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. Santa Fe is itself living artistic history. It has its own momentum, dynamic and future. The visual arts spread to music and, in modest ways, to drama.
I had been to Santa Fe several times, but always just for a few short days. This year I had not thought of going, but I was suddenly confronted with a December season for which I had not made plans. Every place I thought of going was cold and\or wet, cloud covered, or else the sort of place that was crowded with European holiday makers already booked solid, or else demanded impossible amounts of planning and money to get to, and fierce hotel bills when you got there.
One night I woke out of a dream and said Santa Fe. Not your jet set Cooks Tour sort of place at all. Yes indeed it can be cold at 7,000 feet, but sunny sunny cold. The food I want to study. And since I didn’t have time, either in advance or for length of stay, to book an inexpensive villa, there was the next best thing, the Residence Inn, with its well equipped kitchens including microwave, its “We’ll buy your groceries for you” service, its King size beds and roomy suites with sun catching balconies, its reduced, but still uppity, prices for longer stays. So, a month ahead, I was on the phone. To my surprise the crucial days of Christmas were fully booked — I had discounted the attraction of the small ski area — but eventually there was a cancellation.
You cannot fly into Santa Fe unless you have a plane of your own. The commercial airport is at Albuquerque, an hour away by car. The winter flight from Europe was a mess — late into Chicago, missing the last United flights to Albuquerque, transferring to another airline, catching it by the skin of my teeth. tired and cross with 184 kilos of baggage, mostly books and computer stuff. But it worked out.
The road, especially when one is tired at night, is dull. And the outskirts of Santa Fe are as off-putting as they are in any other U.S. or French city, the charm almost totally stripped by the free-for-all endless unregulated stretches of shopping malls, grandes surfaces and supermarkets, auto salesmen, junk food drive-ins, drive-in banks, all that mess. In the daylight, it is true, some of the structures around Santa Fe pretend to some adobe, which takes only just a little of the bite off.
It is enough to keep my brother Michael right out of town unless he has important unavoidable businesses. My brother Michael likes people, but not in crowds, and in a way is a bit of a hermit. He breeds wolves, who are his life and family.
Michael lives about an hour’s drive from Santa Fe, renting for the moment a small ranch house on the outskirts of the old Mexican village of El Rito. You may have difficulty finding it on the map. And once you get there Michael’s directions are not always of the clearest. Just ask, though, for the “wolf man” and you’ll arrive — if you don’t hear the wolves singing well before. He has open house on Sundays, a day when the curious and the children from all around come and talk to the magnificent wolves. Otherwise it is by appointment, and you should show you’re serious, maybe thinking of buying one of the chirpy young cubs, fluffily tumbling over each other in their runs.
If you stay at night — there is really no room — as I have done once or twice, Chamako will probably come in, with or without a cub or two being gently introduced to human society, of which they can be immensely afraid. If he takes to you, and usually his soul tells him he simply has to, he will put his head on your foot. In a moment that great weight will be on your lap. Then a paw. Then two paws and the head is softly nuzzling your neck. Before you know it he is cuddling you from top to bottom and you are totally seduced by it all, whether or not you think you are allergic to animals. Chamako is man’s greatest charmer.
Michael was born in New Zealand as I was, but lived his early adult years in New York. He cannot stand big cities. In his background there is serious training in architecture, music, economics, anthropology, flying. He moved out, to Arizona, where he held a post until Prescott College collapsed under financial strain. By that time he had established himself in open lands, had begun to love wolves, and began a decade or two long search for the perfect place. Now he has found a canyon some miles from El Rito totally surrounded by national forest, in the sierra above Espa¤ola, and is slowly turning it into a retreat for his animals, and humans who love that kind of nature.
The wolves are demanding of time and attention, and the drive from Santa Fe, though easy, itself takes time. But we thought we might spend a few moments talking, exploring Santa Fe food, chatting up the wolves.
The Arctic Express, roaring down from Alaska and Canada and the North Pole, had other ideas. It dumped heavy snow on the whole region, with record breaking low temperatures. When the clouds lifted the sun was gorgeously rich — I could even sunbathe in my room — but the roads were icy or slushy or both and the drivers unprepared. We did visit alright, but in a reduced way. And once I fell asleep at the wheel and woke to find myself bumping over sage brush…… There were days when it was not even wise to go into town.
But I did find food, and what a joy and challenge that was. On previous occasions I had checked mostly at the well-reported tourist places, some of which are of pleasantly high standard, often using New Mexican ideas in their modern menus, some of which I shall mention. But this time I wanted to go for the Spanish roots, and try and distinguish northern New Mexican, Santa Fean, from the “national”. In particular I wanted to educate myself about the real food, as distinct from the fast-food influence that pervades “Mexican” outlets in North America, with its mushy conglomeration of everything into one great slush. Maybe that’s what I would find. It was and it wasn’t.
