Postcard from San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico: She-chefs and expats revolutionize restaurant scene

Te Quiero Verde

Looking over the food photographs from our visit to San Cristobal de las Casas, it immediately struck me. Where is the Mexican food? What a dramatic change from our visit to San Cristobal more than three decades ago. There are so many contemporary fusion and international options lining the streets, we failed to eat much traditional fare.

Chef Marta Zepeda offers beautifully presented “haute” Chiapan cuisine at Tierra y Cielo, a boutique hotel focused on the food at its heart. Service was old-school Mexico; the presentation was not. Dishes we sampled included a julienned squash and apple salad with candied nuts; tamales with mole; and chicken with a pipian sauce on one side of the plate and a red mole on the other.

Another woman, Chef Daniela Mier y Teran, is at the helm of the contemporary Restaurante LUM in Hotel Bo. Our amuse-bouches were seafood empanadas, and the Mister opted for a spicily sauced tender pork dish. I jumped out of the country and plunged into a rich shrimp risotto.

Which leads us to pizza. We found a simple vegetarian pizza cooked in a wood-fired oven and loaded with chopped fresh tomatoes at the small, unpretentious neighborhood Pizzaria el Punto on a plaza reached by a flight or two of stairs in Barrio el Cerrillo. If directed to the second  floor with a view of the plaza, anyone over five-feet tall needs to watch their heads on the way upstairs.

What many consider the best Italian restaurant in town, Trattoria Italiana, was half a block from our house. Ordering is complicated because the owner-chef speaks Italian and Spanish and has no written menu. He recites the daily options – which are extensive – to you. We ended up over-ordering, which made our bill add up. An appetizer of ahi tuna was served in a crispy parmigiano reggiano basket. A successful Mexican take on lasagna layered cheese, custard and strips of poblano pepper instead of the customary pasta. The three-cheese ravioli was not exciting, but the Mister swears the pumpkin and sage ravioli was absolutely the best ravioli he has ever put in his mouth. We kept wanting to return for more pumpkin ravioli, but somehow didn’t make it.

Part of the reason is sometimes you long for something light, which led us to Te Quiero Verde for fresh vegetarian fare, such as a simple couscous salad. The Mister managed to bite into mountainous falafel burger, and not a drop of my coconut curry remained on the plate.

My favorite healthy meal was the ahi tuna salad found at a comfortable café around the corner from our house, Frontera Artisan Food. Preparation of coffee was raised to artistic levels, and the kitchen turns out wonderful gelato.

We even took a break to order Lebanese food at Arez Restaurant on Real de Guadalupe. The assorted grilled meat platter was nothing spectacular, but we enjoyed the appetizer platter laden with hummus, baba ghanouj, tabouleh, stuffed grape leaves, spicy potatoes, green beans and sort of an eggplant ratatouille. The friendly owner and his wife were enjoying an off-menu dessert they shared with us – a custard flavored with orange flower water and topped with pistachios.

But I saved the best for last. Our favorite spot was also on Real de Guadalupe, a Spanish tapas and wine bar – El Cau. We actually enjoyed it more than anything we found in Spain. The tradition of providing some complimentary tapas with orders of wine or beer lives on here, but we never stopped there. Everything we had was delicious, including lomo de puerco, pulpo, salmon, eggplant brochettas and the highly addictive honied slices of eggplant. We stopped here for lunch and a bottle of wine at least three times.

Am including a photo of the toy truck at El Cau bearing what a friend of ours in Mexico calls el dolor – the check – because it reminded me of one of the lessons from Portugal that should be replicated in San Antonio. Imaginative ways of presenting the final bill.

In Portugal, we had checks presented every which way – in elegant wooden boxes, in the pages of books and even curled up in an unused sardine can. It makes getting the dolor (pain, grief) so much more bearable.

However, settling the bill in San Cristobal de las Casas was rarely painful. The total bill for food and a bottle of wine generally was the equivalent of a single bottle of wine – no food – in a restaurant in San Antonio.


Postcard from San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico: Churches exhibit a spirit of tolerance


Having already posted about the unorthodox fashion sported by statues of saints in San Cristobal de las Casas and some of the religious practices in San Juan Chamula, there are a few remaining photographs of churches to share.

