Sometimes I really hate being the youngest child, the youngest grandchild. I feel like my kids got cheated out of a life with my parents. They did, no question. The best way I know how to share my parents is with the foods they would prepare. The foods that permeated our lives. Chile and beans, tortillas, biscochitos. These are the foods that mean so much to me, the meals my dad enjoyed. Dad always used his tortilla as his spoon. So these are the foods that I’ve passed on to my kids. While away at college, my youngest asked me where I bought my chile from in New Mexico. My usual place was closed due to Covid but I gave her the name of a different place. She ordered it for herself and then I made a video that we sent to her so that she would have directions. I thought, oh boy, my dad would have been proud. I sure was. When I post something to Facebook that I’ve made, my cousins all comment on it, making everyone feel that pull of our past, of our parents.
Chile and Beans
We have so many family friends and relatives that would show up at our house on Sundays and Dad would make chile and beans. He would have sweat dripping from his forehead but it was a damn good meal. After my mother died, Dad stayed at my house for a bit. He would put himself on a bar stool next to my stove and direct me how to make chile. Thank goodness he did that. Dad had made chile for so much of my life but I never paid attention to the process. Now, I’ve taught my children to make it so that our tradition will continue.
New Mexican food is so different and so much a fabric of our lives, even those of us raised in California. My ancestors brought their food with them and each of our families eat in the same way. My father used to drive to New Mexico from California, just for a weekend, just to eat dinner. He’d leave California on a Thursday, get to New Mexico, eat dinner on Friday, eat on Saturday and make sure he had one more meal on Sunday then drive home, making sure he had his fill until the next trip.
When my parents married, my mother sat with her mother in law and watched her make biscochitos because she knew how much my father loved them. Now, my father didn’t like the flavoring of Anise, so my mother removed it and replaced it with vanilla flavoring. My father just loved those cookies. I made them with my mom a lot, as I was the youngest kid left at home and she needed help kneading the dough. I was glad I was there to help. The shapes of the cookies are made by knife and they were the shapes that my grandmother had used.
Fresh Flour Tortillas
My mother made the best tortillas. She always used Bisquick and always kneaded them, taking off her rings and spent time getting them just right. She said that her friend from high school, Alice Garcia, had taught her how to make them. Once in a while, she would save part of the dough and turn them into bunuelos. You can deep fry the flour tortilla and she would serve it with honey and a sprinkling of cinnamon.
The first time I made a pot of beans, my kitchen filled with a smell so delightful that I said, “Oh my gosh, it smells like Uncle Fred’s house!” I was so happy. Being at my Aunt or Uncle’s houses were always great places. Our families would be gathered and the sharing food, people coming and going and the smell of pinto beans permeated the kitchen.
My Dad was not someone who ate vegetables. Meat and potatoes? Yes. Vegetables? Never. But, once in a while, my mother would make zucchini and fresh corn. I just thought this was something my parents made. I had no idea that it had a name and no idea that it was a dish made in New Mexico.
For me, this is all of my cousins. If it was holiday time, most of our family parties would include Posole (although my mother didn’t enjoy it and she was glad when my dad had it at other homes).
When I was young, I didn’t understand that when my Dad made lamb riblets, it was food that came from a cute sheep. The smell of the kitchen was always peculiar, and my dad would open the oven door and the riblets would sizzle, grease dripping down to the bottom of the pan. My father always told us that his sister Dorothy would pluck the eyeballs out of the lambs and that she would eat said eyeballs. Just the idea of it was terrible. We are not the only family with that same story. Apparently our ancestors heritage, those who raised and ate goats and sheep, runs deep. Every family seems to have a similar story.
Jackie Jacques-Horton -” When I was staying with Uncle Fred, a buck walked past the window and Uncle Fred said, “Jackie, get my gun.” He got the gun then shot the deer. It was snowing, there was blood in the snow. The buck had been frolicking in the snowbank. Uncle Fred took his truck down there, picked it up and then hung it in the garage. Uncle Fred and Aunt Alice had venison that night for dinner and the heart was in the sink. Aunt Alice told Uncle Fred, “If you want Jackie to do the dishes, you better get the heart out of the sink.”
Diane Archuleta – “I also remember coming home from school and looking into the oven to see what was cooking only to discover that my dad was roasting two goat heads. Now that was a scary sight with four big eyes staring back at you. My dad loved those things. To each his own and to me that was never a good experience. Will never forget those giant eye-balls looking straight into my eyes as I bent down to get a peek.”
I remember a trip back to Blanco and my Aunt Esther’s son Dwayne offered me a bite of his sandwich, almost daring me to try it as his sister Karen looked on. Well, after I took a bite and just after I started chewing they both started to laugh and told me it was a brain sandwich. Needless to say, I stopped dead in my chew! I don’t recall it tasting that bad, it was the thought of it all.”
