By Anya Sebastian, photo by Sergio Salvador

“I’m always on a diet,” said Governor Bill Richardson ruefully. “I like everything that’s bad for you  –  steak, chorizo, salami, cheese, sopaipillas, tamales. . . “

We were sitting in a hotel suite in Albuquerque, where I had managed to catch the Governor between engagements. “I love food,” he continued, adding with a wry smile, “I suppose you could say that the dieting depends on where I am in the election cycle.”

Though born in California, Richardson spent his early childhood in Mexico City, so his first experience of food was Mexican home cooking. “My mother was a very good cook and my grandmother cooked, too, so I’ve always had a liking for beans and rice, tortillas and guacamole. I remember, as a kid, we had this dish on Christmas Eve, called ‘bacalao’, that I really liked. It was fish  –  cod, I think  – and it was so good, but we only ever had it at Christmas. It wasn’t until I was 13 and went off to boarding school in the U.S. that I first tasted American food.”

As a politician and diplomat, Richardson has been lucky enough to eat his way around the world. But, for him, a meal is far more than just the cuisine. “For a politician, food is a great way to build relationships,” he explained. “It’s a social lubricant. I’m not talking about cocktail parties, but long-drawn-out meals. I’ve resolved many important international issues, with all kinds of people, over a leisurely dinner and some good wine.”

I was curious to know if any of the meals he had eaten over the years had left a lasting impression. “Well, I’ll never forget the dinner I had with Fidel Castro at two o’clock in the morning,” he replied, without missing a beat. “We were just sitting around, talking, and he suddenly said, ‘ How about dinner?’ He clapped his hands, gongs sounded and people were suddenly everywhere, cutting, chopping and preparing different dishes. It was quite amazing.”

Back home in New Mexico, the Richardsons make a point of going out to dinner  –  at normal hours  –  once a week. “Barbara and I think it’s important to support the local restaurant industry and we like trying new places, especially if they’re independent and family-owned.” When I asked if he had any favorite places to eat, the seasoned diplomat hesitated. “It’s hard to find a bad meal in Santa Fe,” he began, “ and I wouldn’t want to offend anyone. . .   I do like the Artichoke Café, Geronimo, the Shed for breakfast and Lambert’s and Doc Martin’s in Taos.”

But there’s another culinary side to Richardson, who has spent a great deal of time traveling around the state; he also likes to try out unassuming, out-of-the-way, Mom and Pop eating places in the rural hinterland. “I never tell them I’m coming, in advance,” he said with a grin. “They go crazy when I suddenly show up in their restaurant.”

The Governor’s Mansion, which does a huge amount of entertaining, uses local produce as much as possible and is a staunch supporter of the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market. “My favorite lamb chops come from the Farmers’ Market,” said Richardson. “I think it’s very important to support the work they do.” He did, however, admit to not being much of a vegetable eater. “The only time I ever agreed with George Bush Sr. was when he said he didn’t like broccoli. I don’t like it either!”

So it was not out of character for Richardson to launch the Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail. two years ago now, and he is clearly pleased with its success. “It has attracted a great deal of attention all around the state and even beyond,” he said with some pride. “As I’m sure you know, food is a great vehicle for promoting tourism and making an impression. I remember, when I was running for President, I gave a jar of New Mexico salsa to every delegate at the Democratic National Convention. Didn’t do me much good!”

Richardson is justifiably proud of having removed junk food and sodas from schools, something that was by no means easy to achieve. “The amount of pressure from corporate lobbyists was enormous,” he explained. “But it’s so important, especially with the high rate of diabetes among schoolchildren, that it had to be done. And we’re also trying to promote healthy meals.”

So what does the Governor have in his own fridge, at home? “Well, I’m on a diet right now, so jell-o, celery, cream cheese, yogurt, mangos, figs. What I’m trying to keep out of the fridge are things like Swiss cheese, salami, sopaipillas, steaks, tamales. But we always have green chile  – I prefer green to red  –  and we serve chile with just about everything.” That includes the otherwise traditional family Christmas dinner with New Mexico staples like posole, sopaipillas and tortillas mixed in. “I like giving food a New Mexican twist,” said Richardson with a shrug. “We have great culinary traditions here, so why not?”

This is, of course, the Governor’s final term in office and, as for future plans, his lips are sealed, at least for now. “Oh, I’ll stick around, don’t worry,” he said as we  parted company, adding with a grin, “and I’ll still eat!”

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