Learning how to cook seems like more of an option than a requirement in today’s world. Maybe that is why some of us take notice of traditional styles of preparing food because we’re afraid people are going to lose touch with old ways of doing things just because it is easier to thaw something from the freezer or open a bag.
Here in Northern New Mexico, cooking is not just an art form but it’s a tradition that has its roots buried deep in the landscape and many characters and players in the so-called tri-cultural menu forged it.
There are those who believe there are far more than three cultures involved in the typical recipes for must-haves. There’s the Spanish and the Native American influences and the Anglo additions to the menu of fried chicken and mashed potatoes, but the hippie has also added their artistic and psychedelic takes on traditional favorites, and this book is meant to not only document the most basic turns on these traditional favorite, but also make elegant and tasty additions to the table by our extended family, black-sheep in-laws or step-children eager to pass the plate for more.
I learned what I know today about traditional Northern New Mexican food from two remarkable women of Taos – former Taos News food editor Fayne Lutz and my mother-in-law, Rose Romancito.
I came to the state in 1986 with 12 years of cooking experience as a short-order cook, prep-cook, entre chef and kitchen manager in places that ranged from hard-luck cafes in Tempe, Arizona, food co-op salad bars, new food and fine-dining kitchens in Portland in the mid-80s. I even worked at Dori’s Cafe when it was next to the Taos Post Office for six whole weeks before I was offered a job in the design department of the local paper.
It was at The Taos News that I met Fayne Lutz, a character and food columnist who wrote food columns for paper since the 1970s. Fayne’s column was such a staple in The Taos News for so long, every once in a while I see they will dust off one of her old recipes and print it again. There are still people who remember Fayne and relish the food traditions she shared with us for so long.
In the later years of her life, I helped Fayne put together her recipes and write up the simple, two paragraph introduction. It was something she could do with her eyes closed. In fact, toward the end, she was nearly blind, but she knew where each recipe was, where it came from and if it was an old favorite, when it had run in the paper in the past.
Fayne liked her cooking plain, just like she liked her talk. She knew more about the inner workings of Taos politics and back-room dealings than anyone will ever know. It was a wise reporter who took her calls even though it might have seemed like she was just another kooky old Taos lady. She was much more.
Fayne used to joke that nearly every recipe introduction closed with the phrase “It’s delicious and nutritious.” Some of her recipes were so old they still had classic ingredients like oleo or dried beef. We’d have to substitute modern equivalents and some people said when they read Fayne’s column it was like being thrust butt-first (a reference to her fattening selections and ingredients) into the 1950s.
As I went through all the recipe clippings Fayne had saved over the decades. I explained to my daughter this was how someone collected recipes before the Internet. Her comment was how could you find anything?
I found many humorous scribbles on some of the article clippings, marginal notes by Fayne, especially on articles about chiles in west coast papers. “Wrong,” and “BS,” said one note and in the next column another said, “Where does she get this??”
Fayne and I were going to write this book beginning 2000. We had our table of contents, notes about some of the recipes and an overview. We even had specified how the book would be titled and authorship claimed. Fayne would be the author and I would be the editor and compiler. After Fayne passed away in 2008, I put the project aside and didn’t think of resurrecting it until someone asked me if there was a good local recipe book with basic traditional recipes for a typical Taos table. I dusted off the project and what we have is a lightly different project than the one Fayne had suggested (she wanted to include recipes for cheese making and recipes and stories about bears and other more hard-core Western elements). I decided to bring the timeline up just a little and fold in some of the alternative and vegetarian recipes.
My other significant kitchen influence is my mother-in-law, Rose Gomez Romancito. She taught me how to cook food for a feast – from the simple salads to the posole stews. Breads and pies were something I wish I had paid more attention to before she passed because even though I have her bread recipe, but I can’t make it taste like hers and that is because I am cooking mine in a regular oven and she had an horno-style oven to bake in.
I did learn a few of the tricks to baking in an oven even though I was never allowed to touch the paddle or do more than carry the loaves from the kitchen out to the oven under the outdoor kitchen ramada and back again to cook on the floor with clean white sheets spread every where to make room for the dozens of loaves and pies that would be baked at one time.
I learned that you could judge the temperature of an horno by putting a paper towel into the hot oven, and if the paper browned and didn’t ignite, it was just right. Once you got used to how that felt to your hand, you would be able to tell if the temperature was right if you put your hand in to test how it felt.
The hornos work similarly to wood pizza ovens but there are special differences we don’t have time to get into here but I will share that the reason you will almost always see two ovens, one large and one small, is because one is for large feast day baking and the other is for regular household baking. They are like sisters – one big and one little and they become jealous of each other if one oven is used or repaired more than the other. That also makes it easy, if you burn your bread for a big important feast, you can blame the oven for being jealous of the other one because you haven’t used it in a while.
My mother-in-law also taught me to never over-stir my stews. Over-stirring will keep the broth thin and you don’t want thin broth or people will think you added water to the pot just before they came over. This is especially true for posole. Even today, I feel the weight of my husband’s ancestors behind me, admonishing me not to over stir every time I take the lid off to check the posole’s progress.
This book is intended to be the foundation recipes any good cook in Northern New Mexico is going to need to know if they want to be called a Taoseño.
– M. Elwell Romancito