Sunday, March 30, 2008

New Mexican Cuisine: Cheesy, Borrowed, Commercialized, Hypocritical

Cheesy Cuisine: Del's Restaurant in Tucumcari, New Mexico. My first food stop was at Del's. Whenever I travel, I look for something local and something I've never had before. The word SOPAIPILLA screamed at me from the menu. I asked what it was.

Sopaipilla is a unique New Mexican, and arguably Texan, food. It is bread stuffed with seasoned ground beef and peppers, deep fried, and covered with cheddar and jack cheese. Sides of beans and rice are not uncommon. I of course order the sopaipilla and a cup of the pinto bean soup, which was essentially just a small pile of pork flavor infused, cooked (bordering on mushy) pinto beans.

The "soup" was delicious and I scarfed that down. Then the entree arrives. I am a big eater. I am no Joey Chestnut, but I can hold my own. My entire plate is smothered with a thin but potent layer of yellow and white cheeses. I take a stab at the sopaipilla. It is delicious but quite salty. I finish the sopaipilla, the cheese on top of the sopaipilla, the rice, and the beans. I am full. The thing is, there is a second, cheese-covered sopaipilla left on my plate. I feel like fainting.

I immediately crawl out of the restaurant and buy stock in that medical device company that makes heart valve stents. If this is what Americans are eating on a regular basis, God help us.

At Del's, an entire cow can be ordered as an appetizer.

Borrowed Cuisine: Fry bread at the Laguna Pueblo reservation. It is telling that the most popular Native American "dish" is fry bread, which is made of lard and flour, two very un-Native ingredients. It was invented in the 1800s out of necessity. First Americans were forced onto reservations and given rations of flour and lard. Fry bread was an inevitability.

I got mine at the Laguna Pueblo reservation 40 miles west of Albuquerque. It came with a choice of three toppings: honey, cinnamon, and powdered sugar. I opted for the honey. It was light, fluffy, a little chewy, and delicious. Unfortunately, after only two bites, the fry bread (and the paper plate it was resting on) flew away in the strong wind and landed on the dirt parking lot next to a beat up Ford Focus sedan.

Commercialized Cuisine: Two Flaming Arrows hot sauce. Having just lost my lunch (the fry bread), I mopishly shuffled across a dirt road to a flower shop/souvenir store. There, I found bottles of local hot sauce (Two Flaming Arrows brand) for six bones a bottle. The label said it was bottled locally on behalf of the Laguna Pueblo Indians. The lady at the store told me it is only sold locally. The sauce is actually pretty good. It is not flaming hot and it is a little sweet (from the honey). But when I got home, I found bottles of these for sale on the net for $4.50 a bottle.

Hypocritical Cuisine: Earl's Diner in Gallup, New Mexico. What I ate at Earl's was not hypocritical. But the experience reminded me of our collective hypocrisy. At Earl's, local Native American vendors go from table to table, selling jewelry to patrons. We were approached by a six year old girl, a ten year old girl, and an older lady who was barely able to walk without a cane. They were all trying to survive by selling trinkets to tourists. The abject poverty was appalling and inexcusable.

Why is this hypocritical? While we stand on our soapbox and angrily denounce China for its treatment of Tibet and its people, we fail to remember that our country gave smallpox-infected blankets to First Americans, stole their land, and marginalized them to the extreme. Before we criticize others, let's take stock of what we have done (and are still doing).


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