I was born and raised in Cleveland Ohio, but I grew up in the true sense of the word, in New Mexico. From the age of twenty two, until nearly twenty six I lived in Albuquerque, moving there after I finished university with no idea what I wanted to do next, or how to be the grown up I supposedly now was. In attempt to break away from what I knew, but with a bit of a safety net and structure, I joined Americorps, a voluntary government sponsored organisation that provided the tiniest (and I mean TINIEST) of living stipends, in return for the opportunity to gain some serious life experience whilst giving back and helping to support a community. I packed up my car, brought a supportive to the point of slightly masochistic friend along for the ride (thanks Ash), and drove out to the Land of Enchantment.
New Mexico, although technically speaking part of the ‘Southwest’ should be classified as separate world and culture in and of itself. New Mexicans already see it this way. On top of which, Albuquerque, which is where I resided, is another world still. Although I have only seen a few episodes of Breaking Bad (I know I know…) the New Mexico I know is nothing like that Walter White experienced.
The landscape of Albuquerque ranged from stripmall-topia and low rider cars, taquerias and hand-roasted coffee, colourful murals and public art in the centre of the city, to low, long horizons, big vast skies and red earth just outside it. No matter where you were brick red ristras that lined the front doors of adobe style homes, cactus and pebbles were the typical front garden, and dust clouds were something I always worried about when taking to the highway. The smells of New Mexico air and the signalling of a turn in season were equally exceptional. The smoky slightly bitter, slightly sweet smell of Hatch chiles roasting at the turn of autumn, the bulbous colourful hot air balloons that took to the the sky in pockets come balloon fiesta and the luminarias that lined the paths come Christmas with the sweet, spicy smell of piñon.
I had my eyes slapped open on more occasions than I can begin to count whilst living in Albuquerque. I racked up debt buying plane tickets to go visit my family because I didn’t have two dimes to rub together, and yet I witnessed communities that had far less than I. I learned that assumptions I had made about cultures I had never really come into contact were biased, and wrong, and I was young and ignorant and more naive and uneducated and underexposed than I could have ever imagined myself to be. And I grew up. At least somewhat.
The communities that I was raised within in Cleveland were predominantly Caucasian or African American English speakers with a high population of Jewish families like my own. In New Mexico there are three predominant cultures; Hispanic, Native American, and Caucasian. People in New Mexico are just as likely to speak Spanish or as they are English, and even more likely in certain areas. And powwows and feast days were events that one needed to be a trusted invited guest in order attend on one of the pueblos, and justifiably so. I once asked someone in a supermarket where the dreidels were for Chanukah and was told to look in the frozen food aisle. It was a different world than the one in which I was raised for sure.
Though not truly aware of it at the time I look back now, having not visited for nearly nine years (which just seems cruel for a place I love so much), I think how much appropriation of culture must takes place there in both the most obvious as well as the must subtle of ways. You can’t throw a stone in Santa Fe without hitting a white person dripping in chunky turquoise jewellery, or one attempting to rule the dance floor at reggaeton night. I admit I too did my fair share of ignorant appropriation with little ability or desire to self reflect. I so desperately wanted to try on what wasn’t my own, define myself as something ‘new’ and ‘interesting’ as I began to make my way in the world.
I have always felt a pull back to New Mexico, irrelevant to how long I’ve been away. Perhaps it’s my tattoo of the Sandia Mountains on my foot; mountains that I looked towards each night I lived there to orient me and help me find my way home. Recently however I have felt an even stronger longing to go back and become re-engulfed in the culture. Perhaps is watching friends post photos on Facebook of their recent travels there, or my knowledge that the annual chile roasting season is upon us, as my mouth salivates from its absence of Hatch. Somehow New Mexico feels like the motherland to me, even though I wasn’t born there. When things get difficult, or confusing, or sad, the desire to go home to the Land of Enchantment takes hold. The place where I wasn’t raised. The place in which I grew up. The first home I chose on my own.
As my passion and desire for all things New Mexico has recently become reignited, I am determined to cook as close to the food I can remember as I possibly can. I am scouring the internet for anyone who has access to Hatch chiles in the UK- so if you know someone please send me their way! I’m even considering investing in seeds and a grow lamp…if I can just figure out where in the house to keep them!
But in the meanwhile, while I research and read and daydream away, I have also turned my attention to cooking things that smell like the New Mexico I remember, and ground me in their realness as well as their ability to transport. First thing on the list were these New Mexican frijoles. Made with pinto beans, a native crop to New Mexico and infused with chiles de arbol, chilli flakes, cumin, garlic, onions, Mexican oregano, two bay leaves and a tiny drop of blackstrap molassas, their sent filled my house with memories, to the point of honest to goodness tears, as they simmered away on the stove top for the majority of a morning and afternoon. Land of Enchantment, your grip has never loosened on me, you are truly an enchantress. Until we see each other once again, I will be doing my best to fill my kitchen with your scents and tastes, as they never fail to reassure me that a piece of you is always with me, no matter where in the world I live.
New Mexican Frijoles
500g dried pinto beans
1 tbsp chilli flakes
1 tbsp cumin
2-3 dried chiles de arbol, seeds removed
1 tbsp dried Mexican oregano
2 dried bay leaves
1 white onion, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
1 tbsp blackstrap molassas
1 stock cube of your choice
1 bunch fresh coriander (cilantro)
plenty of salt and pepper to taste
Soak beans overnight or approx 8 hours. This is crucial to creating a creamy, soft texture and makes for quicker cooking as well.
Drain and rinse beans, discarding any that are discoloured.
In a medium size pot add the beans and all ingredients except the fresh coriander. Fill pot with water, covering the beans with 3 fingers width of water. Cover and place on a low heat and let cook for 4 hours, stirring occasionally. During the last hour of cooking, add in the fresh herbs to give the beans and additional aromatic, slightly fresh taste.
Remove from heat, remove the bay leaf, chiles de arbol and corriander and let cool and thicken slightly before serving.
These can be eaten on their own, inside or alongside corn tortillas, in enchiladas, poured over scrambled or fried eggs, with rice, alongside a tender piece of pork … you name it!
When making this many beans at one time I find it’s best to divide the batch into two and freeze half for another time, to prolong enjoyment.