Modern Santa Fe has several layers of population, which live in somewhat suspicious harmony with a measure of repressed hostility. There are the Indians of the pueblos, who will welcome you into their villages as a tourist, even to observe ceremony, provided you pay the shot and observe strict rules. They are in town, portraying themselves as indigenous artisans, sitting on the pavement of the plaza to sell their colourful carefully executed wares. Some of the gifted among them sell their creations to art galleries under their own names, as do any good artists world wide, and are known locally and nationally for their outstanding work.
It was Indians, here and in Mexico, who provided the baseline for the kind of cooking I was to find, even though much of their food nowadays is known by the introduced Spanish names. The starting point was corn, corn of a score of colours, eaten directly, turned into flour, then into tortillas, wrapped around fillings, incorporated into poultry and venison stews, made into drinks. There were tomatoes and chiles, pumpkin, the flesh of the prickly pear (soft and delicate, as one writer has put it, in taste a cross between bean and okra), several beans, pińon nuts, potatoes, riverine and lake fish, herbs like sage. Did they use the wild epazote? The books don’t say so, which seems strange. But then nor do North American gringos.
Because of the climate, what they did not have were things like avocados and papayas, coffee and chocolate, oranges. Later immigrants had the networks and techniques to import such things, but they are not indigenous to northern New Mexico styles, and much of the local cooking mostly ignores them.
Before coming to New Mexico the Spanish colonists had overcome their snobbism to the extent that they learned that this food was good food, and necessary to their survival. The Mexicans adopted it as their own, with a much richer variety of available ingredients, which had to be filtered out in the north. But everything in the pueblo repertoire became New Mexican.
In addition, of course, there was the introduction of new elements – cilantro, saffron (both the expensive imported stuff and a local plant of a different family) and other spices, pork and beef, the former becoming the readily available staple, with chicken, wheat flour in parallel to corn flour, rice. The ingredients are ready, the mix is about to begin.
(But first, an aside. The third wave of immigration was of course anglo-American, dominant now, though by no means unchallenged, in business and administration, in tourism, and in the national style restaurants, from old established family to newcomer. And the final group, discounting USAer immigrants of other cultures, is the present wave of Mexican, socially, culturally and economically marginal, snubbed by the older Mexican families whose roots and lands, after all, have centuries of precedence. Each group makes its mark on food, but I do not explore those results systematically.)
The historical threads, the variability of that thing loosely called “Mexican” cooking, and individual ideas, inevitably bring about considerable indetermination when it comes to food terms and words. Posole means something different in an Indian pueblo, in a New Mexican cafe, or a food outlet in the Yucatan. I will try to sort out what I can, and stick to the usage as I found it, where I found it, with whatever inconsistencies may emerge. They will be the inconsistencies of life, and perhaps reflect the rich dynamic of the world.
To find out, I asked questions, of Michael and of some people in the food business. Where is the best northern New Mexican food? In almost every instance the answers indicated small casual cafes. Sometimes there was the inevitable overlap with Mexican Mexican, U.S. style, or with nationally recognized “Southwestern” and sometimes with the good innovative cooking that uses the traditional as a base. I include these as comparative commentary.
The cooking of Santa Fe is extremely fortunate in that it is methodically and accurately described, in recipe form, in one of the great books of the cooking repertoire, Huntley Dent’s The Feast of Santa Fe, which I have used extensively to check my data and observations. My purpose, though, is different from his: it is to describe the food as you, a stranger, will find it if you look.
Another feature that was welcome, I must say, is that because the food is in casual places and outside the tourist down-town area, it is often, indeed usually, inexpensive. Seldom did I pay as much as ten dollars for a very satisfying meal with beer.
The three characteristic ingredients, which demand a lot of attention, are tortillas, corn and chile.
In Spain, the tortilla is an omelet. History does not tell us how this changed in the Americas. Here it is a corn or wheat flatbread, a variant of the almost universal phenomenon that is naan in India, pita in the Middle East, pizza in Italy (though that is more crusty), injera in Ethiopia (though that is softer). The original tortilla, as developed independently of all that by American Indians, was of corn, and it is not found in Indian areas where corn was not grown.
Tortillas come unleavened and leavened, and nowadays of various styles of wheat as well as corn. In supermarkets the cases are full of both corn and wheat products. Yeast and baking powder can be used for leavening, but traditionally a “pumice-like substance” called texquite (which you can buy) was the stuff to use. I doubt if I have ever tasted tortillas made that way.
