“This really isn’t like anything you ever saw — and no one who tells you about it gives any idea of it.” -Georgia O’Keeffe to Alfred Stieglitz
It was dark when we finally arrived in Santa Fe. More importantly, it was late
, almost midnight, which made the city (with a population of 70,000, this is perhaps a generous description) seem more dead than alive. Since we were staying at a small boutique hotel
in the city center, I was expecting noise or activity of some kind, but the only sounds were the hum of the faithful Penske truck and of my shoes hitting the pavement as I got out to help guide the Greek into a parking spot. I reminded myself that it was Wednesday, hardly the liveliest day, and that the eerie silence, chilly air (Santa Fe has an elevation of 7,198 feet) and low, nondescript buildings did not portend a bad time.
In hindsight, if I was at all worried, it was only because Santa Fe was the place I had been most excited about visiting on this road trip–so much so that I had even insisted that we stay for two nights. To say I didn’t know how or where it all started would be somewhat disingenuous, since I can still remember the moment when the seeds of my New Mexico obsession were planted. It was in sixth-grade language arts, when Mrs. Hess informed us that, for the upcoming biography unit, we needed to pick a person, read his or her biography and then make a booklet and presentation to the class. While sitting with my friends and going through the list of suggested people, I commented that Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis would be “really interesting and cool” to work on and that I thought I would focus on her. No sooner were the words out of my mouth than my best friend at the time, a feisty and bossy redhead who instilled as much fear in me as she did affection, claimed Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis for herself. Fortunately, Mrs. Hess, like all good teachers, was present enough to have overheard the conversation and came over to suggest that, if I wanted to read about the life of an interesting and strong woman, I should make Georgia O’Keeffe the focus of my project. While I had no idea who she was talking about at the time, I knew that kindly Mrs. Hess would never lead me astray. And, although I’m sure that much of what I read about Georgia O’Keeffe probably went a little over my sixth-grade head, the impressions that I formed of her, as well as my fascination with her landscapes and her enduring connection to the southwest, her spiritual home, stuck with me over the years.
I should have known that anything connected, even peripherally, to Mrs. Hess couldn’t turn out badly because, when we woke up the next morning, we stepped into a transformed world of bright blue skies, dazzling sunshine and heat that could melt the synthetic fabric right off your back (note: if you’re headed to New Mexico, pack your best cotton gear). But even better was the discovery that the city was bursting with color, from the ristras of red chilies drying in the sun to the earth tones of the Pueblo Revival architecture. Walking through the city streets, I felt like I had been transported not just to a wholly unique landscape, one worthy of the finest painting, but to a world that, despite the obvious signs of modernity all around me, was standing still, as if timeless.
Although I was eager to take as many pictures as possible, earthly concerns soon overtook us, and we quickly made our way to Tia Sophia’s
, a southwestern diner with a chili-centric menu. You know a restaurant means business when it warns you that it is “not responsible for the heat of the chilies,” but this didn’t stop the Greek from ordering the carne adobada
(pork braised in an adobo–read hot
–sauce). Because I am both unable to handle too much spice and more than a sucker for a quesadilla at any time of the day, I went with the breakfast version here, which allowed me to get my red chili sauce on the side. Both dishes were fantastically satisfying, but the tortillas in particular, puffy and fresh, were the real standout. It was early in the day, but not too early for me to start wondering if I might find a tortilla press with my name on it to take to our new home….
Feeling sated (I don’t even think we had a proper dinner the day before) after breakfast and having, for the first time in days, something resembling the luxury of time, we wandered around the shops in the downtown, looking at handwoven rugs, local art and other knickknacks (Santa Fe is full of treasures). But our next stop was inevitable and was, in a lot of ways, the pinnacle of the whole trip for me: The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum
. It’s a small museum, and one that pays tribute not just to O’Keeffe herself, but also to the southwest and to American Modernism as a whole. Seeing the evolution of her work and her various artistic preoccupations, you begin to understand how she ended up in the desert, a place that initially appears stark, but, upon closer examination, is ultimately pulsing–blooming–with life.
