A Taste of Culture

Best Sopa Azteca ever at the Antigua Cocina Mexicana restaurant in Roswell, New Mexico

Eating good food is, for me, one of the joys in life. I especially love to explore the cuisine of the different places my hubby and I travel to. We’ve doing this for many years, and it’s really come in handy since I started writing novels.

I can provide ambience just by describing what a character is eating, or being served. My parents, and my in-laws, were all European, and put out very representative meals, for example – very different than what we’ve eaten at our Italian best friends’ place, or Middle Eastern households we’ve been to. Since I love to cook myself, I’ve learned a lot about a variety of cuisines and can write about them with a fair amount of confidence.

In October hubby and I spent a couple of weeks in New Mexico. As it happens, we love southwestern food, and we made the most of it. Chilies, both red and green, are ubiquitous, of course. The state has turned their take on a classic cheeseburger – a good quality beef burger topped with chopped roasted green chilies and melted white cheese – into an official culinary experience. The New Mexico tourism website provides a map of selected restaurants on the Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail, but most of the places we went to made their own version. Below, you’ll see a photo of the GCC slider stack that I tried out at the Shark Reef Café in the ABQ Bio Park in Albuquerque; it was superb.

Chilies are native to Central and South America, although they’ve now spread around the world as many countries cultivate their own varieties.

Apparently wild peppers grow upright, to attract birds that will spread their seeds out the other end, but through the process of domestication the peppers droop downward. Chilies all start out green, but can be allowed to ripen until they turn red.

A high-res photo of this image, and other selected images from the trip, can be purchased in various formats through my photography site on Fine Art America.

At the annual Santa Fe Harvest Festival, we learned that green chilies are hotter, but they don’t keep as well. For preservation purposes, the chilies are allowed to fully ripen, and then are picked and knotted by their stems into long bundles called ristras. The ristras are hung outdoors to dry out, and can then be used bit by bit throughout the winter until the new batches grow.

If used fresh, the chilies could be roasted in beehive-shaped adobe ovens. The ones shown in the photo here are what would have been used by early settlers in New Mexico, but these ovens are still really popular today; many people build them in their back yards. On the afternoon of the festival, two of the docents were baking fresh bread and rolls, for which they heat the ovens to 700 degrees F inside. The pans are set on the brick bottom and the opening is sealed shut with a wooden door soaked in water, with water-soaked rags around the edges to complete the seal.

Samples were given out for free, and my hubby and I spent a most enjoyable hour or so waiting for the hot rolls to come out and chatting with another couple from the northern part of the state around Taos. Every sample was delicious, especially the rolls studded with dried fruit.

After that, we sat down to rest and bought the last two homemade tamales being sold by another docent sitting across from us out of an insulated bag on a little walker-style cart. Tamales are basically a savory stuffing wrapped in a masa (corn) dough and steamed inside husks of banana or corn leaves. They made steam come out of our ears, I think. I asked the vendor what was in the filling and she listed only two ingredients: pork and chilies. Wahoo!

But there’s more to the experience than just consuming the food. Entire cultures are build around the sharing of food, whether it’s years of tradition in a family home, or the communal wait for fresh buns at a festival, sharing a little bit of your life on a sunny afternoon with people you may never see again. It might even be the conversation you strike up when you’ve sat on a bench next to two women eating tamales that they bought from a couple of bright-eyed women across from you, and you decide to take a chance on a pair of foil-wrapped bundles that emerge from an insulated bag on a little cart.

The kind-hearted vendor even gave us a courtesy bottle of water to wash our impromptu lunch down with. Between that and the sweet rolls, we had a complete, and completely unexpected, meal.

As travellers, hubby and I live for these unplanned experiences – they’re often the best memories. As a writer and photographer, I pay attention and take lots of photos so that I can recapture the details long after we’ve gotten home, either as a piece of artwork, for a meal for friends/family, or as a sample of authentic culture in my novels. The different styles of food and food production might even make their way into a tale on a different planet – maybe it’s a less-developed civilization that still cooks in earthen ovens, or grows unusual plants on its farms.

Whichever the case, you can’t beat an authentic actual experience to understand what a different culture is really like, from the myriad varieties of potatoes (over 700) that are served with every meal in Peru to the cups of tea made famous in English novels of all genres to the little chilies that have caught on so much that they even get hung up as decorations.  For all travellers and aspiring novelists, our world is a rich source of cultural inspiration — don’t forget to make time to stop and smell the ristras.

All photos were taken by me, and all rights are reserved. E. Jurus

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