In New Mexico there is a bit of difficulty in deciding what to call what happens with them, because of the mixed up influence from other brands of Mexican cooking. But on the whole one can say that enchiladas here are rolled tortillas, tacos are deep fried and stuffed and can come crisp (as in supermarkets) or soft, burritos are rolled and stuffed with sauce on top. Fried tortillas made from flour are much tougher than those made with corn, often far too tough for my taste.
Tostados are hot fried crisp tortillas cut in quarters, the basis of the modern nachos (In Mexico they are sold whole, with a deliciously nutty taste result). Nachos are triangular nibbles nowadays served with a salsa in Western-oriented restaurants as a kind of earnest of genuine Mexican, but not normally provided in those restaurants that are in fact genuine, except perhaps for a couple popped into a sauce or into refried beans to serve as garnish and scrapers. In supermarkets nachos compete all over North America with potato and other dip chips.
Empanadas are filled pies, not to be confused with the adjective empanizado = breaded, as with breaded fish, though of the same derivation.
Then we have to watch for quesadillas (small corn tortillas filled with anything, then fried), sopapillas, chalupas, and Mexican chimichangas, as we will when we proceed.
The preferred medium for frying in this part of the world is lard rather than oil (which distinguishes it from much of Mexican), although most restaurants use oil.
Corn is only one of the many staples of the world that Central America has contributed. It comes in an enormous range of styles which are really only just being discovered in Western cuisines, and could take off to become the newest fad in yuppy culture. The variant that is now making the grade throughout North America, but which you don’t see in Mexico itself, and not much of in traditional New Mexican cooking, is the blue pueblo variety, available universally as blue nachos (to me it tastes just the same, the appeal being purely cosmetic.) If it makes money for the pueblos, fine, but I don’t think they’re getting much of that.
Spanish dictionaries will tell you that masa means a lump or a mass. That is not its connotation in Hispanic America. Masa, or masa de mais, is your basic humid cornmeal reserve used as a mix in a thousand recipes.
If you steam green corn and dry it on the cob, then shell it, you get the famed southern hominy, here called chicos, providing a base for a whole range of dishes confusingly all called posole. Some are drinks, some are gruel, some are stews. Dent points out that strictly speaking that nixtamal is the base of whole-kernal corn, often used in stews, by inference treated with lime. If not treated with lime, says Dent, they are called chicos.
I had a cup of the first kind of posole, half way between a drink and gruel at La Choza in Santa Fe, and a bowl of the stew kind at Josie’s Casa de Comida. At Josie’s the chicos were mixed with white beans and stewed pork. If the menu does not describe what kind of posole is intended, it is wise to ask.
Now chiles are a different story indeed. In my Philistine Canadian way I knew that chiles come in differing degrees of heat, that chiles asados, toasted, which you can make yourself or buy prepared, have a special role in cooking, that dried chiles come powdered and chipped, and that there were different names for chiles. Thai cooks told me that the chiles used in Thailand, of Central American botanical origin, had different qualities because of the way they were grown. I knew that Hungarian and Spanish pimiento differed in taste from each other, though from the same mildish plant. And I knew that sweet or bell peppers were from the same kind of plant. Indeed in the summer I grew some of these things in a northern Vancouver garden.
What I did not do in Santa Fe was to ask about cultivation and the effects of climate. The range of chiles available directly to the northern New Mexican cook, especially off the land, is infinitesimal by comparison with the range available in Mexico itself.
I do not know for sure what varieties can be successfully grown. The huge wonderful red and red-brown bunches of dried chiles, the ristras, hanging beside every traditional house, and many other buildings, even as Christmas decoration, so characteristic of the New Mexican scene, are but the most common variety.
And the situation has been made more complex by the emergence of highly localized varieties grown in particular places with particular soils, rather like the way varietal grapes differ. And of course by international trade, since now a number of chiles not locally grown are readily available to cooks from supermarkets through importation from other parts of the southwest and from Mexico.
Furthermore, what is important about chiles, to an experienced cook, is the taste, the flavour, not just the size and shape and hotness. This I discovered more seriously in Mexico. It is difficult to convey in writing, so does not often appear in text-book descriptions, yet it is so important that cooks who cannot get the right variety, grown in the right place, can be driven to despair — not because of the “heat”, which can easily be matched up, but because of the taste blends they aim at.
