Cultural Literacy

I wrote that blog post back in January, 2008, days after receiving my carta de naturalizacion, which had only been signed half a year before. I’d intended to write something acknowledging the anniversary, but then it just slipped past me. Maybe that’s a sign that being a Mexican by choice is just so much a part of who I am that I no longer need to remember the date.

I had just returned from Bogota, when I was awakened with a call from SRE, telling me “Your carta has arrived, but you’ll need to take the test.”
Bring it on.

Well, they hadn’t created the test yet.

“Create one, because I’ll be in your office tomorrow at noon.”
“You’ll have to know the Himno Nacional.”
So I spent the night studying and memorizing all of the stanzas of the Himno Nacional, but I was damned if I’d sing it. (I knew that I wouldn’t have to.) Admittedly, it got a little edgy, wondering if they’d spring something on me like what the real name of Guadalupe Victoria was. I kept telling myself that they really didn’t want me to give them a dissertation on the differences between the Estrada Doctrine and the Castaneda Doctrine, reminding myself that after all I was a lawyer and had even passed a bar exam. And the test should probably be designed so even Guatemalans could pass it.
I enter the office and surrender my FM-2. The delegado stamps my receipt for it, which is a signal that I’m going to pass. She ushers me to a table in her office to take the test. Nothing I’d studied was on the test, but I could pass it. I do have to say that most people could not. Not even a lot of natural-born Mexicans. It wasn’t easy. But I’m determined. I blank on naming the state where Chichen Itza is located, first writing Quintana Roo, and know that’s not right. Yucatan. I do not want to tell her that she’s mispelled Chichen Itza, but as she’s looking over my shoulder, I ask “It’s in Yucatan, right?” She says it is.
I write out all ten stanzas of the Himno Nacional. Her jaw drops. “You know that?”
Yeah, bring it on.
“You really do know your Mexican writers, don’t you?” she says, amazed that I could name more than the requested three.
“Would you like to know Benito Juarez’ mother’s apellido?  By the way, the test is supposed to be administered orally, so as not to discriminate against those who cannot read and write,” I tell her, just in case she wants to know for future reference. I like to be helpful in that kind of way, but only after I’ve got what I want.

Red Shoes are Better than Bacon

Last week I asked several Mexican friends a few basic questions about this country, just to test their cultural literacy.

I started out with asking them to name a few Mexican writers. The first insisted that Gabriel Garcia Marquez was a Mexican writer. Doesn’t Colombia ring a bell? The second came up with Octavio Paz and Carlos Fuentes, claiming that he couldn’t think of any more off the bat. The third admitted that she could not name a single one. Haven’t these folks heard of Juana Inés de la Cruz, Carlos Pellicer, Denise Dresser, Juan Ruiz de Alarcon, Ramon Lopez Velarde, Manuel Othon, Manuel Gutierrez Najera, Elena Poniatowska, Anita Brenner, Carlos Monsivàis, Homero Aridjis, Juan Rulfo, Guadalupe Loaeza, Laura Esquivel, Margo Glantz, Sara Sefchovich and and Guadalupe Marín, just for starters? Do they ever read the newspaper

One out of the three could not name the jefe de gobierno of…

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What Color is Your Underwear?

Red Shoes are Better than Bacon

During Christmas week the lingerie store windows all over Buenos Aires were decked out in pink underwear. Pink underwear bodes good luck in the coming year in this part of the world.

In Mexico, we wait until New Year’s to change our Fruit of the Loom, and then we have to go through that ordeal of making decisions. Red for passion, yellow for money, or white for health. And then you’re supposed to wear it inside out or keep it on for 24 hours, or something like that.

But then you could always wash the red with the white, which eventually always seems to happen even to the most fastidious laundry-sorters, giving yourself a head start on next Christmas.

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San Miguel de Allende v. Patzcuaro

Chiles en nogada and tacos, that’s the difference between San Miguel de Allende and Patzcuaro as expat venues. Both have their strong points, and both have their shortcomings. Neither is Nirvana, although those who live there might claim otherwise.

