Tuesday, November 8, 2016

NEW MEXICO DIARY -- F (A Customary Inconvenience -- La Casa Sena -- Comestible dirt -- Santa Fe Zoning Ordinances and a Concentration Camp Riot)







 

 

1.

Lost again? How is this possible?

The downtown Santa Fe map was very clear – the way to the restaurant, La Casa Sena, was a combination of two chess moves: simple enough - traverse three blocks like a knight and, then, a pawn’s move, just one square diagonally on the game board of city streets. This should pose no problems of any kind. But, in fact, knights in the game of chess can move in two ways: two squares forward and one square to the side or one square forward and two squares to the side, and, if you haven’t taken care, to memorize the exact configuration of that move, that is, which of the two possibilities applies, then, you may well walk one block too far in the wrong direction and a block too far in the wrong direction in an unfamiliar city can be a calamitous error.

So the sun is setting and Julie is hungry and her shoes are uncomfortable and we are now walking down a street that seems dominated by government offices, the bureaucracy of Santa Fe, such as it is – everything shuttered and still and, even, the parking lots empty. How can this even be the same vibrant city full of low-riders cruising the streets and drunken tourists and adobe arcades lined with restaurants and turquoise vendors? In the distance, a streetlight quivers. There are even trees growing in a boulevard and a couple intersections to the north a noisy road where trucks are rumbling by. The trucks shudder, heavily laden, as if they are going to Espanola or Albuquerque or, perhaps, one of the secret military installations at Los Alamos or by Alamagordo. None of this looks familiar. Ivy covers a wall as if we were suddenly in some New England village. A stable smelling of horse-dung shows exterior timbers like a Tudor building. Beyond the rumbling road to the north, we can see a steel gate – perhaps, there is a cemetery beyond that gate and its watchtowers.

"Where is it?" Julie says. "I don’t know, it seems, different from the map," I reply. "Where is the map?" "I left the map in the room – I mean how hard should it be to go five city blocks?"

"Pretty hard, apparently," Julie says.

I am looking for signs of life at the end of the avenues. What happened to the loud, profane crowds of bar-hoppers, the retired people with bolo ties, the desert rats begging on the street corners?

I remember that I am carrying a smart phone and so I stop and lean against a wall. How can the city change character so rapidly? It seems that we are in a residential neighborhood, among apartment units, condominiums, perhaps, with a couple of lunch places closed for the day, at the street corners. We have gone two blocks too far to the north. We cut across a parking lot filled with slumbrous cars and come into the Plaza Sena through a back alley and, then, a narrow slot in the facade that runs past stairways climbing above the courtyard to the law offices of sole practitioners, herbal healers, a yoga practitioner, several insurance agents. A half-dozen ancient trees rise from the center of the plaza and they are lit by track-lighting that exposes the corrugation in their bark and the withered underside of the leaves – the trees glow with a radioactive green hue and there are tables set among the shrubs and bushes in the plaza, strings of Christmas tree lights dangling from overhead branches, the basin of a small fountain splashing with water purling down over the rim of a big, overflowing terracotta vase. Women’s clothing shops featuring expensive leather goods and elaborate bead-work purses lean into the plaza and a couple of pots like skulls glint in a curio store.

Julie and I sit at a wrought iron table. Fifteen feet away, a torch sprouts blue fire blossoms overhead to warm the plaza but this is unnecessary so far as we are concerned – it is about 55 degrees and the air is scented with fruit and flowers and the steel bush emitting fire doesn’t do anything but impart a faint chemical stink to the air.

Julie orders prime rib and Andean potatoes in flan. I have duck confit and a beet salad with edible soil. We drink wine and eavesdrop on our neighbors. Two elderly widows, faces artificially taut with plastic surgery, discuss a man that they know, possibly a friend’s ex-husband. The man has a new girlfriend, a much younger woman and someone that the two widows agree is a deplorable person, ill-suited for the man, although he is, it seems, nothing more than an old fool himself. The women are uncertain as to the younger woman’s motives – she is, also, a widow apparently and fantastically wealthy. "She has more than he will ever have," one of the women says. They are drinking wine and waiting for their meal. The women seem to be from southern California – the old fool and his mistress live in Palm Springs, possibly in the environs of the two glamorous widows who are now reviewing the situation.