Just as starters, here is a blend of two lists of chiles reported by the owners of the Pink Adobe Cafe and the Coyote Cafe. I must stress that neither of these are in the class of traditional restaurants, both being highly up-scale and innovative, so that many of these chiles will definitely not be used in the purist northern New Mexico cuisine. Dent also has his list of chiles, and a long extremely informative account of ways of dealing with them in the kitchen. It is interesting to note that both he and other non-Mexican writers place great emphasis on such matters as handling with gloves, which no Mexican-in-Mexico bothers with. But there is very useful information on drying, roasting, skins and seeds. If you explore cook books about Mexico, you will find that some of the names can be used slightly differently.
Anaheim ex California. long, one pointed end, mild.
Ancho, mulato, pasillo from Mexico,. oblong, wide, dark green, mild with distinctive flavour.
Cascabel, round, red, mild.
Cayenne, bright red thin pointed very hot 4-6″ long.
Cubanelle, light green yellow, mild, sweet.
Espańola, milder, from the local Espańola valley, looks like Hatch, to which it is related.
Fresno. 2″ red chile, tapers, 1″ wide, very hot, similar to red jalapeńo but broader in shoulder.
Guero, generic term for yellow chiles, usually for banana or wax chiles of Santa Fe Grande, which are mildly hot, slightly sweet.
Habeńero, green, yellow or orange shaped like small bell pepper 2×2″ 15 – 20 times stronger than serrano, caustic. The queen of chiles for flavour, related to the Scotch Bonnet of the Caribbean.
Hatch, hottest native from town of Hatch, S. New Mex., thick, 5 – 7 “, green to red.
Jalapeńo, very hot, small, dark green or yellow. When dried and smoked called chipotles.
New Mexico Green 4 – 6″ x 2″ medium to very hot.
New Mexico Red ripened version of green.
Pepperoncini, pale green to yellow, thin, pointed, curved, 2×1″ mild.
Pequin, usually home grown, small bush, extremely hot.
Pimento Red, heart shaped 4×3-4″ sweet, slightly hot, used in Spain and Hungary for paprika.
Poblano, green form of ancho 4-5×3-4 medium to hot usually cooked or roasted.
Serrano bright green or red, cylindrical with round or pointed end, hottest common chile in North America. Good for North American salsas.
Thai bright red or dark green, long, thin, pointed, 4×3/4″. one Thai = three serrano.
All this having been said, in New Mexico as distinct from Mexico itself, it is only the special restaurants and refined cooks who seek out the rarer varieties. Many of the popular, as distinct from the gourmet, cook books simply refer to “green” or “red” chiles, mostly meaning by that colours and degrees of power that depend on the stage of ripening. Where a restaurant specifies the kind of chile that they use, I will mention it; otherwise it is up to the discretion of the cook, and his or her sense of taste. This is not the case in Mexico itself, where, as we shall see, the flavour of the chile creates much more discrimination. I imagine that the New Mexico situation is the result of the limited range grown locally over the centuries, with importation from the south being expensive and not frequent until recently.
Perhaps I should have included beans among the staples, especially since the version known as refritos or refried beans is such an important part of the garnish to many dishes, and others like garbanzo and pinto and chick peas figure in some forms of posole and stews.
Refried beans is a bit of a misnomer. There are several ways of preparing them, usually aiming at claro or light forms, or nero or dark forms. The methods of preparation remind me so much of the ways of doing potatoes in Alsace, except in this case refritos are always mashed to a smooth purée. The similarity is that you change the taste of the bean minimally by using pork lard to fry the beans as you purée them, and you may add bacon or ham and\or onions to give additional oomph, always however pulverized in such a way that the additions cannot be seen. Some beans will be soaked or have water added to begin with. You can’t do this with any old beans but must choose your type.
I assume the idea of refrito came about because after this preparation, and maybe storage of the product, you warm them up in a frying pan to serve them, in other words refry them. In other words, refried beans are not twice fried, but prepared in order to be fried the next time they are cooked.
In the small restaurants I checked out and in the localized Indian and New Mexican cookbooks, there are some notable omissions in the repertoire of the cuisine. Duck and goose one might expect to be limited by the dry environment. But venison, game birds, rabbit, mutton and turkey, which are locally available, though they must appear in home cooking, do not figure in the non-gourmet restaurants or in the simple recipe books, except for Indian ones. (Dent has some turkey and lamb recipes.) Nor does epazote, a herb that grows wild in North America and is used in Mexico, or the more difficult achiote, although it is available in commercial sauces. Coriander does not figure much in home cooking, and there is next to no reference to mint, though both must surely be used (Dent has minimal reference to cilantro, and does include mint in a couple of recipes). But cinnamon and cumin figure, obviously imported. I was in fact struck by the relative lack of reference to specific herbs, both in restaurant menus and in the simpler cookbooks.
