Cheems, the most famous Shiba Inu in Mexico

This is a post about a Shiba Inu from Hong Kong named Balltze who is a superstar in Mexico, where he is known as Cheems. KnowYourMeme traces the birth of “Cheems” to r/dogelore, an American Reddit group focusing on dog memes, in June 2019. In his original incarnation, Cheems was a floating dog head that could only mispronounce the word “cheeseburger.”

The question of why he has become so famous in Mexico was not clear initially. My first thoughts went something like this:

  • People like memes of dogs
  • Cheems is lovably overweight
  • There are some really great memes coming out of Mexico

After some cursory research, I found what might be the reason: the viral “Swole Doge vs. Cheems” meme format was born from a May 2020 post from Mexican meme page Doges artesanales. This readily adaptable format compares a muscular strong “doge” (dog) from a previous era with the weak “doge” of today. It has since spread around the world in multiple languages since it can be easily adapted to dream up new historical and political memes.

Swole doge vs. Cheems

For example, in the meme above, “Swole doge” on the left is a 20th-century musician “a little tired” after an 8-month world tour and two days to record his new album while 21st-century Cheems on the right is complaining to his mom that his music software crashed again.

We could say that this was the moment Cheems finally “made it” in Mexico, but that wouldn’t necessarily be true. Doges artesanales has memes of Shiba Inus going back years. However, until Nov-Dec 2019, the main dog on the site is Kabosu, also known as the inspiration for Dogecoin. Below is a screenshot of the facebook page and the moment the first “Swole dog vs. Cheems” meme entered the world.

The original Swole doge vs. Cheems meme is in the middle of this page

Cheems has become famous enough in Mexico to have spawned dozens, even hundreds of memes and even a handful of pandemic-era home businesses. The pun-based menus below are from a cheesecake bakery and a restaurant selling chilaquiles.

Cheems’s cake (cheesecake)
Chimlaquiles (chilaquiles)

Cheems has even inspired artwork. it’s unknown where this mural below is painted though it’s by a Spanish-speaking artist.

“Hhmm…painting”

Cheems had even been integrated with traditional Mexican holidays. Cempasúchil is the flower used during Day of the Dead celebrations.

It’s “cheemspasúchil” season, referring to the traditional Mexican flower

I’m not really sure how to close out this post, so here’s a history of Mexico told through a Cheems meme:

Panam, Mexico’s most Mexican sneakers

When I first saw a pair of vintage-inspired Panam sneakers on my first trip to Mexico, I wanted a pair for myself. The only issue was I couldn’t find my size anywhere! While it’s very common for shoes in Mexico to not reach my size, it reinforced the shoe’s unattainability and local cache. So when I was given a pair in my size several years later, I was hooked.

It turns out this model, Panam’s most recognizable, is the 084 Campeón. Originally designed in the 1960s, it became the de-facto sneaker for a generation of Mexican children. From my research, its popularity came from a shift to more casual footwear around the time of the 1968 Mexico City Olympics and the Campeón’s status as footwear for gym classes nationwide.

Its heavy unpadded rubber sole is combined with a flexible nylon fabric upper, leading to an odd combination of slip-on comfort and occasional foot pain when walking on pavement. Coming from a company that touts its classic designs and 100% Mexican supply chain, I would guess the odd design is a result of using the same molds, designs, and suppliers since the shoe’s inception, which, incidentally, is still made in Estado de Mexico for a fraction of the price of foreign imports like Adidas and Nike.

Despite its shortcomings, the 084 in Mexican size 29 fits my 11 US feet like a glove and its retro good looks have yet to be changed by updates as happens constantly with other brands. As a result, I’m on my sixth pair. For the price, which is between 350-550 MXN ($17-27), I don’t mind when they wear out and need to be replaced.

From what I’ve found, Panam nearly went out of business following the NAFTA-induced shakeup to the local shoe industry. In recent years, they’ve doubled down on their retro appeal while making inexpensive copies of famous models like Air Force 1 and Air Jordan. Some of these copies are quality, the Air Force 1 clones seem decent, while others are heavy with odd synthetic materials, though given that they’re 700 MXN ($35) vs. $100 or more for the real deal, they have gained significant market share.