San Miguel de Allende offers up more expat amenities like mail forwarding services, English-speaking Mexicans, gourmet stores with everything from Hamburger Helper to white balsamic vinegar on the shelves, AA in more flavors that you could ever begin to count, classes and support groups, charities and opportunities to perform good deeds, an Anglican church, Kabbalah study groups, rival animal rescue efforts, art walks, opportunities for the fey and chichi, a zillion good restaurants and a few bad ones, serious crime and scandal among the expats, the American consular agency, English-language libraries and bookstores, the Rosewood, Café Rama, the Longhorn Smokehouse, Via Organica, poseurs and pukka, organized tours and events, Zimbabwean drum concerts, summer camp for adults, Unitarians, an English-language town newspaper, Catholic mass in English, social x-rays, no less than 87 different kinds of cheese offered in a single storefront, beauty shops run by guys with French-ish names, imported wares from Europe and Morocco and Bali, ladies who lunch and men who golf, affluent hippies, and Chilangos on holiday. Nary a week goes by without one more glowing write-up touting the town as the world’s favorite Christmas venue, retirement spot, and safe place for women to visit. There’s an A-list, a B-list, a C-list, and those who aren’t on anyone’s list, sometimes by choice, often not. Gringos may not be as easily remembered, since they do all tend to resemble one another when there’s a critical mass.

Calling itself the “Not San Miguel,” Patzcuaro is a more DIY lifestyle. Sure, there are opportunities to perform community service and good deeds, a small English-language library, a monthly gringo cocktail party, a spay-neuter clinic, informal hiking groups, close circles of friends, a New Age and Buddhist store selling incense and amulets, Ivo’s bakery, a café the expats refer to as “The Office,” acrylic and cotton tablecloths, a Costco salvage store, piano concerts, imported wares from China, and Chilangos on holiday. Any write-up in the travel section will focus more upon local culture and artesania than the expats. Those expats looking for religion, classes, and AA had better be prepared to speak some Spanish. There’s really no A-list. It’s the kind of place where anyone wearing fancy socks is putting on airs. Scandal and innuendo can spread faster than an autumn wildfire fueled by Santa Ana winds, but serious crime among the expats is rare. Resident expats stick out more (which means that their good deeds, and bad, are also more likely to be remembered) in Patzcuaro.

If San Miguel de Allende is Berkeley-Sedona-Naples-Palm Springs, then Patzcuaro is the Hill Country. For me, both are The Hamptons, my getaways.

In Gangs of San Miguel, Rich Lander prepared canonical lists of what San Miguel’s expats wore – from the clown suits to the classic. A man could wear a tutu and flowered leggings in that town, and no one would give him a second look – unless, of course, he happened to be wearing Bass Weejuns. Patzcuaro’s fashion is the anti-fashion. Its gringos wear whatever they happen to have on. They’re comfortable with that. Tilley Endurables and L.L. Bean, well-worn, are about as fancy as it gets in that town.

San Miguel de Allende has its eponymous sandal, its denizens shod in something fashionable which can still navigate cobblestone streets. Patzcuaro is just old-shoe. San Miguel de Allende sports more year-round tans and veneered teeth than Patzcuaro, where the look is more Midwestern than manicured.

San Miguelenses have to drive to Celaya, an overgrown farm town, or Queretaro to satisfy their Costco, Home Depot, and Walmart jones. Patzcuarenses have to drive 36 miles to the state capital of Morelia to fill their shopping needs at Costco, Sam’s, Superama, seek advanced medical care, and eat a restaurant that doesn’t end a meal with chongos, flan, peaches in syrup or arroz con leche.

In San Miguel de Allende, finding someone to navigate ordinary shoals of life is a walk in the park. There are facilitators who’ll get fumbling foreigners their immigration status, driver’s license, and even old-age discount cards. A service will venture out to the wilds of Celaya’s Costco, shop and deliver. Patzcuaro’s expats are on their own, and they are ingenious about creating satisfactory solutions and workarounds which more than make up for the lack of services.

Foreigners in San Miguel de Allende are an activist lot, ready to organize, boycott, picket, and march at the drop of a hat, whether the cause du jour is Starbucks, disenfranchised Albanian dwarves, the Republican Party, or global warming. All Patzcuaro’s expats have to worry about are OXXO, Farmacia Guadalajara, and global warming.

Compliment a San Miguel expat on a duo of nattily-groomed, well-trained standard poodles, and the first thing you’ll hear is that the dogs were rescued. Say the same to some foreigner with street dog on a leash in Patzcuaro, and you’ll just get a nod.

