Somehow the man in the Chihuahua park knew I was easy prey. From a distance he slouched against a hand cart and looked me over. His first pass was casual, just a slow saunter past my park bench, without even a glance in my direction. Old addictive thinking patterns resurfaced, patterns I thought I had long ago conquered. It was my birthday. Surely I deserved a treat? My desire transmitted through thin air. He reversed direction and approached a second time, until he stood on the sidewalk directly in front of me, his glittering onyx eyes boring through me.
“Que tienes?” I asked. What do you have?
“Ah, muchas cosas,” he replied. “Que quieres?” Many things; what do you want?
He tried to suppress the grin that crept onto his face. “Coca?” he repeated.”No, pero tengo coco.” No, but I have coconut, he corrected, as he reached into his into his ice cream cart for a tube of coconut ice cream. Apparently, I wasn’t the first gringa to mix up the word for coconut with the slang for cocaine, though I might have been the most embarrassed.
I don’t even like ice cream. I can accompany my friends to an ice cream parlor and watch them devour sundaes without experiencing the slightest twinge of desire. But Mexican helado is unlike any ice cream I have tasted; it is sweet seduction, nectar of the gods. I’d first answered the siren call in Cabo San Lucas, where I watched a heladero struggle his ice cream cart down a rocky sand path leading to the harbor entrance. Gnarled, dust-caked toes protruded from his decayed leather sandals and his canvas trousers and white shirt hung on his emaciated frame. I would have bought something even if he were selling pork rinds.
A vast smile slit his leathery brown face when I stepped up and asked what flavors he had. Wait, he signaled with an upheld finger, then opened the cart lid and ducked his head through the ice fog to rummage around in its depths. Triumphantly, he emerged with a frozen foot-long plastic tube filled with a white substance. “Usted debe probar este. Es hecho en casa – mi especialidad!” You must try this. It is homemade – my specialty! I tore a corner of the rubbery plastic with my teeth and tentatively sampled the icy treat. Rich, delicious coconut ice coated my mouth and slickened my teeth. Like a greedy baby I sucked on the tube, forcing the frozen cylinder up from the bottom with my thumbs, not willing to waste a single drop.
Though I tried to resist, the siren call of Mexican ice cream continued to lure me into its clutches. In tiny Dolores Hidalgo, the town where Mexico’s independence movement began, I rushed through the old jail and cathedral, anxious to get to the main plaza, where some of the country’s most famous ice cream vendors hawk a bizarre lineup of flavors. Our tour guide led us to his favorite stand. Immediately, spoons heaped high with samples were thrust at me. Avocado: smooth and creamy, delicious! Mango: like biting into a big, juicy globe of the fruit. Corn: sweet and starchy. Beer: no way. Fried pork skin: not for this vegetarian. The enormous samples filled me up; I had no room left to try shrimp, mole, or rose, which was just as well, since the ice cream smorgasbord was insidiously making its way down my gullet to my hips, where it determinedly attached itself. I swore off ice cream forever.
Forever lasted a month. It was music that tripped me up. I was wandering around the Zocalo in Merida one night when I heard guitars. Following the strumming to the other side of the plaza, I found three young men belting out passionate, romantic ballads for customers of El Colon cafe. Enchanted that these teenagers were pouring their hearts out without a bit of embarrassment, I grabbed a table on the sidewalk, happy to rest my feet. I scanned the menu, looking for espresso and a snack, but this cafe had only one thing on the menu. Sherbet.
I scanned the mind-boggling selection of flavors: orange, papaya, mango, strawberry, chocolate, coconut, pineapple, melon…none of those would do. If I was going to fall off the wagon, it would have to be for something more exotic. Zapote, mamey, anona, tamarindo, pilahaya, saramuyo, ciruela, guanabana…wait, guanabana? This sweet-sour pulpy white fruit with a prickly green skin had been my favorite when I lived in Puerto Rico, but I hadn’t tasted it in years.
After that, resistance was futile. I scarfed down a giant dish of guanabana sherbet and followed it up with a second of mamey, an overly sweet tropical fruit with a dark red flesh. I beat myself up over my lack of will power for about two seconds. For more than a hundred years, El Colon has been making exquisite sherbets and champolas (sherbet whipped into milk) from natural fruit. At least I had the comfort of knowing it took the best to bring me down.
Dolores Hidalgo Ice Cream Photo courtesy of Cameron Nordholm