Category Archives: Mavens

Beyond Limericks: Phil Linehan’s Clever Wit

 Phil photo

Perhaps it is the Irish blood flowing through her veins, but Phil Linehan’s sweet, demure exterior bears little resemblance to her feisty wit as reflected in her prose. A master of the English language, this petite journalist-author-translator projects a sharp satirical edge to her biting op-eds. Although not in limerick meter, her rhyming observations range from the very timely criticism of Uruguayan soccer player Luis Suarez (who has cultivated the habit of biting his opponents on the soccer field), to more pressing issues related to current events.

Here are a few examples of her humor.

Luis Suarez, Uuguayan soccer player (courtesy

Oh Luis! What Big Teeth You Have

People everywhere are enthralled by sports greatest display

with supporters far and wide intent on making hay.

When their team wins the celebrations become intense

and out of the window flies commonsense.

The World Cup is what causes such a hullabaloo

as fans watch the tele while imbibing their favourite brew.

Players make dramatic dives right into the dirt

hoping the referee will believe they have been hurt.

That might get their opponent a yellow, or even a red card

and who from the game will then be barred.

The referee sometimes is unaware of a real infraction

and is booed by the crowd for his inaction.

A special case is that of Luis Suarez who plays for Uruguay

known to his opponents as a special kind of guy.

He thinks that instead of playing football with his feet

he can better beat them if he uses his teeth.

An Italian opponent suffered his latest attack

as Suarez’s incisors left their imprint on his back.

When Giorgio Chiellini felt the gnaw

He thought he’d been bitten by a macaw.

Now Suarez, for the third time, has been banned,

Against which ruling he and his country have taken a firm stand.

He claims that he simply tripped

And his opponent’s shoulder with his teeth accidentally gripped.

Once out of the Cup he had to leave

And what really happened we shall never perceive.

In Montevideo, where the reaction is seen as a misconception,

He was greeted with a hero’s magnificent reception.

Born in Dublin, Ireland, Linehan boasts an impressive resume with jobs in several international organizations and diverse media (including television and print), globe-trotting from Geneva to India to Yugoslavia to Denmark to Sweden to New York, ending up in Mexico. Nothing escapes her tongue-in-cheek critiques including herself! Here’s another sampling of her cunning take on things.

Twitter, Twitter on the Wall, Who is the Sexiest of them All?

What is it with men in positions of power

who seem to inhabit an ivory tower?

They believe they are kings of their castles

and think of women as their vassals..

Tiger* and Dominique** are names that spring to mind

and there are many others of a similar kind.

Arnold*** of course we should not forget

who, just like the others, his behaviour must now regret.

There’s Governor Mark Sanford who mountains could shift

when he flew off to Argentina to give his soul mate a gift.

When to his wife he became a traitor

he moved the Appalachians south of the Equator.

Then they become indignant and cranky

when someone discovers their sexy hanky panky.

The latest would-be Lothario to be found out

is now seeing his career go down the spout.

Anthony Weiner hoped to become New York’s next big shot

before he got his boxers twisted in a knot.

He didn’t know that Tweeting is a dangerous game

especially when one uses one’s very own name.

What made him think the sight of his underwear’s bulge

would induce women with him in virtual sex to indulge?

A quick glance at the asset of which he is so proud

is enough to confirm he’s not that well endowed.

Any young woman would become dismayed

when seeing the photo of the face he displayed.

There’s no way she would yearn our hero to hug

once she got a good look at his unprepossessing mug.

How come the man who turns out to be such a louse

usually has an intelligent and attractive spouse?

Is it because deep in his heart

he realizes he’s the one who is not that smart?

The moral of this tale is very clear

and I am glad I can repeat it here.

Any man who plans to cheat

must learn how to control his Tweet.

* Woods

** Strauss-Kahn


Another timely poem, this time making fun of global warming:

And Pigs Will Fly

As the global warming drums are beating

and temperatures go right on heating

not all are scared of climate change

or even weather they admit is strange.

In England, in counties near to France,

wine growers are preparing to seize the chance

to compete with the very best Bordeaux,

perhaps even from a famed chateau.

