It is late afternoon on our last day in Santa Fe, and our reunion suppers with old friends have come to an end. We have packed, tidied our rented casita, and have made one last walk to the downtown plaza. It is 4:30, too late for lunch, too early for dinner, but we decide to eat anyway and stroll into the courtyard of La Casa Sena, an impressionist garden of greenery, of light and shade, and of white, yellow, and tan umbrellas. The restaurant had been jammed at lunch the day before, and we had refused to wait the estimated forty minutes for a table, but now, miraculously, the place is almost empty. Is it even serving food we wonder. Yes! We sit at a table off to the side, partly shielded by a bush as tall as a tree, and order mushroom tamales and chicken enchiladas.
To our surprise a musician begins to tune his guitar. What happy accident of fate has produced music for us at 4:30 on a Tuesday afternoon? As the musician sings softly and soulfully, turning songs like “Sixteen Tons” into ballads, we sip our wine and slip into a pleasant languor. The food arrives and the hot green chile on the enchilada, the earthy taste of wild mushroom against the soft mildness of poblano-scented masa seem just right. We say to each other in some wonder these are the best dishes we’ve had on our trip! Why does this moment seem more enchanted than any other? Has our week in Santa Fe slowed us down, perhaps opening us to simple pleasures more fully than before? Do we register these small delights with a special intensity because we are leaving them?
Santa Fe is full of unexpected enchantments, although telling you this is not the proper way to begin the tidy essay I meant to write, the essay that had as its title “Five Fun and Food-Related Things To Do in Santa Fe.” The problem with writing tidily about food-related pleasures in Santa Fe is that there are so many other kinds of pleasures here. There is the landscape– the largeness of the sky, the ever-shifting clouds, the reddish land dotted with green brush, the Sandia mountains rising in the distance. There is the architecture–thick adobe walls, rounded, undulating, pierced with wooden gates and iron grills. There is wilderness, the high road to Taos that winds through forests and small New Mexican towns, the coyote sauntering across the road on a summer morning. There is something that stuns the spirit in New Mexico, that lifts it upward. But I digress. I really do want to tell you about five fun and food-related things to do in Santa Fe, and these are the five.
1. Take a restaurant tour with the Santa Fe Cooking School. On our own tour we walked to five different restaurants, talked with chefs and a mixologist, visited kitchens, and ate small plates–a bowl of Native American chili from Red Mesa Cuisine, a spice-rubbed Mexican prawn and a wild mushroom fritter in chile-corn soup at Martín’s, and polenta fries with gorgonzola cream at The Palace.
The food was great, and we got to know some expensive places without having to commit to a full meal. But the deepest pleasure was to hear the passion with which our host chefs and mixologist approached their art. And art is the word for Secreto’s chile-marinated pork ravioli in a garlic-infused bean cream. It was served with a cocktail called the Agave Way (green chile, agave nectar, red grapes, lime juice, and Espalón Reposado Tequila) at Secreto bar.
2.Take a cooking class with the Santa Fe Cooking School as well. Learn your chiles, including how to peel them, while you lounge under the trees at a lovely estate on the edge of town. My favorite recipe–spicy Grilled Green Rice Salad.
3.If you go at Indian or Spanish market time, get to the downtown plaza early and secure a seat under the trees. Buy food from a stall—maybe a Frito pie—a small bag of Fritos onto which a mix of beef and chili, cheese, lettuce and tomato are piled high. Eat the pie from its bag with a plastic fork, listen to traditional New Mexican music or to New Mexican R and B like that of Sol Fire. Watch dancers flash pink and white skirts and feel the local community vibe as families, bikers, and mountain men mix and even dance.
4.If you go in opera season, which is July and August, have a tailgate picnic before the opera. Arrive at six, park on the road leading to the parking lot, find a table looking into a canyon, watch the clouds form and reform, turn dark and then light. Bring a table cloth, napkins, and real wine glasses and get takeout, perhaps a savory rustic torte and a dessert of glazed fruit piled high on a square of pastry cream and crust. Do not forget the wine. And see the opera! The Opera House is open at the sides to the sky and stars. The sunsets here are like no others.
5.Bring Santa Fe home. Buy packets of chile powders and Mexican cinnamon and maybe a cook book or two from one of the dozens of shops. This is what I meant to write and wanted to share even though Santa Fe is a such a rich tangle of the sensuous and the spiritual that only a tiny part of it can be delivered in a list.
Earlier in our trip my friend Geri had asked,
“Could you live in Santa Fe?”
“No, “ I said, “I have too many connections in Berkeley. Could you?”
“I think I could.”
I couldn’t live in Santa Fe, but I want Santa Fe to live in me. I want to weave its pleasures into the fabric of my life at home. That is the reason I take pictures, scribble notes, and buy things.. Although I’m ambivalent about buying too much–I don’t want to consume just to consume–I remind myself that Santa Fe has been a market town for over 400 years. One of the deepest pleasures it offers lies in surveying its art and wares, and in Santa Fe “wares” feel like art, the kind that expresses joy in living. Santa Fe style tends to be recklessly, joyously, over the top. (I know that if I were to live in Santa Fe, I’d be wearing cotton lace dresses, buckskin vests, and at least three turquoise necklaces with a silver squash blossom or a large turquoise cross.) I do buy a necklace and some carved folks animals, my favorite being a yellow jackrabbit dressed in a robe, with arms extended like a saint’s, a look of bewildered piety on its face. It was carved with the idea that everyday life should be filled with lightness of heart.
Once I am home, the spirit of Santa Fe lingers for several days. During this time I situate my new carved animals in the living room and kitchen, decide to paint the cabinets in my bathroom a deep, Mexican rose, and frame a picture of a tiled table top at the Pink Adobe Restaurant for the bathroom wall. I sort my turquoise necklaces into types so I can combine them in twos and threes. (One necklace is no longer enough.) I am anxious to finish these tasks before I lose touch with Santa Fe, with my renewed will to live a more deeply sensuous, lighthearted, and sensitive life.
It is the still present spirit of Santa Fe that prompts me to google a favorite picture of Frida Kahlo, the one at Xochomilco, the watery pleasure garden outside of Mexico City. I want to enlarge that picture into another poster for the bathroom wall. Perhaps I will also paint that wall a Mexican rose. Frida looks over the boat and as water trails lightly through her fingers she seems to be feeling but also thinking about pleasure. Perhaps she is thinking about the fleeting nature of delight. Perhaps she is thinking about mortality. I want to think about mortality too–so I remember to live. The enchanting moment against the sharp edge of leaving it—that is at the heart of a Santa Fe state of mind.
GRILLED GREEN RICE SALAD
(Adapted from Santa Fe Cooking School)
4 c cooked white rice, cooled
1 c cilantro, leaves and stems, finely chopped
1 bunch scallions, green tops only, sliced
½ c New Mexican green chile, roasted and peeled
Juice and zest of 2 limes
½ c olive oil (not extra virgin)
3 T apple cider vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste
1. Put all ingredients except the rice into a blender and blend well.
2. Pour over rice and serve.