By Jan Brooks
On a recent morning, I drove north of Santa Fe with the gold of cottonwoods flashing their fall party dresses, a sparkling blue sky framing their silhouettes. Reflecting on my love of this landscape as I drove, memories of childhood travel to New Mexico settled into my consciousness. It is a visual, sensual impressionistic memory of a New Mexico fall: the car window rolled down slightly, the smell of pinon, the deep red of chile ristras, and the occasional appearance of a large, earth colored gum drop dotting the landscape near homes along the road. Long ago I learned that these bumps are actually outdoor ovens or “ hornos” and for centuries in Pueblo culture, fires were built in these adobe ovens to bake meats, breads and pastalitos or pastries such as our state cookie, the Biscochito. Our family trips were punctuated with stops at Route 66 tourist sites where I also recall first purchasing my very own miniature horno.
In fact, many versions of these small hornos were made as souvenirs and sold to tourists. Once back home, I would burn the pinon-scented incense inside my tiny horno, the distinctive smell serving to inspire memories of the place I had come to love. Little did I know then that many years later on a lovely fall day in New Mexico, I would have the opportunity to stand in front of a full-scale horno and experience the shared knowledge of Norma and Hutch Naranjo, true experts in the art of building and cooking in this traditional pueblo oven.
Norma and Hutch Naranjo’s property is just on the northern outskirts of Espanola on the Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo where Norma and her family have been for many generations. Hutch is from Santa Clara Pueblo and is responsible for maintaining the two large hornos that serve The Feasting Place, the name that Hutch and Norma have given their very special catering and educational program.
Hutch described the horno building process using photographs he had recently taken while constructing an horno for a bed and breakfast in Abiqui. The base of the horno is created with a circle of adobe bricks forming an exterior wall. This circular column is filled with river rock and then covered with more adobe mud to hold and distribute even heat across the bottom surface of the interior. From this base, more adobe bricks are laid to create the curved form with the arched opening and a vent hole to encourage circulation. The outside surface is covered in mud and straw, a surface that breathes and insulates simultaneously. The horno stands as a testament, eloquently expressing the centuries old beauty of Pueblo culture and the enduring utility and simplicity of cooking rituals that spring directly from the earth’s resources. For Norma and Hutch, to carry forward these traditions is an honor.
After retiring from social work in 1999, Norma established The Feasting Place as a catering business centered in the traditional culinary culture of her pueblo. She and Hutch named their program The Feasting Place because preparing and teaching others to make traditional pueblo feasts is their passion. They are true ambassadors of Pueblo food and agricultural traditions and have a deep understanding of the meaning and shared sense of humanity that is conveyed through the ritual of sharing a meal.
As I arrived at The Feasting Place, Norma was extracting a freshly baked raspberry pie, a selection of prune empanadas and some pueblo style biscochitos from her horno. She uses hand-made wooden paddles to move the pastalitos or pastries in and out of the oven. Pies, bread and other baked goods are arranged in the bottom of the horno where heat is circulated evenly around the baked goods much like a contemporary convection oven. Alongside the horno she laid ashes and coals from the fire on the ground and placed fresh green chiles from her garden on top to roast.
The immediate environment evidenced an ambitious garden with crops that supply the crucial ingredients for their meals and teaching programs—blue corn, white corn, beans, tomatoes, melon, chiles. The seeds of their white corn have been carefully protected and handed down across generations. The white corn is sacred and is shared with family to be used for spiritual ceremonies. Hutch also grows the white corn to make chicos, a highly labor intensive form of roasted corn that is used in traditional Pueblo stews. Norma and Hutch sell their chicos and their ground blue corn to students and visitors. They also raise chickens and before we left, shared the bounty of their garden and eggs to take home.
Asking Norma about her fondest memories of horno cooking, she unhesitatingly responds that it is a family time, a gathering and celebrating of culture and tradition, a time when stories are shared and values are expressed. One can see the depth of meaning she feels in reflecting on her Pueblo traditions and her excitement in sharing them with others. She is clearly a powerful teacher.
The Feasting Place features the two outside hornos where students are taught to cook traditional pastries. But, the classes actually begin inside Norma’s kitchen and on her large New Mexican dining table where students learn to work with traditional dough, filling their own empanadas and cutting biscochitos that will be baked in the horno. Other traditional feast dishes are also taught, including how to prepare her red chile and pork with potatoes, traditional Pueblo stews using the chicos and, of course her horno bread. The Feasting Place gift baskets include many of the key ingredients for preparing a traditional Pueblo feast.
The Feasting Place is more than a catering business or educational program; it is a cultural space that inspires a sense of shared community. Norma and Hutch offer a vital experiential tourism program, generously sharing their cultural knowledge.
I left feeling that I would love to return with friends, take a class and enjoy a day of stories and food, away from the clamor, unplugged, just as in centuries past.
To register for classes and to get more info visit www.thefeastingplace.com