To me, much cooking in the United States reflects the powerful force in that country toward standardization through the application of a cultural lowest common denominator. There is a tendency in the culture for the majority to push aside anything that is different or makes a strong ethnic statement. Hence “Mexican” cooking, amongst many others, has arrived at a style that in being totally inoffensive to the majority, which still treats it with suspicion, lacks authenticity and difference. Not so in New Mexico, unless you go out of your way to look for that sort of thing.
I will never forget my first introduction to authentic New Mexican food. I had left Washington and Oregon, where there is a new wave of interest in local produce and innovative cooking, to drive through a gastronomic wasteland of such states as Utah and Colorado, where, except for beef, beef, beef, cooking is U.S. bland at its worst. You cannot even find a place that purports to represent Mormon food styles.
Until I crossed the border into New Mexico. In the very first cafe in the very first village of Raton I ordered real fajitas, taken for granted on the ordinary menu for ordinary people. Strips of grilled loin on a hot hot hot dish, with the standard, but still real, garnish of salsa, guacamole, refried beans, tomato. I knew I was in a different country, where ordinary working people had different ideas of what food was all about.
The United States is so big and lively, with such an innovative spirit, that it would be surprising if the bland tradition completely dominated, and of course it doesn’t. In New Mexico the Spanish cultural base is determinedly conservative, and has resisted Anglo cultural domination for over a century of political domination. This is not your wave of recent Hispanic immigrants.
And elsewhere in the country there is a vocal minority that is always on the search for the new, and for the entrepreneurial opportunities the new presents, for fads and for waves of fashion. So now, with bases in Texas and New Mexico, there is the cult of the chile, and for other desert products such as nopales, the leaves of a cactus. There is a monthly magazine devoted to nothing but chile, world-wide, what it is and how it is used. It is full of glossy advertisements for chile products, from jams to salsas and powders. And there are chile boutiques devoted to its cult. Christmas lights in the form of ristras, books of recipes, napkins and tablecloths, canned and bottled products. The red elongated chile has become a vivid fertility symbol. Spanish New Mexicans stand aside from all this, and just get on with using it, as they have for centuries, in their food, as a matter of natural habit.
There is a cafe in the little village of El Rito called El Farolito. If you are not familiar with this part of the world, you will pass it by, since it is located in a simple house, not terribly well repaired, like many another. But if you are hungry, you may stop, since there is only one other cafe in the village, and the village is many miles from other resources. And if you do, you will be in for a treat.
El Farolito (there is a different place of the same name, a bed and breakfast, in Santa Fe itself) is named after one of the ceremonial observances that even the new Santa Feans hold on to as a mark of their special individuality. At Christmas they deck out their homes and streets with festive candles set in sand, sheltered with paper bags, a sight reminiscent of the liberation day candles that light the windows of Amsterdam once a year. El Farolito (does the word have some eymological link with faro = lighthouse?) is neat and tidy, with only half a dozen tables, and a pay phone that brings in friendly people who greet each other and stop for a chat.
It was here I had red stuffed sopapilla (Dent calls them sopaipillas). Sopapillas are tortillas made of flour mixed with lard and a leavening agent, deep fried until golden brown, used either for savoury fillings, or, more frequently in restaurants, as dessert or sweet side dishes. They are not generally known in Mexico – a New Mexico invention. The sopapillas of El Farolito were fried in a heat that did not puff them up, rolled and stuffed generously with ground meat and herbs, placed on a deliciously smooth hot red pepper coulis, accompanied by pinto beans.
In many restaurants you get very deep fried sopapillas which are served on the side instead of tortillas or bread. The extreme heat of the oil – 4000 – and a small hole made in the mix to let the air out puffs them up like huge pop corns. Sometimes egg is included in the mix. I do not know whether there is any technical difference between these and what is known as Indian fry bread. You serve them with sweet sweet local honey, without which a New Mexican meal would hardly be one, or with a sugar and cinnamon mix.
Guadelupe is a perimeter street near the old railway station, yet fortunately well within the newer strip perimeters so that, despite development, it has retained much of its historical character. There you will find old buildings turned into malls, and many little houses that are now bookstores, specialty food places, office copying enterprises, boutiques, all that jazz. It abuts simple residential areas, in which there are restaurants and other attractive places.
La Choza is one of these, across the railway tracks from the Guadelupe traffic, but well patronized for all that. You get the same plates at lunch and dinner with of course different prices. There are, as is typical, several large rooms, a roaring fireplace in winter, and your typical Hispanic semi-artistic decoration. The waitresses were energetic and fast serving, including a tall blonde southern amazon in baton twirling boots and a luscious smile.