Politically, the denizens of each venue cloak themselves in chadors of liberalism, heaping praise upon themselves for being politically correct and ever so aware. Conservatives, country club Republicans and libertarians lurk in both venues, but they’re a quiet sort, keeping to themselves for the most part. One time as I finished eating with four San Miguel expats at a restaurant in Buenos Aires, I decided to come out of the closet, disclosing to them that I voted for George Bush. You would’ve thought I’d told them I was Winnie Ruth Judd. They were incredulous, insisting that all expats were intelligent people, and ergo, liberal to the core. I thought they were really rather rude. The expats of Patzcuaro don’t pay much attention to political affiliations, and if they do, they’re generally polite about it.

San Miguel boasts more mansions and deluxe living situations than Patzcuaro, and, in general, housing is more expensive than in Patzcuaro. However, there are ways to spend a lot of money and a whole lot less money in both towns.

When I visit San Miguel de Allende, expats ask me when I’m going to move there, as if there were no other place to live in the entire republic. No one ever asks me that in Patzcuaro. No one even tries to sell me a house in Patzcuaro, for that matter.

Both towns are about the same distance from international airports. Both are served by deluxe bus lines.  Only 243 kilometers separate San Miguel de Allende and Patzcuaro. And yet both could not be farther apart.

There’s no end to literature that San Miguel’s expats have propounded about the town. Tony Cohan’s On Mexican Time: A New Life in San Miguel is just one of the many. Patzcuaro’s expats read and write, but they somehow just don’t have the need to broadcast that they’ve been sprinkled with magic fairy dust. One delightful exception was the now-dead Charles Patterson’s Miscellaneous: An Artist’sNotebook, which took on the lake’s foreign community the same way Truman Capote did in Answered Prayers.

Am I biased? Sure, I am. I have the best of all worlds, because I get to live in Morelia. And that’s a story for another day.

Dreaming of Sugar Plum Fairies from Spain

1880-Turron-Alicante-300-gr (2)

The Guadalupe Reyes Marathon is just not the same without an abundant assortment of turrón imported from Spain.  Let me ‘splain. The Christmas season in Mexico officially begins with  Día de la Virgen de Guadalupe, the 12th of December, and finishes with Día de los Reyes Magos on January 6. Nothing will get accomplished during this time frame. Actually, the holiday starts even earlier, Costco revealing its Christmas treasures in August, followed by El Buen Fin, which is Mexico’s version of Black Friday and CyberMonday, preceding the country’s non-celebration of Estadounidense Thanksgiving. [Note to self: install a footnote plug-in.]

There are fewer fresh Christmas trees in Morelia this year than in years past. Costco only had a few, and Superama a grand total of five.  Walmart at Altozano was live tree-free. My Christmas tree comes in a box, an original silver Evergleam, grown in the forests of Manitowoc, Wisconsin, during the second term of the Eisenhower Administration. It’s so beautiful that we could leave it up all year round, topped off with a Doberman angel , handcrafted by nimble Orvis elves. Hand-blown glass ornaments came from Tlapujahua, by way of Rincones de  Michoacan.

My tree is an heirloom one, purchased by my grandmother during the one year she didn’t have the florist make up a Christmas tree in something like all-turquoise flocked pine with matching ornaments, and then have the florist haul everything away after New Year’s to prevent her descendants from inheriting Christmas ornaments. My grandparents were always the first in town to have whatever was the newest and latest, so they used that tree once and hid it in a storage closet until more than two decades would elapse. By then, I’d opened my law office, and she suggested it might look good in the waiting room, instructing me that it should be decorated in ornaments of a single color. So, the tree got put up a time or two in the office, and then it found itself shipped to Mexico to my mother, who was living here at the time, who declared it too ugly for words, shoving it back into the bodega, where it would remain for another decade or so. Each year, I would take it lovingly from the original box, the branches removed with care from the original paper sleeves, and erect it with the red and pink ornaments. Friends who drop by are rendered speechless by the sight of this tree, but I know that deep down, they’re just envious. This tree has seen more holidays than my grandmother ever intended, but I think it’s beautiful in that 1959 pink Cadillac with fins kind of way.