Though English wine may seem unthinkable

there is such a thing, but it’s quite undrinkable.

Producers welcome the longer, hotter summers on the rise

that will rid them of their permanent grey and leaden skies.

They know they would have much to gain

if they could produce a bubbly like Champagne.

And oh! What joy if they could grow

a grape to compete with a good Margaux.

They long for the day when Canterbury’s bells

will announce the Nouveau Tunbridge Wells

and they can unveil to the world their proudest brew

known as Dover Castle premier cru.

Their dreams are easy to comprehend

as they gloomily taste their inferior blend.

But the odds are their hopes will surely fail

so they would be better advised to stick to ale.

The English flee their soggy shores, cross the pond,

and head for Calais, Paris and beyond.

There they dine on food they consider fine

which, as they put it, is washed down with wine.

That the reverse will occur is hard to believe

for it is improbable that anyone could conceive

of the French enjoying meals that are overdone

and often ending with a sticky bun.

However much English vintners plan and scheme,

sow their grapes and optimistically dream,

they’ll not see the day when their neighbours rush hell bent

to quaff a claret made in Kent.

Things I Will Never Know

So many things leave me in doubt

that I am totally ignorant about,

I fret when I realize of the answers I will never be aware

and end up in the depths of despair.

Among the many things I do not know

is why we call claret the wine that comes from Bordeaux.

Why did a lake in Chile go out of sight

when it suddenly disappeared overnight?

Cosmologists claim sapient beings exist far away from our Sun,

but if they are intelligent, would they not this planet shun?

Did the geniuses who said the moon is shrinking

make that announcement when their classes were clinking?

Are we to believe life exists far beyond the stars

and there shopping malls on Mars?

One claim I find very hard to swallow

is that the Earth is hollow.

I thought Newton on gravity said the last word

but that, of course, is quite absurd.

It seems Einstein had something to say about gravitation and flat space

and many others have now joined the race.

With no knowledge of this or that esoteric theory

I can tell you that, when on a cold winter morning I lie weary,

there is no greater gravitational pull

than a warm bed covered with blankets made of wool.

Did the universe begin when the Big Bang occurred?

It’s a theory about which some have demurred.

I can’t imagine why they don’t agree.

It’s more impressive than with a whimper it seems to me.

With so many UFO sightings being seen

are the observers drinking too much vodka or caffeine?

As they keep their eyes glued to the sky

could they be charged with the crime of SUI? *

But my real concerns are more mundane

and the ones of which I most complain.

Why can’t airports be prepared for snow,

and why do men wear ties, are the things I really want to know.

* Sighting Under the Influence


Linehan, who continues to work as a freelance translator, is the author of a book entitled Plain Speaking – A Reporter’s Conversations with President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Conversations with Wife Cherie (available on Amazon and Kindle) unlike the versions by Tony Blair, George W. Bush and now Dick Cheney, telling her version of the story of what led us into the Iraq war. Her satirical humor is timely and right on target. Can’t wait until she publishes an entire book full of her fun lines!

Phil 1

Thanks as always for bringing a smile to my face, Phil!

And lastly, Phil on Phil!

Readings from authors who the English language best wrote

including a mention or two of some witty quote.

There are so many names from which they could choose

and below are mentioned a few they might want to peruse.

There are Synge and O’Flaherty, Behan and Yeats

to name just a very few of the greats.

Another fine author who should not be left out

is Francis Mahoney, aka Father Prout.

If it’s comedy they want they might suggest to their boss

that he allow them to quote the ladies Somerville and Ross.

There are so many others by whose works we are beguiled

such as O´Casey, Jonathan Swift and, of course, Oscar Wilde.

If they decided they would like to air a humorous voice

Oliver Goldsmith would be a most suitable choice.

If they wanted an erudite audience to draw

they could hardly do better than quote Bernard Shaw.

If ballads were needed there would be nothing more sure

than to delve into the romantic works of famed Thomas Moore.

James Joyce of course must not be left out of the mix

as his writings would surely the viewers’ transfix.

Ending on a more contemporary note

there is someone else from whom they could quote.

Phil Linehan’s satiric verses would probably make most listeners smile

although, to be honest, in some others they might produce bile.


