In 1991, with one-year-old Firstborn Daughter on my hip, Hubby and I moved to Ciudad de Mexico, also known as Mexico City, Mexico. With a metropolitan population of over 20 million, Mexico City is considered one of the largest cities in the world. A house had been chosen for us in the gated community of Real de las Lomas, because security for an American family was of paramount importance to Hubby’s company. The house sat just inside the guard station so we were always within view of security, surrounded by a fifteen-foot stucco wall and entered by enormous wooden gates that locked from the inside.
Inside the gated compound that was our home, the courtyard was an oasis of beauty. Clay tile floors were covered by arbors dripping with bougainvillea and other colorful flowering plants. The handmade wooden furniture had brightly-colored cushions that the staff kept perfectly clean at all times. The courtyard and the home was inviting and cheerful...and lonely. Living behind fifteen-foot walls did not encourage interaction amongst neighbors; I don’t believe I ever met a single one. The only time anyone was outside their walls, they were being driven. And eventually, Hubby and I, like our neighbors, hired a driver to help lock and unlock the big gates and escort us out of the compound.
Inside the house, the kitchen was average-size with a back staircase up to the maids quarters which were stark and cramped. Our bedrooms were also upstairs, connected to the lower level both by the back staircase and a grand front staircase. At the entrances to our upstairs living quarters, both back and front, there were large iron locking gates. It was considered prudent to lock yourselves in at night, separating yourselves from both intruders and the help. It made a statement that I was never comfortable with; protect yourselves from an intruder and leave the staff unprotected. Or maybe you were protecting yourself from the staff? I never met anyone to ask, not that they ever would have told me.
The division of wealth in Mexico is, blatant, historically accepted, and sad. I was advised upon my arrival there, by long-time American residents, not to get too friendly with my staff. I was warned to keep my distance or they would take advantage. I didn’t know any other way to treat people so of course I disregarded these warnings and treated the people who worked in our house like friends. When my “friends” stole from me, time after time, I started to understand why I was told to keep them at arms distance. It didn’t hurt so much to be deceived if you weren’t emotionally invested.
When the third maid had to be fired, I brought over a friend of mine to translate for me and tell the maid in Spanish what I wanted to say. It was important to me to tell her how I felt and be sure she understood, but my Spanish was still very elementary. I told her, “I am really sad that you will need to leave us. I like you. My daughter likes you. And we felt like you were part of our family. I would have given you any of the things you took from us and much, much more. Now you don’t even have a job. I hope you find another nice family to work for and do the right thing next time.”
I think about that maid often; her name was Pilar. I think about the times she brought her mother and sister over to “help” with large cleaning projects and I was so friendly and caring towards them, always sending them off with extra money and food, not knowing until later that they were robbing us blind. Pilar never had a chance to live an honorable life. She wouldn’t have known how to work her way out of the life in which she had grown up. She had been taught that the wealthy owed it to you and so you took what you could get. And if they were stupid, trusting, Americans, you could get a lot before you moved on. Pilar looked genuinely sad the day she left us.
It must be quite confusing for those poor young girls in Mexico working for American families. Americans are guilty of excess, that cannot be denied. It was never more apparent than when we lived in the harsh contrast of classes in Mexico. We lived in our huge house, with gates and staff and guards, and we never wanted for anything.
Hubby worked in an industry that was resplendent with “off-sites” and “team-building” and promotion of their services, which always came with hats, bags, t-shirts, coffee mugs and keychains. It was excess at its finest. We didn’t need, nor want, the promotional gifts that flooded our house so I did my best to give them away to people who would use them. The housekeepers were happy to take the mugs and bags and small items. Our driver loved the hats but was too large for the t-shirts. So I would stack the brand-new t-shirts on top of the garbage can, assuming the garbage men could find a home for them. One morning, after living in the compound for nearly a year, Hubby was up early as usual and happened to notice something out the window. He looked and looked, then put on his glasses and looked again. Finally, he said to me, “Why are all the garbage men wearing my t-shirts?” I just smiled.
Mexico has a large and lively American and International population. When we moved to Mexico City, I believe the Newcomer’s Club numbered about 500 women. Since it was nearly impossible to make friends from the compound, I was advised to join Newcomer’s, a group of English speaking families living in Mexico City. Newcomer’s offered excursions and classes and mother’s groups. It was a great way to meet people and I made quite a few friends, both in Mexico City and later in Cuernavaca.
