Cooking With Myra: The flavor of New Mexico
By Myra Starkey
April 2, 2013 at midnight
Updated April 1, 2013 at 11:02 p.m.
El Santuario de Chimayo is a 200-year-old Catholic church in the village of Chimayo in the northern part of New Mexico.
The church is made of adobe, or mud brick, as most old buildings are in that area. This method of construction has changed little in the past 400 years since the Spanish arrived and adopted the ways of the Pueblo Indians.
This historic shrine is famous for its "holy dirt," which is thought to have healing powers. A small room off the sanctuary, called el pocito (translated little well), contains a round hole in the floor, which is the source of the dirt.
Pilgrims come from all over the country seeking its healing powers for themselves or relatives. The walls of the outer room are papered with photos, discarded crutches and canes, which testify of those healed.
I stood in line to enter the shrine. In front of me was a small family with two children. The woman held a paper bag containing two plastic dishes with lids made especially for the healing soil.
She said she purchased these in the gift shop out front. She gave one each to her son and daughter. I looked around for Taylor who had disappeared - hopefully to return with containers for us. The children knelt reverently near the hole in the stone floor, peering in, hopeful that some light or miracle might materialize.
After a moment of prayers, the younger girl took the scoop and filled her container. The older brother, being more ambitious, figured if the dirt was powerful, he needed more and promptly put the small dish aside and began to fill the paper bag.
The mother started giggling, which caused a hush to arise from the other faithful folks waiting in line. The family exited, and I entered the room. I was unprepared with no vessel for my dirt, so I dumped a tin of Altoids into my purse and filled the box. Luckily, Taylor soon arrived with two official containers that were more secure so I could transport the sacred earth back home.
The legend started in 1810 on Holy Thursday. A man deep in prayer noticed a light shining from the earth. He began to dig, using his hands, and uncovered a crucifix which is the current site of the small hole.
The sanctuary was built around it. The dirt in the spot was found to bring physical and spiritual healing to believers. As the story spread, pilgrims began to come from far and wide.
I believe in God and miracles and had no problem rubbing the dirt on my throat and chest, since I had been suffering from bronchitis. I think I felt a little better after I did this. One would have to say that greater miracles require the greatest of faith, and perhaps I was a little skeptical.
Also noteworthy was a children's chapel nearby with a beautifully carved baptismal font. The church contained beautifully carved whimsical trees that were filled with wooden doves and other colorful birds. There was a small prayer room to the side that was filled with kids' photos, letters and hundreds of baby shoes, which contained prayers for their former wearers.
That room made me sad because I thought of the many parents who had gone there in search of a miracle for their sick child over the years. It made me grateful for the health of my own, and I stopped to whisper a quick word of thanks.
Our next stop was lunch at Rancho de Chimayo, a noteworthy, (and perhaps) the only restaurant in town. It was in a grand old adobe house.
I ordered a chile relleno stuffed with chicken doused with red and green sauce. Taylor had the slow-roasted pork adovada rolled in fresh flour tortillas. The sopapillas served with honey were warm and flaky.
This region is mostly known for weaving. Many households have large looms, and the children are taught to weave by their mothers and grandmothers when they are young. In fact, the current weavers are the eighth generation over the last 200 years.
The locals have turned this craft into an industry and produce beautiful rugs. They look similar to wool rugs from Mexico, but this would be expected since the craft originated down south, and that area was part of Mexico until the United States took it over in 1847.
I had researched several weavers, and we visited their studios. One of the most interesting was a man named Harvey Cordova in Truchas. That town was a bit farther down a winding road, high on a mountain ridge.
The views were spectacular, and small drifts of snow were still against the shady sides of the buildings. We noticed his sign and went inside. He was standing on his loom as we entered, working on a large rug. Some of the looms require the weaver to stand, and they raise or lower the "harnesses" with their feet.
Harvey happily showed us around his shop and patiently answered our questions about the area. There were browned newspaper clippings tacked to the walls. The Robert Redford movie, "The Milagro Beanfield Wars," had been filmed there in the 1970s, and his young son had been in the movie. He took great pride telling us about the filming and getting to meet the movie stars.
Harvey made his living producing rugs, placemats and other commissioned pieces. He explained that many of the citizens who still lived in this scenic yet remote place worked down in the valley in places such as the nuclear lab at Los Alamos. A few still simply worked as sheep herders, weavers or artisans.
Back outside, I wrapped my wool shawl tightly around me as I walked along the road looking at the town. I breathed in the crisp air, which smelled faintly of pine and livestock. Below me I could see fields like patchwork being worked by old tractors and old men.
Our next stop was Taos. The town is located in the shadow of the 13,167 feet Wheeler Peak, the highest point in New Mexico. The Taos Pueblo is a five-story structure that has been occupied by the Indians since about AD 1200.
The area later became a prosperous trade route inhabited by men, such as Kit Carson. It developed into a well-known art colony by the early 1900s due to its brilliant blue skies, majestic surroundings and colorful native people. Taos seems to have something for everyone, whether you are a nature lover, shopper, artist or adventurer.
We stayed in a small hotel called Hacienda Del Sol, which was beautiful and with a memorable view of the mountain range. Our hosts prepared a delicious breakfast of turkey bacon and blueberry pancakes for us, and we chatted with the other guests. They were as equally chilled out as us because they were also on vacation.
Last on our museum list was the Kit Carson house in the middle of town. The house was a simple structure made of adobe in the 1840s. Taylor had been reading the book, "Blood and Thunder," about Carson, so I had my own museum guide as we walked from room to room.
Life during those years for the frontier men and their families was not easy, and their accommodations were extremely basic. They were in constant threat of Indians raiding their homes and kidnapping women and children. That situation was hard to grasp as I wandered through quiet shops and art galleries.
Earlier in the day, I spent time in a bookstore in town called Moby Dickens where I looked through cookbooks trying to get a feel of the ingredients used in New Mexico food. Chiles are the basis of many dishes, but many area chefs are trying to lighten up the heavy diet of the inhabitants but not sacrifice the flavor of the chile pepper.
Myra Starkey lives in Victoria. Write her in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77901, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.