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Happy where the music plays, and the sun don’t shine

I’m in Santa Fe.

More or less against my will. Land of period knockoffs, pea-brain western art, cowboy hats without cowboys, and awkward turquoise jewelry. Pretense, N.M.

I am grumbling. Call me Kadobe, slather me in stucco.

Kathy has convinced me to make a quick trip to the City Shallow, ostensibly so I can get a break from work.

I explain that a trip to Santa Fe, for me, is like a Hasid taking a vacation in Tehran; Kathy is deaf to my complaints.

“We’re going to have a swell time,” she says. The word “swell” concerns me.

“Yep, we’re going to book in at that retreat near Las Golondrinas — you know, the place with the yoga seminars and the Tibetan peace flags and the spa. You’re going to have a swell time.”

There’s that word again.

“I packed your things for you. I included your swimsuit.”

Oh, no. She can’t possibly mean …

“We’re going to spend a romantic evening in the hot tub.”

Dear lord.

Picture this: Shamu (a hirsute Shamu), in a baggy swim suit, beached and flopping on the deck next to a hot tub, surrounded by Inuits ready to harvest the winter oil.

Since it is in my nature to be cooperative, I go.

Or, since it is in my nature to select the path involving the least potential damage to my person, I go.

Take your pick.

I won’t trouble you, dear reader, with an account of the stay at the “resort.” It is a lovely place and, thankfully, there is no one else using the tub as we bob about in the warm water, the cold and dark New Mexico sky above us.

I will, however, relate a tale that, in many ways, is illustrative of a situation in this mecca of nonsense to the south of Siberia With a View, as well as nearly everywhere else in this great land today. It is merely one more new page in an old book — a repeat of what has happened over and over in America’s history.

We are driving down Cerillos Road — one of the nastiest, most garish strips of four- to six-lane asphalt in the known universe. Kathy is in search of a fabric store.

Yes, a fabric store.

And I am, oh-so-happily, along for the ride.

We pass Big Box monsters, used car lots, fast-food outlets of all kinds, establishments selling junk for home and garden. There’s a mall and a plethora of seedy motels.

And, finally, a strip mall set back from the avenue that includes a fabric store. On one side of the fabric store (which I do not intend to enter) is a large facility offering “freight-damaged and odd lot goods.” A garish sign urges potential customers to “Get it now, tomorrow it will be gone.”

Reason enough to check it out, wouldn’t you say?

The interior of the dimly-lit warehouse smells like a restroom in a bus station. I had no idea how many things are constructed of cardboard — including clothing and nonperishable foods.

A five-minute trip through the bargain store is enough (I watch a child gnaw the corner off an entertainment center), and I flee.

Not wanting to spend time fondling bolts of upholstery fabric, I wander down the row of storefronts and there it is: Carnivore heaven. Mexican style.

A carneceria.

The real thing, folks. One of the wonders of North American life (please remember, though it causes some of you pain, Mexico is part of North America).

I know it is the real thing because there is not a square inch of window glass through which light can pass —  and there are plenty of huge windows at the front of the store. The glass is covered with layers of posters, notices, ads for food, DVDs, concerts, rodeos, etc.

The newer postings are obvious, brightly colored, layered over the faded remnants heralding items and events long gone.

And, inside … oh, my: A wonderland.

Two things assail the senses: the music and the smells.

The music is peppy stuff, with plenty of the accordion–driven polka overtones contributed to the genre by Germans more than a century ago.

The smell?

Nothing like the bargain store, you can be sure.

The overall effect is ramified, but the dominant scents change as you move from one section of the store to another. At one end of the space is a taqueria and the smells are of highly-spiced goodies, deep-fried masa, onions, garlic, oregano, cumin.

As you move to the produce section — look, nopalitos! — the odors are of ripe (can you believe it? ripe!) fruits and vegetables.

But, it is the meat section, fronted by a large case, staffed by real butchers, that does the deal on the senses. The odor: flesh, in all its no-plastic-package glory. In the case are big, alien-looking hunks of flesh, including the head of something that just a few days before was strolling around a pasture, fully content in the belief that spring would bring a new supply of fresh grass (a fitting metaphor, wouldn’t you say?).

Also in the case is a full selection of butchered meats, the cuts produced in a distinctively Mexican manner, a style of butchering different from what we are accustomed to in our supermarkets. The protein is dispatched in a different manner here.

In the case are stacks of Milanesa — cutlets thin sliced, then pounded out further yet — and mounds of marinated meats. Milanesa is often also known as “udder” meat. You take the thin slices and salt them, then cook them in oil with onion and garlic. The meat is removed, cooled somewhat, dipped in an egg wash and breaded with seasoned crumbs prior to a second trip to the pan to get the breading golden brown.

As for the prepared meats: Where is a cooler when you need one?

