Food for the body is not enough. There must be food for the soul.
Mark 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.”
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.)
- 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” 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.
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.
It 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?