Lessons from the Southwest

Henri visits New Mexico and brings home more than just stories about foodHenri’s culinary trip to New Mexico offers lessons for the season

courtesy santa fe school of cooking

Henri is puzzled by the claim that saying “happy holidays” means you hate Christmas, or have somehow joined a “war” against it.

Henri loves Christmas—what child of French-Catholic parents wouldn’t? In fact, I get shamelessly sentimental just thinking about it. Gorgeously trimmed trees in picture windows, crèches and huge lighted candy canes on lawns, egg nog by a roaring fire, woolen-scarved Christmas carolers on street corners. “Silver Bells,” “Adeste Fideles,” “The First Noël,” and my favorite, “Silent Night.”

And the films! It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, any version of A Christmas Carol, even A Charlie Brown Christmas.

One year in the Village, L. surprised me with a particularly extravagant and thoughtful Hanukkah gift: a trip to the Santa Fe School of Cooking in Santa Fe, N.M., at Christmastime. Two days later we checked into the lovely Hotel St. Francis right on the plaza and headed out into crisp evening air to explore the old city by moonlight and farolitos. We were particularly taken by the Cathedral of St. Francis de Assisi, the Mission San Miguel, and the Loretto Chapel—all thick-adobe Spanish-colonial churches.

Santa Fe de San Francisco de Asís was founded in 1607—more than a dozen years before the Pilgrims settled at Plymouth—to provide protection for the Spanish missionaries and as headquarters for the province’s political and military leaders. By the mid-17th century, an estimated 14,000 Native Americans had been converted to Christianity. The fate of the many more who hadn’t? Flogged, hanged and otherwise tortured. At nearby Acoma Pueblo, the Spanish cut off the hands and feet of men unwilling to convert and tossed the Indians from off the steep sides of the mesa-top village. Young women and girls were abducted.

photo by luca galuzzi, www.galuzzi.it

In August 1680, the natives rebelled. Led by Popé, a San Juan medicine man who had been flogged for practicing “witchcraft,” the northern Pueblo tribes ran the Spanish out of Santa Fe and took up residence in the Palace of the Governors, demolishing anything related to the Spanish and Catholicism—statues, crosses and vineyards.

In 1691, Gov. Don Diego de Vargas, armed with support from the Spanish crown, arrived in Santa Fe and took back the Palace of the Governors, executing about 70 Native Americans and enslaving 400 others. By 1692, de Vargas had reconquered the capital and most of the surrounding pueblos. The Pueblo Revolt, considered the most organized and successful Indian uprising in the New World, was over.

Our class at the Santa Fe School of Cooking was delightful. The theme was tapas, and we cooked (and ate!) albóndigas (meatballs), tortilla española, sautéed shrimp with an orange chipotle sauce, quesadillas, and apricot empanaditas (turnovers). And we loved Santa Fe, the restaurants, the galleries, the adobe architecture, even the tacky red chile-pepper Christmas lights that seemed to frame every window.

But the highlight—and the part of the trip that still resonates with me—was a visit to Taos Pueblo, about an hour north of Santa Fe at the foot of the towering Sangre de Cristo (Blood of Christ) Mountains. We wandered around the village as residents went about their daily chores—as their ancestors have for more than 800 years—and bought a couple of small pieces of pottery from an old woman sitting on a tiny porch outside her front door.

We stopped at a little cemetery, where crude, weathered crosses stuck up out of the snow and where we were approached by a dark, striking man in knee-high moccasins and a serape, long braids spilling out from a black cowboy hat. I told him I didn’t quite understand the crosses. He nodded and then told us that when the Spanish first arrived, his people welcomed them and their religion, which after all, he said, wasn’t so different from theirs—love one another, turn the other cheek. He shrugged. “They said the meek would inherit the earth. We thought, OK, fine. We have room for this Jesus.

“But then,” he continued, “they wanted us not just to make room but to completely abandon our faith. They burned our homes, our kivas, anything ceremonial or sacred to us.” He looked over at the crosses. “I still think there’s room for both, though, for everyone. For all our gods.”

L. and I returned to our hotel in Santa Fe, cleaned up, then walked over to the Coyote Café. It was Christmas Eve. L. unwrapped a Christmas gift I had purchased in Manhattan before leaving—a tiny silver menorah. We raised our glasses to los dioses and prayed for heavenly peace.

Happy holidays. Everyone.