Indian and Hispanic farmers who migrated into north-central New Mexico long ago obtained their nutrition from foods prepared in many special and unique ways.
Indian and Hispanic farmers who migrated into north-central New Mexico long ago obtained their nutrition from foods prepared in many special and unique ways. They had their own set of practices, unusual and sometimes endemic foods and elaborate social rituals to accompany food preparation and consumption.
Spanish settlers in New Mexico brought sheep, goats, cattle and other Old World food sources into the Río Grande Valley, while the Native Americans here had centuries earlier learned how to cultivate a variety of foods originally from central Mexico, such as maize (corn) beans, and calabasa (squash). By 1601 wheat (trigo), peas (alverjón), radishes (rabanitos), garbanzo beans and other “Castilian vegetables” were reported to being doing well at San Gabriel, the first Spanish settlement of New Mexico. From the Mexican Indians came tomatoes and chile, from the Middle East came the apricot (albarcoque) and plums (ciruela), while from the tropical Old World came melons.
People were more communal in the past, and this is reflected the matanza — the killing and cooking of a pig. I recall in my youth how the marrana (hog) waited patiently in its sty before my uncle carefully shot it in the forehead. My grandmother showed him how to stab it inside the front leg to let its blood drain. At many matanzas, the anus was bunged with a corncob and boiling water was poured over the carcass to make it easier to separate the skin from the body. A large curved knife was then used to peel the skin off, and pieces of skin were fried to make cueritos. These could be added to beans to improve their flavor. Parts such as the belly with rind were fried into crunchy, meaty chicharrones. Sausages called morcillas were made using the animal’s blood, with intestines serving as the stuffing tubes.
Bison, panza y costillas
Liver, brains and hearts were considered delicacies by many, as were other body parts, such as cow tongue. Roasted calf, goat or sheep heads yielded shredded meat and could be further processed to make a head cheese, referred to as queso. Bowls of menudo (tripe) and panza (stomach) with red chile were dished out.
Bison hunts by the Hispano people took place after the fall harvest in caravan trips to the southeastern plains. Young men lanced bison, and crews of carniceros (butchers) followed, hanging slices on the frames of carretas (wooden carts) to make carne seca (jerked meat), which could be salted and peppered with chile to make cecina enchilada. The tongue (lengua) was peeled of its skin and soaked in brine for shipment.
Meat stored moist for long-term use was kept in winter cold rooms. My mother never recalled having special cuts as one gets today from a butcher. The traditional way was merely to cut a piece off and dice it to add to a stew or beans. Special treats included mutton ribs (costillas) and chicken (carne de gallina). The latter was valued for eggs. Its meat was reserved for special occasions, such as a feast day.
Drying food was an important practice. Chiles were tied in plump clusters called ristras. Bundles of cleaned garlic (ajo) were hung and dried to prevent mold. Tube squash was cut into rueditas (little wheels); pumpkin was cut into strips (tasajos). Apricots and plums were pitted, laid out and flipped often. These were rehydrated and baked into thin rectangular pies (pasteles). To preserve corn’s sweetness, ears were harvested green and piled into a bell-shaped horno moruno, fired beforehand. The doors were sealed, and overnight the slow-roasted corn cooked, creating chicos, a favorite eaten with beans throughout the winter.
Compared with Mexico, New Mexico has only a few types of peppers, with the most favored type being chile largo. Peppers were dried, pitted (despipitado), oven roasted, crushed into flakes (producing chile caribe) or ground into a powder (chile en polvo). Thickened with roux (guisado), chile became salsa de chile colorado, a red sauce that can be its own dish when served with beef. Green chile was roasted, peeled and dried to a shrivel for later use (chile verde seco).
