Breakfast on Sabinal

Breakfast on Sabinal I. Papaya and Hot Chocolate

I never actually had papaya and hot chocolate for breakfast on Sabinal. I had it at Restaurant Constantino at the corner of Calle Minerva and Avenida Benito Juarez in the grid of dusty grey streets that makes up the Chihuahuan desert city of Nuevo Casas Grandes. Constantino is not a restaurant I'd highly recommend; a little bit dumpy, tables and chairs sprawled messily throughout the room. Nor would I vouch for the food except for the lime-soured papaya and the frothy hot chocolate.

El Sabinal Colony

El Sabinal Colony

Sabinal is a small isolated Mennonite colony in northern Mexico connected to Nuevo Casas Grandes by an abandoned railroad bed-turned-shale covered road which lurches and bumps through endless miles of scrub bushes; creosote and mesquite, prickly pear and yucca lost in the barren beautiful desert of sky and mountains. Sabinal Mennonites resist modernization and its easing amenities including electricity and vehicles as they persist in the harshness of desert farming. Facing astronomical odds, a few prosper, most tenaciously hang on, and others abandon another failed cotton, onion or chili crop for a house trailer and a steady, albeit cash-under-the-table job in Texas.

I spent a cold, shivering month of February on Sabinal conducting ethnographic research and while there was generously hosted by the Klassen, Hiebert, Braun, Harder and Wall families. I joined them around their tables, I awkwardly climbed in and out of their buggies, I sat stiffly upright on a wooden church bench listening to the singing of a hundred Old Colony Mennonites worrying that my skirt was too short. I laughed with three-year-old Henry as I pushed him around and around his grandmother's yard on a scooter. I accompanied Anna Klassen to the pasture to bring the dairy herd home in the evening as she explained the eccentricity of a cow who insisted on sucking her own teats. I listened as Katherine Rempel sang Elvis Presley and Wilf Carter, songs she remembered from her youth in British Columbia. I heard stories of neighborly tensions, dogs poisoned, cows trampling gardens. I was invigorated and exhausted and marveled at my own tenuous and inadequate understanding of it all.

Near the end of my stay on Sabinal, I joined Gertrude, Elizabeth and Margaret Fehr on a late night ride across the colony to village #7 to deliver a bandsaw blade that needed sharpening for the upcoming Fehr pig butchering. In spite of the glistening infinity of a galaxy of stars overhead and the orange haze of Ciudad Juárez' million lights glowing in the distant northeastern sky, the night was blindingly black. The busyness of daily life had quieted on Sabinal, houses were darkened and most families were asleep. Reins in hand, Gertrude deftly guided the horse through the darkness as she quizzed me about a train that could take me clear across a city all the while underground. I, on the other hand, was distracted, overwhelmed by the beauty of the black stillness, relieved to be miles away from the noise and lights of Toronto. In the lulling and languishing of our conversation, I knew this sky to be big enough to hold the intimacies of connection and the mutual misunderstandings of our different worlds, an expanse vast enough to embrace the happiness and courage, the discontentment, the sorrows, the exclusions, the grasping, the satisfactions and the worry, the predictability and the bewildering that I had witnessed as life on Sabinal.

During my month on Sabinal I periodically returned to Nuevo Casas Grandes to catch my breath. On those mornings when I disembarked from the bus that had brought me from Sabinal to Nuevo Casas Grandes, I stepped into a dreadedwelcomed solitude so different from the bustle of colony life. I was relieved to be away from the curious gaze of colony Mennonites and even more relieved to shed the obligation of my own ethnographic curiosity. I anticipated sorting through my Sabinal-intense thoughts but I shrank from the trepidating loneliness of having no one to share those thoughts with. Arriving early enough for a second breakfast I usually headed up Constitución Poniente, away from the cluster of Sabinal Mennonites who had traveled with me on the bus, walked as far as Minerva and then inevitably turned in to Restaurant Constantino.

A breakfast of papaya and hot chocolate does not register as one of Mexico's culinary wonders. The dry brown winterness of Nuevo Casas Grandes is a long, long way from Mexico's culinary capital, Oaxaca, where chefs of Pilar Cabrera fame pestle a thousand richnesses—mulatos, pasillas, anchos, walnuts, sesame seeds, pine nuts, pepitas, all spice, cinnamon, plantain, raisins, pears, prunes, tomatillos, garlic, chocolate, panela—into the thick sticky moles that make that state famous. Nothing Nuevo Casas Grandes has on offer even begins to approach the seven-hued splendors of Oaxaca's moles. I enjoyed bacon-wrapped, cheese-stuffed jalapeños at a seafood joint downtown, creamed chili burritos from a stand crowded into the corner of a supermarket and tortilla soup in the restaurant of Villa Colonial hotel, but Nuevo Casas Grandes is no culinary mecca. Its fare is what you would expect in a dusty northern town, simple flavors that make only modest demands on the palate. Yet there is a time and place for everything, even the unpretentious, ordinary, sometimes mediocre food of Nuevo Casas Grandes. On those cold February mornings when I stepped off the bus I had a sky full of complexities to contemplate so what in heaven's name would I have done with a dish of mole negro oaxaqueño or mancha manteles de cerdo? No, I needed a palated quietude for breakfast. I was content with papaya and hot chocolate, a plate of effortless simplicity set down in front of me, a mug of warming smoothness to grasp in my hands.

