The food mentioned in So Far From God by Ana Castillo, is an important part of the setting–it definitely sets the book squarely in New Mexico. And it’s authentic, homemade New Mexican fare–no Frito pies here! However, I do have to admit that I was a little frustrated by it. It’s mentioned so matter-of-factly that it’s little more than background noise. I really wanted to know more. Now, don’t get me wrong–there were some wonderful tidbits and descriptions.
It was that month in the “Land of Enchantment” when it smelled of roasted chiles everywhere. Fresh red ristras and sometimes green ones were hung on the vigas of the portales throughout–all along dusty roads, in front of shops and restaurants to welcome visitors and to ward off enemies. Propane-run chile roasters were hand-rotated by bag-boys in front of local supermarkets and everyone who didn’t grow their own lined up to get their chiles, women were packing them up, whole, dried, and in sauces, to send off to homesick boys stationed in Panama and to wayfaring relatives in Wyoming and Washington, D.C., but mostly to feed their families right there and to freeze for the winter.
This passage was wonderful! Ristras are the seemingly-ubiquitous strings of chiles, and this image evokes New Mexico wonderfully!
But the fact that I had to do my own research to find out that ristra is Spanish for string, and that “that month” referred to is September, and that there is a perennial debate over which New Mexico chile is the best, “Red or Green?”, is exactly what I mean when I say I was a little frustrated. In lots of ways, this is fine–I’m intrigued by what I read, so I go off and do my own research and come away flooded with images of red chile ristras. And that’s not what the book is about–this kind of background information is just that–background–not really essential to the story. But it is what makes the setting come alive–and the setting is absolutely an essential part of who these people are.
So, in the end, I’m torn. I get why it was glossed over, and it totally serves an appropriate purpose in the book, but I’d have loved a little more explanation of some of the food images Castillo gives–even the parts of the story where La Loca is teaching Fe to cook leave a lot to be desired in terms of description!
Most meals contained corn so it was necessary first to prepare the nistal by boiling it in lime water until the skin peeled off. Then it was washed two or three times; if you wanted to be an especially meticulous preparer of corn, you would follow with the ever-so-tedious task of “de-spiquando” the little black off the corn with a penknife, so that if you were going to make tamales, they would come out nice and white and smooth.
Although I had troubling finding the word “nistal” anywhere, I was able to find some wonderful information on making your own corn masa, including some information on the various types and colors of corn.
Incidentally, the talk about different colors of corn reminded me of visiting the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota, which is decorated each year in murals made entirely out of different shades of corn, with a base of other grains and grasses.
But back to our book! Several times various characters were mentioned as having a breakfast of blue corn atole with a side of eggs, so we have to include a photo of it, as well as a link to some simple instructions for making it!
Posole is another dish that’s mentioned a number of times throughout the book–it’s a wonderful soupy stew made with hominy and red chiles and meat (often pork, though chicken is also traditional). I’ve occasionally made vegetarian versions, since my husband and son are vegetarian. La Loca teaches Fe her recipe in the book, using homemade hominy–which is the masa corn boiled in lime but not ground. In most places, hominy is only available canned, but the final texture of posole made with “fresh” or dried hominy is apparently different to that made with canned hominy.
Prepare the corn as she had been taught to make nistal for tamales, but she should not grind it! For every pound of stew pork, one cup of the whole nistal corn was boiled until half done, and then the meat was added and enough water to cover everything. Then you just let it cook until tender. Meanwhile, you added salt, chopped onion, and two whole red chiles–with the stems and seeds removed, of course, Fe!
There seem to be a million recipes for posole on the web, but I found this link to a traditionally prepared posole from the New York Times Cooking site, and this link for a “budget” quick-cooking version of posole which still looks like it would be pretty flavorful, and which could be made more “authentic” depending on your choice of certain prepared ingredients!
Carne adovada is another recipe La Loca shares with Fe in So Far From God, and if you scroll down past the recipe, this site has some wonderful background info on the dish.
Doña Felicia’s fried papitas tacos with green chiles are mentioned a couple of times. I found this lovely (and healthier) baked and vegetarian version. But I also found this version of tacos de papas that looks good and has some good info about the tacos as well. (By the way, the recipe in the second link calls for “1/2 can of rotel” preferably with lime and cilantro. Ro-tel is a common Mexican brand of canned tomatoes, often with seasonings.) And, while not all diminutives in Spanish mean the same thing (and that’s a different post!), “papitas” in this case does mean potatoes.
Last but not least, “biscochitos are Spanish cookies or Mexican cookies, depending on who you talk to.”
In any case, they are made from rich pie pastry dough, to which you add baking powder, sugar to sweeten, and–here’s the trick, you know, Fe–a bit of clean aniz seed.
I tried to figure out the shape that is described in the book, but I’m having a very hard time with it.
Then you cut it into long strips about two-thirds inches wide, and then across into two-inch lengths. Finally, you cut little narrow strips about an inch long on the sides, pull along, and roll back each strip into a curlicue shape.
The narrator does acknowledge that the cookies were also cut into hearts and stars, but the most common shape I found pictures of was a simple disc. If anyone knows what kind of a shape Castillo is talking about in the quote above, please leave a comment below!
This Santa Fe site has a recipe, with some interesting background info (and a lengthy explanation of why these cookies must be made with lard).
I’ll leave you with one other food quote from the book that I think speaks to mothers from all settings and cultures.
Sofi prepared Esperanza’s favorite foods that weekend, like posole and sopa and lots of chili, because feeding is the beginning and end of what a mother knows to do for her offspring, even when she doesn’t know what to say.