Food and Baseball in Merida Mexico
The following is an excerpt from a new book by Julia Kalmon entitled Magic, Miracles and Mexican Baseball. The book has been self-published by Julia, a longtime resident of Merida and a avid baseball fan. It is written in English and translated into Spanish, making it accessible to almost everyone here. The book chronicles the 2005 season of the Leones baseball team, a team that won the national championship last year. As you'll see, the book is about baseball, but it is about a lot MORE than baseball too. If you like the article below (and we're sure you will!), we encourage you to buy the book!
The Merida English Library has them for sale, and we have them in the Yucatan Living office (email us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to come by). Or you can contact Julia ( email@example.com) directly to get one (she can ship them to the United States and Canada). The book costs $140 pesos or $13 US.
And now, without further ado (drumroll please....), heeeere's Julia!:
As we will do throughout this little book, let’s break away from the 2005 season for one if those interesting asides: the food at the stadium.
Any ballpark has its food specialities- regional foods and items that someone discovered the local fans enjoy. “Regional” can be quite specific and mysterious- we still shrung our shoulders at what might be in that basket sold at the Campeche ballpark.
My experience with a major league baseball in the U.S. is admittedly limited. I do remember being in Little Rock, Arkansas to see a minor-league team, the Travelers, play. As we went through the gate, the ticket-takers handed out cans of Campbell’s Soup. Hundreds of people with cans of soup. No, nobody threw a can of soup at a player or umpire. The biggest mischief that night was aimed at the third-base coach, a man who had invested years in honing to perfection one of the largest, roundest beer guts I had ever seen. As he would stroll down to third base while his team was taking the field, the fans would shout, “Give that man a LIGHT beer!” He just smiled and waved, seemingly untouched by the insults. Maybe he is the one to ask about ballpark cuisine in the U.S.
At Kukulcan there is a veritable smorgasbord of food choices that can be purchased for next to nothing. We have the standard French fries, popcorn, pizza, and cotton candy –the first three offered with hot sauce. We also have hot dogs, but they are only sold outside the park at the entrance. Don’t ask me why. They cost eight pesos –a little less than eighty cents apiece. Hold the habanero chile peppers, please.
Worth mentioning is that the vendor always asks if the hot dog is to go, even though he has no place for buyers to sit down.
Back in the ballpark, circulating on trays held aloft by dozens of old men and young boys, are a number of local specialities: polcanes or piedras (rocks), fried balls of cornmeal with brown beans inside, served with hot-spicy or mild cole slaw; kibis, a Middle Eastern delicacy, fried bulghur wheat with or without ground beef inside. The sweet offerings include churros, fried flour in the shape of a pretzel, covered in sugar. Get ‘em while they’re hot or they aren’t any good, and just one is usually enough. Another sweet offering is the marquisita, a long, skinny waffle cone full of sweet cheese. Now doesn’t that sound good? There are also garapinados, peanuts with a red sugar coating. Frozen strawberries in cream are another option, or corn in cream with chile pepper. Or the packets of miniature marshmallows, in flavors, for just five pesos.
And, finally, our favorite sweet thing: bolis –long, skinny popsicles. Bolis are packaged in plastic tubes that can be difficult and messy to open. You must tear them open at one corner with your teeth but if you squeeze them while you bite, a little of the juice will squirt out. I have been know to end an evening with a four or five different colors decorating the front of my shirt.
If you are concerned about eating healthfully, there are packets of sliced mango, jicama, or orange. Most people cover these in lime and hot powdered chile pepper; the vendors laugh at us gringos because we want our fruit plain. If you haven’t had enough veggies yet, there is a young man we watched grow up who offers corn in a Styrofoam coffee cup. With his corn he offers sour cream, lime, and chili powder. Ask for esquites if you’re interested.
Ham-and-cheese sandwiches are very popular and certainly available in the traditional “oh I recognize that” form. But there is another ham-and-cheese sandwich, where the ham and cheese are stacked inside a sort of cinnamon roll. These come around on a giant tray, stacked about five deep and ten across in three rows, along with sandwiches of sweet potato (caymote), also in cinnamon-roll bread. This caymote-filled pastry is unique to the Yucatan and is called johaldra; it may have a variety of fillings, or no filling at all. At Kukulcan, all these pastries are offered as “Pasteles! Pasteles!” in our section by a vendor who hefts the metal tray just inches above the heads of people sitting in the row nearest him. I’ve been told that the pasteles man, whose name is Rene Santos, has been selling pastries since the Leones moved to Kukulcan in 1982, and even further back, since he was a teenager.
Rene has developed a special way of pronouncing the names of the products he has been selling some fifty years. We non-native speakers manage to understand “caymote” (kie- MOH-teh), but to our ears he introduces the other as what sounds like “hamaca shoe”. Could he be saying Jamaica, which sounds in Spanish like “ha-my-kuh”? But what is this hamaca shoe? I finally asked him, saying it the way I was hearing it. He looked at me with a rather bewildered expression as he set down his tray. There was nothing called hamaca shoe on his tray. No, no, it is jamon y queso, ham and cheese. Having heard the real words, we have listened ever so carefully when he comes by, we have studied his pronunciation, we have made it our calling to bring out the words “jamon y queso” from hamaca shoe, but, alas, we have been defeated. Well, almost. One night, my sweetheart Victor, who is Yucatecan, came to the game with us, a rare treat for me. I could hardly wait to get his take on hamaca shoe. When Rene passed by, we waited, as Victor listened. Then I asked him what the vendor had said, and, without hesitation, he said “jamon y queso.”