[Footnote time:  The Aluminum Specialty Company would become Mirro, maker of pressure cookers, which has since gone on to greener pastures.]

And my decorating skills stop there. Holiday décor’s not nearly as important as what’s on the shelves to fill our bellies during the holidays. In times gone past, you just knew the season really had arrived by the odor of sides of bacalao, making the uninitiated wonder what had died at the supermarket display table. Now, most of the genuine Norwegian salt cod is tidily and hygienically packaged.

Maybe you can live without bacalao. I love making bacalao a la vizcaína,  but friends approach it with the relish they reserve for okra, so it’s a private thing.

In a land where more than a few boys named Jesus are born every day of the week, we’re driven by sweets. After all, Coca-Cola is the national sponsor of all respectable public Christmas décor here.  When we’re not worshipping Coca-Cola in this country, we’re paying homage to our Spanish motherland. Everything that comes from Spain is just a notch above. It’s our England.

You can’t have Christmas without sweets, and that means turrón imported from Spain. Up until a year or so ago, easily 30 minutes could be spent just picking which boxes of  turrón would grace the season’s  sweets table – chestnut truffles, pistachio, fruit and nut, walnuts. The crunchy, the fudgy, the nougaty, and the crumbly. Andalucian pine nuts given the Jordan almond treatment. Almendras rellenas. Creamy almond and honey Jijona turrón.  El Lobo Alicante turrón. 1880 yema tostada turrón. Peladillas (almonds given the Jordan almond treatment). 1880 Alicante crunchy almond turrón. Dark chocolate almond turrón. Even though the traditional ingredients were honey, sugar, and egg white, the concept extended to all Spanish candies available at Christmas.

Living in the candy capital of Mexico isn’t enough. Ates, Checolines, coconut-stuffed limes, and Morelianas (cajeta sandwiched between communion wafers)  aren’t enough. There was a time when U.S.-branded candy bars – Milky Way, Almond Joy, and oreo-studded Hershey bars, were rare around these parts. We have to make do with Carlos V. We could always depend upon Christmas to bring out the best of Spanish turrón – and to fill the larder with the post-Guadalupe Reyes sales.

This year appears to be marked by a turrón shortage. Costco had a measly three-pack, Walmart had none, and Superama, known for carrying no less than nine kinds of flavored sesame seeds (including green bamboo-smoked) had a paltry end-of-the-aisle display of only a few choices. And if that wasn’t enough, the prices were double what they were last year. Some nerve! The most expensive box was going for $299 MXN ($23 USD).

Meanwhile, marrons glaces, imported from Italy, are going for $130 MXN (that’s $10 USD) for a 454-gram box, cheaper than ever. There are supplies of German and French sweets. And, more abundant than ever, Estadounidense Christmas candy. If that damned ribbon candy ever hits the shelves, I’m packing up and heading south.

No matter what changes, we’ll always have firecrackers and guns shot off into the night sky for the holidays. And that’s reason enough to be thankful for living in Mexico.

Why Lawyers Lack Humor

Back in another lifetime, Red Shoes are Better than Bacon published and then lost interest in a blog called Stuff Lawyers Like. In that era, now the now prolific and popular blogger Steve Cotton, who had not yet become a Mexpatriate, whiled away his days as one of the top lawyers in a captive insurance company. We called upon his talents as a guest blogger, and today we share with you again his wit.

Humor. Lawyers don’t get it. And they never had it.

We all know the split. The determinists who believe that there is something in some of us that drives us to be lawyers. The behaviorists who believe that law school squeezes us into what we are.

But what we are is a profession without a funny bone. Watch a group of people whenever the senior partner starts: “You see. There were these three guys who went into a bar. A ….” By that point the flinch factor has the full group looking like Clinton supporters in Illinois.

We cannot tell jokes. And it is ironic. Here we are, the advocates for the oppressed, and we are less successful at telling a joke than the average 8-year old boy.

I can hear the loyal opposition now: “Hold on there, son. I make people laugh every day.”  And I will bet you do.

But I will also bet that what has your audience smiling is not humor. It is probably wit.

What God or law school (and academics easily confuse the two) gave most of us is the uncanny ability to 1) make an incisive observation, 2) reduce it to a comic phrase, and 3) deliver it with impeccable timing.

The result is seldom a belly laugh. Usually, a knowing chuckle or wry smirk.