Fresh summer herbs that could have come with the Spanish include verdolagas, or purslane, which grows wild. This prostrate plant was boiled like spinach and combined with domestic Spanish onions and chile Caribe. Other wild spinach-like plants were quelites and quelite geus (lamb’s-quarter and wild amaranth). Soups were enhanced with dried oregano de la sierra (mountain oregano), poleo (brook mint) or yerba buena (spearmint), which were all found wild but also deliberately planted by locals.
Soups and entrées
Soups were called caldos. The popular caldo de chile verde (green chili stew) is one of the few traditional dishes appearing today on many restaurant menus. It typically featured potatoes, onions and cubed beef. During the winter and spring, stored dried foods such as alverjón maduro (ripe peas) were stewed. These, along with small scrambled-egg patties called torta de huevo, were served with caldo de chile colorado, particularly during Cuaresma, or Lent, when the Roman Catholic population widely abstained from non-fish meats.
The cuisine of the old Hispanic housewives featured no appetizer — just a main course and dessert. Lunch and supper included thickened beans (frijoles guisados) with a dried herb sprinkle called epazote, skillet-fried potatoes with beef (papas fritas con carne) or fried turnips, with a serving of green chile in summer or chile colorado in winter. Tortillas were used in lieu of spoons and were thick enough to split in two. Young green squash (calabacita) was fried with onions and sweet corn in summer.
Drinks included milk, imported coffee, teas and atole, a watery mix of roasted blue corn meal. Another common drink was cota. Wild harvested in June, it was served as te de cota or te indio (Navajo tea). Breakfast included eggs, milk and a thick gruel called chaquegüe, made of roasted, ground blue corn. Milk and grindings from a piloncillo, or a cone of imported brown sugar, were added.
More maize foodstuffs
To be digestible, ripe corn had to be boiled in water containing wood ash or lime. It was then allowed to cool and was dried for storage. Large dent corn prepared this way is posole (poh-SOH-leh; Mexican hominy), which was less common than a meal of beans because it was more labor-intensive to prepare. Posole was eaten with fresh cilantro in spring. Its light mineral flavor could be tempered by pork, beef cubes or stew bones and a side of caldo de chile colorado.
Tamales are like a traveling version of posole. Moist posole was ground on a stone called a metate, and the paste, called nixtamal (neesh-tah-mahl) or masa, was wrapped in a corn husk, which was tie closed and steamed in a canning pot. A variety of ingredients were available to stuff a tamal, but the typical filling was cooked carne deshebrada (pulled pork or shredded beef) simmered in chile colorado. This labor-intensive treat, along with many desserts, was often made by groups of women working together for festivals and special events.
Desserts included leaves of romaine lettuce with sugar sprinkled on top. Milk was made into cottage cheese (queso hechizo). This was eaten with molasses or preserves (preservas) from peaches (durasnos). Bread pudding was called sopa. In parts of Latin America, that word means soup, but in Northern New Mexico it means stale bread and milk, eggs, fat, sugar, syrup and dried fruit that have been baked to delicious sweetness. Sorghum was used to make molasses (melaza or miel). The juice was wrung out of sorghum cane and simmered in an elongated pan. To make a turnover called an empanadita, meat was ground on a molcajete. Then nuts and sweeteners were added, and the mixture was stuffed into a tortilla. Panocha, also known as atole dulce, was a treat made of sprouted wheat. It was made for winter celebrations, such as the nine-day Las Posadas.
Still with us
Compared to today’s cuisine, home-cooked traditional foods of the region were hardier and more closely tied to what was available geographically and seasonally. People performed much physical activity, required a nutrient-dense diet and had a personal attachment to where this food came from.
Some of these foods are still being prepared the old way in regional homes, especially during holidays and for Catholic observances like Lent, and a handful can even be found on various restaurant menus. But in our fast-paced and convenience-directed lives, few have the patience or the knowledge to prepare these ancient and hardy foods. Perhaps it’s time to eat as our ancestors once did. ¡Sabroseanse! (Lick your chops), y ¡come con gusto! (eat with joy)!
In order to read our site, please exit private/incognito mode or log in to continue.