At this time of year, Mexico turns golden.
The banks along the highway across the high, dry country north from Mexico City and Querétaro glow with marigolds, Mexican marigolds, members of the Tagetes family, not the European marigolds, which are Calendulas. More marigolds but against crimson amaranth in the pick ups and the cars on their way to cemeteries to remember the dead.
Whether its Calendulas or Tagetes, marigolds go way back in Eurasian religious history, says Vikram Doctor in an essay on marigolds in the Hindu Times. Today Mexican marigolds are the favorites. “From Dussehra to Diwali, marigolds are everywhere. Garlands of glowing orange blooms are hung for auspicious reasons and flowers are offered in rituals. Marigolds are so deeply part of these Indian festivals that it is a real surprise to learn that the most commonly used kinds [today] originated in Mexico and have been in India barely 350 years.”
Now, in India as in Mexico, farmers grow marigolds for the market. “Marigolds are one of the most important traditional flowers being grown in 15,000 hectares [60 square miles] in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, UP, Bihar, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Haryana, Punjab, Delhi and Himachal Pradesh. In India, these are used commonly for making garlands for religious and social functions. Globular shaped flowers with long stalks are used for cut-flower purposes. In gardens marigold provides beautification of beds and borders. An orange pigment extracted from petals is in great demand for poultry feed. Marigold is also grown for keeping the nematode population in soil under control.” (Y.C. Gupta, Y. D. Sharma and N.S Pathana in the Agricultural Tribune, Chandigarh, India).
Back on the Mexican highway, along the verges and the median strip from Tula to San Juan del Rio, golden balls dangle from spiky small trees, leafless by now. Below, foragers gather this semi-wild harvest into sacks.
The golden balls are tejocotes (te-ho-COT-es, Crataegus mexicana) They look like miniature golden apples, doll’s apples, so it’s disappointing that when you nibble one, it’s not crisp and sweet but woolly and rather tasteless.
I nibbled on the red haws of another member of the family, Crataegus laevigata, as a child in England. Only about the size of blueberries, with a big stone in the middle, they were utterly unrewarding, in spite of the claims made in World War II foraging manuals.
The Mexican tejocotes, though, can be transformed into delicacies. Peeled and preserved in a heavy syrup with a hint of canela (true cinnamon), they are delicious. In a Christmas ponche (punch) they add color and consistency from their plentiful pectin. They also are turned into an ate, a fruit cheese, and caramelized like toffee apples.
I have a soft spot for tejocotes, even though they’re nothing like as tasty as peaches, raspberries, or mangoes. It’s reassuring in a world of foodie search for perfection to be reminded that before modern transport, most had to settle for less that sweet, juicy fruit in the winter. A friend who grew up on a remote hacienda told me that they depended on preserved tejocotes from November to the following summer.
Mexicans demand tejocotes for the mid-winter fiestas, willing to pay $8 a pound or more in the US for a smuggled fruit that was cheap and abundant in Mexico. No fruit was more commonly seized by the USDA Smuggling, Interdiction and Trade Compliance program between 2002 and 2006. That has ended now, as David Karp explains, because finally farmers are growing tejocotes in the United States.
Tejocotes go north, the monarchs fly south. “Every year, coincident with the celebration of the Days of the Dead (October 31 to November 1), the skies over the little town of Calvario del Carmen, northeast of Mexico City, are darkened by the fluttering wings of hundreds of thousands of monarch butterflies completing their 3000 mile migration south from Canada and the United States.”
“In the morning before dawn the village youth go out with sticks to knock the butterflies, now numbed with cold, from the trees where they have settled.Taking them home in plastic bags, they twist off the wings, mottled bright orange, the orange of the marigolds on the tombs in the cemetery, before roasting the bodies and eating them rolled up with salsa in tortillas.
The arrival of the butterflies is regarded as the arrival of the souls of the dead.”
Carlos R. Beutelspacher, who was the expert on Mexican butterflies and moths, and author of books on their role in ancient Mesoamerican civilizations and A guide to Mexico’s butterflies and moths (México: Minutiae Mexicana, 1994), 27-28 should know.
Eating monarchs, the souls of the dead, is perhaps a custom that has now vanished. There is certainly no sign of it on googling Calvario del Carmen.
It’s not hard to understand the power of gold in religious ceremonies: it’s the color of the sun, of power, of life. Nor is it hard to understand the power of what historians sometimes call “green gold:” the plants that whether because of their flowers or their fruit were just as valuable–no, more valuable–than the gold and silver that flowed out of Mexico. If monarchs travel thousands of miles under their own volition, humans have traded, shipped and smuggled to make fortunes from the green (or in this case) gold gold of plants.
What I want to know, though, is why so many more flowers (and fruits) are golden in the fall than at other times of year. Anyone know?