Mexico, the big box experience has crept in, of course. Walmart has branded stores here and owns a big grocery chain, butting carts with home grown mega chains Chedraui and Soriana.
Luckily for me and the world, even Walmart and the rest of the Big Box Boys have met their match in Mexico. The takeover of the food shopping experience is not complete because it runs up against a very entrenched opponent - la cultura del mercado - the market culture, which is enabled to some degree by the fact that lots of small farms still exist in Mexico, too. Small farms have suffered and still do, but more have survived ag consolidation than in the US. (Although interestingly enough, the growth of small farms in US is on the rise again, and many of those are women owned. yay!)
Mexico has a large industrial ag complex that grows a lot of food for the US market, too, but it is very easy to still find small producers, especially in the Tianguis and mercados in small towns.
What is a Tiangui? And how do you say it? Glad you asked.
First you should know the difference between Mercado vs. Tianguis (Tee-ang-geez - geez with a hard g like "geezer")
A mercado is a built structure with walls and a roof. For example, the mercados near the Zocalo in Mexico City are carrying on a tradition that dates back thousands of years in the same place. You will find a mercado in the center of most towns, and in larger towns, there are several, serving different barrios.
The Abuela of all mercados in Mexico is La Merced in Mexico City, a fascinating city within a city. If you want to see it, you should go. We highly recommend going with a group on a guided tour, keep your phone on the down low, and watch your bag.
Tianguis are pop up markets - you will see them on certain days taking over some streets with colorful tarps. They are what we consider flea markets in the US, and often sell food as well as other merchandise. In Mexico City the tianguis have highly organized associations with some political clout which has given even the global Walmart juggernaut a pause. It is very common for the tianguis have all kinds of merchandise, including grocery type food - veg, meat, fruit, flowers, dairy.
I often see tianguis referred to as street markets or mercados in sources written in English. Now you know the difference.
When you go to the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City (because you must, it should be a bucket list item for everyone, it is worth its own trip to CDMX), you will find a display of fabulous dioramas of life in Mexico City before the Spanish took over. One of the scenes is of market day, and it is fascinating how similar it is to market day here in many areas of Mexico City and smaller towns all over the country.
There is another term - Abasto - this is the wholesale market where many of the restaurants, tiendas, tianguis and mercados stock up. You can find some stalls that will sell to individuals, but don’t expect to be able to buy less than a kilo of anything. One night late when we were driving back to CDMX from Oaxaca, we saw lots of trucks heading into the city to arrive at the Abasto and La Merced by the early morning. It made me think of the 24 hour rhythm that a city the size of CDMX needs to keep functioning.
I’ve made the point earlier in our blog that we are not foodies. What we are is picky.
I am picky about where our food comes from, especially meat. We also monitor our sugar intake as if it were a drug (because it is), so that involves reading lots of labels. I’ve learned the Spanish words for all sorts of varieties of sugar -fructose, sucrose, refined, etc.
Lastly, Sergio grew up shopping in los mercados and he likes to get the best deal possible. His Tia Coco would give him money to go buy something she forgot or was out of, he would talk the vendor down a bit and then pocket the difference. Arbitrage starts early in Mexico.
All of that means that we spend a lot of time on sourcing our dispensa (weekly basket of goods) and defending our food perimeter, something that foodies do as well. The good news is we have more choices here than just Whole Foods, which we don’t have at all, and I don’t miss it as I spend about half the $ on groceries as I used to when that was my main option.
Even so, prices are slightly higher in southern Baja due to the “island” effect that most everything has to be imported. I also suspect there are some anti-local economy policies coming out of central Mexico regarding protecting mainland producers - Baja is treated a little bit like a colony. More on that in a bit.
We recently had lunch in Los Cabos at a trendy “food hall” concept location. We were talking about Christmas Dinner and local meats. Sergio asked the busboy, the waiter, and one of the senora’s prepping tacos at her taco stand about local meat producers.
From that intel he learned there is a brand new Carnicería just opened in Los Cabos outside of San Jose. We stopped by to check it out.
We walk in and its big, bright and clean. The well-dressed owner is positioned in a supervisory role near the cash register (as most store owners are in Mexico). He is teaching his daughter how to ring up sales. His wife is standing nearby, too, sporting a big diamond ring, almost 2 carats. You don’t see that everyday in Mexico. Family business is still very common here, and apparently this one is doing well.
Even so, I still wouldn’t stand around a carnicería on the outskirts of town with my big diamond ring, even though we are in the Baja bubble, a state that has so far escaped the worst of the kidnapping and narco related violence that plagues central and northern Mexico.