Breakfast on Sabinal II. Can There Be Breakfast on Sabinal without Coffee Cream?

El Sabinal Colony II

El Sabinal Colony II

On those frigid February mornings as a cold stillness dawns, what else is one to do but greedily slurp up gulping mouthfuls of coffee filling every inch of the body?

Many mornings I stood in the cold of a desert winter watching the Klassens, the Hieberts, the Harders milk their cows, feed their calves, release their squawking chickens for the day. It wasn't until the cows had been let out to pasture, the milk cans wheeled to the street to be picked up by the milk wagon later that morning and everyone washed and cleaned of barn smells that breakfast was served. A prayer was silently shared and then breakfast began, cookies, big flat cookies with marshmallow and chocolate topping, soft white buns—Tweeback, a pat of butter, no make that two pats and, of course, coffee. Cups were filled with boiling water, instant coffee spooned in followed by some creamer and then cold water added to cool it off. When everyone was satiated another silent prayer was shared and the busyness of the day could begin.

Most Mennonites on Sabinal are dairy farmers and have been for generations, ever since their foreparents left Saskatchewan for Durango with their dairy herds in tow nearly a century ago. Every family I visited had a herd of cows. A fortunate few could afford milking machines but most families milked their cows by hand twice daily. Herds were regularly rotated on the fragile pastures that have been claimed from the Chihuahuan desert and which had to be carefully irrigated to be sustained. This intensity of never-ending dairy labor supplies the colony's two cheese factories with all the milk needed to produce the sought-after Mexican specialty, queso menonita. Sabinal cheese is particularly coveted because Sabinal is the only Mennonite colony in the Nuevo Casas Grandes area that does not use additives in its cheese.

Queso menonita is not the only dairy delight that Sabinal Mennonites know how produce and which they savor. Slices of soft unripened cheese pressed in the early hours of the morning, Brocke—pieces of Tweeback dunked in coat-your-lips-creamy curds, feather-light cottage cheese mounded onto Tweeback; lavish clottings of whipped cream atop cream pie. These are just the beginnings of the possibilities that can enhance a breakfast if you own a dairy herd. Without a doubt, Sabinal Mennonites have dairy in their bones. And so every morning as I spooned instant creamer into my instant coffee I marveled that a colony full of people who revel in consuming dairy in its many extravagances and for whom caressing a swollen udder is next to godliness, if not godliness itself, has collectively forgotten the pleasure of pouring thick sweet cream into its coffee and has resorted to syrupy-sweet, oily powder as a substitute. Surely with more than a thousand Holsteins within the fifty square kilometers that make up Sabinal there must at least one family that still drinks its coffee with cream, but I never had the good fortune to share a breakfast with that elusive family.

And then one morning it all made sense. Eating breakfast with the Teichrob family, I watched first Abram, and then his sister Susanna take a cookie from the bowl, one of those big marshmallow chocolate orbs, reach over to pull the butter dish closer and then slice a thick, creamy slab of golden goodness from the pat. I watched as they cut into the butter once again and then as they slid the butter-cum-cheese from their knives onto their cookies. In an instant I understood. This is no insipid, super-market-bland anemic paste that passes as butter where I come from. This is butter in all its dairy splendor, potent with the sharpness of soured cream, a sumptuous mouthful that lingers on the taste of pasture. This is the raison d'etre that sustains the ongoing grind of milking, day upon day, morning and evening, in the frosty winter or the blistering forty degree heat of a desert summer. This is an entire week's carefully hoarded accumulation of cream and I would dare to ask for some cream for my coffee?

El Sabinal Colony III

El Sabinal Colony III

About the Author

Kerry Fast

Kerry Fast is originally from Manitoba and now lives in Toronto, where she is a freelance editor specializing in academic editing. She holds a PhD from the Centre for the Study of Religion, University of Toronto. She has been involved in numerous research projects that have taken her to Mennonite colonies in Mexico and Bolivia and to communities of Mennonite immigrants from Mexico in Canada. She has published both academic and creative writing and is co-editor of Mothering Mennonite.