The list goes on and on but I now discover I’ve put myself on a spot —

to say that every author mentioned is Irish I simply forgot!


Posted by on July 13, 2014 in Mavens


Anita Brenner: A Bridge Between Nations and Religions

Anita Brenner was a woman who straddled many worlds. She was multi-cultural before the word was invented. In fact, her footprint is deeply embedded in Mexican art, literature, world history, the muralist movement, tourism and politics. So, you wonder, why have you never heard her name before? If it weren’t for Susannah Glusker, I too, would be unfamiliar with this influential woman, who was way ahead of her times.


The late Susannah Glusker has published two books on Anita Brenner: Anita Brenner: A Mind of Her Own and the more recent Avant-Garde Art and Artists in Mexico: Anita Brenner’s Journals of the Roaring Twenties, redeeming the historical role of this activist-author, while simultaneously providing a fascinating glimpse into a Mexico of another era — the effervescent 20s, touching on the role of women living in a post-revolutionary Mexico.

Brenner was the daughter of Latvian immigrants who moved to Mexico seeking a better life. They settled in the city of Aguascalientes in the late nineteenth century due to a mining boom which created a pole of attraction. She was born in 1905 and raised there until the age of 11 when the family moved to Texas given the threat of ongoing revolts which eventually gave way to the Mexican Revolution.

Brenner became a noteworthy intellectual of her time, freely moving between many circles both in the U.S. and Mexico. Her influx of ideas, her exceptionally lucid, eloquent and versatile writing style which ranged from art reviews, travel reports and children’s stories allowed her to entertain while educating, bridging the gap among people of different backgrounds. Her prodigious passion for explaining Mexico to an English-speaking public gave her an edge during tumultuous times for Mexico and the world, making her so much more than a simple journalist or political activist.

glusker with hammock

Her interests crossed many boundaries – art, Mexican traditions, Jewish issues in Mexico, human rights – making her hard to pigeonhole. Writer Malcolm Gladwell would consider her a “connector,” based on his Tipping Point classification, i.e., part of “a community who know(s) large numbers of people and who are in the habit of making introductions … They usually know people across an array of social, cultural, professional, and economic circles, and make a habit of introducing people who work or live in different circles.”

Brenner Aguascalientes Book

She hobnobbed with people whose names are easily recognizable today, including artists Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros, Frida Kahlo, Francisco Goitia, Carlos Merida, Jean Charlot, Miguel Covarrubias, William Spratling, Henry Moore, Isamu Noguchi, Edward Weston and Tina Modotti, as well as intellectuals of her times such as Frances Toor, Alma Reed and Carlos Fuentes. As a journalist for the Sunday New York Times and The Nation, she interviewed major figures such as Leon Trotsky and Miguel de Unamuno to name a few!

In fact, Brenner was instrumental in bringing Trotsky to Mexico. Although she never formally adhered to any political party or ideology, being too much of a free-thinker to fall into one specific group, she actively participated in the International Committee for Political Prisoners and other radical groups. After interviewing Trotsky in Paris, she was contacted to help get him political asylum since his life was endangered in Europe. Cabling Diego Rivera, they worked the appropriate channels to get Trotsky sanctuary in Mexico.

It was Anita Brenner who introduced Jose Clemente Orozco to Alma Reed. The stormy, taciturn, idiosyncratic artist, today dubbed one of the “Three Great Muralists,” alongside Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros, eventually cultivated a long-standing friendship with Reed. Thanks to the connection Brenner established between the two, Orozco found a patroness and anchor who arranged contracts for the painter, which led to commissions at the New School for Social Research, Pomona College and Dartmouth University.

She is also responsible for convinced German-born Jewish artist Mathias Goeritz to stay in Mexico after Diego Rivera bitterly attacked him in the local press. The name Goeritz might not ring a bell, but undoubtedly you have seen his works if you have been to Mexico. He designed the iconic 5 tower abstract sculpture which greet commuters on the Periferico bordering on Ciudad Satelite (along with architect Luis Barragan). He also designed the modern stained glass windows in the Metropolitan Cathedral in downtown Mexico as well as those in the Cuernavaca Cathedral, and participated in creating the Experimental Eco Art Museum, which recently reopened its doors as a gallery. Goeritz participated in several public art projects such the Friendship Route (La Ruta de la Amistad), a series of 18 enormous abstract sculptures which still dot the southern segment of the Mexico City Periferico commemorating the ’68 Olympics.

Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, director of silent masterpieces such as Battleship Potemkin (1925), October (1927) and several historic epics, was said to have been inspired by Anita’s first book Idols Behind Altars for his non-political work Que Viva México! Unfortunately, due to a series of financial and logistics mishaps, Eisenstein eventually abandoned this ambitious film project before it was finished. Diego and Frida referred to Eisenstein’s work as “moving frescos.”

Idols Behind Altars: Modern Mexican Art and Its Cultural Roots

Idols Behind Altars (Brenner’s first title published in 1929) remains today a fascinating compilation of essays covering the historic, religious and artistic aspects of Mexico spanning pre-Columbian times to what was at the time it was written a burgeoning modern muralist movement.

Front Cover

Her second book Your Mexican Holiday (1932) was a travel guide published back when travel in Mexico was considered exotic and difficult given a lack of infrastructure. Brenner began sharing her knowledge of the generosity and warmth of Mexico’s people and its impressive sights (pre-Hispanic ruins, amazing countryside landscapes, an emerging world-class artists’ moment and unequaled food) and eventually revived this thread in an English-language monthly magazine Mexico/This Month, as founder, editor, financial backer and writer. Her pioneering efforts in this sector were so outstanding that she was eventually recognized by the Mexican government.

The Wind That Swept Mexico: The History of the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1942

Anita Brenner moved in many circles, comfortable in both the academic world as well as the literary world. With a PhD from Columbia University, she published an ambitious chronicle of Mexico’s complex revolution summarized in 100 pages of text supplemented with 184 photos entitled The Wind that Swept Mexico. This masterpiece remains surprisingly fresh and relevant even today, providing a candid portrayal of the revolution, recognizing its failure from the point of view of the campesino peasant class, the inefficient handling of land tenure, the role of a meddlesome church, etc.


With one foot in Mexico and another in the US, one foot in a staunch Roman Catholic society and another in a strong Jewish tradition, Brenner never shied away from complex, controversial topics.  She became a spokesperson for the underdog, be it Mexicans bad-mouthed by the American press or the Jewish minority in a predominantly Catholic country. She wrote on touchy subjects such as the expropriation of the Mexican oil industry (in 1938), and William Randolph Hearst’s expansive land holdings in Mexico, as well as his meddling in Mexican politics in hopes of retaining his land by sending journalists to Mexico to write unfavorable reports and distorted information. Her point of view was always clear and consistent, unconcerned with gaining popularity. And her articles and books wielded great impact at the time they were published. It comes as no surprise that her opinionated, feisty personality combined with her bilingual background spurred many a debate.

Brenner Kids Book

With her untimely death in 1974 (caused by a car crash), she left several projects unfinished, including a children’s book on the life of Spanish conquistador Gonzalo Guerrero (who was shipwrecked and lived in the Yucatan peninsula 8 years prior to Hernan Cortes’s arrival), and a novel on Luis de Carvajal (who belonged to a well-known family of marranos or Jews who converted to avoid the persecution of the Holy Inquisition, only to eventually become its victim).


Brenner was at risk of falling into historical obscurity if it weren’t for the late Susannah Glusker, whose biographical works on her mother has rekindled her historic importance. Thanks to Glusker’s vivid childhood memories of family friends including Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Anthony Quinn and Henry Moore among others she was able produce cogent, well documented books that portray an accurate account of the life of Anita Brenner.


Unfortunately, Glusker passed away earlier this year, but she achieved her legacy to save Anita Brenner from historical limbo. I have chosen to resume my blog Mexican Museums and Mavens in tribute to my dear friend Susannah Glusker and her remarkable mother Anita Brenner, both role models for me and future generations.