After the first year in Mexico City, I was pregnant with One And Only Son and it was time to move away from the the smog and pollution of Mexico City. We headed south to the “Land of Eternal Spring”, Cuernavaca, Morelos, Mexico, where we again lived behind our big walls, this time with tropical gardens and a swimming pool. It was not always paradise, but it was interesting and beautiful and the food was wonderful. Many of the dishes I learned to cook in Mexico have stayed with me, but one in particular has made the list of favorites against all odds. I have adapted it many times over the years to make it more modern, more health conscious, more gourmet...for lack of a better word. But the original recipe always wins out with Firstborn Daughter. By the time she was five and living back in the United States, most kids her age were begging for hot dogs or plain pasta. Firstborn Daughter wanted what she called “Green Chicken”.
Green Chicken was discovered just prior to leaving Mexico at the end of 1993. I was pregnant with Baby Girl and we were staying with our French friends Pierre and Agnes (whom we had met through Newcomers) for the last night after our furniture had been shipped and our bags were packed. At their hacienda, we were served a wonderful dinner prepared by the kitchen help.
Pierre and Agnes, like us, were expats living in Mexico and had domestic help to assist with cleaning and cooking. Agnes told us that her maid, or Muchacha as it was customary to call the young girls who worked in our houses, had cooked the dish for them many times before and they all enjoyed it. Agnes asked me to guess what was in it. There was something so familiar and yet I couldn’t put my finger on it. Agnes was an excellent cook and I had quite a few recipes from her already that were simple and delicious; but this one was baffling. There was definitely lots of Poblano Chiles. You could taste the spicy and sweet flavor of the roasted chiles. But there was something else that softened the heat of the chiles. Cilantro and Cream? She laughed and said, “You will never guess. It is Cheese Whiz.”
Apparently, a few “convenience” foods from America had crossed the border. Cheese Whiz was popular in peasant communities in Mexico because it required no refrigeration. Many families at that time did not have refrigerators in the working class communities. Our housekeeper in Cuernavaca, who was a bit older than the young girls we had previously employed, lived in a shanty with her husband and children; electricity borrowed by tapping into main wires and strung with long cords across the tops of the makeshift communities. She took a bus to the market early every morning, returning home to make the daily meals for her family that were then left on the stove, before arriving to work at our house at 8:30am. This was common amongst the women who worked to help support the family. Recipes evolved that helped these busy women make food for their families in less time. A few roasted chiles and some cheese whiz and you had a sauce that would last for days.
Firstborn Daughter ate so much green chicken at our final dinner in Mexico that Agnes passed along the recipe for her muchacha’s “Pollo Cheez Whiz.” I still have that little white recipe card from Agnes, written in her lovely french-looking script. Firstborn Daughter asks me to make it for her only once a year now and it just feels right to make it the original way. Every once in a while, the memory and tradition of a meal can feed your soul more than the processed foods can hurt you.
"There is nothing wrong with special occasion foods, as long as every day is not a special occasion." -Michael Pollan
Agnes’ Green Chicken (Pollo Cheez Whiz)
1 jar of Cheez Whiz (454 g) 7 chilis poblanos, roasted and peeled cream (1 cup) 1/2 cup milk 1/4 stick of melted butter
After peeling the chilis, blend all these ingredients together. Cook apart 4 chicken breasts in water with salt, pepper, onion, chicken bones.
Note: Above is the recipe as written by Agnes. Below are additional instructions.
Peeling the chilis means to broil them until charred, cool them in a plastic bag and then peel off the charred thin skin and remove the seeds and stem. If you don’t know how to do it, there are many sources on the internet for methods of roasting chiles.
I usually melt the butter and cheese whiz in a pan and stir in the blended chiles, milk and cream, then add the cooked chicken.
4 chicken breasts means whole breasts or 8 half breasts. Boil the breasts in chicken boullion or stock, let them cool in the broth and then add them to the completed sauce and reheat. Or add any cooked chicken you prefer to the sauce. Sometimes I use roasted chickens and I remove all the meat from the bones.
I serve the chicken in the sauce with white rice and fresh cilantro for garnish.