What struck us the most when visiting these churches was the seeming tolerance by the Catholic Church of the syncretic religious practices of the populace. It was commonplace to witness shamans chanting ceremonies for small groups of faithful in front of statues of saints, sometimes leaving empty Coke bottles behind after having burped away the evil spirits.

Ghosts lurking behind bylines

Not sure how they find you, but I assume the inboxes of all bloggers are filled with pitches from public relations firms. As someone who has been engaged in public relations, I am sympathetic. But I think I have only bitten once, accepting one book to review. Not that the reach of my blog could make many waves for their clients anyway.

The topic of ghostwriting caught my attention this week though. Through the years, I have been called upon to ghostwrite speeches, a guest lecture for a college class, letters to the editor, scripts for parades, op-eds for publications, tweets and, yes, even an essay for a book. I’ve never thought that much about it.

Someone whose expertise lies elsewhere or who is simply too busy with other work commitments engages someone else to learn his or her voice and craft words into something they are willing to endorse publicly. No one expects politicians to prepare all their speeches, or the volunteer presidents of nonprofits to understand the mission and message as well as their staffs.

Writers often obscure their identities when writing fiction, particularly if it is in a different genre. What about Carolyn Keene? If she had ever been anything but a ghost, the length and productivity of her career would appear miraculous. She published her first Nancy Drew book in 1930 in time for my mother to read it as a young girl and is still churning out mysteries today.

girl-onlineGirl Online flew off the shelves during its first week of publication. According to the Christian Science Monitor, that number shattered all records for a debut novel in the United Kingdom.

The book was released at the end of November under the byline of blogger Zoe Sugg, which is why it sold so well. Zoe is a hot commodity. Her blog and youtube channel, Zoella, enjoy legions of followers. Glam Media handles the ads on her blogs, and products compete for placement.

Zoe’s certainly perky, but you don’t have to read or watch much about “beauty, fashion and life” to leap to the conclusion she might benefit from help in writing a novel. But with the not at all surprising revelation Girl Online mainly was written by someone other than Zoe herself, criticism erupted. Both those who use ghostwriters and those who write anonymously are under attack.

So the following reaction to the Zoella imbroglio popped into my inbox, and, given my ghostly past, I found it interesting. The defense of ghosts post is written, or is at least appears under the byline of, Michael Levin, author of more than 100 books and CEO of BusinessGhost:

Michael Levin

Michael Levin

Stop Criticizing Ghostwriters
(And Their Clients!)

By: Michael Levin

Zoe “Zoelle” Sugg, a young woman who has developed a massive following in the online world for her fashion and beauty videos has just come under fire for allegedly using a ghostwriter to help her write her novel.

Her publisher, Penguin, all but threw her under the bus, failing to speak up in her time of need.

The novel only happens to be the fastest selling novel in the history of that publishing firm.

Her integrity has been shattered and her v-logging (regular video accounts of her life and thoughts, her primary means of communicating with her fans) has been temporarily suspended.

For what crime?

Books are hard to write. The learning curve is steep.

How do you choose and organize material in a manner that catches and holds the attention of readers for hundreds of pages?

It ain’t easy.

I know this is true because I run a ghostwriting and publishing company with more than 240 books to our credit.

That represents 240 individuals who needed a book, had developed through leadership in their respective fields, but didn’t have the time or desire to write it themselves.

We interviewed them, drafted chapters in their own voices, edited those chapters in accordance with their comments, and published the books.

As a result, readers have access to their ideas, which result in better lives, since we only do positive books.

Their finances, careers, health and fitness, relationships, and spiritual lives are stronger as a result of the books we created.

Did the authors commit a sin by hiring us?

Did we commit a sin by ghostwriting the books?

Did Zoella do a bad thing?

Let’s get real.

Most people who need books are better off having someone else “write” them.

They should be doing the things they do that make them useful to society, whether it’s being an entrepreneur, a CEO, a doctor, a chef, or a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

I tell prospective clients, “We only work with people who are too busy to talk to us.”

Meaning that our clients are so successful and in demand that they don’t have the time to sit in a spare bedroom staring at a laptop screen and tapping out, “It was a dark and stormy night.”

…Society works best when people practice their unique ability and then offload all other tasks onto others better qualified.

I ghostwrite.

