When New Mexico’s Native Pueblos celebrate their patron saints, blessings abound.
UPCOMING PUEBLO FEAST DAYS
AUGUST 4 Kewa/Santa Domingo (St. Dominic)
AUGUST 10 Picuris (San Lorenzo)
AUGUST 12 Santa Clara (St. Clare)
AUGUST 15 Zia (Our Lady of Assumption)
SEPTEMBER 2 Acoma (San Estevan)
SEPTEMBER 4 Isleta (San Augustine)
SEPTEMBER 19 Laguna (St. Joseph)
SEPTEMBER 30 Taos (San Geronimo)
OCTOBER 4 Nambé (San Francisco de Assisi)
For additional dates of feast days at other times of the year, see newmexico.org/feast-days and indianpueblo.org/19pueblos/feastdays.html
ON SEPTEMBER 19, 1980, a colleague invited our office staff to join her extended family and friends at Laguna Pueblo on the feast day honoring Saint Joseph. The rustic warmth of the experience is etched like a petroglyph in my memory—the village’s ancient adobes, the searing sunshine and deep shadows, the rhythmic music, the reverent dancers, the communal celebration. So stunning was the experience for a newly minted New Mexican that I simply plumb forgot about the food.
It’s a testament to the beauty of such a feast day that I haven’t a clue as to what I ate. That’s pretty weird for me. Food is so central to my life that I know what I devoured, and where I devoured it, pretty much back to the chicken gumbo soup I wanted on my very first day of school. How can I not remember those particular stews, roasts, beans, salads, horno-baked breads, and chile dishes? Maybe dessert was biscochitos, bread pudding, fruit pie squares oozing juice, or those popular whole-wheat, horno-baked cookies.
A MULTITUDE OF FEASTS
I’ve been privileged to attend many more feast days since that introduction—at Acoma, Sandia, San Felipe, and Kewa (formerly Santa Domingo) Pueblos. Eighteen of the 19 New Mexico Pueblos celebrate a feast day (Zuni does not). Generally, the days start with an early mass and a procession with the figure of the patron saint. A specially constructed altar holds the saint for the day, and the leaders of the Pueblo will keep watch over the figure as people come to pay their respects. Feast day dances generally feature the Corn Dance, a form of thanksgiving to the spirits that have provided food. The dances include hundreds of people in traditional clothing or in striking regalia, from tykes to elders. Participating is quite a commitment, with multiple rehearsals beforehand.
These activities are respectful and spiritual, but the mood is also upbeat and uplifting. Villages bustle with vendors offering arts, crafts, T-shirts, and loads of snacks. You might pass a family selling freshly roasted ears of corn, still smoky from an earthen horno, or hand-gathered, fresh-roasted piñons (pine nuts). Next to them, someone might be dispensing Day-Glo snow cones. You may even spot one of the odder treats—odd, at least, to me—the Kool-Aid pickle. Yes, it’s a big, green deli dill, soaked in red Kool-Aid.
If you receive an invitation to a home, the food will be offered gratis to you and dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of others. One Native friend, who lives a very modern life in Albuquerque, prepares food without the benefit of electricity or running water in her family’s ancestral home at Acoma. At most homes, guests eat in shifts of maybe up to a dozen at once. People wait patiently in the living room or outside, using the time to meet other guests, many of whom have come from far-flung parts of the country for the warm reunion. Any invitee who’s ever attended is welcome for the rest of their life. What an honor.
I just returned from San Felipe’s May 1 feast day. The Hollywood Casino, on I-25, may be the Pueblo’s best-known landmark, but once you travel west toward the historic central village, you quickly leave neon behind. In fact, on feast day, the neon isn’t even flashing. This is one of the two days the casino closes (a portion of Christmas Eve into Christmas Day is the other) so families can observe the festivities together. The asphalt track gets smaller as you approach the heart of the village, then completely disappears into cinnamon-colored dirt. Whether homes look old or new, compact or spacious, many have a well-used earthen horno, most of them as tall as me. The Río Grande courses through the middle of the village.
One of my destinations was the home of Rose Tenorio, where her daughter Charlotte Little was helping with the feast. In daily life, Charlotte can usually be found at the tribal administrative offices, where she works as the human resources director. During the week leading up to the feast day, though, she’s one of the family’s main cooks and dishwashers, along with matriarch Rose and a retinue of siblings and cousins. Surveying the number of gleaming, 30-gallon pots and slow cookers on every flat surface, I commented on the immense undertaking such feasting requires. Charlotte gave me a radiant smile and said, “It’s made easy by our working together. What might be a chore becomes a labor of love when the preparations and meals are shared. Plus, we get to catch up on all the news of family and friends as we work.”