As much as we were enjoying ourselves (not to mention the fact that we weren’t sitting in a truck on the highway), being on our feet all day combined with the intense heat started to take a toll around mid-afternoon. While a nap was more than little tempting, the obvious answer to our dilemma was coffee and dessert, and since I am not always a person who wants to leave the quality of my dessert to chance, a quick online search pointed us in the direction of Kakawa (Cacao or Chocolate in Olmec) House
. That the Kakawa House specializes in all things chocolate was its main selling point, although I was also curious about its “historic drinking chocolate elixirs.” The walk there felt longer than it actually was (it’s about half a mile from the center), but this might have been because, along the way, we not only found a beagle pup to fawn over, but also passed by the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, which was so impressive (and cool inside) that we just had to go in for a quick tour.
Finally, after what seemed like forever, we turned a corner and there it was, a sugary oasis, in all of its charming southwestern glory.
As I wrote in my journal/memory refresher, as smitten as I was with Kakawa House from the outside–the ristras, the reds and blues, the promise of chocolate!–my sense of wonder increased by tenfold as soon as we stepped through the door; this place, though small, could have given Willy Wonka a real run for his money. There was Rose Almond Hot Chocolate, Chili Hot Chocolate, American (plain? milk chocolate?) Hot Chocolate, Green Chili Caramel Chocolates, Goat Cheese and Sage Truffles, a wide selection of macarons, ice creams and iced drinks, which, in this case, were the only option as, given the weather, neither one of us was at all inclined to drink anything even resembling hot. The Greek was prudent in his choice of an Iced Mocha, while I, a person whose eyes have always been too big for my belly, decided that a chocolate brownie sundae with hot (okay, this was the one exception to the “no hot things” rule) fudge was the only thing that would do. Little did I know, the ice cream was not the small and dainty scoop I was expecting, but a mound the size of a small inverted soufflé. The size of the brownie was also more than a little generous and perfectly fudgy, which is just as they should be and which made it all more than a little hard to resist. Am I ashamed that we ate all but one bite of what essentially amounted to a triple chocolate delight? Only very, very slightly, and only because I’m sure that afterwards I felt vaguely sick, much like I’m sure I would feel if I had run a marathon, which is basically what I did do, but with a spoon.
While it seems like the story should now end with “And they never ate again!,” you really should know better. This is nothing if not a tale of (minor) gluttony; we were prepared to consume as much of Santa Fe as possible in our remaining time there. Riding the caffeine wave from our chocolatey adventure, we decided to brave our second museum of the day, the New Mexico History Museum
at the Governor’s Palace.
This museum is massive, a place you could both literally and figuratively get lost in, and is a must-see for anybody who finds him- or herself in Santa Fe and wanting to know more about its path from territory to statehood
in 1912. The nice thing about the museum is that, if you buy tickets a few hours before closing time, they allow you to return the following day to finish your tour. This really came in handy, since, as I am ultimately less of a two-museums-in-one-day person than the Greek, there came a point when we parted ways and I went back to the hotel to decompress…but only after slipping into the local Five and Dime General Store
for a comb (mine was lost in the back of the Penske truck) and for a small rolling pin for tortillas, i.e. the practical meeting the whimsical.
I did, however, have a surprise planned. In light of the ‘missed sunset at the Grand Canyon debacle,’ I decided to find a place where we could not just have dinner, but also enjoy the southwestern sunset. This quest led us to the Rooftop Pizzeria
, which I’ll admit is not exactly a place that said Santa Fe to me, but first impressions can be misleading. The menu contained plenty of southwestern touches, from blue corn crust to toasted piñon nuts on salads and pies alike. We opted for what, to us, seemed the most representative pie of Santa Fe: roast chicken, green chili, cotija and asadero with a white sauce on a blue corn crust. It was deliciously spicy and, with a few beers and the cooling temperature, it provided the perfect backdrop to the real star of the show: the pinks, oranges and yellows mingling in the dusky sky. I wanted to take a photo of it and even did take several, but believe me when I say that some things are best left to real life.
Leaving the restaurant and feeling more than a little in love with Santa Fe, we came across live music in the plaza, where lights were sparkling all around us in the trees and a small crowd (of both locals and tourists, it seemed) had formed. It felt not just cozy, but welcoming, the kind of place you could see yourself living in. As we headed back to the hotel, I was left with the feeling that, although I had been a coastal dweller for most of my life, the Southwest was really where it was at.