Posted by on August 3, 2013 in Mavens


VIDA: The Textured Work of Juanita Pérez

Colombian-Mexican artist, Juanita Pérez in front of two of her works that are part of VIDA, an exhibit at Casa Lamm

Juanita Pérez is an extremely talented, unique artist. Her work is unlike that of any other artist I have seen. It projects her life – layers upon layer of elements built up to produce the final oeuvre, which emits a strong, sensual, energetic message. Her art is hard to describe in words. It is complicated, yet at the same time simple.

Three pieces that are part of her current exhibit

It is a collage of sorts, but not in the traditional sense of cut-out figures, pasted on a stark background. Juanita combines textures, patterns and diverse materials, telling her story in canvases covered with paper, textiles, oil colors and much more. Colombian-born, she formally studied art in the United States before making Mexico her permanent home. Her life narrative is reflected in the dynamics of her work – vivid, colorful, active, complex, rich, profound, coherent and vibrant.

An rich combination of colors, textures and materials makes Juanita's work unique

Many people shy away from abstract art since, unlike figurative art where forms and figures are clearly identifiable, abstract art leaves the viewer much leeway to interact and interpret the pieces – which is often uncomfortable for the neophyte. Juanita reassured me that this is exactly the point of this genre. The viewers “in abstract art have more opportunities of interpretation and freedom to invent their own stores.”  She hopes that her art is a trigger for the viewers to immerse themselves in their own dreams and adapt her images to their own emotional imprints.”  Thus, there is no correct or incorrect way of interpreting art.  According to the visual artist, art is free and open.

Luna y Viento (The Moon and the Wind), a mixed technique (144cm x 168 cm)

Her current exhibit, entitled “VIDA” or “LIFE” is on display at Casa Lamm, a unique Cultural Center which combines classes, workshops, exhibits and a variety of cultural activities. I have a soft spot in my heart for Casa Lamm, since that is where I began my current career as historian-guide-teacher over a decade ago!

Cosas y pensamientos nocturnos (Things and Nocturnal Thoughts), a six piece collection (each 43 cm x 43 cm)

VIDA contemplates and reflects on certain aspects of Pérez’s life and memories. To project these, the catalogue of this show explains that “she has chosen to use (papel picado) to symbolize festivals, remembrances, sacred rituals and childhood. The telling of stories, elaborate games, remembrances of things past, are concealed in the intricate patterns and colors of this integral and powerful manifestation of Mexican life.”

Juanita and I at her exhibit entitled VIDA (or LIFE)

A personal concern of mine is how attached the artist becomes to her pieces. In fact, in previous work, Juanita has included elements as intimate as passports, photos and maps, which are an extension of her very personal life, yet she insists that she is only attached to her work during the process of painting. After she has finished a piece, she lets it go.

Pedacitos de cielo y agua (Pieces of the Sky and Water) showcased on the catalogue cover of VIDA (145 cm x 105 cm)

Be sure to check out Juanita’s latest work at Casa Lamm, which is divided on two floors of the gallery.  And good news – the show (originally scheduled to close January 4th) will be extended until January 20th, 2012!  Her pieces will be available for private viewing after that date, so be sure to drop by Casa Lamm for an uplifting visual treat!


Edmundo Aquino, XXI Century Renaissance Man

An oil painting reflecting Edmundo Aquino's abstract leaning

If ever there were a renaissance artist in the XXI century, Edmundo Aquino is one.  His talent spans virtually every genre – from traditional academic drawings, to abstract oil painting, to woven tapestries, to lithographies, prints and engravings, to bronze sculpture to glass art.  You name the art form and Edmundo has mastered it.  Not allowing his creative expression to be hampered by a single artistic form, he continues to experiment with content and form.

The Oaxacan artist in his Coyoacan studio-home

When asked how he categorizes himself, he very politely claims he is a “visual artist” refusing to pigeon-hole himself with a specific adjective, or favorite style.  The eternal iconoclast, he has opted to spurn many well known galleries in Mexico City to afford himself the freedom of expression to promote his works personally, which is why he is perhaps better known in European circles and in the United States than in Mexico, where his pieces are showed with frequency.  To be fair, he does have pieces in the permanent collection of the National Institute of Fine Arts in Mexico, it just seems that he has not been given his due recognition here in Mexico!