Not all places in Santa Fe do the North American trick of serving nacho chips and salsa, but they do here. What is also usual is to provide wedges of lime with your beer, a garnish I enjoy with the lighter ales, of which Santa Fe makes a reasonable brew, more interesting than the mass produced U.S. liquid. (Incidentally, France has now taken up the idea with its own panache‚ beers, bottled with lime or peach flavours added, refreshing on a hot day.)
Here I sampled chile verde con papas, which came as pork and potato soup with strong green chiles, a salad served first, and a tough flour tortilla with butter. I found most side tortillas chewy to eat, and was amused by the cafe idea of providing them with butter, a half way house to a dinner roll — sometimes with jam too, at breakfast. You will note that the type of green chile was not specified, taken for granted, and probably New Mexican.
There was more careful cooking, with a little more innovation, yet retention of old values at the Maria Ysabel Restaurante, a pleasant adobe building not far away, with courtyard, small and modest in presentation.
As usual, I was there for lunch, sampling the carnitas, strips of beef marinated in wine. They were served mixed with sautéed mushrooms and onions, delicately. I liked the way the refritos, refried beans, were placed on the side of the plate so that you could either mush in the North American manner, or, better still, taste them in and out of the beef, Mexican style. The green chile salsa was in a side cup.
Among the more interesting items I did not have a chance to try were nacho pie with refritos, red chile, chicharrones (deep fried pieces of pork skin, often eaten as chip-like snacks), cheese and lettuce; bistec a la Santa Fe, a rib eye steak smothered with green chile, cheese and mushrooms; shrimp enchiladas with white mushroom sauce.
This was, however, one of the few places I tried a local desert, warm capirotad†. It reminded me of the old English bread pudding we used to get as boys – bread lumps soaked in a honey sauce with raisins and cheese (in New Zealand cheese was not included!).
Tomasita’s, in the same district, has more the air of a Western beer parlour that forgot its mission and decided to serve food, busy simple rooms and tables, but with line-ups by mid-day. (The best time to be sure of a lunch table in all these restaurants, if you haven’t reserved — and many places don’t take lunch reservations — is not later than 11.15.) Here you can get meat and bean stuffed sopapillas, tamales with green chile, rice and refried beans, and tortilla burgers, which, since they are not sandwiches, would probably be called super-tacos in Mexico.
I tried the chalapas, Santa Fe style. These are large broad-rimmed cup-shaped crisp tortillas, in this case topped with layers of chicken (at the bottom), cheese and lettuce, some nearly invisible guacamole, an overpowering mixture of red chile salsa and sour cream on top, overpowering in the sense that it smothered the rest most uncharacteristically. When I say sour cream, I mean a soured cream used in New Mexican cooking that is a bit like cręme fraiche. The whole was accompanied on the side by a surprisingly leathery sopapilla that we complained about with a sweetened sour cream.
We’re in the United States of A., with its 50’s nostalgia, so what would be more natural than a diner, and diner it is at Zia’s, though they can’t stop there, and have a large restaurant style room and a summer terrace as well. But it has your bar stools, booths, and floor tables and a lively young staff, entirely non-Mexican (though I did not see the kitchen).
As people turned up for Sunday lunch I found myself a table away from a threesome including a large lady with a loud voice, a tall dark handsome man dressed with the kind of jewelry that announced “I am an artist” and a softly chic woman whose style bespoke aesthetics. As so often in Santa Fe, it seems, the artistic community has to talk business — this was a learnedly practical discussion of how to make sure your creations received appropriate show attention in a commercial gallery….. not just hung around an obscure corner.
Searching from something New Mexican in its diner-oriented menu I hit upon meat loaf with pine nuts and green chile. It was juicily moist, with specks of green that were presumably mild chile, but it wasn’t easy to taste the pine nuts or the chile. It was there, though, since I had chile indigestion after. The modern diner atmosphere was reinforced by undercooked carrot and broccoli and diner style mashed potato and gravy.
I must have been tired of keeping my weight under control that day, and totally seduced by the notion of blackberry banana crumble pie. Though I couldn’t taste a hint of the banana that had enticed me, it was still a pie of the kind Americans can do so well when they make up their minds to it — marvellous blackberries and wonderfully thick crunchy crust. Not Mexican, but still….
In the Mexican part of the menu you can find green chile and cheese pie, black bean flautas, tostadas, West Coast Snapper Vera Cruz. And there are the diner-yuppy favourites, establishing modern cooking credentials, such as corn and asiago cheese pie, baked brie in phyllo, humus and pita. You get what I call the international conglomerate message….
