I tried to diffuse the discomfort starting to creep up on me from all this attention by training my focus on the warmth from the chorus of sunbeams that gloried around me. It was a beautiful day that I could somehow feel even more on the inside than the out. The neighborhood was lovely and there was so much to see. El D.F. is a sophisticated city, one of the biggest in the world, with culture and innovation as densely packed as its gridlocked traffic. With its zócalo, the central square that was once the ceremonial core of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, the presence of ancestral spirit is a plumed headdress that fans around a metropolis equally modern and ancient, jeweled with buzzing lights and people. Soon I was more absorbed by the colonial architecture painted in royal blues, vermillion, ocher and fuschia than the ambient chatter of my companions or the gawking passersby.
After passing several cosmopolitan eateries with casually chic patios and clientele, we arrived at a modest café owned by a modest couple. It was too clearly the result of years of hard work to keep this central location, and too impeccably clean, for me to dare call it a hole in the wall, but it probably fit the bill compared to the hipster luxe vibe of the neighborhood. Surprise at the sight of me flashed across both faces before they greeted us warmly. When I replied in Spanish, they were so pleased that I spoke the language that the husband rushed to pull out my chair. Their place was cheerful with lemon yellow walls, dried chiles hanging in the corners and plastic covers draped over tablecloths printed with citrus fruit or tropical flowers and birds. The air was toasted with the smell of fresh tortillas. I was starving and that lady had the look of someone who knew her way around the kitchen. Blindfolded. I suspected she probably made a merciless mole, but it was breakfast so I kept my order simple. Huevos a la Mexicana, orange juice and coffee.
Outside of the café, a portly man in a tight-fitted apron was singing old boleros to attract customers to his fresh fruit cart. It was piled high with bright produce so voluptuous and ripe that the scent tangled in the breeze and swirled around the table we had selected in the wide open storefront. Lined up across the front shelf, were several halved papayas, splayed open and brazen in their full orange. Their pearly black seeds glistened in the sun.
Despite all of my time in the Caribbean, I had never had fresh papaya before, only papaya “flavor” in my favorite corner store juice as a kid. I was keen to try the real thing at some point during the trip and said as much, to which José exclaimed, “¡Aprovechamos el momento!”and promptly went out to buy one. American that I was, I wondered how we would keep it fresh until we could slice and eat it, since after breakfast we were headed to Coyoacan to visit Casa Azul, Frida Kahlo’s home, and then to the floating gardens of Xochimilco to explore the canals en una trajinera.
As soon as I heard we were headed to Casa Azul, I wished my grandmother was with us. I had taken her to the Frida Kahlo exhibit at the National Museum of the Women in the Arts, not long after it first opened. She had come to DC from Richmond to visit me for the weekend, and I planned two days of art and serving her meals on the pieces of her china she had given me. My grandmother is an avid art enthusiast and passed that love down to me by way of gallery trips since I was small, and long conversations about modern artists and the meanings behind the carefully curated pieces on her walls. The Kahlo exhibit was the first time I was introducing her to something new, and I was elated to build a bridge between one of her favorites and one of mine. She was a huge fan of Elizabeth Catlett-- a Black artist who had also lived in Mexico during Kahlo’s time, and shared Frida’s passion for creating activist art that often celebrated farmers and workers. I wondered if the two women ever found themselves sitting across from each other, a plate or bowl of fruit between them as they discussed art, feminism and politics. I wondered if people had stared at Catlett, too, all those years as a Black woman living in Mexico in the 1940s.
José returned to the table with the fruit sliced by the vendor in long spears & sprinkled with lime juice, Tajin--a seasoning with chile peppers, lime & sea salt-- and chamoy, a savory sauce of pickled fruit and chiles. (Because everything in Mexico, even fruit, must have chile and some kind of condiment involved.) There was also fresh jicama in the mix. My mouth watered at the thought of the sweet-spicy-cool combination. José signaled to the owner for an extra plate, which he promptly brought over, and not once made comment about how we were bringing outside food into his establishment. In fact, all he said was “Disfrutalo.” Enjoy.
