Local lettuce and global products for the Nafta Salad Formerly Known As Waldorf
I was surfing the New York Times Cooking app, a frequent escape from current affairs, when the recipe for Waldorf salad drifted across the screen. I clicked on the photo and looked at the recipe. So simple—four ingredients. So American—well, except, as the recipe explains, it was created by a Swiss immigrant named Oscar Tschirky.
Later that day, when I started thinking about dinner, I decided to make the Waldorf. Even a salad as simple as this is complicated and involves a lot trading-agreement regulations, domestic and international labeling and tracking requirements, supply-chain steps, merchant-customer interactions, the occasional irrational purchase, customs rules interpretation or ignorance thereof, environmental compromise, and modes of transport, including the bike I ride around town when grocery shopping.
The lettuce grows in our backyard in Alamos, Sonora. We brought the seeds for the greens with us from Minnesota, having purchased them from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds based in Mansfield, Missouri, and Johnny’s Select Seeds in Winslow, Maine. I have yet to find a definitive explanation of Mexican customs restrictions on bringing in seeds for personal use.
The apple, the celery. I got on my bike and coasted about two minutes to my local abarrotes (neighborhood grocery), which is called DT-8. Day-tay-o-cho. I go there multiple times per week, sometimes twice a day. It is not locally sourced! Who cares! I don’t and neither do the other clients of DT-8. The flour tortillas are locally made and fresh daily. For the six months of the year we are in Minnesota I dearly miss the fresh flour tortillas at DT-8. All the flour tortillas I have encountered in the U.S. look and taste like the paste glue used by kindergarteners.
The apple in Mexico this time of year is a Red Delicious from Washington State. Like every piece of commercially grown produce, it has one of those annoying little plastic-coated, non-compostable, bar-coded stickers on it. Plastic infests every cranny of life. Washington is a huge producer of Red Delicious apples. In November 2016, the fresh crop was estimated at 137.4 million 40-pound boxes. That’s 5,496,000,000 pounds of apples. Last year was the second-best crop of Red Delicious in the state’s history. Fifty percent of the harvest was destined for global export. I bought two applies—12 ounces—one of which went in the salad. The Red Delicious is not a bad apple. Considering it’s long journey, it is remarkably firm and has an apple taste—not something you can say about industrial tomatoes. It sufficed. However, for the six months we are in Mexico I dearly miss the truly delicious apple varieties I buy in the fall in Minnesota.
From the refrigerator case, I grabbed a plastic bag of Mr. Lucky celery. I was lucky because DT-8 doesn’t always have celery. And talk about marketing savvy. Who can’t feel good about buying a product called Mr. Lucky? I buy quite a bit of Mr. Lucky produce while we are in Mexico, including its organic kale. The name may be English, but it is a wholly owned Mexican corporation with all its growers and distribution facilities in the state of Guanajuato. It produces a variety of lettuces, greens, and vegetables, primarily for the Mexico, U.S., and Canadian markets. Because people in Mexico pinch their pesos, most shoppers in my experience never buy a whole stalk of celery but rather pick off how many ribs they want placing the remainder back in the plastic sleeve. I have not adopted this custom. I always buy the whole bag. More plastic into my bike pannier. I try to reuse plastic bags but most ultimately go in our garbage. There is no recycling in Alamos. In recent years, the city has just figured out how to maintain a sanity sewage system.
I have been shopping for more than a decade at DT-8 and consequently have come to know the owner, Ebelia, in a casual merchant-customer way. She is a delightful, distinguished woman, and visiting with her is one of the great joys of living in a small Mexican town. She and her husband live next door to the store. Her sister and family live across the street. She is a devote Catholic. Her living children have gotten higher educations, married, and three have flung out of Alamos. One is in Provo, Utah, another in Amarillo, Texas, another in Ciudad Obregon, Sonora. A daughter still lives in Alamos. Another daughter died in her teens a number of years ago, I believe in an automobile accident. I do not ask. A photo of this daughter sits on a shelf by the cash register. “When old age shall this generation waste/Thou shalt remain…”
I had a jar of mayonnaise (mayonesa) in the refrigerator. I could make my own but seldom do. The brand is Best Foods. It is made in Tultitlán, a city in the state of Mexico, and is marketed for domestic distribution as well as export by Unilever de México, one of about 100 worldwide subsidiaries of the Anglo-Dutch mega-consumer-products conglomerate Unilever https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unilever. I am cynical about lofty corporate proclamations, but Unilever seems to understand the marketing value of being environmentally aware. In 2007, for instance, it enlisted Rainforest Alliance to begin sustainably sourcing all its teas; there have been criticisms of the effectiveness of the effort.
Unilever de México is tracking its parent company’s messaging. Check out this promotional video about its sustainability plan and efforts to reduce waste in the manufacturing and distribution processes. Basically the video equates waste to throwing money in the trash or down the drain. It’s pretty slick. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7wU8hVFTxpc
I’m a little embarrassed about the salt. I used Pacific sea salt I bought from Penzeys Spices in Tucson. I was buying other spices that are not available in Mexico and kind of irrationally put the bag of salt in my basket. I admit I like Penzeys product presentation—the simple jars and bags, the graphics, the serif type. I know perfectly well that Sonoran salt is mined on the coastal flats in the nearby fishing town of Yavaros. It is a quite flavorful Sea of Cortez salt. I often take some back home to Minnesota.
The original Waldorf does not call for nuts, but I’m Texan and my husband’s Mississippian and we both grew up eating pecans. I throw pecans in lots of salads. For several years after we started coming to Sonora for extended periods in 2009, we brought 10-pound bags of Georgia or Texas or New Mexico pecans with us. And we paid a lot for them—$50 to $60 a pop as I recall. Around this same time, commercial pecan growers in the U.S. were pushing pecans in China. The Chinese got hooked on pecans (who can blame them?). This in turn drove up the price of U.S. pecans. In 2015, when China’s economy was stalling, pecan exports dropped off but have picked up again in 2017. But now a lot of those pecans going to China come from Mexico.
About a decade ago, we started noticing farmers in the Sonora River Valley were putting in pecan orchards. According to Fresh Plaza, an online source for global produce and banana news, Sonora’s pecan orchards have grown from 3,000 hectares (7,413 acres) in 2006 to 13,000 hectares (32,123 acres) in 2015. Sonora is Mexico’s second-largest pecan producer (neighboring Chihuahua is first). And 80 percent of Sonora’s pecan crop goes to China. Fresh Plaza claims that the pecan harvest, which is done manually, employs 283,000 people in Sonora.
The other amazing news, at least to pecanophiles, is that for two consecutive years (2015 and 2016) Mexico has surpassed the United States, long the global pecan colossus, in the production of pecans. (This is according to Nature’s Finest Food, a marketer of tree nuts.) Pecans have been a great success story for Mexico. And a handful of those toasted pecans went in my Nafta Salad Formerly Known As Waldorf.