By way of contrast to New Mexican, Michael took me to a Mexican cafe in a shopping mall, the Old Mexico Grill, neatly set out in a simple tiled manner. Here there was more emphasis on fish. I had Mexican style chimichanga de pollo, a tortilla with chicken, bell pepper, onion with beans, Mexican rice and garnish. Michael was pleased with excellent looking fajitas, which come in chicken, grilled beef, vegetarian, shrimp formats. There is the inescapable huachinango (snapper) en la salsa di dia, with beans, Mexican rice, but it wasn’t available our day. Or camarońes en salsa verde, sautéed small shrimp smothered in salsa verde, mild green chile and tomatillo sauce, with cheese, black bean and rice, the beans served in a side bowl. Definitely of more care and interest than many other U.S. Mexican outlets.
In the centre of the town, which is after all only a few blocks’ walk from the Guadelupe area, there are a number of places that consist mostly of converted houses, some ancient, some colonial. They are extremely popular and some are open only for lunch. Mostly they consist of small rooms interlinked, and sometimes there is a rear entrance as well as a front one, and you are never quite sure where the lineup is or who is in charge of finding a place for you.
One of these is The Den. The guests I found there are typical of the “in” restaurants of the downtown area — young people getting married talking to parents from Illinois, women in Confederate style chic hats, shoppers, feminists, grey-haired, grey-bearded anxious-eyed men who are so busy with their mothers within that they have not yet found their fathers. The Den is in an old colonial building inside a courtyard near the Plaza. Hand painted beams, fretwork over the windows, a generous supply of paintings. No credit cards.
The tacos are not folded as in El Paso brand supermarket supplies, but open as they should mostly be. The ones I sampled had a mixture of beef, chile, onion, tomato and cheese on a layer of hot lettuce, with two blue corn tortillas on top, accompanied by pinto beans and a small serving of posole without the stew part. On the side French garlic bread. It had clearly been designed to fit contemporary healthy food tastes, hamburger style.
Another such lunching hole is Josie’s Casa di Comida, also near the Plaza. It has an extensive menu with lots of sandwiches and famous pies, and emphasizes its fashionably casual style by a crudely written nearly unreadable board which lists extensive specials of the day, as well as New Mexican specialties. It has no licence and doesn’t take credit cards.
I had thick juicy well chillied tomato salsa and excellently crunchy corn chips. Then chicken enchilladas, chicken slivers on blue tortillas overwhelmed with red bean cheese in an uncharacteristic Americanized thick mush, with rice and more refried beans on the side but somehow included in the mush, garnished with lettuce. Accompanied by a tough floury tortilla with butter. When you get such mushy servings, especially which cheese, the cheese strings from plate to mouth and, like spaghetti, needs something to break the flow, or you’ll be all day sucking it in. Pieces of tortilla are excellent for this.
The deep pear pie with ice cream — now that might have been worth it, good American cooking, not pretend Mexican.
One place downtown I like for its frank kind of made-over counter-culture atmosphere with yuppy prices is Cafe Pasqual’s a highly popular corner-store sort of cafe with mammoth breakfasts lunches and dinners. Dead centre there is a large oval table for singles. The food is not terribly spicy, but shows variety, ingenuity and respect for ingredients in its preparation.
This time I had the quesadilla, large crisp tacos of good quality, with a weak side salsa, jack cheese, avocado, scrambled eggs and minimal chorizo (last two an extra charge). In the United States, American jack cheese, vividly yellow, but mild, tends to be used where in Mexico there would be the thinner, runnier white cręme fraiche kind. It was tasty and easy to eat with the fingers. I could also have had, for example, local trout grilled in cornmeal with chile and toasted pińon nuts.
You may have noticed quite a transition taking place as we go through the restaurants, from those which try to stick close to traditional New Mexican styles, through those which muddle along offering some token dishes within an essentially casual North American menu, to those which use New Mexican, Mexican, and Southwest styles generally as a basis of innovation.
It would be possible, indeed delightful, to take a different tack from the one I did in the short time available to me, and look for the most innovative styles of cooking, building upon Mexican ideas more generally. There is plenty of that in Santa Fe, some of it highly successful; indeed it is a trademark of the upper-scale chefs and restaurants. Within U.S. innovative cooking, the chefs of Santa Fe are undoubtedly deserving of their national reputation, and sufficiently proud of their accomplishments to publicize what they can do in an unusually wide range of recipe and menu books.
Here, though, you have to be very careful, because there is a characteristic among such chefs in the North America sometimes to go wild, to combine ingredients in ways that sound exciting and beautiful, but which simply don’t work once the product is inside your mouth. In the attempt to create the unusual, there can be a clash not only of cultures but of taste-buds.