There, in large hotel pans, are mounds of carne asada and carne al pastor, calling to me: “Karlos, por favor, buy us; take us home and roast, grill and sauté us. We will make you so very happy. We will cuddle up in a fresh tortilla in all our caramelized spicy goodness. You can even bathe us in a salsa fresca and throw some shredded asadero and minced white onion and chopped cilantro on us if you wish. Do what you will, just take us home with you.”

I stand at the front of the case, mesmerized by the mountains of meat.

The butcher is amused, to say the least. He, of course, is amused in Spanish, while I am entranced in English. But, there is no need to translate: the guy is fully aware of what I am going through. Lovers of al pastor are oblivious to linguistic barriers.

I decide to produce a batch of a facsimile pastor when I return home. I’ll take small chunks of pork and marinate them overnight them in a mix of chiles, chopped garlic and onion, some vinegar, orange juice, oregano and cumin. The next evening, I’ll sauté the bits of meat with some more garlic and onion, as well as some chunks of fresh pineapple. Into a warm corn tortilla the meat will go, along with minced white onion and cilantro.

My flesh reverie is demolished as the full meaning of my trip to the market comes clear not thirty minutes later. As I travel to the other side of the universe for a lesson in culture.

We are at the Whole Paycheck market in Santa Fe — a giant building crammed with all manner of “select” goodies, all offered at astronomical prices. We have only one reason to be here (contrary to what Kathy says as she putters around the organic cosmetics section) and that is to pick up a couple small jars of incredibly expensive demi-glace. I am too lazy to make it, so the commercial version will have to do — one of veal, one of chicken. I am lost without the stuff.

The atmosphere (and prices) at Whole Paycheck is astoundingly different from that at the carneceria. For one, there is no audible, peppy music. There is, as a result, no urge to dance wildly with the help.

Second, aside from the areas where one can purchase incredibly expensive hot, prepared foods, there is little odor.

The biggest difference: the geeks who inhabit the place, as help or as customers. Late middle-aged dorks in snappy outfits stride around like 16th century French courtiers and courtesans; eco- smugsters prance around, elevated above the masses by their holier-than-thou earth-oriented attitudes; young employees wearing neato aprons move about the aisles lightheaded, in an organic-produce-induced fog.

One little goof is stocking the shelf on which sit my targets — the jars of demi-glace. He has a wispy beard on his teensy chin. He wears a Jamaican hat, and revels in his faux-Rasta radiance.

“Excuse me,” says the fat guy.

Rasta Boy does not respond.

“Excuse me, but could I reach around you and get one of these jars?”

He looks up, his watery eyes taking a bit of time to focus.

I reach.

He responds.

“You want veal?”

“Huh?”

“That’s veal. You want to buy something made of veal?”

Remember, this joker is an employee. Remember, also, he is about five-foot three and weighs a little less than my right leg. It would seem his situation puts him at a disadvantage. But, no, not in Santa Fe. After all, the facade of the store is fake Colonial. I am surprised the display racks are not fake adobe. The bozo with the Jamaican topper fits right in.

“Yes,” I reply, “I want veal. I believe cows should be slaughtered as young as possible. I hear there are places in Argentina where they put a premium on the flesh of unborn calves. Hopefully, soon, they’ll develop a C-section delivery system that allows us to enjoy the embryo while Mom survives to conceive yet again.”

Rasta Boy stares at me.

“Plus,” I say, “it appears as if the sale date on this jellied baby calf juice says November 2006. Do I get a break on the price?”

He leaves.

I walk to the checkout stand to meet Kathy, who waits with her basket full of hypoallergenic items. On the way, I am hit four or five times by gaudily clad pinheads as they hurry down the aisle. Apparently, you enter Whole Paycheck and you forget how to say “excuse me” when you clobber someone with your shopping cart.

We have seven items. We give Whole Paycheck our next month’s income, and we leave.

The contrast with the carneceria is enlightening and I yammer about it all the way to Espanola. Kathy tight-jawed, repeats the phrase, “Yeah, yeah, I know, drop it, try to think about the hot tub.”

The only thing that diverts me is a stop at Romero’s, on the northwest side of Espanola. I zip into yet another authentic and comforting establishment, the tiny space crammed with all manner of great stuff, and I pick up three pounds of premium, custom-blended, hot Espanola red — one bag for me, one for Ronnie, one for GB and BFD. You can smell the terroir, even with the bags tightly sealed. This is no supermarket ground red, which has no odor at all, desiccated, its elemental power sapped. Nope, with this red, you smell, and taste, the earth in which it is grown. It is picked, dried and ground by hand, the blend put together like a fine blended wine.

Perfect stuff for my pastor or a carne asada, marinated and slow roasted in the oven.

I’m pretty sure my version of the carne al pastor will be acceptable, but I’ll take a cooler to Santa Fe the next time I am forced to go there. I will transport some of the blend from the carneceria home and I will be able to compare, and make adjustments to my own mix.

And that next trip, Tibetan prayer flags fluttering, I will make only one stop in town.

Where the music plays, and the sun don’t shine.

This story was posted on February 21, 2013.