Charlotte and Rose’s menu included multiple bowls of meaty green-chile stew with sweet corn and equally hearty posole with red chile, whole pinto beans, and wedges of golden frybread for soaking up the juices. Platters of meatloaf were passed along with fried chicken, and a Jell-O salad studded with multicolored mini marshmallows was so ridiculously yummy I wanted to ask for thirds. Afterward came watermelon slices and fruit pies. My friend Norman Suazos, from Taos Pueblo, commented that these were Taos-style pies, which he could identify by the amount of crust and the raisin filling. Sure enough, Rose grew up on Taos Pueblo. I somehow resisted the frosted chocolate layer cake that was circulating at the other end of the dining room.
A FEAST MADE FOR LAUGHTER
I shared the table with an architect, a fire marshal, and an aviation mechanic. Charlotte’s husband, an Isleta tribal judge, hadn’t been able to get away from work yet, but was expected that evening. Conversation included bits about everyone’s careers, extended families, upcoming elections, and ongoing concerns about getting enough rain and the water level of the Río. Everyone laughed about Charlotte’s “mistake” of grabbing blueberry Kool-Aid at the supermarket instead of the expected cherry. Someone mused that it would be easy to see who had dined here by the people wandering the village with blue lips.
These days, feast foods can include spaghetti, macaroni salad, and other pasta. Chicken enchilada casseroles are another favorite. The traditional Three Sisters of the Pueblo diet—corn, beans, and squash—remain at the heart of the meal, along with chile, which came north with the Spanish colonists and was readily adopted. Depending on the time of year, dinner might include a summer squash dish, calabacitas, and maybe slices of roasted pumpkin as the weather cools. A September feast day might feature more fresh green-chile preparations while a spring one, like San Felipe’s, relies more on the dried-red variety.
I asked Rose about the now-common broccoli-grape salad that pops up at feast days all around the state. Rose chuckled and told me, “You’re asking at the right place. I believe the salad was first the creation of a German chef who oversaw the San Felipe food service in the early days of our casino. All of us who worked in the food service loved the flavor and freshness. We started making it for every communal meal. It spread like crazy.”
A FEAST FOR THE SOUL
Before eating begins, a prayer is said, and a bit of food is thrown to the four winds, put in a sacred receptacle, or baked into the fire used to prepare it. The late artist Pablita Velarde explained it in the foreword to Marcia Keegan’s Southwest Indian Cookbook: “Since the spirits help to raise the food, it possesses great powers to heal the body and mind.” I think about a concluding bit of hospitality I’ve experienced at Acoma, where my friend Aleta “Tweety” Suazo always sends guests home with individual goody bags filled with fresh fruit and feast day cookies.
In the years since that first feast day at Laguna Pueblo, I’ve been able to regain my focus on the culinary offerings. However, I’ve learned that the greatest sustenance from a feast day comes from the sense of community, a heaping helping of hospitality, and celebration.
JUNIPER LAMB-AND-CHILE STEW
Francisco Vázquez de Coronado brought sheep into what is now New Mexico in 1540, and they have remained a major part of life here since, particularly among the Puebloans and Navajo. Both Native peoples make a stew similar to this, though traditionally they use mutton rather than lamb. Pueblo cooks often serve the stew on the annual feast day of their village. During high summer, you might want to switch out the posole for small sections of corn on the cob. It’s delicious either way. I based this specific version on one from Pueblo Indian Cookbook, edited by Phyllis Hughes and first published by the Museum of New Mexico Press in 1972. The tiny volume has remained in print continually since then, and has sold upward of 90,000 copies.
2 tablespoons lard or vegetable oil
1 large onion, chopped
2/3 cup chopped wild celery, or regular celery stalks with leaves
2 pounds boneless lamb shoulder, trimmed of surface fat and cut in ¾ to 1-inch cubes
Salt and freshly ground pepper
½ to 1 cup chopped roasted mild New Mexican green chile, preferably fresh or thawed frozen
1 teaspoon dried crumbled oregano, preferably Mexican, or more to taste
4 to 6 juniper berries, crushed
2 cups cooked posole, preferably, or hominy, or 2 large ears of not-too-sweet corn, cut through the cob into 1-inch-thick rounds
Warm lard in a Dutch oven or large saucepan over medium heat. Stir in onion and celery and cook until soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Toss lamb cubes with salt and pepper to taste, then add them to pot and cook until browned. Pour in 3 cups of water, scraping up browned bits from bottom. Stir in chile, oregano, and juniper berries. Bring stew to a boil, then reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer for about 1. hours. (Add more water if mixture gets dry.) Stir in posole or fresh corn sections. Continue cooking uncovered until meat is very tender and stew thick and reduced, about 30 minutes more. Degrease stew, if you wish. Adjust seasoning and serve hot, ladled into bowls.