Sergio says hello and asks about the meat. Is it organic? The owner knows his beef, or at least the buzz words. He speaks slowly and clearly, something I have noticed is common among some Mexicans with more formal education. It may be as a courtesy to me, too. He can tell I understand some Spanish but I haven't said much yet, so he's not sure how fluent I am.
He says the beef isn’t organic, because they don’t know if the animal was fed organic feed, (correct answer, by the way). He says the cattle are raised without hormones or antibiotics.
I ask, “Las vacas son de Baja?” Vaca is technically a cow, so I'm probably not saying it right, but he gets the gist.
Solemn moment. No, the cattle are “sacrificado” - sacrificed - his word for “processed” - in Sonora, a major beef producing state across the Sea of Cortez. I am struck by the use of the word sacrificado, a verbal connection to ancient peoples and their ritual for expressing gratitude to another living being for becoming our dinner. Sergio tells me later it is also the term for when you put your pet down. See how cool Spanish is?
Some of the cattle are from Baja, but they are not kept separate in the feedlot, so there isn’t a way to distinguish the meat from a Baja steer from that of his Sonoran primos.
Bummer. Part of the rationale behind buying local meat is to decrease the carbon footprint on the animal. A Baja steer that gets shipped (either across the Sea of Cortez or via semi truck up and down the Baja peninsula, I don’t know which), sacrificado’d, and then shipped back to Baja totally loses the “local” advantage in the sustainability department.
The owner said there is a shortage of rastros (meat processing facilities) in Baja, the ranchers here can’t get permitted for the number that they need to create a local supply chain. I suspect that has something to do with the power of the ranchers and rastros on the mainland, but I have no proof of that.
This is something I ran across in Northern California, too - it is not as easy as it should be to get local meat. Grass fed doesn’t usually mean local and sustainable. During a drought, for example, some ranchers ship their cattle around the country to where the grass is, then ship them to processing plant in a different area, then the meat is sold into the distribution system.
By the time you have that grass fed hamburger at your local trendy hangout, it may be the product of a stressed out steer who was carted all over the western half of the US. Or maybe even Mexico, given the US accounts for 87% of Mexico’s beef exports. Kinda crazy, right?
We haven’t been here long enough to find a local rancher to sell me half a steer, sacrificado on the ranch. Besides that, our small freezer only has room for about a pound of ground beef alongside the local chicken we buy from Martin at the farmers market here in La Paz. It's my dream someday to contract with a local farmer to work with to raise our meat for us and a few friends. It's not hard to find local pork sources here, we passed a small pen of pigs on the outskirts of town every morning on our morning walk in Todos Santos.
The problem is you still have no control over what the pig is being fed. And I'm not just talking about here in Mexico. In Northern Cal, I knew of one producer who fed his pigs leftover donuts from a donut place. I don't know anything about raising pigs, but a pig is not a garbage disposal and all that refined sugar isn't good for any mammal.
Sergio's Uncle Beto is from Michoacan, a Mexican state known for its pork. He worked for 30 years in the Parma meat factory there, but he still raised his own pigs. I bet he knows a thing or two about los puercos.
But for now, I have to choose my battles. Today, instead of choosing to be a vegan or have chicken for the umpteenth time this month, I decide to give this place a try. It’s Christmas after all!
I asked the butcher behind the counter to pick out a New York strip for me. He looked a little surprised, being used to having his customer, often a good-natured, bossy Senora across the counter, tell him what they want. He pauses, asks me how much fat I like, and carefully considers his choice. He picks out a lovely cut with some input from Sergio, who also has a strong streak of good natured bossiness. Probably inherited from his Tia Coco.
We buy the meat and say goodbye to everyone in the store for about 10 minutes, because by this time we have been talking for about 20 minutes and we are part of the family.
We get to the car and Sergio says, "Wait! You have to ask the owner 'where is my calendar?'"
I say, "What?" He says, "Just do it!"
I hesitate because I've lived in Mexico long enough now to know, if you go back you have to say goodbye all over again. But we return and and I ask the owner,
Tiene un calendario para mi?
He winces and says “Ai….", looking seriously chagrined. It turns out it is a longstanding custom for the carnicerias to give out free calendars at the end of December.
He apologizes profusely and says, “We have only been open a week and I haven’t had time to order them!” My Chilango (slang for native of Mexico City) gives him a hard time and laughs.
I say, “We will just have to come back soon!”
We say, Feliz Navidad y ano nuevo, gracias, hasta luego yet again...
Later, we made the steak for our Christmas Eve Dinner. I have to say, I was very proud of the result. We didn’t freeze the steak and that helped. We didn’t have a cast iron skillet where we were house sitting; however, we made do, we didn’t over cook it and it was a delicious Merry Christmas Dinner!
Have a great week and thank for reading.
PS. If you are interested in a quick overview of the meat industry in Mexico, go here.
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