Santa Fe – History in Food

Santa Fe – History in Food

©  Cyril Belshaw

NOTE in 2002 :  This was intended to be a chapter in a travel-food book. Details will have changed enormously since 1990, but the general principles, the distinctions between foods, will be much the same. HOWEVER I would be most interested if you can send me information about those changes and what you find.  Do so by email here — appropriate comments will be incorporated into the text.  I Will add images when I find them !!!!   You can submit images too…………..

Spanish expeditions reached New Mexico, after months of travel, in 1540. The territory was “conquered”, from 1607 to 1692, in the search for lost golden cities and a passage linking the Atlantic to the Pacific. It was definitively lost to the United States by treaty in 1848 after a disastrous war and years of military skirmishes, along with Texas (already de facto occupied by the Americans) and New California.

Santa Fe itself is not the oldest Spanish settlement in New Mexico, but its founding as an administrative capital in 1610 makes it the oldest capital city in the United States, and it has been continuously such ever since. Despite a rumbunctious history, though not nearly as macho as that of Texas, and waves of immigrants of several varieties, it has managed to retain styles of life and an aesthetic flavour that makes it, to me, the only city in the whole of the U.S. of A. to which I could think of devoting my years. Taos. nearby, has its undoubted charm, but seems dilapidated and uncared-for by contrast. Bustling Albuquerque has no character, even though it does have the airport.

The town is 7,000 feet above sea level on the rise of a plateau, in the lee of a hill where skiing is possible in winter. The quite small central core of the town maintains the layout and many of the buildings of the original Spanish occupiers, churches, mansions, haciendas, old government buildings, the plaza.

The Spaniards of course were not the original occupiers of New Mexico. Their settlements were surrounded and in competition with those of the Indian pueblos, corn growing communities sheltered by soft coloured clay-adobe houses, some terraced upward to several stories, that to this day draw thousands of tourists, and have captured the senses of artists and writers, including D.H.Lawrence.

Spanish officials did not understand much of their Indian cousins. They had known such people in Mexico itself, especially in the north and west; but they had also crossed arms with Toltecs and Mayans who had worked their great stone pyramids and temples, their astronomical observatories, and expressed themselves in writing. The New Mexican pueblos did not command the same respect. From time to time they revolted, fought back, often with a background of U.S. intrigue.

Even New Mexico has its regions. Santa Fe is regarded as the beginning of Northern New Mexico, as distinct from the hotter, closer to Mexico, south. I have to bear this in mind, because the food I write about begins with Northern New Mexico, and resists being blended into something wider, like U.S. Southwest. Thank goodness for that. Tex Mex, with some stuff like chile con carne, and Californian Mexican, in which everything is mushed together, has not yet quite taken over. You can find it in Santa Fe, alas, but there is other food too.

The climate of Northern New Mexico is mostly dry and clear and for most of the year hot in the day, cool at night. The clarity of the skies are characteristic of desert lands, but with a difference. The lights, particularly in the early morning and at sunset, are full of radiant colour, aquamarine, turquoise, pale beige, rich russet-brown, peach colours, colours that are present in the land itself. For in the land there are sands and stones of almost every hue imaginable, which, ground down, are used in the magically-healing sand paintings of the pueblos.

The adobe structures are as much a part of the landscape as anything made by nature. In remote villages you will find centuries-old churches of adobe, their flowing forms matching the hills around them, some sanctuaries and places of pilgrimage and healing, as holy and magnetic as anything in Europe. They are still places of faith.

The Spaniards adapted the style for their palatial and domestic buildings. They added more out-jutting beams, and built their rooms around garden or utilitarian courtyards, with cool fountains and shady terraces and balconies. As USAers came down, they added wooden cottages in the middle of lots, very different. But in the centre of town the two styles live pleasantly side by side, the adobe dominating as nostalgia governs city planning.

The city spread up canyons and ridges, and as it did so the newly rich and the newcomers, even commercial firms and hotels, mostly adopted adope styles, adapting them to modern living. My brother built some for a while. They can be totally phoney, that is ordinary structures with a bit of sand coloured cement thrown on. But in their architectural expression, their soft colours and gently moving lines, minimizing sharp angles, their ability to blend with the landscape and yet create oases of courtyards, shady spots, gardens and vistas, they are without compare. Many world renowned architects found their inspiration in this countryside.

So too did artists of every description, painters, sculptors, workers in beads, cloth, silver, jewelry, potters, traditional Indian geniuses, immigrants who gained inspiration from Indian motifs and techniques and the soft colours of the countryside. Indian art itself grew and adapted without losing its truth. It is mostly soft art. But it also mostly speaks to the soul.

So that, whether you look at pottery, textiles, jewelry, painting, sculpture, Santa Fe is, downtown and along some of the canyon roads, one great artistic show-case. It is much more than those little European towns like Les Baux de Provence or even Carcassonne, because it is not just a front for history, transformed to make a living.  Read the rest