COYOTE CAFE: FOOD FOR THE SOUL

Food for the body is not enough. There must be food for the soul.
Dorothy Day

Coyote Cafe CoverMark Miller’s Coyote Café  was first published in January of 1989, the year I became director of a women’s studies program. And, in ways I couldn’t have imagined, it  began to influence my life. I discovered the cookbook on my first trip to Santa Fe in the spring of 1992. I had recently divorced and was trying to evolve, move on, and redefine my personal life. I had also become immersed in an effort to create a cross race political alliance on my campus among faculty in women’s and ethnic studies programs. Cooking large buffets had become central to my organizing efforts.

During that first visit to Santa Fe  clouds of yellow chamisa bloomed along the roadside, and I was dazed by the largeness of the sky, the ever-shifting clouds, the reddish land dotted with green brush, the Sandia Mountains rising in the distance. There was something that stunned my spirit in New Mexico, that lifted it upward. The moment I drove into Santa Fe with its thick, earth-colored adobe walls, rounded, undulating, pierced with wooden gates and iron grills, I felt it was a “good place.”

Santa Fe

Santa Fe

While in Santa Fe I followed a guidebook to the Coyote Café, the restaurant for which Miller’s cookbook was named. The restaurant’s dining room then had high ledges from which large wooden folk animals peered down on guests. It had a fun atmosphere, and the dinner had been  exquisite, although I remember only the stuffed squash blossoms. Under the spell of that first meal, I visited the restaurant shop next door and bought the cookbook, packets of chili, and a bread board in the shape of a Santa Fe coyote. (Santa Fe coyotes are shown sitting on their haunches as they howl.)

Santa Fe Coyote

Santa Fe Coyote

Sometimes the spirit of a cookbook is as important as the recipes it offers. As I reread the introduction to Coyote Cafe today, I am struck by how closely Miller described the personal process I was engaged in.  His food was to be “expressive,” alive, constantly evolving, redefining itself– just as I was trying to do.  His cooking, which drew upon multiple cuisines—Cajon, Creole, Mexican, Pre-Columbian—was meant to create community across borders, which is what I was trying to accomplish with my buffets. The book was also written in the playful spirit of Coyote. Stars, step fret designs, coyotes, folk animals, and Day of the Dead skeletons tumbled from its pages in a rainbow of yellow, pink, earth tones, blues. 
Coyote Pink
“Coyote” in Native American legends is complex.  He is a trickster and sometimes a merry maker. As Mark Miller put it, Coyote, in his Santa Fe version at least, “prevents the world from taking life too seriously.” For me, too, the Santa Fe coyote became a figure of fun, meant to remind me and others to be lighthearted.  In time I would order an iron muffin mold that produced muffins in the shape of coyotes. I would buy ceramic coyotes for the Christmas tree and a coyote cookie cutter that my daughter and I would use to make holiday cookies. “Christmas coyotes,” we called them. 
Cactus

Cactus

A lighthearted bounty made its way into my organizing efforts. For one spring buffet I made Miller’s goat cheese and mint tamales; smoky Yucatan lamb, marinated in cumin, Mexican oregano, thyme and chipotle chilies. I made refried black beans, sweet cinnamon rice, and corn cakes in the shape of coyotes, moons, and cacti. For dessert, something simple and refreshing but also, in Miller’s words, hearty, emphasizing a single flavor: almond polenta cake, white chocolate buttermilk pie, and cajeta tart with praline.

 

SunIt was through food like this that the spirit of Coyote entered my politics. As the economic geographers J.K. Gibson-Graham remind us, our political thinking has an emotional orientation which we would do well to examine. Instead of concentrating on the overwhelming nature of the forces ranged against us, we would do better to choose a politics of possibility. We can and should employ the tactics of seducing, cajoling, enrolling, enticing, and inviting to form political communities.  We should engage in playfulness and humor, because playfulness and humor can toss us onto the terrain of new possibilities. Play and lightheartedness are as vital to a political imagination as they are to  personal relations.

 In time the playfulness I expressed through food entered into the culture of the political community itself. I once said that our community ran on “affection, political passion, and on having the wisdom never, ever to pass up a good time.”

 Reader, what cookbooks have given you food for the soul?

Step Fret Cropped

 

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4 Responses to COYOTE CAFE: FOOD FOR THE SOUL

  1. BRAD says:

    Growing up in San Clemente, a sleepy little beach town of 5,000 in Southern California during the late 1950s, the only “ethnic” restaurant we had in town was the “Coyote Café.” At that time, “coyote” referred to someone who smuggled Mexicans into the United States, and was, thus, possibly, a code word for an underground railroad station which served to spirit these dreamers and pioneers north into LA and the rest of the country — a testament to the “politics of possibility” which Mark Miller and you so richly adumbrate and which, I still hope, will some day transform this politically orthodox, plain vanilla landscape into a true cross-cultural family of hope and aspiration. And the Coyote Cafés led the way.

  2. Silver Palate because it never fails to deliver the goods and people are invariably happy when you serve them food from SP. Even years later, am still returning to check out all the recipes I never made. But everyone who bought that book in the 80s and everyone who was a friend of someone who bought the book knows Chicken Marbella, still a terrific dish for a party. The summer roasted vegetables that I first made in the 80s have since then been a staple in my extended family’s meals, my brother makes them and my sister and my friends in Canada for whom I made them on a trip to Toronto. When I went to visit my mother in the far north of Duluth, Mn., I would make her a huge batch and then freeze 2/3rds of them so she could have the after I left. Just looking Silver Palate up now I was sorry to see that Sheila Lukin died from brain cancer at 66 years old.
    Sad to say, my Silver Palate cookbook is so beat up it’s now in 2 parts and close to disintegrating into 4. The Silver Palate Good Times is in good shape, mainly because I don’t use it as much because it’s harder to find what you want due to it’s organizing principle.

  3. judith says:

    Oh yes, my Silver Palate Good Times is relatively untouched, but The New Basics, which came out in 1989 the same year as Coyote Cafe, has been much used. I served The Three Layer Mexican Dip at all my buffets. I guess this tells you how much I was gravitating to Southwestern recipes. I’m going to make the Chicken Marbella and think of you. I also bought Silver Palate but seem not to have used it! High time!

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