Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - April 12, 2019

You never know

The spring-break trip husband Art and I took to Albuquerque, New Mexico to see daughter Katie and son-in-law Matt also provided an opportunity to explore the area. But as with most of our adventures, we usually have ideas about things we’d like to see or food we want to try or activities we’d like to participate in. Matt was working, so we didn't see as much of him as we'd like, but we all managed a meal at the city’s famous Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen and another at the El Pinto Mexican restaurant. One day, we shopped with Katie, providing an opportunity for me to buy a dress for an upcoming wedding. On another, Art helped Katie install a peg board for hanging tools in their garage.

But as often as not, among our favorite things to do is to simply wander and observe. So one afternoon, the two of us spent hours in the city’s Old Town, walking into shops and photo galleries between periods of sitting on benches along the perimeter of the old plaza.

At one point, a group of youngsters dressed in their finest posed for photos in the gazebo. We assumed the young woman who was the center of attention was a “quinceañera.” She wore a long white dress with a tiara, and her “attendants” had matching white satin skirts and black jackets. The boys looked handsome in their black suits. This Latin American “coming-of-age” tradition is somewhat comparable to the debutante balls once so popular for young women in many areas of the United States.

After watching for a time, we left to stroll along the edge of the plaza, where artisans sold their jewelry. I bought a red jasper necklace whose pendant was fashioned into the shape of a feather. The artist, a woman from Santa Fe, had been chatting with a man who had two black dogs. I told him I’d never seen black pugs before and he asked if I wanted to pet them. As I bent to do so, I asked their names.

“This one is Cinco and the other one is DeMayo,” he said.

I couldn't help but laugh. It tickled me that when taken together, they formed Cinco de Mayo or fifth of May. That date is associated with the celebration of Mexican-American culture and refers to the Mexican army’s victory over the French at the Battle of Puebla in 1862.

By the time we walked away from the central plaza, the crowds had thinned out, causing our attention to be drawn to a photographer taking pictures of a handsome man dressed in a bright-purple jacket and white pants adorned with gold buttons. We stopped to watch.

When they were done, we spoke for a while. The man introduced himself as Antonio Reyna and said he has been a jazz-mariachi singer for 22 years. He and the photographer were in Old Town taking photos for the cover of his new album.

Art asked Antonio where he bought his clothes as they were certainly not something you would see on the racks of a department store. He laughed and said they are tailor-made especially for him.

They had barely gone when Art had his cellphone out, playing a Reyna music video. It was clear he is well known in the area.

The following day, we attended the Southwest Chocolate and Coffee Fest in the city’s fairgrounds. We had heard that it was the only one like it in the United States, and last year, more than 13,000 attended.

We were amazed at the items made with coffee or chocolate or both - cakes, soaps, spices, salsas, candles, perfumes, jerky, jams and, of course, coffee and chocolate drinks and chocolate bars. The most-surprising to me was the use of coffee for skin care. I wasn’t so sure about that one. Art likes coffee too, but said that any on his face would only be the result of poor drinking etiquette!

A few items didn't seem to fit into the theme - such as the Wisconsin Cheese Curds booth or those selling German pretzels and bratwursts. There were also places to buy wine and beer and another serving BLAT - bacon, lettuce, avocado and tomato - sandwiches.

In one area, some young and not-so-young artists were learning painting techniques, while another hosted a band and still another was home to a cow-milking demonstration.

During a break in the presentations on the kitchen stage, we grabbed empty chairs to rest a bit. As luck would have it, the next segment was “How Chocolate is Made,” with self-proclaimed chocolate historian Mark Sciscenti. My interest was piqued when he mentioned he was using cacao from Ecuador, my home for two years while a Peace Corps volunteer.

Over the next hour, he demonstrated the process of making chocolate. He said archaeological evidence shows that people were making it 5,300 years ago in parts of South America. He explained that the cacao pod - about the size of a human heart - produces 15-40 seeds per pod and it takes about 40 seeds to make one small chocolate bar.

After first roasting the seeds, he peeled the skins off, leaving the “nibs.” He had us taste them - resulting in many puckered faces as they were quite bitter.

While grinding the nibs into a mass, he added cocoa butter, chiles, various spices and dried flowers from the cacao plant. He said the process would typically take about four hours by hand and slaves in ancient households were assigned this task. Various flavorings, such as honey, were often used, but ambergris – the gray substance produced in the digestive system of sperm whales – was the strangest one he’d heard of.

He mentioned chocolate that develops a whitish look is the result of the cocoa butter coming to the surface, but is still good to eat.

Once in the state he wanted it, he had us again taste the result. It definitely wasn't to my liking as it was still bitter.

But the whole Albuquerque experience — being with the “kids,” shopping, watching people, and learning about chocolate and coffee — was a sweet affair. And for those of us that like the unusual, well it reminded me of what Antonio said in Old Town as we we were parting: “You never know what you’re going to see here.”

How true!

Top-left: Katie, Art, Gloria and Matt enjoy supper at Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen; top-right: a young woman celebrates her quinceañera in the Old Town plaza park; bottom-left: Art and Gloria with singer Antonio Reyna; botton-middle: chocolate historian Mark Sciscenti converting the cacao nibs into chocolate using a traditional grinding technique; bottom-right: chocolate covered Oreos were one of the featured items at the Southwest Chocolate and Coffee Fest.

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Other columns from 2019 may be found at: 2019 Index.
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