Last updateMon, 16 Feb 2015 1pm

A chilly morning and a tough guerito in a mountain village taqueria

On a chilly December morning in a nearby mountain pueblo, a number of people gathered at Deovijilda Lara’s tacos al vapor stand to get some warmth in their bellies. At 7 a.m., Deovijilda’s public market puesto seemed the first and warmest stand open. Dressed in several sweaters, wool knee-length stockings, faded flowered dress and an apron whose bulging pockets served as a minor pharmacy, a requisition center and a cash register, she presided over an assortment of steaming sartenes, cazuelas and ollas.

Deovijilda — a name that does not come trippingly to the tongue on early, chilly mornings — has many nicknames. Some call her simply “La Taquera.” Most commonly she is called Lupe, the diminutive of Guadalupe, her husband’s name.

Saying good morning, I slid onto the high wooden bench beside a large man in a hard-used sombrero and a faded wool serape. He had tortillas in both hands and was doing lusty justice to a plate of steaming frijoles, eggs and pork swimming in a heavy sauce of chile and tomato. Lupe grinned through the fumes seething from a broad pan of bubbling res con salsa (beed and sauce). “And what is it you wish, señor?” I ordered te de manzanilla, rice (which comes with salsa, whether customers want it or not), frijoles de la olla and an orange from the stack carefully arranged on the floor at the back of the crowded puesto. I got the orange first. Lupe sent it rolling down the counter with such precision that it missed the cluster of Nescafe jars filled with salt, pepper, piloncillo (blunt cones of brown sugar), the bowls containing sauces of various potencies, the topless Tecate cans sporting a few thin flags of napkins. At Deovijilda’s it was assumed that customers used tortillas as napkins, just as they used them — in centuries-old tradition — as forks, knives and spoons.

At the sink, Cuca, a skinny pigtailed girl in her early teens, hunched against the cold and slowly blanched several chickens in a caldron of smoky water, stirring the cut parts with a pale, immaculate chicken foot. While Lupe’s stand often blossomed with confusion and spillage, she abhorred uncleanliness. And the bane of Cuca’s life was cleaning everything — the counter, the tables, the sink, the many cooking vessels — several times before they met the proprietress’ approval.

As I waited for my order to be assembled out of the early morning rattle and haze behind the counter, my tea arrived. Lupe, who equates sugar with energy, pushed the jar of piloncillo at me, even though she knew I seldom ate sweets. She glanced at me as I blew on my unsweetened te de manzanilla. “Andale hombre. The sugar will help warm your blood on this cold morning.” She shrugged, taking my indifference to her advice as further confirmation that all gringos were locos.

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