Adapted from American Home Cooking, © 1999 Cheryl Alters Jamison and Bill Jamison, HarperCollins Publishers/William Morrow Books.
FEAST DAY BREAD
The Puebloans who live along the Río Grande continue to bake bread in the beehive-shaped adobe hornos first brought to the region several centuries ago by the Spanish, who acquired the idea from the Moors. The most common Pueblo bread is an uncomplicated crusty round, often called adobe bread. This feast day style, also crusty and chewy, uses more ingredients but is no more difficult to prepare. Lucy Zamora, of Taos Pueblo, and Lucille Hummingbird Flower King, of San Ildefonso Pueblo, showed me how they bake their bread, which encouraged me to develop this version for the conventional home oven.
Makes one 1-pound loaf
1 teaspoon active dry yeast
2 teaspoons molasses
1 tablespoon lard or vegetable shortening
2 teaspoons salt
4 ounces creamy, fresh goat cheese, crumbled
½ cup cottage cheese
1 teaspoon dried sage, or more, to taste
3 to 3¼ cups unbleached bread flour
Combine yeast with molasses and 2 tablespoons of lukewarm water in the work bowl
of an electric mixer. Set aside until foamy. Heat 1 cup of water with lard to lukewarm in a small pan.
In an electric mixer with a dough hook, mix together on medium speed yeast mixture, water mixture, salt, cheeses, sage, and 2. cups of flour. Beat for about 3 minutes, then add additional flour, . cup at a time, until you have a smooth, elastic dough, no longer sticky but with a satiny sheen. Pat dough into a fat disk. Wash out bowl, coat it with oil, transfer dough back to it, and turn dough to coat it with oil. Cover bowl and set it aside in a warm, draft-free spot until dough doubles in bulk, 1 to 1½ hours.
Punch down dough, kneading it a few turns. Pat it back into a fat disk and return it to bowl. Cover and let it rise until doubled again, another 1 to 1. hours. Shape dough into a 7- to 8-inch round loaf. Let it rest briefly while you finish preparations for baking.
Place an empty, heavy skillet on lowest rack of oven and, for best results, a baking stone like those used for pizza on middle shelf. If you don’t have a baking stone, substitute a heavy baking sheet. Preheat oven to 400° F.
Transfer bread to heated baking stone or sheet, using a large spatula. Before closing oven, pour . cup water into skillet to create steam in oven. Close oven immediately. Bake for 15 minutes, then reduce heat to 375° F. and continue baking for 40 to 45 more minutes, until bread is brown on top and sounds hollow when thumped. If it thuds rather dully, it’s not yet ready. Cool loaf on a baking rack. While best the day it’s made, the bread makes good toast for several more.
Adapted from A Real American Breakfast, © 2003 Cheryl Alters Jamison and Bill Jamison, HarperCollins Publishers/William Morrow Books.
The previous recipes are reworked versions of Pueblo classics. Broccoli-Grape Salad popped up in more recent years, but has spread like wildfire. This version comes from an Acoma friend, Aleta “Tweety” Suazo, one of the best cooks I know. She uses a sweet-and-sour poppyseed dressing rather than the more typical Miracle Whip or mayonnaise. It’s as pretty as it is refreshing.
¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons white or cider vinegar
¼ cup honey
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 tablespoon chopped onion
1½ teaspoons Dijon mustard
½ teaspoon salt, or more to taste
¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons sunflower or vegetable oil
1 tablespoon poppyseeds
1 pound raw fresh broccoli, florets and tender stems, chopped into bite-size pieces
¾ pound (about 2 cups) seedless purple grapes, halved
2 cups roasted cashews
In a food processor, combine vinegar, honey, sugar, onion, mustard, and salt. With processor still running, add oil slowly and continue mixing until dressing is well-combined and thick. Spoon out into serving container and stir in poppyseeds. Dressing can be made 3 to 4 days ahead, if you wish.
Combine the broccoli, grapes, and cashews in a bowl. Stir together with about three-fourths of dressing and salt to taste. Refrigerate for at least an hour and up to a day before serving, with remaining dressing on the side.
Read Cheryl Alters Jamison’s blog at nmmagazine.com/tastingnm. See more of Douglas Merriam’s work at douglasmerriam.com