For New Mexicans, the ability to harness smoke and fire has led to some of our most beloved food traditions. These practices not only impart flavor to our dishes, they also connect us to our food, community, and humanity in ways that are at once visceral and cultivated.
With the days heating up, we begin the summer by considering the fiery side of our local cuisine. New Mexico’s intimate relationship with fire, in its many forms, provides the heart and soul of our state’s food—from the forest fires that threaten our water supply to the campfires that transfix our gazes and transform our backcountry provisions into delicious meals. We examine the earthen pits that billow with smoke and produce tantalizing aromas during matanzas, the traditional hornos of the countryside, and the emergence of new wood-fired ovens in our cities’ hottest restaurants. We also consider the state’s most fiery vegetable, and how current labor concerns have stoked fears for future harvests.
Controlling fire, according to some primatologists at least, is what initially made us human. The theory goes that because eating cooked food requires less time and energy than digesting raw food, early hominids were able to spend more time socializing (often around a fire), which stimulated cognitive function and brain development. In a sense, fire—which we often consider primordial or elemental—is transformative. In its mesmerizing conversion of potential energy into kinetic energy, it transforms inedible organic mass into nourishing food and human-like animals into humans. For New Mexicans, the ability to harness smoke and fire has led to some of our most beloved food traditions. These practices not only impart flavor to our dishes, they also connect us to our food, community, and humanity in ways that are at once visceral and cultivated.
As we write this today, the western horizon bears a pallid yellow-brown tint from a forest fire burning in the Gila, its subtle scent in the breeze offering a reminder that we live close to fire. As climate change exacerbates rising temperatures and drought conditions, our forests become potential tinder boxes that can send ash and debris into our rivers, posing a slew of challenges to our brewers and farmers—from alkaline lagers to problems with irrigation. While we celebrate fire for its capacity as both culinary technique and ingredient, we must also remember the threat it can pose to our foodshed.
With all that in mind, we encourage all of you to light up those grills, tell stories around a campfire, and consider the many ways fire adds depth to our food.