We nibbled on the papaya, savoring the explosion of flavor in each bite. I almost fell off my chair with the first forkful. I had never tasted fruit like this in my life. In fact, that Mexican produce made me feel like, up until that moment, I had been eating in black and white. My mouth was ablaze in technicolor. Those people back out on the street could stare at me as much as they wanted if it meant I could eat this nectar of the gods. I saved a few slices to pair with the avocado I knew would come with the eggs.
Huevos a la Mexicana are eggs scrambled with tomatoes, onions and chopped jalapenos. The garnishes represent the colors of the flag. It couldn’t be more simple, but made with the right hand they are a revelation to start the day. They were served, as ever, with refried beans flecked with queso fresco, tortillas and avocado.
My B side plan for the fruit was ready for the taking, but I realized I’d need a bit more avocado--affectionately known as Mexican butter--to save what was on the plate for tucking into my tortillas with the eggs and frijoles. I asked for an extra portion, which came on a small dish, perfect for mixing it in with the papaya and jicama I had set aside. The eggs were steaming hot, so I ate the fruit while they cooled. Victory was mine as my estimation proved correct. I have been obsessed with avocado for years, so this final touch customized the medley to euphoric heights for me.
I took a sip of the orange juice and almost fell out of my chair again. Que chingados were they doing to our fruit supply back home? This glass of fresh squeezed sunshine made what they sold by the gallon in the US taste like milk. I started taking tinier sips, just to make it last. My tablemates looked at me quizzically like, “What’s the big deal, it’s just juice?” I tried, but there was no way for me to explain that what they took for granted as commonplace was a quality of flavor that might just ruin me for any other food for the rest of my life. The spice that lingered from the fruit salad wrapped around the bits of pulp from the juice and I made a mental note to add orange next time. This would not be a one-morning stand. I planned to take this home, to my kitchen, and introduce it to the parents and friends. We were officially “a thing.”
Growing up, my grandmother used to serve a fruit course before whatever else we had for breakfast. That was most often grapefruit, fresh oranges cut in half or a wedge of honeydew or cantaloupe. No matter which, they were always set on the table with a grapefruit spoon, and once you finished you were allowed to have your eggs. Receiving my own set of grapefruit spoons as my first housewarming gift was a rite of passage. I, too, began each morning with a beautiful piece of fruit on my plate, as a nod to her, my favorite person in the world. I decided that this concoction I had that morning in Mexico would be my way to make her tradition my own. I’d make a ritual of serving that fruit on one of her plates. It would be the closest I could get to Kahlo and Catlett at that imaginary table in my mind.
This salad is an homage to the precise moment my tastebuds were opened to a whole new dimension of deliciousness. And transformed. This salad is an homage to that morning in Mexico City, which sparked a glorious culinary adventure for the rest of that trip. To my gracious hosts, the lovely couple who owned the café, the fruit vendor who sang Vicente Fernandez as if his heart had been split open more than once, like those papaya on his cart. To holding your head high as you stop traffic in a foreign place. To my beloved grandmother, with her hand over mine as Elizabeth Catlett’s portrait of a caramel sharecropper woman in a wide brimmed straw hat floats just above our heads . This salad is an homage to Frida Kahlo, and the still life I spied on the easel in her house with a papaya winking off to the side.
Add all of the fruit & jicama or cucumber, except the avocado, into a mixing bowl. Pour/squeeze on the lime juice, drizzle with the agave nectar and add a dash or two of Tajin, chile powder or fajita seasoning. Toss lightly until everything is evenly distributed. Gently fold in the cubed avocado. Place on whatever dish you want to serve it on (I like to use family china or the prettiest thing I have onhand.) Sprinkle with another light dash of the Tajin, chile powder or fajita seasoning. For extra flair, you can add an extra wedge of sliced avocado or papaya to the plate first, and then pile all the fruit on top. Garnish with the cilantro or basil, jalapeños and radishes. ¡Buen Provecho!