We are resigned now that to the fact that our hopeless English-language ears will always hear hamaca shoe. But that doesn’t stop us from visiting with Rene, who mentioned one night that his father was Korean and came to the Yucatan in 1907 to sell textiles. He went on to say that his “second father” was a panadero, a baker or bread seller, so it made sense to him to do that too. He couldn’t imagine anything else that he would want to do, and added that he enjoyed his work at the ballpark, making and selling pastries.
Still hungry? Codzitos are rolled- up corn tortillas with tomato sauce on them. They’re freshly made every night on a tray on the floor right in front of the bathrooms. We are also handed samples (by fingers digging from deep pockets) of hot, shelled peanuts as enticements to buy more in little brown paper wrappers. My friend LG calls these the sacred peanuts and feels sure they are somehow associated with victories, comebacks, and good hits. (We will talk about baseball superstitions in a later chapter.)
One night I bought some pulcanes. Let me say up in front that years in México have not given me an appreciation for hot chile peppers. I didn’t pay attention to the cole slaw (remember, it can be hot or mild). The moment I put a slaw-filled pulcan in my mouth, the suffering began. I was fanning my mouth, instantly sitting and jumping to my feet, and when I turned around to signal frantically to a Coke, I saw the fans in the section behind us laughing and pointing to me. There is actually a Spapnish verb for eating something that burns your mouth (why I am surprised?). That experience is called enchilarse. They were laughing and saying “se enchilo, se enchilo”- “she burned her mouth”. You know, a Coke only helps so much. Going up into that section and beginning them to stop laughing at me not only taught me that new verb, it landed me half a dozen new friends and took my mind off my singed tongue.
The food vendors themselves are part of the whole food experience at Kukulcan. They are usually men or boys, often carrying their wares on top of their heads on metal trays or in clear boxes that resemble two- or three-gallon fish tanks. We five regulars, plus an occasional handful of other, always sit in Butaca Alta, the balcony level, between homeplate and first base, so we see the same vendors from night to night, as they always work the same sections. In their wonderfully shy but curious way they interact with us because we definitely interact with them. We ask questions about the products and make faces when they offer hot sauce or chili powder (except for Greg and Charlotte, who sometimes want that stuff). The vendors have taught us the Spanish phrases for requesting something and express surprised pleasure when we repeat it back to them. Now we chirp “al ladito” (on the side), when we want ketchup.
The young man who sells French fries attempted a few words of English with us: “thank you,” “how are you,” “hello,” “you’re welcome.” So we’ve rewarded his efforts by adopting him - taking him English-language books, bringing back T-shirts from trips to the U.S. and Canada, and generally making over him, as well as loyally buying our French fries only from him. The pulcanes man know now that I want mild slaw. Rolando and his family, who sell bebidas frias directly from the ice chest, know we drink our cokes from the bottle instead of a paper cup. The bringers of the sacred peanuts may be a man who is studying computer science in his middle years, trying to break free of peanuts, or his son, a sweet young man with a ready smile. Both dress all in white and work laden with two big, heavy bags, one side peanuts and the other side pepitas, roasted squash seeds. “Cacahuates! Pepitas! Calientitos!” they announce as they pass by, offering a few warm peanuts to each extended hand. Take your pick, three packets for ten pesos.
A youngish man who sells churros and marquesitas has a loud, scratchy, gruff voice. He often shouts in Spanish, “I’m running out of churros,” and people shout back, “Good!” or he might yell, “I’m leaving,” and they reply, “Have a nice trip!”
The family who sells cold drinks is right behind our section. This family consists of a handsome man with an open, friendly face, Rolando, and his wife , their daughter, son-in-law, and three grandchildren. One grandchild was a tiny baby boy during the 2005 season. One night a foul ball came up and landed in his babycarrier. He didn’t even wake up.
One night Rolando came to work alone, rushing to get everything ready for the game- doing the work of four people. During a break in the action, I went up and stood beside him to ask about the family. He laughed and hung his head, embarrassed; then he explained that the night before he had visited his son-in-law and they had done some drinking. He said that, even though he ‘never does this’ and that the drinking was done at the son-in-law’s house, his wife was furious when he dragged in at five in the morning. She hadn’t spoken to him all day and had forbade the son-in-law and daughter to go to the ballpark to help sell bebidas frias. When the game ended and we were walking out, I asked him what he was going to do. He asked for advice and I suggested flowers, and the sooner the better, even if he had to pick them from the side of the road. She was there the next night and he gave me a very quiet, conspiratorial wink. I didn’t need to ask my questions.
We have vowed to try all of the food offerings at least once, but after months of struggling over the pasteles on the open trays, we’d still not partaken. Finally, I took the plunge, and discovered that the caymote pastel is delicious, especially the next morning with a café con leche. But I admit that I still haven’t tried the hamaca shoe.
See? Wasn't that fun? Reading the book is even more fun, and going to a Leones baseball game is the most fun at all. We highly encourage it!