Despite this feeling, the next day–and not even the whole day–was our last. We went back to the History Museum, we shopped and ate our leftover pizza. Most importantly, we did the one thing that was an absolute must for us in Santa Fe: we had Penske send a mechanic, Jacob, to come and fix the lights on the truck so that we wouldn’t spend the next 2,000 miles blinding people, not to mention being blinded in turn, by bright lights. Once this work was done, there was nothing to do, but leave and head to the panhandle of Texas, although it would be remiss of me not to say that a trip to the shaved ice stalls in the heart of the plaza might just be the most comforting way to say goodbye to a city that you don’t want to leave.
Even from afar, however, I am still finding ways to continue my love affair with the Land of Enchantment. One of the first things I hung in our Delaware home was the ristra I bought at a small shop off the plaza, and the first meal I cooked (and, no, husband, while convenient during a move, frozen pizza does not count) in our new kitchen, once the piles and piles of boxes started to dwindle and there was enough counter space for chopping, was New Mexican Pozole
. In late 2015, when I saw that Lynn Cline, who sometimes contributes New Mexico-centric pieces to Saveur,
was publishing a book on New Mexico cuisine, I told the Greek that he should consider this the number one item on my Christmas list. And he delivered.
The book isn’t a flashy restaurant cookbook, nor does it promise dishes that can be prepared in 20 or 30 minutes; in some ways, it’s more a work of cultural history than a cookbook. In fact, though I love the stories and the recipes in the book, some recipes leave out essential ingredients (Parmesan biscuits should, ostensibly, contain Parmesan cheese) and others seem like there should be more to them. This, I think, is more the fault of my “modern” expectations than an actual flaw in the book, but I can’t help but want Taos Quince Paste to have a New Mexican flair (the addition of chilies or some kind of spice), rather than just to be the same as quince paste that I would find in Spain or France. That said, there is plenty to be found in this book that represents canonical New Mexican cuisine, from Chicken a la Castañeda to Capirotada (Mexican Bread Pudding with Madeira and Monterey Jack cheese).
My favorite recipe from this book is also perhaps one of its simplest: Blue Corn Atole. While atole
is a hot corn- and masa-based beverage, in this case, it’s texturally more of a porridge, a more vibrant version of “Cream of Wheat.” The color of the blue cornmeal can be a little disarming, but it’s ultimately more nutritious (more fiber and protein) and has a more complex (sweet and nutty) flavor. Since I started writing (and reliving) our road trip, this has, on more days than not, been our breakfast; it is one that we both agree we could eat each and every day.
Blue Corn Atole
Adapted, ever so slightly, from Lynn Cline’s The Maverick Cookbook
It may seem that blue cornmeal is hard to find, but Bob’s Red Mill, a reliable brand for whole grains, as well as those that are a little off the beaten track, sells it, as do companies like Anson Mills and Arrowhead Mills. Beyond actually getting the cornmeal, this is a simple recipe that can be made on a weekday; best of all, there will be leftovers.
Cline’s recipe suggests adding in two tablespoons of lard, which I did not do. This is not because I am against lard, but because I didn’t have any on hand and vegetable shortening didn’t seem like it would be an ample substitute. I instead opted for coconut oil, which, while also not an ample substitute for lard, at least has flavor. Feel free to use butter or any oil that you prefer.
One other note: Cline’s method of making the porridge is ingenious, as it leads to zero clumps, which isn’t always easy with cornmeal. She has you make a slurry that you slowly pour into the boiling water, which may be the way that I make polenta and other cornmeal-based dishes in the future.
1 cup blue cornmeal
2 cups cold water
2 tablespoons coconut oil (or lard or butter)
1/2 teaspoon table salt
a handful of pecans, chopped, for topping
honey (or another sweetener of your choice), for topping
Pour the cup of cornmeal into a medium bowl and then stir in the two cups of water. Let the mixture sit for a few minutes; the cornmeal should seem to dissolve into the water.
Boil two cups of water in a medium saucepan. Stir in the oil (lard or butter) and salt.
Stir the blue cornmeal slurry and then slowly add it to the boiling water. Continue stirring over medium heat until the mixture thickens (about 10 minutes). Remove from heat.
Portion the cornmeal into serving bowls and drizzle with honey and top with the chopped pecans.