Aquino's realistic-academic drawing style, very uncharacteristic of his more favored abstract, contemporary tendencies

Of Zapotec descent, born in the small Indian village of Zimatlan in the Valley of Oaxaca, Edmundo’s creative drive brought him to Mexico City in 1949, at the tender age of 9.  Not only a graduate of the San Carlos Academy of Fine Arts, but also a former teacher there (as well as at the Fine Arts School in Oaxaca), his career came at the heels of the Greats who passed through those halls – Rivera, Siqueiros, Tamayo, Orozco, Dr. Atl, some of whom he had the pleasure of meeting personally.

A sampling of the artist's small-format Mexican marble sculptures

Edmundo believes that his greatest achievement has been to live as an artist for over 50 years dedicated to his profession and creative production.  His art is, indeed, a reflection of the many cultures and artists that have touched his life from around the world, which is why he considers himself an heir to the whole tradition of art, and is very motivated by Mexican culture, as well as by all contemporary manifestations of art.   Another rewarding facet of his creativity is the promotion of social and cultural activities in his hometown and other nearby towns and villages in his native Oaxaca.

Glass work - Edmundo's latest passion!

Edmundo has written part of his memoirs, some poetry and many short texts about artistic creation.  His latest challenge is blending his narrative production with a visual accent.  Without a doubt Edmundo Aquino is one of the most versatile and creative Mexico artists around today.  Although the artist is not showing his works publicly at this time, he often participates in collective exhibits.  His next show is scheduled for 2012 at the Casa Limantour in Mexico City.

A new collage-like technique combining his written words with watercolor paintings


Posted by on November 6, 2011 in Contemporary Art, Mavens


Martie Zelt, An Artistic Inspiration

Martie and I during her last visit to Mexico City earlier this year

I met Martie Zelt a few years ago while I was giving a tour to a group of Fulbright Scholarship holders being prepped for their stay in Mexico.  She was on her way to Xalapa, Veracruz to specialize in papermaking, her passion since 1976.  I did not know at the time that Martie was an accomplished artist, but her charisma and intense curiosity about Mexico set her apart from the herd.  Only later did I come to find out that she was 80,  ex-wife of late Spanish poet Rafael Millán Pinillos, in Mexico as a Fulbright-Garcia Robles Scholar.  That was 2008-2009.

The famous Hollander paper beater Martie helped assemble at the Instituto de Artes Plásticas in Xalapa

I have maintained contact with Martie – she is someone you don’t want to lose track of!   Based in New Mexico, she dedicates most of her time to paper and printmaking in her studio located in the Southwest of the United States. She visits Mexico sporadically, where I get the chance to catch up with her –  trying to follow and understand her creative production and development.  Martie has held numerous solo and group exhibitions, not only in US museums and galleries, but also in Brazil, Spain and Mexico.  She has pieces in permanent collections in Princeton and Yale Universities, the Brooklyn Museum, Carnegie Institute Museum of Art, the Penna Academy of Fine Arts Museum of American Art in Philadelphia and the Roswell Museum and Art Center in New Mexico.

Martie overseeing papermaking, a process more complex than you'd expect!

She recently participated in the VI International Biennial of Contemporary Textile Art with an sample of her latest endeavors.  If you are not familiar with World Textile Art (WTA), it is a recently founded organization, aimed at bridging the gap between the Americas (North and South, that is) by promoting art through on-going workshops and cultural exchange.  This year’s WTA gathering was held  simultaneously in Xalapa, Veracruz, Mexico City and in Oaxaca City, Oaxaca.

"Peach Walking," handmade paper and collagraph (about 17" x 16," 2009)

Martie became involved with well known artists in Veracruz developing sustainable, fine paper made from local plant materials, while helping design and build a “Hollander beater,” a paper-making machine (dating back to the 1600s) at the Instituto de Artes Plásticas within the Universidad Veracruzana (see photo above) .  With her unending creative spirit and energy, she also initiated a recycling program and an ambitious quilt-size paperwork celebrating about 25 taxi drivers.