The most famous of all Santa Fe restaurateurs is Mark Miller of the Coyote Cafe, a man I am intrigued to think of as a colleague, but whom I have never met in my three visits — partly because I didn’t know I could claim him as a colleague until late in my last trip. He should be writing this book instead of me — perhaps he will write his gastronomic autobiography one day, since he is young and has many productive years ahead. He has the kind of personal history of which I approve — as if my approval matters.
Mark Miller is a product of the Berkeley ‘sixties, with an advanced degree in cultural anthropology, turned to the advantage of the world to cooking. Apprenticed in California restaurants of the highest calibre, he struck out on his own, and eventually settled down in New Mexico, determined to build a cuisine in the new style based on a thorough knowledge of ingredients and their uses in their cultures of origin. He has widely travelled in Asia and Latin America and has studied the foods with an anthropologist’s eye.
His recent lavish and accurately informed book Coyote Cafe: Foods from the Great Southwest, (Berkeley, Ten Speed Press, 1989) is I believe destined to be the bible of southwestern cooking. The section introductions are full of lore and information, the recipes outstanding for their innovative styles, respect for traditions, and care for the selection of ingredients, all presented with the passion and verve characteristics of classical chefs.
Yet, despite Craig Claiborne’s accolades (“perhaps the greatest Southwest cooking in the whole region”) and the poetry of the recipes, in the three meals I have had there I have been disappointed. The first time I was presented with one of the toughest most uninteresting dishes of grilled venison that has ever let me down. At others I found the combinations affronting the tastebuds with their clashes.
Mind you, even then the cafe is an experience. The tables are set out split level, full of fashionable Santa Fe, crowded and alive. And it is fun just to be at the grill bar, watching the grill chefs at their task. When I did that the dining room chief kept a minute and detailed check on the passage of food from order to cook to table. I was sitting almost next to where he stationed himself with his copies of the order slips. Depending on the appetizers, he checked the timing of the grill entrées as if he had a stop-watch in his head. “Fire 10” would come his call, “Fire 25” and so on and on, the cooks responding, getting the product to the table with industrialized split second timing.
That alone was not enough. As each plate was complete it came to him. His nose, his fingers, his eye, checked it all out. A little pushing here, a little poking there, and it was ready for service. But not a plate escaped his attention, for the whole, packed dining room.
Bearing in mind my cautions, some of the poetry from the book needs quoting. Hear this.
“Poblano pesto, with poblano chiles, lime, sweet pepper, garlic, pine nuts, used with oysters; chile mignonette, with shallots, cilantro, chopped assorted chiles, wine, vinegar; tamarind chipotle sauce; green chile and oyster chowder; squash blossoms, stuffed with cheese, sour cream, marjoram, eggs, cumin, coriander, chile powder, cinnamon mixture then deep fried in peanut oil; goat cheese and mint tamale; currant and cinnamon tamale; curried oysters with banana salsa; scallop hash, with chile; tuna tartare with cilantro mayonnaise and avocado crema; pan-fried quail in red chile cider sauce; braised duck with posole; pheasant with chorizo and blue corn bread stuffing; smoked rabbit enchiladas; rack of lamb with rosemary-serrano a‹oli; pork tacos with wild mushrooms and tamarind chipotle sauce; pecan and wild boar bacon waffles with bourbon syrup.”
I don’t guarantee that these will be on the menu of the Coyote Cafe the night you call. And it might be an idea to find the book to see how it is supposed to be done, experiment yourself, and get the tastes right.
Mark Miller is not the only one to experiment. You might find two other books, Dishes from Santa Fe Recipes, (Joan and Carl Stromquist, Santa Fe, Tierra Publications, 1989), or Rosalea Murphy’s, The Pink Adobe Cookbook, (New York, Dell Publishing, 1988). The Pink Adobe is one of the earliest up-scale innovative restaurants in the town. I won’t go through the whole list. But you might be attracted by, for example, brie with green chile soup; rolled stuffed breast of veal New Mexican (with pińon nuts, coriander, jalapeńo jelly, roasted green chiles, and chorizo); sautéed shrimp in chile coconut milk sauce; Southwestern stuffed artichokes — stuffed with mayonnaise, sour cream, chile, artichoke hearts, Parmesan, Worcestershire sauce, tabasco; swordfish borracho with salsa fresca — in herbs, lemon, lime, dried chile, marinated in tequila, with salsa. If some of it seems a bit overdone, maybe you are right.
And, if you wanted to find this kind of cooking, more simply attacked, and with never a falter when it comes to execution, you used to be able to visit the Santa Fe Cafe, tucked away in an unfashionable address in Vancouver, where a chef of New Zealand-Chinese origin, once Mark Miller’s apprentice, executed similar ideas with impeccable taste until about 1996.
Such is the nature of the world’s merry-go-round.