Alibi V.27 No.9 • March 1-7, 2018 

Food for Thought

Who Owns New Mexican Food?

What culinary histories of New Mexico are we missing?

Green chile chicken enchiladas
Green chile chicken enchiladas from El Patio
Eric Williams Photography

On the first day of the year, I invited a few friends over to my house and cooked a big meal for all of them: grits, collard greens and black-eyed peas. I felt like a good Southern girl for doing it. Black-eyed peas (or Hoppin’ John, as the dish is called) are traditionally served on New Year’s Day in the South—it’s believed to ensure prosperity for the new year. As a kid growing up in Texas, I remember eating Hoppin’ John on New Year’s Day, along with fresh pork tamales made by my neighbors or small crawfish that I picked apart over a table laid with butcher paper, elbow-to-elbow with men wearing overalls and drinking beers out of a cooler. My culinary experience of the South—especially in the cosmopolitan city of Houston—was always that of a melting pot of many cultures, and it was a melting pot that I came to identify with and be proud of as I moved to other cities across the country. Southern food was my food.

After living in Illinois, then California and then New Mexico for many years, my relationship with Southern food is now tangential at most—I’ll make fried green tomatoes or grits on occasion, and the annual feast of Hoppin’ John, but that’s about it. Southern food is not mine. My new love is, of course, New Mexican food, and devouring frybred tacos, blue corn enchiladas and green chile stew. When friends come to visit me from out of town, I take them to El Patio and Monroe’s for greasy plates of chile-covered goodness. I love New Mexican food, but in no way is it mine, either.

Earlier this month I read an essay from 2016 titled “Who Owns Southern Food?” The essay, co-written by John T. Edge, the director of Southern Foodways Alliance and Tunde Wey, a Nigerian-born chef and food writer, is a response to a growing national dialogue on cultural appropriation in the culinary world—especially the culinary world of South Carolina, and the trend of rockstar white chefs profiting from cooking dishes that are largely based in African cuisine. Between that and the bombshell that was The New York Times’ historical reporting on the enslavement of Native Americans in New Mexico, this year has prompted me to do a lot of thinking about the history that most of us would rather forget, and what that has to do with the food we cook and eat now.

In parallel to Edge and Wey’s essay, I wonder: Who owns New Mexican food? Of the three dishes I mentioned above, all are based in traditional Diné (Navajo) cooking. Frybread is, in fact, a recipe from the infamous Long Walk, when Diné people from Arizona were forced to walk the 300 miles to the Bosque Redondo reserve and had to survive on meager government rations of flour and lard. Consequently, some Native American people today see the food as a symbol of the fortitude and ingenuity of their ancestors, while some see it as a reminder of bloody and ever-present colonialism.

Of course, New Mexican food also has components of Mexican and Spanish cuisine, as well as that of the Germans and other Europeans who settled here. To say New Mexican food originates from or belongs to any particular one of these cultures would be obviously false. It is, like Southern food, mestizo, composed of many parts, some getting more credit than others. Our job, then—that is, mine and John T. Edge’s—is to shed some light on the parts that don’t get as much credit: the immigrant chefs, the born-of-necessity meals that turn into haute cuisine in Brooklyn restaurants, the foods with violent histories.

With all this in mind, I’m seeking pitches about the Native American roots of New Mexican food. I want to share the histories of the farmers, hunters and cooks who don’t often get written about; the plants and animals that fed the people in this country for generations before Cortez. All of us should know where our food comes from, and not just in terms of what farm it grew on. It’s my hope that these stories could be something of a series here in the Alibi. If you have a story idea along these lines, please let me know about it at robin@alibi.com.