The waitress has the dark eyes and black hair of the pueblos. She brings us a small black seed bowl containing pollen and dried corn meal and says something in Spanish-accented Keresan. We tell her we are from Minnesota and she nods and takes our order.

My duck confit arrives, overdone and leathery. The duck’s liver is served raw and bloody on a slab of salty polenta. The salad is colorful with various kinds of beets – some are red, others deep blue, or cherry-tomato orange. A tangle of arugula sprinkled with feta cheese provides a thicket where the little round beets lie like the tiny eggs of some exotic species of bird – each beet is about the size of a grape, neatly halved, and drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Of course, the piece de resistance is the heap of edible dirt piled on one edge of the garland of feta-dusted arugula and beets.

I wet my finger and sample my dirt. I assume this is someone’s idea of a sinister joke. The dirt is granular, a mixture of silica grit with powdery sand. It is abrasive to my tongue and tasteless, an experience of texture not flavor. I have about a tablespoon of dirt and so I scatter it like salt on the salad, sprinkling the sandy stuff atop the beets and the feta cheese. Then, I dutifully swallow the whole mess: dirt, sweet-tasting beets, the bitter arugula, and tangy, humid-tasting feta cheese. The beets are excellent, sweet and starchy at the same time, but the dirt is a disappointment.

Of course, I have eaten lots of dirt in my life. I don’t ever wash fresh mushrooms – the mixture of soil and horse excrement caking them is part of the flavor experience and imparts to the mushrooms a rich, dense earthiness as it were. And I have eaten many spoonfuls of premium black dirt from the New Richland area – it’s as rich and dark as chocolate and must be enjoyed in moderation. The best New Richland, Minnesota black dirt has a taste like earthworms – in other words, an odor and a flavor like slightly rotten fish – and, before you swallow, you have to spit out the chitinous parts of the tiny beetles that you have been grinding up between your teeth. This is all pretty standard, familiar to all of us who like to eat a few spoonfuls of dirt with our dinner and I had expected the New Mexico soil to be, if not moist and flavorful, at least slightly spicy, with a squash and Hatch chili finish. Further, I expected the New Mexico dirt to have been sieved and processed and to be fine as bentonite, a dense dust that congeals into a kind of piquant mole on the tongue and between the teeth. This sort of dust can be imagined as a the source of fine pottery, a ceramic dust with an aftertaste like fine Meissner china (if you have ever had the chance in Saxony to sample this excellent earthware in its unkilned form), that is, tart and very, very faintly medicinal with something of the taste you experience if you lick a brass door-knob. I had hoped that the edible dirt served at the La Casa Sena would taste like the sand at Acoma (sea-salted sand soaked with blood) or would have the odor of freshly cooked pottery, hauled forth from the blazing kiln, a taste like spring-water pumped from some immeasurably deep and dark aquifer, cavern water from the depths of the earth with the slightest fizz of limestone and carbolic acid. But this New Mexico dirt served ala Casa Sena could have been sweepings of filth off some parking lot – it was just sand and minute particles of gravel and a little pearly white dust, probably mostly organic in nature, the dried skin particles of dead men, mummy filtered through cemetery gravel, macerated by the harsh desert winds, and, then, flung across an alkali basis to be gathered with a sprinkle of sand and gritty obsidian particles. Even heavily salted, the New Mexico edible dirt was tasteless – it didn’t even have the flavor of bleach.

Julie’s flan with Andean potatoes was like an omelet browned with a blowtorch embedded with slivers of french fry. It was good. I asked Julie if she wanted to season her prime rib with a little dirt. She declined. We drank another glass of wine and found our way back to the hotel.

 

2.

