Dr. Stephanie M. Sanchez, Program Specialist at the Project for New Mexico Graduates of Color and Graduate Resource Center (University of New Mexico), knows that recollection and ritual are strong components of food-related cultural practice. These days, says Dr. Sanchez, New Mexicans are very much engaged in their seasonal food customs, from the roasting, packing and freezing of green chile (a fall pastime for most New Mexicans), to pinon picking, and to preparation of the tamaleras for the family Thanksgiving and Christmas. In this guest post for BorderLore, Dr. Sanchez recalls her experiences learning to cook natillas, tortas de huevos and red chile from a group of women from San Rafael, New Mexico. With humor and patience, these women knitted together the teaching of traditional recipes with their own experiences learning to cook from women kinfolk. Dr. Sanchez’s recollection speaks of the women’s wisdom and humor, and of the powerful connection made through the acts and tools of “cooking with people and memories.”
Cocinando Cuentos (Cooking Stories)
Dr. Stephanie M. Sanchez
For most of us, food is an enduring and endearing part of our human experience. Enduring because particular foods and food events remain in our thoughts and memories long after the experience, and endearing because foods engage our senses and come to represent shared identity or people and places from the past.
photo courtesy of Dr. Sanchez
During my field work experience in San Rafael, New Mexico — a small, predominantly Hispanic village in the west-central part of the state—I often saw the various ways in which foods and food events symbolized one’s identity, the cultural character and history of the village itself, and deceased relatives. San Rafael women, the primary individuals responsible for food preparation and selection, often engaged in the process of traditionalization around food preparation and meal times. This process of traditionalization refers to ways in which contemporary people assume or bestow authority to their own narrative performances in “a process that evokes the traditional past” (Mould 2005: 257). This was particularly apparent in San Rafael women’s performances of cooking, both in mundane everyday experiences and in specially marked food events. Foods — especially during preparation stages when women would invite me to watch or help them make such dishes as red chile, tamales, natillas, or tortas de huevos — would take on a performative, ritualistic quality as women wove together recipes and storytelling while remembering deceased family members who taught them to cook or shared a recipe. These cooking practices fostered such a sense of commemoration that recipes were transformed into embodied food memories.
This is certainly the case with Pauline, whose family took me in and made me feel a part of the community. Pauline is both a wonderful storyteller and excellent cook, and often interlaced recipes with stories from her childhood, the early years of her marriage and child-rearing, and memories of the people who taught her to cook. It seemed as though each recipe was connected with a person, which made it all the more amazing to hear about the women and men who influenced her culinary skills and repertoire. More than other foods, red chile came to represent the passing of generations. I often heard the women I was around talk about their mother’s or grandmother’s chile. For some women, the chile of deceased female kinfolk was something they could never reproduce, while for others the chile recipes of living family members was the height of mastery and unnecessary for they themselves to know (“I don’t need to make chile; Nana makes it best every Sunday”).
The people who taught Pauline how to cook well and for a large family were always with us because of Pauline’s skillful way of interjecting stories with recipes and at meal times. One day, Pauline decided to teach me how to make red chile after I told her I had no real ability to do so and tended to make red chile from powder rather than pods. She took me outside to an old RV that functioned as additional kitchen storage. Inside were what Pauline called foods “all Chicanas must know how to make,” which included sacks and sacks of dried red chile pods, dried pinto beans, stacks of corn husks for making tamales, and various large stock pots for making heaping amounts of chile, beans, and pork tamales.
Pauline’s process for making red chile is tedious and thoughtful. She usually begins by soaking the chile pods the day before and allowing them to dry on a baking sheet. This is to soften the chiles and prepare them for a more thorough cleaning with a toothbrush. Pauline and I sat down at her kitchen table with her pile of chiles. She said, “Look,” and began running her thumb down the length of each chile, splitting them open. As she used the toothbrush to clear out the inside of the chile, she said, “My father hated seeds in his chile. They’re not supposed to be there. If there are seeds in your chile that means you didn’t take your time. You didn’t clean them. Why do it if you won’t do it right? My father always said, ‘Cleanliness is next to Godliness.’ That goes for chile.” In that moment, Pauline recalled her deceased father as an individual with particular likes and dislikes, as a man who taught her and imparted wisdom, as well as a man who knew chile. In doing so, she also added authority to her own chile-preparation process, marking her recipe as authentic because it did not come from the chile package or a website, but from the past when foods were made with more love, more consideration, and in ways that were almost devotional in style and method. As we continued to make the red chile — boiling the pods until soft, then blending them with some of the chile water, straining the chile so it was perfectly smooth, and then cooking it in a sauté pan with more of the chile water — Pauline continued with the story, “Back then, there wasn’t entertainment… you stayed home and spent time with your family. Our entertainment was going on picnics and drives or telling stories. So taking time preparing food (for) your family — that was just what you did. You would talk and cook.”
These food lessons and stories were a ritual for us — Pauline would prepare foods, often involving chile, and I would stand by her side learning or at the table sipping coffee and taking notes. The narrative of her father grew as she continued to share stories with me, including one about how he once refused to eat a family member’s chile because it was not smooth and had a few seeds, clearly a sign it was not prepared thoughtfully.
Through storytelling, Pauline shared these qualities of her father and their shared chile recipe, and further cemented them in my mind as traditional and from a distant, nostalgic past. Although I did not know her father or any of the individuals who influenced her culinary life, they became a part of my embodied food experiences and live on through recipes that magically bring us all to the table.
- Spreading Tradition: A History of Tamal (and representation in Latino Children’s Literature) by M. Dustin Knepp, University of Central Arkansas http://www.cromrev.com/volumes/vol33/11-vol33-Knepp.pdf
- NPR’s Decoding the Food and Drink on a Day of the Dead Altar http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2014/10/29/359829045/decoding-the-food-and-drink-on-a-day-of-the-dead-altar
- Anthropology of Food webJournal: http://aof.revues.org/ and other Food Studies links: http://www.food-culture.org/food-studies-links/
- Dr. Sanchez recommends the classic New Mexican cooking cookbook, “The Good Life” by Fabiola Cabeza de Baca