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Killing books and turkeys with kindness

5 April 2010

There have been the usual parleyings about the brandy for the turkey — the guajolote, the Indians call him — the ancestral bird of Mexico.  The Aztecs ate, and continue to eat, him. and good cooks have the habit of giving him the following happy death: on the morning of the day on which you are to eat him, you generally hear him gobbling about.  Then there is the demand for whisky or brandy “por el guajolote, pobrecito.”  The unfortunate (or fortunate) bird is then allowed to drink himself to death.  This is the effective way of rendering him chewable, it being impossible to hand meats at this altitude.  The flesh becomes soft and white and juicy.  But try a gravel-fed guajolote that has not gone to damnation!

(Edith O’Shaughnessy, A Diplomat’s Wife in Mexico, 1916)

Research, and cooking, requires a certain about of destruction — slicing and dicing and pulling the guts out of, to find the usable and tasty nuggets.

I’m reading and making notes for a book on the English-language writers that have, for better or worse, defined our north of the border perceptions of Mexico. Besides “the maddening Mrs. O’Shaugnessy” (the snobbish wife of U.S. charge d’affairs Nelson O’Shaughnessy during the Madero and Huerta and twenty to forty-five minute Lascuráin presidencies), I’m reading Puritan spin-doctor and former Catholic monk Thomas Gage, British diplomat and traveler Henry Ward, Scots-U.S. diarist and wit,  Fanny Calderón de la Barca and two American novelists:  John D. McDonald and William S. Burroughs.

While most of these now somewhat forgotten writers are available on-line, one can’t make notes, or pull out the tastiest parts easily.  One can cut and paste, but that’s not the same thing.  I’ve appreciated the work of Kessinger Publishing in making relatively cheap reprints available… for the simple reason that I’m old-fashioned and my favorite way of doing research is to sit in bed with a pen and a marker and turning down pages.

That’s something you can’t do with on-line works, and I’m even leery of using “post-it” notes on something like my Spanish translation of Ward’s “Mexico in 1827” which is not an expensive book (I paid 150 pesos for it in Mexico City second-hand bookstore) but a very nice one that one hesitates to mutilate, even in the higher name of research… though I am tempted to cut out the huge inset map of Mexico in 1826 and frame it)

So, I’ve been happily mutilating a copy of Mrs. O’Shaughenssy’s gossipy letters to her mother.  In between her carping at  Woodrow Wilson (whose administration Nelson O’Shaughnessy supposedly represented, though he did his best to undermine administration policy and A Diplomat’s Wife was published in 1916 during Wilson’s campaign for a second term) there are those wonderful glimpses of the privileged lives of the foreign elites in Revolutionary Mexico, and a few tidbits on Mexican customs, as filtered through Mrs. O’Shaughnessy’s eyes.

But I’m not sure Mrs. O’Shaughnessy quite understood her cook.  I know parrots are sometimes given a drop or two of tequila when they’re being trained to talk (liquor loosens the tongue, right?), but the brandy may not have been to give the turkey a good time before his head was unceremoniously lopped off.  A  “drunken turkey” usually receives his liquor as part of the post-mortem ritual of apoethesis.

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