When you wander Santa Fe at nighttime, the ghosts of another city sometimes appear. Between the faux-dobe houses in the subdivisions, you can see old stick-built structures, corrals full of ghost cattle, eighteen-foot tall fences and guard towers, a sprawl of wooden shacks and Victorian houses with turrets and Tudor-timbered stables, ravines dotted with gaunt-looking timber structures. All of these apparitions are evanescent and will vanish if you look too closely at them, but they crowd the periphery of the eye and we glimpsed them in fragments when lost and looking for La Casa Sena. There are different layers of reality and interstices where the remnants of things demolished and lost still lurk between the walls and courtyards visible today.

After the Mexican revolution and the liberation from Spain, Santa Fe was designated the provincial capitol of the northernmost province of Mexico. At that time, the city was remote and desperately poor. An Anglo visitor recalled that the town was drab, occupying a sandy ravine. Mexican peasants might walk around town all day carrying bundles of grass for sale and earn, maybe, a nickel or a dime for his efforts. Things didn’t much improve after the defeat of the Mexicans in the 1836 war and the annexation of their northwestern territories in 1848. The inhabitants of the town were described as "the poorest people...ever seen" and said to subsist on "muttons, onion, and chili peppers."

Throughout the latter part of the 19th century, the town remained poor and without charm. The principal railroads in the vicinity drove their lines to other cities – a train came down from Denver to Espanola but stopped there; the last leg was by narrow-gage track, the so-called Chili Line. On the south, trains came as far as Lamy, a place in Santa Fe county but still a number of miles from the capitol. Growth was slow. In 1912, when New Mexico became a State, Santa Fe had 5,000 inhabitants.

But beginning with statehood, Santa Fe’s city fathers developed a comprehensive plan for rebuilding the town. This plan derived from the City Beautiful movement, an impulse toward urban beautification resulting in centralizing zoning and building code enforcement in places like Chicago and Washington D. C. In broad terms, the notion was to tear down congested tenements and slums, create green zones, restore existing parks, and build impressive public spaces. In Santa Fe, renovation began at the Plaza of the Governors, the ancient Mexican territorial palace located a block from the central Cathedral. The timber and wood-frame shacks comprising most of the city were zoned out of existence. It was decreed that all new construction would comply with building codes requiring facades to be erected in Spanish Revival Pueblo style. Before 1912, Santa Fe was a typical Western city, a melange of old buildings and new wooden houses and stables radiating away from a grid of a half-dozen streets and a central plaza. After 1912, the city was rebuilt as a tourist destination – adobe construction was substituted for the former wood structures and, during the next decade, the appearance of the town changed radically. In effect, Santa Fe was re-imagined as a charming Spanish village and, then, rebuilt in that image. The concept was to create an urban ambience attractive to travelers in search of something different – tourist brochures from the first part of the 20th century described the town as the City Incongruous.

To a great extent, this scheme worked. Nonetheless, Santa Fe remained sufficiently isolated and austere that it could serve as an internment camp for Japanese-Americans during the Second World War. A little to the north of downtown, a large camp was built on a bare hill overlooking the city. The camp’s regime was harsh and there were uprisings – in 1945, the so-called Santa Fe Riots resulted in the death of several internees.

To this day, Santa Fe’s building code enforces uniform building techniques throughout the city. Even the suburban housing is generally built to look like adobe construction – split-levels have ornamental vigas on their facades, fake beams that don’t support anything, and walls are brown stucco mostly without windows. The Santa Fe Hilton on the Plaza, formerly the Ortiz family hacienda, clad now in functional vinyl and metal siding, doesn’t look particularly Spanish – apparently, this structure was allowed substantial modern renovations on its exterior because the core of the building, the wing containing the casitas is, in fact, authentically ancient, incorporating actual weight-bearing vigas and adobe brick several hundred years old. Across the street from the Santa Fe Hilton, there is the El Dorado hotel – this structure is a hulking ziggurat of faux-dobe, a huge mud-pile that is so far from the actual proportions of authentic adobe and Spanish pueblo revival that it is grotesque – the building complies, I suppose, with the letter of the zoning law, but the effect is all wrong, a huge heap of a building on a monumental scale that suggests more an Aztec altar for human sacrifice than an upscale hotel.

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