SANTA FE, New Mexico — Woman needs a fix. Has to feed her habit. The habit is called eating — specifically NewMex.
Once a year the craving for victuals of a Southwestern nature, injections of fiery red and green chili, overcomes my friend, Aurelio, and she takes off for the so-called “Land of Enchantment” (as the state’s license plates proclaim). There she grew up among Mexican immigrants on a hardscrabble ranch, hooked on grub hotter than Mephistopheles’s sauna or an arsonist’s piece de resistance.
Aurelio requires a fortnight of charring her tastebuds before she can return to such as cold turkey, and shake her dependency for a while. Twelve months later it will be back to Mudville (aka Santa Fe, the adobe village that dates to the 16th century) because it is her joyful land of entrapment. She can be found idyllically ensnared in the clutches of “Incendiary Isabel” Koomoa the heat-bringing chef/owner of the modest, long-enduring Guadalupe Café, a few blocks from the heart of town, The Plaza.
As the plates of cheese enchiladas with red and green chili, the flautas, and the huevos rancheros arrive from Isabel’s kitchen, and are devoured, a beatific smile crosses Aurelio’s face. She is on a trip as high as the nearby Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Nirvana is the green chili and blue corn tortillas, specialties of Northern New Mexico.
Man cannot live on pozole and chili alone. Not this man anyway. But Santa Fe has charms other than gastronomical. As this country’s most altitudinous capital at 7000 feet, it is comfortable on the hottest summer days, a good base for forays into the surrounding territory, Indian Pueblos on the Rio Grande to the north and south of Santa Fe, Taos, Bandelier Canyon, Abiqueue home of Georgia O’Keeffe.
Its museums are compelling, especially the large Folk Art Museum with its outstanding new Spanish Colonial wing, The Wheelwright Museum of Indian Art and the Santa Fe Museum of Fine Arts.
You don’t have to eat NewMex. Fine restaurants are plentiful and varied. I like lunch in the courtyard at Santa Café, starting with peerless, lacy onion rings. Just as Aurelio has her musts, one of mine is a mammoth, succulent hamburger at David’s Not Here, a friendly joint presided over by cheery Annie Baylor at the grill.
What kind of a name is David’s Not Here? “It was called David’s. A popular place,” Annie recounts. “But David disappeared, and I bought it in 1981 and renamed it David’s Not Here.” Fair enough, and she also does fine cheese enchiladas with green, red or a combination, “Christmas.”
Nights at the Santa Fe Opera are captivating, the house open on the sides to languorous breezes, and the moon generally doing a cameo. Offenbach’s “La Belle Helene,” an uproarious frolic, feartured marvelous choreography: in one scene construction workers cavorted with wheelbarrows and shovels as their dancing partners. Susan Graham as a junoesque Helen of Troy and Barry Banks as her scrawny, diminutive, cuckholded husband, King Menelas, were delightful.
Resident artists, more abundant than prairie dogs, are fed by constantly renewed brigades of shoppers. Painters. Sculptors. Crafters of jewelry, using enough turquoise and silver to pave famed Route 66. Galleries are crowded with gigantic bronzes of bears, broncos and ferocious Indians that would be frightening if you’d had one too many at The Palace Bar.
One of my favorite artisans is Sarah McIntosh at Sarah’s Shoes. A pleasant shoemaker by trade, she custom-cobbles your-size objets d’art of practical use: wearable, great-looking and extremely comfortable.
A block or so from her shop is an artist I much admire, Ford Ruthling, our landlord, a native whose terraced flower garden, graced by fruit trees, is so handsome that it has appeared in several magazines and the New York Times. Ford’s century-old house is a veritable museum, an eclectic collection of treasures often visited by touring museum groups from across the country. A beguiling, sometimes whimsical painter, he also works in tin, designs crockery and takes in travelers.
Lolling in his garden amid roses, dahlias, cosmos, lilies, geraniums, nasturtiums as hummingbirds dart and whir, and eating apricots and peaches off the trees is pretty high on the contentment scale. But I wonder where Aurelio’s gone. Probably the Guadalupe again?
“Oh, out to Santo Domingo Pueblo” Ford says, “to watch the annual corn dance. She does it every year. It’s open to the public, and the Indians are very hospitable. They invite you in for lunch. Very tasty.
“The usual super-hot?” I say.
He nods affirmatively. “It’s a religious dance that goes on all day, hundreds of Indians praying for rain and a good harvest.” Aurelio, who was greatly honored to have been repeatedly invited to dance in it as a child, her family having had many Indian friends, is undoubtedly giving thanks for red and green chili.