Years before we moved to midcoast Maine, my wife and I lived for several years in Taos, New Mexico, which sits at a heady-ish altitude of 7500 feet on a vast mesa of sagebrush and chamisa, sliced down the middle by the 800-feet deep Rio Grande Gorge. Vastness is endemic to the Taos area, with forty mile views popping up over the next hill or around the next bend. Sometimes the mesa feels far too big, as if gravity isn’t a force but a gift with strings attached and it just might let go of you, spitting you up into the clouds. Taos itself, a crescent of modest civilization huddling at the base of the Sangre de Christo mountains, seems barely to cling to the earth.
If all this seems to be flirting with the metaphysical, so be it. Just being there can play with your sense of balance and perception, your grasp of what’s real and what isn’t. True, visitors come to ski and shop and party themselves silly and then go home thinking, “what a fun town!”, but they’ve missed more than they’ve seen.
I remember my early days there in a small house west of town on the mesa, looking out from the patio one morning to see a school bus cruising along at a pretty good clip and kicking up dust on a dirt road about a hundred yards off. Immediately I felt something was wrong, and it was: even on this windless morning, the bus made no sound.
I thought, this can’t be – a bus with no engine. It’s too close to me not to be heard.
In fact, as I learned later, there was a perfectly good reason for this. Sound in that part of the Southwest doesn’t get very far because most of the landscape is coated with adobe, possibly the most effective sound insulation in the natural world. It’s the dried clay that’s made into bricks to build houses, but under your feet it’s an ochre-ish powder as fine as sifted flour. And it absolutely inhales any sound that’s made.
So New Mexico plays with the eyes, the mind, and the ears.
Much has been written about New Mexico weirdness (paranormal, historical, meta- and geophysical), and Taos is no different, but I’d like to save most of that for later in favor of things that won’t make your brain hurt. We can start with New Mexico’s unique cultural fabric: it’s richly and deeply Spanish in language, family, art, and of course food. Note the term “Spanish” instead of “Mexican,” because much of the state’s population traces its ancestry back to the late 1500s and the time of the Conquistadoros, who admittedly did travel north from Mexico in those days but were thoroughly Spanish, not Mexican, when they did it. It’s easily argued that some of them – notably Juan de Oñate – made a horrible mess of things when they arrived by slaughtering thousands of local innocents, but in time Spanish, Indian, and Anglo (“Anglo” meaning anyone not Spanish or Indian) settled into a relatively stable tricultural balance.
We got to know a few Spanish families when we lived there, watched them in the kitchen, listened to the musical cadence of their voices, and for the first time ever heard an idiom we believed was a New Mexico original: “Boy, Taos is getting crowded anymore,” which translates as Taos is getting crowded nowadays. Now it happens that the “anymore” idiom pops up in other parts of the country, but Taos is the only place I’ve heard it.
It could be a hard, unforgiving town. Over the years we repeatedly heard that Taos is not for amateurs. It’s a big ski resort and artist community, to be sure, but its Wild West spirit hangs on and keeps people on their toes. Money, which is pretty scarce stuff for many people, is easy to spend and hard to make. The joke goes,
“How do you make a million in Taos?”
“Move here with two million.”
Some people revel on the ski slopes and in their hot tubs high in the hills, but elsewhere poverty in this vast and strange land is hamfisted and grinding.
So, let’s cheer up and talk Taos food: you can find boutique-y little restaurants that serve multicolored shards of food in pretty little stacks, or you can walk around the corner for a plateful of the truest, most honest, and best enchiladas or burritos or flautas you’ll ever eat, served with either red or green chile sauce. That’s the server’s key question to you: “Red or green?” And, as it’s said on TV, the answer may surprise you. Red is medium spicy, but green can be jaw-gaping, chest-thumping, firehose-begging, howlingly hot. I always went green (on Mexican food, burgers, eggs, nearly anything) but would test it first on the tip of my finger.
My wife reminds me of the third choice for chile sauce, “Christmas,” which is half red and half green. Not that you couldn’t have guessed.
We’ve lived in Maine a scant two years so I can’t say if Southwest-style Black Bean Soup is any kind of a local favorite, but I suspect not, since we’re as far from the American Southwest as you can be without getting wet. Whether you’ve ever made it or not, this recipe is a tried-and-true winner – it’s sometimes reduced our guests to near tears of joy, and it’s ragingly simple to make. You’ll love it!
BEST-EVER SOUTHWEST BLACK BEAN SOUP
1 lb. dry black beans
2 medium onions, chopped
1 celery stalk, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
4-6 garlic cloves, chopped
1/3 of tube of uncooked Jimmy Dean Sage Sausage (or other sage sausage: the sage is crucial for flavor!)
1 49 1/2 oz. can chicken stock – a standard size large can. Or use 1 1/2 quarts.
4 cups of water
2 tbsp. medium-hot red chile powder (note: this is an important ingredient! Find an authentic chili powder that has some kick to it!)
1 tbsp. ground cumin
pepper to taste
dry sherry to taste
Put beans, vegetables, sausage, stock and water in a large pot, bring to a boil for a minute or so, then lower the heat. Skim off the foam if you want (I don’t bother). Add chile powder, cumin and pepper, and simmer for 2 hours, covered. When it’s cooled off a bit, run everything through a blender – including the sausage – until it’s velvety smooth, and return to the pot. Add sherry to taste – 2-4 ozs. should do it. If you don’t think it’s got enough “heat,” add some cayenne to taste. Serve with dollops of sour cream, some jalapeno corn bread, and a sturdy red wine.
With luck, your guests will tell you, “Wow, you’re getting to be a good cook anymore!”