Origins of Southwest Food

All Mixed Up

Santa Fe's culinary scene is, always has been and always will be a melting pot

Oh, what a tangled, chile-smothered, pinto-flecked, cheese-covered, squash-sided, corn-kissed, globally appropriated web we weave.

That's the short story of Santa Fe's culinary trajectory, from the arrival of the Spanish, through the reign of hotelier/entrepreneur Fred Harvey and his railway-eatery revolution, to the present day. Recipes have been passed down through generations, dishes have been refined and reinvented to suit new dietary trends and tastes, and mountains of books, articles and blogs have been written celebrating Santa Fe's vibrant restaurant scene and culturally rich culinary traditions.

Yet, while we remain protective of our red and green chiles and sauces, flat enchiladas, natillas, chicharrón burritos, roadside piñón caches and fluffy sopaipillas, we are also so proud of them that we cannot stop bragging. Sometimes, the smack talk comes with consequences.

In the past few years, our town's food-focused pride has translated into some awkward situations that extend way beyond the occasional 505 Facebook argument about who makes the best carne adovada. They include, on a national scale:

A Frito pie–centric Internet flame war between locals and esteemed chef/writer/television producer/former heroin addict/dodgy boozer/best-selling author Anthony Bourdain; a green-chile throwdown with the entire state of Colorado; and the "New Mexico True Breakfast Burrito Byway"—a promotion hatched by the New Mexico Tourism Department based on the notion that breakfast items wrapped in flatbread are unique to this region and will make people want to visit and spend money here.

Historically, sharing the tasty wealth—even if it's in the form of a boast—has served New Mexico and Santa Fe's culinary scenes well for more than a century. But it would take two pioneering Northern New Mexico women and a German-born chef to truly put New Mexico cuisine on the map.

According to scholar, historian, Mabel Dodge Luhan authority and author Lois Rudnick, the first-known published cookbook of New Mexican dishes may be attributed to home economist and writer Fabiola Cabeza de Baca y Delgado y Delgado de Gilbert (1894-1991), who, in 1931, published Historic Cookery, a circular of recipes assembled from her many years traveling throughout the state and working as an agent for the New Mexico Agricultural Extension Service. Its contents speak loudly to the unique combination of Anglo, Native, Spanish and Mexican flavors that melded over time in rural communities throughout Northern New Mexico.

"It was the first time New Mexican recipes were printed with exact measurements," Rudnick says, "allowing home cooks to prepare chile sauces, corn dishes, meat and egg recipes, vegetables, salads, soups, breads, desserts and drinks. It was, from the very beginning, fusion cuisine." Then-governor of New Mexico Thomas J Marby even sent copies of Cookery to governors and officials in other states as a way to promote New Mexico's unique food traditions. (Breakfast burritos were not part of the package.)

"And you can't forget Cleofas' contributions to spreading the word about local tastes," Lois says. "Cleofas M Jaramillo was Fabiola's contemporary and friend, and they cofounded La Sociedad Folkórica de Santa Fe, which collects and preserves traditions and customs of the city's Spanish ancestors. Cleofas, too, was descended from Spanish gentry and self-identified as Spanish American." Jaramillo's cookbook, The Genuine New Mexico Tasty Recipes, was published in 1939 and again in 1942. "The title clearly indicates that it was intended for more than a Hispano readership," Rudnick says. "In parentheses in the original edition appears a recipe for 'Potajes Sabrosos,' and there's a lovely photo portrait of her in an 'old-fashioned gown' to accompany the front page. The front page of the original edition also says, 'Old and Quaint Formulas for the Preparation of Seventy-Five Delicious Spanish Dishes.'"

While Jaramillo and Cabeza de Baca may have had the earliest go as committing New Mexican recipes to book form, it was Germany-born chef Konrad Allgaier who, beginning in 1930, introduced many of Santa Fe's turistas to the local cuisine. A popular chef at the La Fonda—a Harvey House hotel at the time owned by the Fred Harvey Co.—Allgaier served his guests plenty of the continental cuisine that graced the menus of other Harvey properties and dining cars around the country. But he also prepared guacamole, posole, sopaipillas, chiles rellenos and other New Mexican fare. According to Stephen Fried, author of Appetite for America: Fred Harvey and the Wild Business of Civilizing the Wild West—One Meal at a Time, few of Allgaier's New Mexican recipes still exist on paper. But Fried insists that many of the flavors that continue to punctuate classic New Mexican dishes, as well as more contemporary Southwest-fusion fare, can be attributed to Allgaier's curious palate and total embrace of Native American, Mexican and Spanish flavors throughout the northern part of the state.

Fusion 2.0

In 1987, just as the Santa Fe Farmers Market was enjoying its new digs in the Sanbusco parking lot off Montezuma Avenue, a former Chez Panisse chef who then went on to open the (now-closed) Santa Fe Bar & Grill in Berkeley, Calif. (1981-1984), moved to Santa Fe and opened Coyote Café on Water Street.

Mark Miller, often lauded as the founder of modern Southwestern cuisine, put Santa Fe's dining scene on the map, and while he is no longer involved with Coyote Café, current chef/owner Eric DiStefano continues to make Santa Fe cuisine shine at both Coyote and Geronimo.

While Miller was in the midst of starting a culinary revolution of his own, across town at Santacafé, chef Michael Fennelly was wowing diners with his East-meets-Southwest cuisine, an elegant fusion of Asian and Southwestern flavors. When Fennelly left Santacafé in 1988-1989, a succession of chefs that included Santa Fe Culinary Academy's Rocky Durham, Street Food Institute director David Sellers and celebrity chef Ming Tsai continued to improve on the restaurant's East-Southwest theme. Today Santacafé keeps some of Fennelly's classics on the menu while allowing its kitchen staff to experiment with more locally sourced ingredients.

Coming Home

Chef John Sedlar, a former Santa Fe resident who opened a highly acclaimed restaurant in 1994 in the LA area called Abiquiu, shares credit for highlighting Santa Fe's modern Southwestern cuisine on a national scale. Actually, he wrote a book about it (Modern Southwest Cuisine, Ten Speed Press, 1994), and has published other titles celebrating the foods of his former home, such as The Great Chile Relleno Cookbook.

Sedlar returns to Santa Fe as the head chef/owner of Eloisa, a new pan-Latin restaurant at the recently opened Drury Plaza Hotel on Palace Avenue. The restaurant is scheduled to open early 2015, and with that, another exciting chapter in the long and delicious fusion history of Santa Fe's food and dining scenes will surely be written.

Santa Fe Reporter

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