I went to the Literary Sala this week to learn about urban sketching and Mexican cuisine but, more than that, I learned how to see San Miguel through new, fresh, and exciting eyes.
Susan Dorf has been drawing San Miguel scenes and people for a decade and many know her through the colorful sketchpad images that appear in the weekly bi-lingual paper, Atencion. Her eye for detail is extraordinary and her ability to capture the essence of street scenes in ink and watercolor rivals the hundreds of iPhones trying to do the same.
Patricia Juana Merrill Márquez is a San Miguel native with roots going back 400 years. She is an architect, a hotelier, and a champion for Mexican cuisine. She also collects dichos — Mexican idioms and aphorisms that open a window onto this unique culture. “The Buen Provecho Book,” is a mix of recipes and lively insight into Mexican culture.
I guarantee that few of us see the same San Miguel as these two.
Susan Dorf — “Vistas de San Miguel”
It is one thing to move through a space and snap off a half-dozen images with a camera or a smartphone. It is quite another to sit quietly on the periphery and observe until you have captured the essence of what is before you.
The former explains how hundreds of tourists can come away from San Miguel all with the same set of photographs.
In the wonderful and kind of fictional “Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows,” this is called vemödalen “n. the frustration of photographing something amazing when thousands of identical photos already exist—the same sunset, the same waterfall, the same curve of a hip, the same closeup of an eye—which can turn a unique subject into something hollow and pulpy and cheap, like a mass-produced piece of furniture you happen to have assembled yourself.”
The latter is how Susan Dorf moves through our hectic, touristy, chaotic, noisy, hustling world.
She sits. She observes. She organizes. She finds a focus. And only then does she begins to apply pen to paper. And even then, she may not know where she is headed until a drawing is well underway.
“And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.” — Road Dahl
What she does know is that, in the words of author Robert M. Prisig, “It’s the sides of the mountain that sustain life, not the top.”
In such a deeply mindful state, “everything becomes drawable. Everything becomes interesting,” observes Susan.
As she begins sketching a central image, her mind becomes like a widening lens, pulling in more and more detail from her surroundings.
“I might start by drawing a person, then I notice the details of the bench they are sitting on. Then in the background, I see a fountain, or a tree, and birds. And it just grows.”
The nature of the picture can change yet again when she applies color to the bare sketchings.
Again, Prisig, from “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”: “The more you look, the more you see.”
As Susan describes her creative process, you sense that she moves through a world of constant and endless discovery. Even the mundane is fresh.
“To draw is to learn how to slow down and see the beauty in things,” she says.
Her new book “Vistas de San Miguel,” is a wonderful collection of her drawings, a glimpse through eyes trained to see the “beauty in things.”
“San Miguel de Allende is a city in motion,” she says, “dancing into the pages of my sketchbooks.”
Patricia Juana Merrill Márquez — “The Buen Provecho Book”
This author’s view of San Miguel is informed by hundreds of years of family history, going back to the first Spanish settlers.
For example, as we pass the Plaza de Torros and the elementary school on Recreo, we may notice boutiques and shops. Patricia sees the house her grandparents lived in when she was a child and her grandfather was inspector of education for the school. The building is infused with her memories.
She has a deeply personal connection to it all — the old and new, the disappearing and the revived — the architecture, the culture, the people, the recipes.
Likewise, “The Buen Provecho Book” is so much more than family recipes. It is a window, open onto the culture of Mexico through the colorful dichos which inform and enliven the language and culture. The sense of humor, irony, and complexity of the Mexican people is reflected in many of these sayings.
The subtitle informs and foretells the delicious repast between the covers: “Capturing the Spice of Mexico through Popular Sayings and Food.”
Dichos to gringos might be things like “Not my cup of tea,” or “not my cup of tea,” or “dropped like a hot potato.” And speaking of the “best thing since sliced bread” — this book …
It all starts with the title, “Buen Provecho,” which conveys so much more than “enjoy your meal.” Those two words contain a small volume of meaning and emotion: “May it be good for your health, enjoy your meal, I hope that it sits well with you.”
Not saying “buen provecho” once you have made eye contact with another diner is tantamount to cursing, Patricia adds. Saying it ”shows that you care. That you want to make sure the other person is comfortable.”
My favorite so far is in the chapter on sandwiches (“Bolillos and tortas”). Many of these are sandwiches that children take to school to eat during recess. Mothers being mothers everywhere, the sandwiches come with the admonition that they not be eaten before recess.
“People where you live, grow five thousand roses in one garden … Yet they don’t find what they’re looking for. … And yet what they’re looking for could be found in a single rose.” — Antoine de Saint-Exupery, “The Little Prince”
From this comes the phrase “Comerse la torta antes del recreo” — They ate the torta before recess. It is a reference to pre-marital sex and more than likely, the young girl is noticeably pregnant.
Another that I like: “Ser más blando que la manteca” — To be softer than lard, refers to a person who is easily manipulated.
One that is so timely, on collusion: “Tanto peca el que mata la vaca como el que le agarra la plata” — “He who holds the leg of the cow is as much to blame as the one who slaughters it.”
Makes me think of how many leg-pullers there are in Congress …
How about the exhortation, “¡Manos a la masa!” which means “Get your hands into the batter!” a vivid way to say “Let’s get down to business!”
Curiously, potatoes convey a variety of personalities. They can be regarded as elegant, not very bright, or dishonest — and there is an expression for each.
“No sabe ni papa” — He doesn’t know anything, or more literally, “He doesn’t know potato.” How humiliating to hear this: “Ése es una papa.” He is a potato.
“Me estás echando papas” — “To throw potatoes” is to tell lies.
“Ser papa fina” — “an exquisite potato” refers to a refined person.
Another mentioned by Patricia during her talk, “No halla dónde poner el huevo” — “She can’t decide where to lay her eggs” is a wonderful depiction of a scattered, indecisive, frantic person.
Ah, but this is also a cookbook!
Many of the recipes are culled from family and friends, and each is chosen to fit into a themed chapter — Atole, Potatoes, Tamal, Avocado, Chocolate, etc. — highlighting related proverbs and dichos. Patricia has collected 400 of these dichos! A true dicharachera!
Like the sayings, the recipes are easy to consume — no seven pages of instructions requiring arcane or regional ingredients.
“They are all very accessible recipes,” she says.
Patricia’s prologue encapsulates the passions that went into this book: “I am integrating some of my favorite subjects: the emotions, communication, linguistics, food, and playfulness of Mexico.”
I think that is a dish we can all savor.
“The most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or touched, they are felt with the heart.” — Antoine de Saint-Exupery, “The Little Prince”