For me, I keep going back to their 084 for its Mexican cred, and I’m not the only one. Panam famously did a collab edition of the 084 with Mexican punk band Molotov years ago and have recently done special editions for Jarritos, Cafe Cielito, Cerveza Indio, Frida Kahlo, Los Autenticos Decadentes, and a shoe commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Mexico City Metro. They’ve even done a special art installation in the Metro commemorating individual Metro stations using the colors and logos of those stations (see gallery below).

In a big commercial move compared to their Mexican street cred-inspired limited editions, they’ve launched a major collab series with Marvel, including a great Spider-Man edition. The company also recently opened its first US store, in San Diego.

Volkswagen Beetles Live on in Mexico

I originally posted this back in 2016. I’ve updated this post in October 2021 to fix the gallery and add a few new photos. During our trip to Mexico City this month, it seems like the vochos are getting even older and ricketier or they’re being reclaimed as polished-up antique cars by aficionados. Herbie the Love Bug, for example, we spotted in Coyoacán earlier this month.

Since I was a kid, I’ve always liked the VW Beetle: small, cartoon-like, and iconic of ’60s culture and music that I grew up with, thanks to my parents. I was further fascinated when, back in college, I found that the Beetle was produced in Mexico all the way up through the millenium, with production ending with the 2004 model year. In fact, a version of the original Beetle was exported to Europe after production ended in Germany!

The Beetle Sedán, known as the vocho in Mexico, was also produced in Brazil for the Brazilian market through the 1990s. This led me to write a class paper comparing industrial policy in Mexico and Brazil through the lens of the Beetle, which you might as well take a look at, since I still had it saved. It’s actually fairly fascinating, if you like history and Cold War-era politics, though you’ll have to trust me. Read it here.

There are thousands, if not millions, of these old Beetles still circulating in Mexico, thanks to skilled mechanics, cheap replacement parts, and the car’s practicality. When I first went to Mexico, I remember being told that you can get a reconditioned engine swapped out in your VW for the equivalent of $250 US.

Passing through the mountains on the way back to Mexico City from Tepoztlán, where many of these photos were taken, in some towns half the vehicles on the streets were vochos. It turns out the engines handle the hills better than other vehicles in their class, so they’ve clustered in towns with steep inclines.

When I first came to Mexico, in 2007, they were ubiquitous as taxis, though now are entirely phased out due to emissions restrictions and safety concerns. In the face of progress, it’s surprising to me to see the vocho‘s staying power. Nostalgia and usefulness mix as this workhorse of a vehicle powers on through another decade.

The photos included below are a collection from our last trip to Mexico City and surrounding towns.

Visiting Casa Herradura, Birthplace of Tequila

This past Christmas break we went to Guadalajara and during our time there couldn’t miss out on a trip to the area around the town of Tequila to learn more about Mexico’s national drink. That’s how we found ourselves at Casa Herradura in the town of Amatitán, a functioning hacienda that claims to be the birthplace of the distilled agave liquor known as tequila.

The best part was seeing how the history of this hacienda is still being lived with a mix of tradition and modern methods. At Casa Herradura, history, agriculture, and chemistry come together in the bottle and it makes for a fascinating story.

History

In Spanish America, an hacienda was a rural estate, and by law had to produce a product and contain housing for workers and a church. This system was carried over after Mexican independence and continues at the Hacienda de San José del Refugio, which was known colloquially as Hacienda del Padre, as it was originally owned by a priest. Today, two thousand workers as well as the current owners live at the hacienda. Some families have worked there for six generations!

At this hacienda, tequila was produced, first illegally, from 1820-1870, then legally since 1870, explained our guide, José Manuel. Tunnels across the property date to this era and were used to hide both tequila and priests during the era of the Cristero Rebellion.

At one point during this conflict, government officials came searching for priests and the owners flooded the basement cistern to provide a hiding place. The priests survived by breathing the air left in pockets against the ceiling while the distillery owners insisted to officials that there was “only water in down there”.

This wasn’t the only memory of the past. Our next stop was the old distillery, where the stone basins now museum-ready were used as fermentation vats were used until as recently as 1963. We saw as well the remnants of boilers from this era which were shipped from London to Veracruz and delivered overland by mule.

