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Santa Fe Style : Chile Scenes of Summer


This summer, thousands of Southern Californians will visit Santa Fe. They will come back raving about the trendy restaurants and the wonderful New Mexican food: the shrimp with chipotle cream sauce, the black bean-mango salsa with habanero peppers, the corkscrew pasta with cilantro pesto.

New Mexicans, of course, will sneer. They know that those dishes are about as authentic as those little bandana-ed howling coyotes that seem to have replaced the road-runner as the Santa Fe tchotchke of choice. They'll chuckle about the turistas , and then smugly dig in to their "real" New Mexican dinners--their hamburger burritos, their Cheddar cheese enchiladas.

And they'll be just as wrong as the tourists. Fresh shrimp, chipotle chiles, black beans, mangoes, habaneros and cilantro were never part of traditional New Mexican food, though all are likely to be used in the many Southwestern-style restaurants in Santa Fe. Historically, they're closer to the cooking of the Caribbean basin than that of the Rocky Mountains.

But just as certainly, neither Cheddar cheese nor hamburger were part of traditional New Mexican food. The cheese would be made of goat or sheep milk, and beef was rarely found (and then it was usually dried, in the style of Mexican machaca ).

This kind of culinary blind-spot is nothing new. Early in Willa Cather's "Death Comes for the Archbishop"--one of the first novels dealing with Colonial New Mexico--a French priest is confronted with a native wedding meal of lamb stewed with chile. He demurs, shocking his hosts by eating a leg roasted for a mere hour. "Father Vaillant had his gigot to himself," Cather concludes, noting that he drank with it a white Bordeaux he had brought north from Mexico City on mule-back.

Later, another French priest is thrown from the rock at Acoma Pueblo for killing a native servant who spilled the sauce to the priest's rabbit jardiniere . Whether the punishment was for the murder itself or the culinary imperialism that preceded it is not entirely clear.

It is a difficult and (in at least one priest's case) dangerous thing to try to define exactly what makes up a cuisine, especially in New Mexico, where it seems every wave of newcomers has brought its own notion of what is worth eating.

Each of the Indian groups--the Hopis, the Pueblos, the Apaches and, later, the Navajos--has its own cuisine that turns subtle variations on the American trinity of corn, beans and chile. There is much game and many breads--made from corn and frequently leavened with the ash from burnt chamisa bush.

The Spanish era dates from 1598, when Onate established his first colonies along the Rio Grande. Santa Fe itself was founded in 1610. The first Spaniards commonly had their cooking done by Indian slaves, to whom they introduced domesticated animals such as goats and sheep, dairy products such as cheese and cream, and also wheat flour, spices (notably cumin, saffron and oregano) and a variety of fruits, such as apricots and apples.

The Pueblo Rebellion of 1680 chased the colonists south to El Paso, but by 1700 Spain had reconquered the territory, and it is from this period that most northern New Mexican villages date. By the signing of the American Declaration of Independence in 1776, the map of northern New Mexico was fairly well settled.

The Santa Fe Trail, which opened in 1821, brought the first contact with the Anglo eastern United States. But for the most part, the first Anglos assimilated into the New Mexican majority. It wasn't until nearly the end of the 19th Century that the outside world came in any numbers, brought by the railroads. And the real explosion in population didn't take place until after World War II, when the military bases in Albuquerque and the national laboratory in Los Alamos boomed. From 1940 to 1990, the state's population tripled, reaching 1.5 million.

New Mexico is a vast state of many cultures, but it is the northern Rio Grande Valley--which includes Santa Fe and Taos--that most people from outside the state think of as New Mexico. The eastern edge and the south are by and large indistinguishable from the adjoining parts of Texas--the panhandle in the case of the east, El Paso for the south. The west mostly consists of the reservations of the Hopi and Navajo.

Central New Mexico, following the spine of the Rio Grande, is where the Spanish first settled, along the trail of the old Camino Real trade route that stretched from Mexico City to Santa Fe. But even that backbone is broken. Traditionally, the dividing line is the bluff at La Bajada--that huge lava rock escarpment you climb just before you reach Santa Fe. From the top of La Bajada, you can see the dry mesas and painted mountains of the south behind you and ahead of you the high, green Sangre de Cristo mountains of the north.

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