Wit. And we are experts at it. Like Potter Stewart, we know it when we see it.

Oscar Wilde complimented James Whistler on a quip: “I wish I’d said that.” Whistler fired back: “You will, Oscar, you will.”

Frasier: Niles, you’re a good brother and a credit to the psychiatric profession.
Niles: You’re a good brother, too.

Dorothy Parker reviewing Katharine Hepburn on Broadway: “She runs the gamut of emotions from A to B.”

Oh, yes. There is that aspect, too. Wit usually has a target that leaves the field at least bloodied — if not eviscerated.

The distinction between wit and humor is hardly original with me. One of my favorite writers, John Simon, pointed out in Paradigms Lost that humor and wit are nearly the exact opposites of one another. Humor is “basically good natured and often directed toward oneself.”  On the other hand, wit is “aggressive, often destructive (though one hopes, in a good cause), and almost always directed at others.”  Simon, of course, is a master of wit.

If you want to see the distinction in its full French glory, rent the film Ridicule. It is worth every sub-title.

So, here is my suggestion. Leave the jokes to the ex-accountants. We can go our merry way keeping alive the tradition of the Lady Astors and the Algonquin Round Table.

After all, at least one of the three guys who went into the bar is going to need a good lawyer some day.

Today’s guest blogger is Steve Cotton, who is Assistant Counsel for Legal Services at SAIF Corporation, a workers’ compensation carrier, in Salem, Oregon. He has written articles and CLE treatises on workers’ compensation and criminal law, and he is a regular speaker at CLEs and other training sessions, where his wit is welcome, and his humor is barred. He also publishes Same Life — New Location.

A NEO-LUDDITE’S RAMPAGE

What passes for as Black Friday north of the Rio Bravo started out as just another Viernes here. The end of the month is nigh, and that means a deadline to meet. I would diligently crank out two columns today, but not before a goodly amount of coffee and reading every news source on the Internet.

Estadounidense Black Fridays scare me, having left the Old Country before they came to resemble looting sprees that follow natural disasters. Just watching people attack one another over tablets and giant screen televisions threw me into a rare mode of questioning values.

Several years back, I developed a plan which included removing two items of clothing and other new acquisitions from my closets for each new acquisition. That didn’t work for computers.

CFE came by and politely announced I’d have no electricity for the rest of the afternoon. What was I supposed to do, sit around and read print copies of The New Yorker by sunlight? I decided to honor Black Friday by deaccessioning a few superannuated computers. Four of them, to be exact. Death knells for the Dells.

One already reposed in the living room, the case opened and the hard drive waiting to be pulled. There would be three more upstairs waiting evisceration.

P1010990We went to work, but not before fondly remembering floppy drives, Zip drives, and tape drives. And recalling that the total cost of them exceeded the price of my first new car and a year’s tuition at law school back during the Nixon Administration. One was first put into use just after the unveiling of Windows 95. The latest, XP. The poor, the desperate, and even the deserving and perverted would no more want these computers than they’d want my used underwear.

P1010996While we’re otherwise hygienic when it comes to computing, we never get around to wiping hard drives. Instead the whole unit simply gets shoved into a closet. We’ll find a way to destroy those hard drives later.

We’re not getting rid of everything. We’re holding on to those HP LaserJet printers, because we just love them and know they’ll be valuable collectors’ items in due time. And they even got us some good press one time:

Finally, attorney turned blogger and journalist Jennifer Rose sent us a photo of her HP LaserJet III. She got it in 1991 and they’ve been inseparable since. Rose tells us that the LaserJet III cost “almost as much as [her] first new car” and that she grew especially fond of the special language she needed to learn to operate the control panel. While her LaserJet III doesn’t serve as her primary office printer anymore, Rose reports that it “never jams” and “keeps on ticking like a basic Timex watch.”

Giving Gracias

For my Estadounidense friends who’re kindly sending their Thanksgiving wishes, asking how we celebrate the holiday in Mexico, let me fill you in. We don’t. I’ll do the same thing on this Thanksgiving Day that I did the day before, and the year before that: nothing remarkable.

