The Succession of Local Sustaining Foods Across a Year’s Time
I just finished eating a perfectly ripe apricot that my friend Levi gave me from a tree in his back yard. And what an experience that was! When I bit into it, its soft, translucent orange flesh released a torrent of concentrated flavors and nutrients. I had forgotten what a real apricot tastes like, as opposed to one of those humongous, not quite ripe, often disappointing apricots that come from afar in 10-pack, hard-plastic boxes, selling for at least three bucks at local stores.
Biting into that apricot also instantly provoked a stream of thoughts, memories and even emotions. How was it that a single juicy, homegrown fruit was able to spark such consciousness-raising powers? Well, apricots have always been central to my family’s farming life and our table. The fruit my friend gave me not only tasted like the divine, succulent fruit it was, but also like the New Mexican soil where it had been grown and the acequia water it had imbibed. To me, it also embodied the full flavor of summer, family and community, given that during my youth my extended family and I used to pick vast quantities from the arboles de albarcoque at my aunt Genoveva Montoya’s home in El Jardín, near Chimayó. These had been among the happiest of times. As if by magic, the indescribably sweet flavor and special texture of that apricot effortlessly and convincingly transported me to that place and those times.
While eating the apricot I realized that comida was not just for the body alone, but that it had the capacity to nourish spirit, mind and even memory. How could it be otherwise when, not long ago—as certain as the sun rises each morning—people had been an integral part of the local ecology, together with its fauna and flora, of which food-bearing plants were among the most valued In a world of locally produced food, the days, weeks, months and years became memorable and significant, primarily in relation to the availability of certain foods. In northern New Mexico, a variety of foods poured forth from field, forest and hillside, as well as from people’s cupboards, pantries and dispensas or granaries if la gente had been wise enough to put away the harvest when it was plentiful. Food and its availability were among the most defining events of the yearly cycle, for in an age in which government assistance barely existed, ensuring sustainable sources of nourishment dramatically increased one’s chances for survival.
In the depths of winter, people feasted upon the stored-up heaps of grains, peas, beans, chile, pumpkins, potatoes, apples, piñón and, of course, carne seca and quesos. By mid-March, however, a bit tired of these staples, people turned their attention to picking chimajá, a variety of wild, tasty celery that, when dried, added to the flavor of the indispensable frijoles de olla. If you loved chimajá, however, you had better be quick and observant, for that diminutive plant was available in the foothills around places like Cuarteles and other lower-altitude communities for only a few days before completely vanishing.
In mid-April, people directed their energies to harvesting clusters of asparagus that grew along embankments of the acequias and beneath the ancient apple trees of our orchards. For some reason, the sound of each stalk snapping at its base as my brothers and I picked them brought us unexpressed joy. The delightful process of asparagus picking led to armloads of thick, fresh spears that we took home to our adoring mother. For a couple of weeks each year, the abundant supply became an almost daily staple, in contrast to the occasional delicacy that the thin, store-bought variety is today.
Other plants there for the picking included quelites or wild spinach, huanemo (a northern Tiwa word for high-mountain spinach), wild onions, verdolagas or purslane and, of course, capulín or chokecherries. These required little effort to obtain but had the potential to enrich every meal. Each was gathered with great care and enthusiasm and subsequently processed, usually by women and children.
If people had been prudent enough to sow sweet peas by late February, by mid-May they would be enjoying freshly picked alverjón. In spite of the small size of the individual peas, people did not mind shelling them for hours on end, for they harbored a sweetness and freshness that, after a long, hard winter of relying heavily on calditos, or soups, they yearned for. Besides, the conversations people had while shelling peas around the kitchen table were often as delicious as the peas themselves.
It was not long after the alverjón peaked that real fruits in the form of cherries, apricots and then peaches, by mid-July, adorned the tables of the average farmer. If he did not have these himself, he could easily barter or wait until a good friend or neighbor chanced to come by with a bagful. Soon thereafter, the earth busied herself unleashing virtual rivers of cucumbers, string- and faba beans, onions, and best of all, maíz. El maíz was an indispensable crop that could be put away for the winter in large quantities in various forms that ranged from posole or hominy to dried, parched corn, commonly called chicos, from the Mexican-Spanish word chicales.
While growing up, I found it curious that whenever a particular fruit or food came into season, one tended to ignore all other foods in favor of that particular one, which we had not eaten in nearly a year. It was significant that during the time of the ripening of cherries or sweet corn, for example, one yearned for nothing more than for large doses of these foods. They were obviously loaded with the very vitamins, minerals, or trace elements that the body most craved, and in quantities that it could assimilate and store. The practice of eating but one kind of food when in season seemed to result in the dramatic refortification of bodily tissues, an increase in chi or the life-force, together with the strengthening of the immune system. Owing to so concentrated a diet of large quantities of organic fruits and vegetables drawn directly from our gardens and orchard, I have rarely succumbed to illnesses of any kind. Celebrated New Mexican farmers, Dora Pacías and Lorenzo Candelaria of Atrisco, in the South Valley of Albuquerque, are known to say, “La comida es medicina” or “Food is medicine.”
Soon after the corn harvest, the real avalanche of ripening crops took place in rapid-fire succession. Delectable green squash always coincided with the ripening of corn so as to facilitate the preparation of what is perhaps northern New Mexicans’ most preferred vegetable dish—maiz con calabacitas. Cucumbers and tomatoes, as well as green chile followed, only to be overtaken by waves of cabbage and root vegetables; and in the department of sweet things, by tons of ripening melons, watermelons and ever-so-juicy clusters of grapes hanging from arbors.
Meanwhile, on the trees, the apples, pears and plums had also begun to ripen, and for once, the ranchero was at a complete loss as to what to pick first. When all had finally been harvested and put away for the winter, the people only needed to concern themselves with two other of nature’s consumable products that arrived in the late fall—the piñón nut and the flavorful te de cota or cota tea. While it was easy to gather te de cota, twist a handful of its long stalks into a figure eight and let it dry for future use, picking piñón was no picnic, although it might involve one. The pursuit of the minuscule nut usually involved a family outing and a foray into the labyrinthine piñón forests of northern New Mexico. Families almost always took with them storage containers, blankets on which to sit while gathering the nuts, and tarps intended to catch the piñón and the cones when the trees were vigorously shaken.
The sometimes epic process, which could include the breakdown of a pickup truck or the inadvertent “leaving behind” of an unsuspecting, distracted family member, usually took place during October and November, before the snows arrived. When snow did arrive, it usually found the families (intact), seated around the warmth of a fogón or wood-burning stove, cracking freshly roasted piñón with their back teeth while telling intriguing stories in the native mexicano speech of the region.
Among the most persistent of these stories were those of how previous generations of antepasados or ancestors had managed to cobble a living in this tough, semi-arid highland world by doing any one of a million things necessary to coax from nature her many fine edible gifts—gifts for which people were muy agradecidos or very grateful.
Alejandro López is a native northern New Mexico writer, photographer and educator. email@example.com