At the time of its founding, distilling was a dangerous industry. Our guide told us that 80% of tasters died. These tasters were the ones that sampled the tequila to test whether it was ready for consumption and I imagine consumed the “head” and “tails” as well as the “heart” of the distillation before modern chemistry intervened to save lives.

My thoughts at this point turned to the value of a commodity over that of human life at that point in history, though perhaps this was common across all industries at the time. It’s not like coal mining was ever portrayed as good for your health, for example.

Luckily, these historical production methods have both stayed true, yet improved, safety-wise. Tequila’s rarefied historical and regional status is protected by law, much like French Champagne. While there are 126 types of agave, there is only one variety that produces tequila, tequiliana weber, and only five states can produce this beverage officially, mainly Jalisco.

Growing

Growing the tequila plant, agave azul, is no easy feat. An agave plant takes 25 years from seed to be ready for harvest. After 3 years the agave becomes a mother and gives children which are replanted and ready in 7-9 years, which I imagine is like having a giant spider plant. Each agave is then tested and must pass 26% sugar content to be ready for harvest.

The field hand in charge of preparing the heart of this spiky plant is called the jimador. He shaves off the spines of the agave until the heart is exposed, leaving the spines behind to compost. This heart varies in size from 80-200 pounds(!) (see photos below) and roughly 12 pounds of agave is needed for a single liter of tequila, hence each heart produces 6 or more bottles of tequila! The jimador can shave as many as 120 “pineapples” or hearts per day.

Such a reliance on a single region and a single plant with a multi-year gestation period produces anxiety among producers. There is a reserve of millions of liters of tequila to smooth out dips in supply due to any unforeseen circumstances, such as an infestation, which happened several years prior.

Fermentation and Distillation

As a homebrewer, I recognize parts of the tequila preparation process, with a few key differences. First, the hearts are split and baked in an oven for 26 hours to release the honey, which smells like malted barley or sweet potato. These ovens take quite a lot of punishment and have to be repaired or rebuilt after a year and a half, a process that was underway when we visited. This honey or syrup is then held in a giant stainless open-topped tank.

What amazed me from the start is how much of this process takes place essentially outdoors. The ovens, the fermentation, even the distillation all take place with only a roof overhead, no doors and nearly no walls.

That is, fermentation is open to the air and takes 4 days, using a mixture of 51% agave juice and 49% honey, the latter of which is the thick syrupy product of the baking process mentioned above. This is an improvement over the 19th-century process, which we saw indoors in those stone vats, used to take 20 days. Fermentation at that time happened spontaneously as the vats were exposed at night to a a patio outside their window that was lined with fruit trees. Fruit trees, in fact, are still scattered around the property.

Distillation is where my knowledge gets a bit fuzzy. This is the process that concentrates the alcohol from fermentation into liquor. Here’s what I caught: the ordinario is the first 25% of the distillation, which is sent back. It’s used as fuel or for washing and sanitizing bottles before the bottling process. The end product, the “heart” is 55% tequila, which is then diluted with distilled water.

We were taught by José Manuel to rub it on our hands and smell (smells like tequila), and to shake a bottle of the liquid to see if it’s clear. If it’s milky or turbid, it’s not safe. I imagine sampling these bad parts is what drastically shortened the lives of those 19th-century tasters I mentioned earlier.

Aging and Bottling

After distillation is the aging process, which to my surprise is the only difference between the different grades of product from light to dark. Certain special labels may select the best of the agave hearts, but within the normal product range, it is aging alone that accounts for the difference in flavor.

Plata or silver is aged for 45 days, reposado for 11 months, and añejo for 1-3 years. The newly coined extra añejo is aged for 3-5 years. Up to 50% is lost in the aging process through evaporation or absorption into the oak casks.

Bottling is the only part of the process that resembles a modern food production facility. We were only able to see the bottling line from outside, looking through thick double-pane UV-tinted glass. I was fine with not getting closer; after all the initial steps feeling so close to the land, the bottling line looks like any other production line elsewhere in the world.

Tasting

If there wasn’t a chance to taste the product, nobody would come on these tours. So with a bit more of a sunburn than when we started, we sat down to try some tequila. I can’t say that I remember much other than how the tasting is performed:

  1. breathe out;
  2. swish the sample around in your mouth and consume.

