By Moises Gonzales
Moises Gonzales gathers salt from flats in central New Mexico. Photo by Joel Wigelsworth.
Today local salt is not sold commercially or even at local farmers markets, but my annual trips to gather native salt have become an important cultural practice. It’s one of the many wild food harvesting traditions without which New Mexican cuisine would taste less vibrant. Some of the most common local wild food favorites that come to mind are quelites (wild spinach) and asparago (wild asparagus), which grow along acequias throughout New Mexico and have long been harvested by the Pueblo, Genízaro, and Hispano communities. I have been fortunate to live in the village of Carnuel, located in the Cañon de Carnue Land Grant, also known as Tijeras Canyon, where my family has been for centuries. Growing up, I was fortunate to be exposed to the food gathering practices of my Genízaro community—practices that were influenced by our Apache ancestors who have occupied these lands for generations, and also by geography.
Beginning in the eighteenth century, Genízaro settlements were established by the Spanish to provide defensible communities on the frontier of New Spain. The strategic planning of these new towns located them on the high-mountain borderlands between the Pueblo and Hispano settlements along the Middle Rio Grande Valley and the Ute, Diné, Apache, and Comanche territories. They were vital to the ability of the Spanish to sustain a presence in what is now New Mexico. The term Genízaro designated North American Indians of mixed tribal derivation living in servitude, who could earn their freedom (and acquire land) by participating in the formation of communities such as Abiquiu, Carnue(l), Ranchos de Taos, Truchas, Trampas, Las Huertas (Placitas), and San Miguel del Vado on the Pecos. In my village of Carnuel, it is certain that N’de Apache food gathering practices influenced east Sandia wild food harvesting practices because access to irrigation was very limited.
Left: Prickly pear cactus harvest. Right: Cholla cactus near the Sandia Mountains. Photos by Moises Gonzales.
As a child, I heard stories from my grandfather about the annual trips for salt gathering that took place near the historic Salinas Pueblo Missions east of Quarai and Abo. Salt has been a fundamental food source since the beginning of human settlement, and for centuries Pueblo communities have harvested salt at Zuni Salt Lake, along the Canadian River basin of northeastern New Mexico, and at the Salinas Basin. I was taught that among the Genízaro communities, sometimes known as comancheros, salt gathered from the Salinas was not only used for flavor and food preparation but also for trade and preservation of game. Historically, men from the Sandia Mountain villages would leave on the buffalo hunts in late September and not return until around Christmastime. While on the plains, they used salt to preserve meat as well as to cure buffalo hides for clothing. The Genízaro communities also traded large quantities of salt with the Comanche. Salt was so valuable that the Comanche traded it for captive children and women, who were then sold and traded in the slave markets of New Mexico. Today local salt has lost its market value, but its nuanced flavor can’t be matched even by the higher-quality commercial culinary salts.
Tijeras Canyon, known as Cañon de Carnue before the arrival of the Americans, has been home to a Tiwa Pueblo, Faraon Apaches, and later the Genízaro land grant community, all of whom have utilized edible plant gathering practices. Carnue derives from the Tiwa word carna, which means “badger place,” and the cañon is host to a wide range of wild edible plants. Of all the communities who have lived here, the N’de Apache were probably the most dependent on edible plant gathering, which helped them to evade capture by the US government. They gathered the well-known piñon, along with nopal, tuna de nopal, verdolagas, cholla cactus buds and blossoms, capulin (wild chokecherry), and cota. The flavors contained in these edible plants can accent and complement common local recipes.
Salt from flats in central New Mexico. Photo by Joel Wigelsworth.
So how do these gathered foods come together in recipes?
Today it’s rare to see a nopal tortilla or a blue corn–nopal tortilla served in a local restaurant; however, this was commonplace in Genízaro or Apache communities. Still common in parts of Mexico today, nopales, roasted, dried, and ground into a masa, can be an excellent alternative to the traditional corn tortilla. Mixed with blue cornmeal, this provides a whole new range of possibilities. During the monsoon season, the Sandia foothills offer endless opportunities to harvest one of the best-tasting microgreens known to the human palate: verdolagas, or wild purslane. Rich in minerals and Omega-3 fatty acids, verdolagas adds a richness to salads in addition to traditional dishes. Dried and preserved in canning jars, it can be added as an herb to beans and posole, bringing a nuanced flavor that I can’t imagine beans being without.
Prickly pear is another local food that is slowly making its way back into New Mexican cooking. Harvested wild in early fall, prickly pear, made into juices, jams, wine, and syrup, provides a wide range of new possibilities and compositions. My go-to after a newly gathered harvest of prickly pear is to top off my blue corn atole with roasted piñon nuts and prickly pear syrup. Cholla buds and blossoms, which can be gathered in late spring, are another local favorite. Steamed or baked, the buds taste like asparagus and artichoke hearts. It’s remarkable that this plant has been forgotten as an edible delicacy in the Southwest. Fresh cholla blossoms are a delicate and delicious addition to green salads as well as sautéed vegetable dishes. Cota, also called Indian tea, grows in front of my home in Carnuel and is one of my favorite summer teas. This drink is still seen at many homes during feast day meals at local Pueblos.
Edible food gathering practices in New Mexico have begun to gain more visibility with the growing movement to decolonize food. The importance of understanding traditional edible food gathering practices is to recognize the contribution of Indigenous peoples to local food traditions—and to recognize the nuanced flavors and the wonderful knowledge embedded in these gathered foods.
I make my annual pilgrimage to gather local salt in the spring. The salt I gather is used for my own cooking and traded among some of my Pueblo friends for traditional varieties of beans, squash, and cornmeal. For me, the way local salt enhances New Mexico cuisine is unsurpassed.
And I can’t imagine a holiday meal without a gifted bottle of homemade capulin wine—made from chokecherries harvested right in my mountain community.
Verdolagas. Photo by Moises Gonzales.