"Aire y Sombras" - the piece selected for display during the recent biennial in the Anahuacalli Museum in Mexico City (handmade paper, relief print with additions, about 29" x 29," 2011)

She is the author of a 32 foot mural in the Roswell Civic Center, which is a mixed media work using tiles, shards, mirrors an other materials.  Her degree  in mural painting and graphics from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts prepared her early in life for a rich, productive 60 year career.  You are an inspiration  to all of us, Martie.  Can’t wait to see your latest projects!

Martie resting in downtown Mexico City on a Leonora Carrington sculpture - May 2011

NOTE:  All of the photographs in this particular entry were provided by Martie and José Valles Rivera. Thanks for sharing the wealth!


Posted by on September 7, 2011 in Contemporary Art, Mavens


Bringing Coals to Newcastle (or Chocolate to Mexico)

Louis and I at the chocolate tasting sponsored by Charity Coalition

I met Louis Barnett at a Charity Coalition event last May. This British teen (hard to believe he is only 19) has already put his name on the map as an internationally acclaimed chocolatier by producing a wide array of top notch chocolate bars which blend ingredients as improbable as black pepper, ginger, sea salt and chile.  With these and other unlikely combinations, Louis has improved what was already a sublime treat, in my book at least, into an exquisite culinary experience.

A sampling of Chokolit products on sale in Mexico

Chocolate, unlike money, does grown on trees. Actually, I stand to be corrected, since chocolate – or rather cacao beans – were used as a rudimentary currency during pre-Columbian times, and they do, indeed, grow on trees!  Cocoa beans were so highly valued prior to the arrival of the Spaniards, that the crop doubled as a kind of long distance trading currency (the only perishable ingredient which I know of that was used as money) as well as for tribute – a tax payment to the dominant Mexicas.  Its importance was such that there was a measurement system devised just to count cacao beans (400 beans made up 1 zontle; 20 zontles were 1 xiquipil; and 3 xiquipiles or 24,000 beans was one load –  the weight that an individual man could carry), thus, money did grow on trees!

Cocoa pods jutting out from the tree branches, a rather peculiar site to see!

Theobroma cacao (its scientific name) grows on small trees native to Mexico and Central America (Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador), with its pods oddly jutting directly from its trunk (check out my photo below). The Maya people used the beans to make a chocolate beverage used for rituals, which also doubled as a status symbol among the pre-Hispanic elite.   Anthropologists are now adjusting their calculations and proposing that chocolate did not make its first appearance in the Maya diet some 2,500 years ago as originally believed, since there is evidence that its consumption can be traced as far back as 1200 B.C. with the Olmec culture on the Gulf Coast of Mexico.

Who would have known that raw cocoa beans resemble nuts!

Connoisseurs often complain about the quality of Mexican chocolate candy, particularly when comparing it to Belgian, Swiss or (yes) Russian fare.  At first blush, this seems inexplicable given that cacao originated in southern Mexico. Yet, a quick look at the history of cacao itself explains this phenomenon. The word “chocolate” is derived from the Nahuatl word chocolatl. “Xococ” means bitter or sour (think the xoconostle fruit, which is bitter, for example) and the prefix “a” or “atl” means water, referring to the liquid it was prepared with – as a savory beverage.

A cocoa pod split in half revealing the delicious white fruit pulp (encasing the cocoa beans)

“Cocoa” is derived from Classical Maya, ka-ka-wa – with the last vowel is dropped, the word is pronounced “kakaw.”  The tree was referred to as “cacahoacentli” in Nahutl and the seeds “cacahoatl,” most likely borrowed by the Mexicas (a.k.a. Aztecs) from the Maya.  Since, there was no milk (no cows or other beasts of burden in Pre-Colombian America) nor sugar (cane sugar was introduced to the Americas by Hernán Cortes via the Canary Islands, originating in India), Mexican hot chocolate or hot cocoa was prepared with a variety of recipes calling for water, vanilla (also native to Mexico), annato seeds (giving it a distinct red ting), chiles, ground pepper, dried and ground flowers, and at times honey.  Even today, in states such as Oaxaca, diners have the choice of requesting their hot chocolate be prepared with water or milk, ground almonds or cinnamon (not native to Mexico but favored by many today).   So, although cacao drinks were widely consumed among the native elite, chocolate candy production was virtually unknown.

