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Rant #253
(published November 17, 2005)
Industrial Espionage and the World's Greatest Sangria Recipe
by Morgan Johnson

When my mother first moved to Detroit she used to frequent a Mexican restaurant on the east side called El Charo's. When I was a kid, El Charo's was Mexican food. For at least a decade it was the only Mexican restauarant I ever went too. I even went there after my senior year Homecoming dance.

One of the facets upon the jewel of El Charo's that was so appealing to my mother was their sangria. It was better than any other she had ever had. It was so good she made it a mission to decode the precise ingredients that constituted this apotheosis of wine punch.

At first she approached a waiter and asked the recipe of him. He pleaded ignorance, wouldn't give in. She next went for the bartender who also at this point—the restaurant was still fairly new when she began her quest—the manager and owner. He was very happy that she liked his sangria, but he couldn't give up the recipe: it was a family secret.

This, I believe, was his fatal mistake. If he had simply said no, or said that he didn't know it or that it came from a bottle she might have let it drop. But my mom is tenacious. And hearing that she couldn't have the recipe because it was top secret, well that just goaded her on even more.

Conventional avenues having failed, she turned to espionage.

My mother had a new friend, Shelly, who was a photographer but at that the time was rather between jobs. She had a young son to take care of and needed a job. I remember her long red hair and her affable and constant laughter. She was a good friend to my mom. They got along really well. Seeing a chance to kill two birds with one stone, she suggested Shelly work at El Charo's and that while she worked there she could spy and get the recipe. Shelly was a fan of the sangria, too, and needed the job. So she did it. She became a bartender at El Charo's.

But it wasn't that easy.

The sangria would be already made by the time Shelly got to work every day. She had no idea where it was coming from. The owner would arrive shortly after her, so he couldn't be making it. So who did? Did little boozy elves brew it up at night? That would explain its potency.

Shelly didn't want to ask her boss where it came from; he had gotten squirrelly when my mother had approached him for the recipe already. Shelly liked her job there as a bartender and wasn't about to risk it for my mom's stubborn quest.

A break came in the case after Shelly worked there for almost a year. Every day of that year Shelly would show up around 1pm and unlock the doors and open the restaurant. The cooks and the owner would show up within half an hour. And every single day there would be a refilled glass jar of sangria. If they ran out at night the owner would shrug and that would be it. No more sangria that night. Making more wasn't even a question. But one day in August Shelly arrived at work earlier than usual. she'd been out shopping for her son's birthday present and had gotten done earlier than she had expected.

Shelly rolled into the restaurant half an hour earlier and found the door unlocked. She crept inside, into the shadowed kitchen and found the owner's seventy year old mother pouring bottles of booze into the sangria jar. The old woman didn't see her. Shelly slowly backed out, and hid in her car. Shortly, the owner's mother emerged from the kitchen entrance of El Charo's carrying a clanking garbage bag that she tossed into the dumpster. Then the old woman locked the door and drove off.

Seeing her opportunity at last to get my mom off her back about the whole sangria thing, Shelly climbed into the dumpster and salvaged the trash bag. She tossed it into her trunk, and then went to work. My mother happened to stop by for lunch that day with me in tow. Shelly told her in stage whispers what she'd seen and what was in her trunk. They met after work to catalog the contents of the trash bag and to reverse engineer the recipe.

They had it figured out within an hour. There was much rejoicing and celebration.

The very next day my mother went back to El Charo's for dinner. She called the owner over and told him that she had been experimenting for the last year—ever since he refused to give her the recipe for the sangria—with different ratios and alcohols, trying to get the formula right. And that the night before, she did. My mom reached into her purse and pulled out a handwritten copy of the recipe and passed it to the owner who looked at it with surprise. My mom didn't wait for an answer. She looked him in the eye and said, "I've got you all figured out now." And left.

For the last twenty years that recipe has been tacked up in a corner of my mother's kicthen. Other recipes occasionally move into the neighborhood, but all of them eventually lose favor and are disappeared from the wall. The only one that has remained is her sangria recipe, a testament to her friendship with Shelly and their shared talent for espionage.

Note: Here is the recipe, copied directly from my mom's wall. The proportions were originally based upon the number of bottles used, they had since been scaled down to cups.

  • 1 Cup Triple Sec
  • 1/2 Cup Amaretto
  • 1 Cup Ginger Brandy
  • 1 Cup Vodka
  • 1 1/2 Cup Pineapple Juice
  • 1/2 Cup Lime Juice
  • 1 1/2 cup Orange Juice
  • 1 Cup Papaya Juice
  • 3 Liters Lambrusco (sweet red wine)
Mix throroughly and chill. If you prefer a chunkier sangria, swap out the fruit juices for a like amount of sliced fruit.

Further note: My dad, a whiskey-swilling irishman, just saw me copying this down. His comment: "Whoo, that's a mighty strong recipe. We should make that again soon." So, dear reader, you have been warned. The Irish find this recipe strong. It is bound to be dangerous and glorious, may it spark your wiles and drive you to scurrilous heights of abandon.

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