Food Traditions in Northern New Mexico

By Quita Ortiz

Similar to other regions, the autumn season in northern New Mexico is marked with changing colors and cooler weather, providing us with a welcomed reprieve from the summer’s heat, especially this year. The plants and trees are retiring for the season, and soon enough will yield to the winter. Food traditions are alive and well in the fall and if we’re prepared, some of us have preserved much of our harvest for future consumption in the forms of drying, canning, or freezing.

Our communities still rely on the traditional foods and dishes of northern New Mexico to fill their plates. From calabacitas to tamales, we covet them all. Elena Arellano is no exception and when it comes to food, her skills are well-known and highly regarded in and around her community of Embudo, NM.

She remembers growing up nearby in Cañoncito, “Since I was little I remember helping out on the farm. I always liked to help outside more than in the kitchen, but I was expected to help with dinner when I came home from school,” suggesting that her culinary skills didn’t really blossom until later in life. “When I got married I started experimenting more. It was interesting to me to try different foods and recipes,” she said, “but we still eat a lot of traditional foods like quelites and verdolagas.”

Elena’s culinary evolution stemmed from her creative side. She said she’s always been interested in art and photography and it fueled her food endeavors. “The color and texture of food was very important to me,” she said, “If it doesn’t look pretty it’s not going to taste as good.” She has taken on catering opportunities throughout the years, but nowadays only caters occasionally and prefers small events. “The larger you get, the less creative you can be,” she said.

Like many of us, one of Elena’s favorite traditional food is tamales. She’s working with her local co-op in Dixon to organize a workshop there this fall, where she’ll demonstrate the process of making tamales. “I’m going to show them how to prepare the masa, and how to wash the hojas (corn husks), and how to cook the meat,” she said. The workshop will be interactive, allowing participants to both observe and assist with the process.
Elena asserts that if you’re going to prepare tamales, you better do it right. “A lot of people take short cuts in ingredients and you can’t do that,” she says, “You need to use good meat, good chile and good masa with good manteca (lard). I won’t spread my tamales until I taste my masa and know that it’s good and spreadable.”

Elena realizes the importance of knowing the source of what we eat, especially our youth. “A lot of people have no idea where food comes from. For them, food and supermarket are one and the same,” she said. She told me that she often has atole (ground blue corn served as a hot cereal) for breakfast instead of the store-bought cereals. “It’s healthy,” she says, “It makes me feel good when I drink a cup of atole compared to eating a bowl of Corn Flakes.”

Despite the grave truth about the masses being unaware of the origins of what they consume, our food traditions in New Mexico are, after centuries, still thriving. We eat what we grow, and we love what we eat. Frijoles, posole, chicos, chile, followed by natillas, bizcochitos, pastelitos to satisfy the sweet tooth – they’re New Mexico’s soul foods. Ending on a high note, Elena says, “Anything we can grow here keeps us going.”