God gave me certain gifts:  the ability to write well and quickly; the ability to absorb large amounts of information and put them into a sensible order; and the ability to dial into the sound of another person’s voice and write in that voice.

Nothing wrong with any of that. As a result, our clients get books that extend their reach, brand them in the marketplace, and help them serve more people and make more money.

Their readers gain valuable ideas from books that are easy to read and understand.

And we get paid.

Sounds like a good thing to me.

Except for folks like Malcolm Gladwell or Lawrence Wright, staff writers for the New Yorker who also write books, a very high percentage of authors use ghosts or cowriters.

Even some very famous novelists, truth be told.

So let’s stop banging on Zoella, who may or may not have worked with a ghostwriter, but even if she did, she did nothing wrong.

We ought to be celebrating the fact that young people are buying and reading books instead of demonizing an author who doesn’t deserve the abuse.

Maybe we ghosts should hire a PR firm to increase our profile.

Here’s a proposed tagline:  “I don’t want to boast, but I hired a ghost.”

OK, fine.  If you need a tagline, call someone better qualified to write one for you.

But if you need a book, call a ghost.

We won’t tell a soul.

Evidently, Levin took his own advice and hired a public relations firm to enhance the image of ghostwriters and their clients or this wouldn’t have popped up in my inbox.

At first glance, I totally agreed with Levin, but his arguments leave me feeling conflicted. Saying everybody does it does not make it right. Suppose I had hired a ghost-mathematician to take my algebra finals? That would be called cheating.

Why don’t celebrity writers add “with major assistance from” so-and-so under their bylines? They really aren’t fooling many people and shouldn’t be trying to pull the wool over their eyes anyway.

The honesty would be refreshing.

If Zoe had done so, she probably would have sold the same number of books. Plus, her fans wouldn’t feel betrayed.

Perhaps the industry deserves its tarnish. The rich and famous who buy words to put into their mouths should openly admit it on the cover of their books.

There would still be plenty of work for wordsmiths like Levin, but ghostwriters could come out of the closet.

The same curious people will want to read their products, but celebrities would no longer be haunted by the fear of being outed by ghostbusters.

Quinze’s “Wind” to blow on the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River

A month in the searing desert sun building a huge wooden structure.

A mere four days to enjoy it. Then setting it ablaze.

“It is not that easy to burn your own installation down,” said artist Arne Quinze during a June 2013 lecture sponsored by the San Antonio River Foundation at the San Antonio Museum of Art. “I still have goosebumps from it.” While an estimated 50,000 people witnessed the conflagration at the 2006 Burning Man Festival in Nevada, “The day after, nothing was left over.”

The Belgian artist’s first public art took the form of graffiti, but his work evolved into large-scale three-dimensional structures, often installed in urban settings, including Nice, Shanghai, Rio de Janeiro, Brussels, Rouen and Beirut. Quinze views cities as “open-air museums,” with art teaching “you to look at the world in a different way.”

Many of his installations are temporal, although not as fleeting as the one in Nevada. His installations sometimes spark controversy, but, by the time they are removed, there are public protests. “When we take it down, the space is more empty than before,” he said. “It makes them realize the importance of art in their lives.”


example of a “pillar” of wind

The artist is drawn to strong hues of red and orange because they are “full of contradictions – a fire burns or warms; blood means life or death.” His series of “Wind” sculptures seem to follow that predilection. On his website, he describes the elements he installs in the landscape as representing “the frozen movement of wind going through a grass field, a sculpture waving like leaves in the sun.”


Berg’s Mill


Mission San Juan Capistrano

Perhaps that is what makes “Wind” most fitting for the rural river setting chosen by the River Foundation for his installation. His monumental blades of wind will serve as a gateway transitioning and leading people up from the river to the area where the ruins of the historic Berg’s Mill community are perched on the left and Mission San Juan Capistrano lies ahead on the right.

“Wind,” according to Quinze’s website, is designed to: “evoke emotion, spark conversation and make people stop in their tracks. They will be attracted to explore this surreal experience of the shadow and sunlight shining through the fixed pillars….”

To contribute to public art projects along the Mission Reach and the development of Confluence Park, visit the website of the San Antonio River Foundation.

Looking forward to being stopped in my tracks in 2015.