Sheri Boyman – “Grandpa Pete also ate goat head! I was very young but never forget walking into the kitchen and seeing a goat head on the table.”
Sharon Williams – “When (Grandpa) Celestino lived with us for a short time, I would come home from school and see two goat heads on the counter that my mother had prepared for him. I didn’t eat dinner those nights”
Valerie Sandoval – “…my dad used to butcher lamb and goats in our back yard and our neighbors were thrilled. One time, I looked in the freezer and saw cow eyes and tongue and almost had a heart attack”
I have to admit that our family members raised in New Mexico probably ate very similar to our ancestors. Our families that came to California brought those food stories/preparations and spices with them, but we were raised with a bit more of a California flair.
In June of 2016, I took my family on a trip to New Mexico. I spent the night with my cousin Frank Archuleta and in the morning, he made fried potatoes and eggs. The smell of those fried potatoes was so similar to my Uncle Fred’s fried potatoes, that I could envision my Uncle Fred. Uncle Fred was a fabulous cook and Frank’s breakfast was spot on.
In August of 2018, Tim, Jackie, Hailey and myself traveled to the family reunion in Blanco. My cousin Donny Archuleta put on a spread that was fantastic and included Sweet Masa Green Chile Tamales, Spit roasted lamb, Seafood Paella cooked in a dutch oven over a camp fire, Green Chile, Red Chile, Beans, Tortillas. It was so good, shared on the land of our ancestors.
I’m going to end my post with the poetic words of my cousin Steven Stewart. If you look for him on Facebook, he is listed as Stiven Kyle Jaquez.
“Generally, I like to think, when I put my masa to rise in the light of day, that my tortillas de harina carry the sun inside of them. That, when I bite them, I take a piece of the glowing sky inside me. To me, making them, they are a pathway, a dance, a ritual through which I follow the movements and patterns of my ancestors on their ranch in Blanco, New Mexico. Making the dough, rolling it out, brings me closer to them. Tortillas de harina are special because, by speaking to different people and watching how the tortilla is made by different family members, I was able to recreate my great grandma Celia’s tortilla recipe. My dad always told me that he remembered his grandma’s tortillas being fluffy and supple. How did she do that? Well, my Uncle Freddy, before he passed on, told me the secret “my mom always used yeast.” Yeast- that means LIFE, living microscopic beings, not baking powder (monocalcium phosphate, sodium bicarbonate and corn starch). When I was making the tortillas, I let the stories guide me as I kneaded the dough, and I let the angels watch over my shoulder as I placed the masa by the fire to rise in the warmth. Along with other secrets to the recipe, they came out perfect, fluffy, supple, and moist, even the day after. And I didn’t even follow a recipe. La cocina is magic, not a measurement.
So, I wasn’t expecting last night to happen at all. It was deep. It was spiritual. I had only been planning to find leña (firewood) in order to boil beans- but I got a message from my cousin Yvonne, asking for tips for flour tortillas- I didn’t think the suggestion would have led me to dedicate my afternoon making typical plates treasured by my family. Making them was special because, just like how it was my mission to relearn and keep the language of my dad’s elders, it has become my mission to keep and preserve our foodways, and especially reviving the ancient “conocimiento”(knowledge) embodied in la cocina.
When I was preparing the dough, I thought “well, if I’m making beans and tortillas, I might as well make some chile verde, too!” I was worried when I started making it, because I had, in my head, the idea that to make green chile I needed Hatch chiles and in Nicaragua you can’t find those. But I remembered on the rancho in Blanco, my family probably used whatever was in the garden, watered from the river. I almost could hear in my intuition “agarra del jardín/take from the garden” So I trusted my gut, and threw all the chiles I could find (bell pepper, chiltoma, jalapeño) together with a TON if garlic, onion, squash, a bit tomato, pepper, salt, oil, naranja agria (sour orange)…
While I was boiling down the different chiles….the revelation/conocimiento came to me- there here is potent medicine in chile. It has heat, volatility, it burns like a sun in your gut, giving you life-fire. And it reminds you, above all, of your connection to this earth, in it’s simplicity and power- a reduction of chiles. Of course, it isn’t anything wildly popular like tacos al pastor, but it represents the sting of life, and the struggle in the deserts. It was beautiful, for a moment, to feel close to my ancestors in that distant place in the rancho. It was beautiful to intuitively recover the knowledge that la comida is both magic and medicine. Making a make-shift chile verde took up new meaning with the looming fear of the Coronavirus- it felt like a protective potion, my secret weapon to ward off COVID-19
Stay healthy friends- make some chile! – Stiven Kyle Jaquez
I couldn’t have said it better, my family. Stay healthy and make some chile for dinner!