A table lined with all the standard tools for preparing chocolate: a comal or griddle for roasting the beans, a metate or volcanic grinding table, a molcajete or mortar for mixing the cocoa with other ingredients and a molinillo used to produce the delicious foam that tops Mexican hot chocolate

This much coveted delicacy is facing a revival in Mexico with local chefs (Jose Ramon Castillo of Que Bo! is one popular chef who comes to mind) and signature chocolate shops cropping up all over the city (L’Atelier among others) often creating innovative combinations with commonplace ingredients such as mole or tamarind.  Meanwhile, Luis has taken on the challenge and risk of importing his products to Mexico, much like bringing coals to Newcastle!  His success lies in inventing a unique product, unlike anything else available in this country today – in terms of quality and combination of flavors. His brand, launched this Spring under the label “Chokolit,” is available in a local department store chain around Mexico. My first encounter with Louis and Chokolit was at an event where 4 of his chocolates were paired with 4 wines – two French and two Italian.  I admit that I had never tasted chocolate with wine before – what I thought as unlikely duo turned out to be a match made in heaven. All that lovely theobromine (by the way, the scientific name of the tree as well as the active ingredient in chocolate was taken from the Greek word for “food of the Gods” – rightly so!), coupled with PEA (phenethylamine, another mood enhancing alkaloid present in chocolate) and alcohol was not only chemically right for my brain (a serotonin enhancer) but perfect for my taste buds as well!  The quality of Louis’s chocolates is unbeatable in flavor and texture – smooth, subtle, melt in your mouth … in combination with the hand picked selection of wines provided by Alessandro Picone Morelli of Vininter and Sophie Avernin of Grandes Viñedos de Francia (see their photo below) didn’t hurt!

Sophie, Louis and Alessandro tasting the fare!

Louis, home schooled at the age of 11 due to learning disabilities, found his calling by age 14. This dynamic, charismatic young man, brimming with energy and a promising future, has already won several awards including Emerging Entrepreneur of the Year Award in 2011 and Lord Carter Award for excellence in the food industry in 2009.  On top of that, Louis has a social conscience, earmarking a portion of his earnings to selected charities. If you ever come by any Chokolit products – don’t pass up the opportunity to try them.   Good luck to Louis and kudos to Francesca D’Agata, founder of  Charity Coalition, an umbrella not-for-profit agency, who organized the tasting, which gave me the opportunity to meet Louis and learn more about what I love – chocolate and wine. Francesca untiringly works to raise funds for 11 charities while proving fun events ranging from wine tastings to teas to art fairs.  If you are ever in Mexico, try to coincide with a Charity Coalition sponsored event – they are always memorable – lots of fun with the proceeds going to a good cause.

Additional premium Chokolite products, mixed with fruits, herbs and spices


Posted by on September 1, 2011 in Food, Mavens


National Museum of Anthropology Maven

With the recent naming of Diana Magaloni Kerpel as direct to the National Museum of Anthropology, this emblematic museum is undergoing a renaissance of sorts. Despite a severely restricted budget (what else is new?), Dr. Magaloni is successfully recovering the original philosophy of this institution by hosting numerous colloquials, conferences, workshops and talks on both traditional and novel topics (more on this in my upcoming blogs), and has painstakingly prepared new exhibits, culling from the extensive inventory of the INAH (Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History) and borrowing from friendly museums nationwide. By promoting an uncommon, yet urgent and refreshing attitude of international collaboration, she has bolstered educational programs and promoted exciting new temporary exhibits. Her approach is unusual and decisive for what has gradually become a stodgy, pedantic institution. Perhaps her fearless attitude of risk-taking, and more global perspective (she did graduate work at Yale University) gives her a startlingly open mindset for a museum director, which will hopefully put the Anthropology Museum back on the international map as a groundbreaking institution of worldwide acclaim.

I will explore the three exhibits currently at the Anthropology Museum and a few recent conferences sponsored under the tutelage of Dr. Magaloni in my next blog.