The purpose of this exercise is to limit intake of alcohol vapors, which in my personal opinion seems to be the element that makes most straight liquor go down with a shudder. This process was reminiscent of using mouthwash, made my gums tingle, and did seem to cut down on the “yuck” factor, making the tasting more enjoyable.

Generally, the tequila gets smoother and smokier as it ages. The plata always seems a bit harsh to me, though now I know it’s the same as the añejo, only younger. In fact, aficionados can buy a one- or two-liter mini-cask at Herradura and age their own product from plata up to the point of their choosing. That’s about as DIY as you can get without breaking the law.

The Whole Enchilada, for Breakfast

Until an embarrassingly advanced age, I could not have told you what an enchilada was exactly. Thanks to the wildly popular local hippie-Tex Mex take-out place down the street from my childhood home, I knew it as a shifty pile of meat and various Mexican ingredients, possibly including rice and vegetables, all covered in gooey melted cheese, emphasis on the cheese. It came in a rounded metal tin and despite appearing to be leftovers covered in cheese, or perhaps because of it, was very tasty.

As a young college student exploring the South Philadelphia neighborhood known as the Italian Market, now heavily populated by Mexican establishments, I happened upon the culinary discovery my adolescent self might have called “soft taco tubes in salsa”, also known as authentic Mexican enchiladas.

Enchiladas, made the right way, are soft corn tortillas wrapped around a key ingredient, often braised chicken, pork or beef, and topped with homemade tomatillo or tomato salsa. If made with flour tortillas, tomato salsa, and gooey cheese, they’re called enchiladas suizas, Swiss enchiladas. When made with the smoky, chocolate and chili mole sauce, they’re known as enmoladas, my personal favorite.

All enchiladas are then topped off with Mexican cream and a dusting of crumbled cotija cheese. In a pinch, American sour cream and parmesan or feta can be substituted.

If you imagine the enchilada as an ice cream sundae, the crumbled cheese is the cherry on top. It’s a light dusting, a garnish. On the other hand, if the Tex-Mex enchilada were a sundae, it would be half cherries.

All this talk of dessert is distracting from eureka moment I had during my first visit to that place that people from New Mexico must call “Old Mexico”, the enchilada’s native home:

In Mexico City I learned that while tacos are the de facto late-night delivery device for meat, cilantro, and onions, the enchilada is a 24-hour phenomenon! That’s right, enchiladas are a full-on breakfast food. They can be stuffed not only with meat, but also with beans, cheese, or even scrambled eggs!

Eggs in an enchilada. This is not the Taco Bell breakfast menu. It’s not a breakfast burrito, another American invention. This is a legitimate round-the-clock Mexican dish, a plate you can order three times in the same day and not feel out of place.

Making it Mexican Street Food

Mexico, despite popular misconception, is not the land of crunchy tacos, ground beef, and shredded cheddar cheese. It is the land of chili, lime, cilantro, and onion. Lime, chili, cilantro, and onion (and meat) on a tortilla are the essence of a taco.

IMG_1057

Likewise, in Mexico, lime and chili (hot sauce, especially Valentina brand) can be added to nearly anything, from popcorn or potato chips, to fruit, to beer to make a legitimate snack.

Generally, Mexican street food starts with:

  • corn (tortillas, dough or corn-on-the-cob)
  • meat (pork, chicken, beef, goat/lamb, fish or shrimp), and often
  • fruit

It makes use of the following toppings:

  • lime
  • chili (powder, salsa or pepper)
  • cilantro
  • mayonnaise
  • cream
  • onion
  • lettuce, tomato

Some famous Mexican street foods containing the above elements:

  • tacos (right, below)
  • tamales
  • tortas
  • quesadillas / sopes
  • chilaquiles (left, below)

Some famous examples of normal food that has been “Mexicanized”:

  • michelada: beer, lime, and hot sauce
  • Hot Nuts: Japanese peanuts, chili, lime
  • tamarind pulp with chili and lime
  • mango slices with chili and lime

In this way, you too could become Mexican by dousing yourself in lime and chili, but then you would have to be eaten.

In a future post, we will explore the taxonomy of Mexican street foods, from the tame and American-friendly, to the parts of the pig you thought were inedible. Stay tuned.