It’s just another Thursday in late November around these parts, the midpoint between Dia de la Revolucion on November 20 and Dia de  Guadalupe on December 12. The newer an expat’s residency in this country, the more likely he or she is to celebrate. Gain distance from the Old Country and some tenure here, and it’s not a big deal. Sure, off in expat havens like Lake Chapala and San Miguel de Allende, the restaurants get into a large Thanksgiving Day dinner scene, but not where I live.

I didn’t come from a background of Thanksgiving tradition. My mother refused to do anything reeking of “traditional,” and if there was any tradition in my childhood, it was to do something different each year. One year, she thought killing and dressing the very chickens that would grace the table later that day would be not only fun but instructive, just in case we would need to kill poultry sometime to survive. It memorable all right: she thought my stepfather was having a heart attack, only to find that he was praying for the fowl before their demise. Those home-butchered Southern California suburban chickens may not have tasted very good, but they left a lasting impression and left us with a valuable life skill. We invited sailors from the naval base into our home another year, and a few were amazed that anyone would get out the good silver for strangers. I spent one Thanksgiving working my shift at the hospital as a Candy Striper, thinking it was very cool not only to escape a celebration but also to get double Candy Striper points for working on a holiday. Those memories remain more cherished than the thought of a roasted turkey.

There are two kinds of people: those who are hosts and those who are guests. My tradition was to be a guest. That way, I manage to observe a lot of other people’s traditions, more than few times returning home, thanking my lucky stars that I’m not part of  that family tradition. All right, most of the traditions are heartfelt and well-meaning, but experiencing some of them once was enough.

It’s not that I scoff at tradition, celebration and giving. Last night, I slaved away in the kitchen for at least twenty minutes.

The Mexican-gringo blogorama is filled with talented cooks:

Tancho at Rancho Canyon Cookbook

Don Cuevas at My Mexican Kitchen

Leslie Limon at La Cocina de Leslie 

Billie Mercer at Reservations for One

Nancy Dardarian at Countdown to Mexico

I’m not one of them. I read recipes as literature, plotless novellas. Good intentions usually end up with making reservations. A plan to make something as straightforward as spaghetti can easily detour to hummus and then culminate in calling for take-out. There is a reason why friends avoid my kitchen unless they’re willing to bring their own food.

Attention span and manual dexterity are not my strong suits. I lack the patience to bake.  My kitchen is more like a mad scientist’s laboratory. Creating chemical reactions, doing experiments, acquiring gadgets, playing with toys, and watching stuff whirl around in the Cuisinart is much more entertaining. (And yes, I lust for a Kitchen Aid mixer, not to use, but just to place on the counter as a trophy. You can get me one for Christmas.)

It’s not as if I don’t understand the theory behind making food. I just have a hard time getting it all together. Distractions like sitting down to peruse a good book, planting some more lettuce, or updating my Facebook just get in the way.

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So I embark upon my holiday culinary preparations. This year it’s Asian-ish beef jerky. You were hoping for something Thanksgiving-ish? I’ll have you know that Asian-ish beef jerky is someone’s tradition, somewhere on the planet.

And here’s how:

Start out by asking your butcher (you do have one, right?) to slice up paper-thin 1.25 kilos of milanesa cara. (rump roast if you’re in the U.S.)

Pick lemon grass from the garden, whittling it down. Whack it with the kitchen hammer or meat flattener-outer. Toss it in the marinade, which consists of, more or less:

Salsa Valentina

Vietnamese fish sauce

Soy sauce

Brown sugar, molasses or honey

Or you could just dump in 1/3 of a bottle Sriracha, which some might call the Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup of Thailand, and a like quantity of soy sauce, and call it a day. We slug; we do not measure.

Mix the lemon grass-enriched marinade with the meat in a non-reactive container. (“Non-reactive container sounds so scientific, but it really makes no difference, since it’s not going to bask there long enough to make a difference.) Properly pre-sanitized hands are fine for this operation.

Arrange the meat carefully on the racks in your dehydrator. You do have one, don’t you? If you don’t, a gas grill works just fine, a gas oven not so much.

Dehydrate at medium-high for as long as it takes to dry and slightly crisp up the meat, maybe two and a half hours, checking on it periodically to flip each slice over and maintain quality control.

Remove the crisped chips of meat and stash in Ziploc bags in the freezer. You’re done. 1.25 kilos of raw beef will yield about 475 grams of jerky.

¡Gobble tov!