Friday, November 18, 2016
NEW MEXICO DIARY -- L (The Santa Fe Reader -- Sentient Pots -- From the Acoma Origin myth -- molecular cooking and a disgrace to bones with holes everywhere -- a Demon -- Warning to the reader about the Coyote Cafe)
Every city with restaurants and bars and live music venues has a Lifestyle magazine distributed on the streets free of charge. The Village Voice was the first publication of this sort, later followed by free periodicals in Minneapolis such as The City Pages and The Twin Cities Reader. Of course, Santa Fe, although relatively small (the city boasts 70,000 residents), is blessed with many upscale eateries and taverns featuring live music. There are poetry readings, political and social activist lectures, plays, recitals, gallery crawls and the like: when I was in Santa Fe, the renowned Canadian poet and classicist Anne Carson was scheduled for a lecture at the Lensic Theater and, for $35, the curious could attend a colloquium on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and the 2016 Political Campaign at the College of St. Johns.
Julie showed me the local Lifestyle weekly and pointed out an article that interested her. The story was prefaced with an old black and white picture showing three men standing among large hip-high pots. One of the men was an ethnologist from the Smithsonian Institute sent to the southwest to acquire Indian ceramics for the museum’s collection. A small man squatting in the center of the picture, face half-hidden by his cowboy hat, was the governor of one of the local Pueblos – he had apparently supervised the sale of the ten pots visible in the photograph. The third man is a shadow, probably a laborer who carried the pots into the dusty plaza and carefully set them on the ground to be photographed.
The story below the picture said that a scholar associated with one of the Tewa Pueblos had seen the picture, studied it closely, and, then, embarked on a search for the pots shown in the image. When the ceramics were collected in the late 19th century, it was believed that Native American culture would vanish and that Indian people would lose their cultural identity by way of assimilation with the larger population. The pots were to be preserved in museum collections as mute testimony to a way of life that was supposed to be slowly vanishing. But in 2016, the Pueblos still exist and many of them are flush with casino money and, so, measures were undertaken to locate the ceramic ware and return them to the cultural centers on Indian land.
The article reported that the pots in the picture were, in fact, traced to a Smithsonian warehouse in Maryland and, after some negotiations, returned to Indian Country on permanent loan for display in the Poeh Cultural Center at the Pojaque Pueblo. The Tewa regard ceramics as living beings, ensouled, and, even, impute to them certain types of agency. Concern existed among the Pueblos on the northern Rio Grande that the technology required to make these elaborate and shapely pots was rapidly being lost – bringing the ceramics home was intended, in part, to allow local potters to study them and imitate the techniques used to make those vessels.
In the photograph, the pots look sullen and inert, like hollow boulders casting long, sinister shadows in the bright sunlight. The pots are not works of art, but utilitarian vessels, scarcely decorated at all, with rough glazes – they stand like formidable totemic presences in the picture. These pots are unsigned and it is not known who made them – it isn’t even clear where they were made and fired, that is, they are not presently associated with any specific Pueblo. The men in the pictures look like big game hunters staring at their prey with a mixture of pride and horror.
When Mimbres pre-Columbian pottery was discarded or ritually buried as grave goods, the pots had to be carefully killed – a hole is drilled through the bottom of the vessel so that it will not hold liquid and this piercing releases the soul of the ceramic. The curator of the Tewa cultural center where the pots were to be displayed said that it was uncertain as to why the pots were being returned to the Pueblos at this particular time and in this way – "I guess they just decided that it was safe for them to come home again," the man told the reporter.
Shortly after the first people emerged from the earth, a snake went among them and caused illness. The people did not die but they became very weak.
The first woman called Oak Man, the leader of the Oak Clan, and showed him how to use an obsidian blade to make a wooden altar. She showed him how to make a sand painting showing the four directions, the sky and the Milky Way. In order to heal the people, it was necessary to mix eagle feathers with bear and weasel paws and to grind this compound with sand and grit made from abalone shells. The first woman showed Oak Man how to take fine clay from the river bank, form it into a shape, and, then, fire it to make a vessel in which medicines could be mixed and ground. This is the origin of pottery.
I panicked: the Coyote restaurant was not where I expected it to be. Had I misremembered the map coordinates? Then, I saw a door and understood that the dining room was upstairs, on the second floor overlooking the busy street.
You come to your table slightly winded after the long hike up slippery-looking stairs leading from the sidewalk to the dining room. The space is dim and airy, with a high ceiling of patterned tin tiles. In one corner, displayed near the bar, there is a large painting, possibly abstract, although we weren’t certain. The painting showed a glowing reddish void, a field of color outlined by darker paint something like a Rothko canvas. But in the scarlet void, there were five forms – white shapes that I thought represent ruinous molars with their forked roots visible; Julie’s interpretation of the forms was that they were men’s boxer shorts hanging on laundry line to dry. (On a less figurative level, the forms were brush strokes made with a broad house-painter’s brush.)
The waitress was pretty, diffident, and contemptuous. She pronounced the word "sure" as "shoe-were." The room was half-full, hushed. On offer was a margarita capped with froth, some kind of molecularly engineered drink. Julie ordered the froth-crowned margarita; I had a margarita made with Reposado tequila flavored with Hatch chili. The drink glasses were chilled and we drank from them – or, rather, I drank and Julie inhaled the fragrant vaporized tequila, whipped into creamy foam. She told me that her drink was very good and that the froth had an exquisite taste.
The waitress brought the obligatory shallow dish with seasoned corn meal and a little water. Julie ordered lobster bisque soup with egg-plant ravioli. I asked the waitress for Pork Osso Bucco and a Buratta, not knowing, of course, what "Burrata" was – perhaps, it was tiny grilled flecks of burro flesh served in a savory sage-flavored sauce. We drank some wine, another locally-produced Gruet.
Three young people were seated next to us – we occupied one booth up against a partition near the stairs and the young people were in an adjacent booth, curved like a love-seat. The young people, upon taking their places, immediately took their phones from their pockets and began to send and receive text messages – there was a over-weight girl with multi-colored bangs beneath a dome of blonde hair; she was wearing some kind of body-armor and leather boots. A shorter, darker girl seemed to be her consort – she was also overweight with a pouting face and wearing denim equipped with many snaps and rivets and hooks and latches. A fat young man who looked like he was a brother to one of the girls, or both of them, made the third of their company.
Apparently, the young people planned to go to a movie after dinner, or, perhaps, they had come from a movie. The girl wearing the body-armor, the leader of their expedition, said that the movie, The Magnificent Seven was a "new iteration" of an older film, possibly from the sixties. "Who was in that movie?" the boy asked. "Lee Marvin," the fat girl with the colored bangs said. "Lee Marvin and that bald guy, Yul Brynner." I leaned over and whispered to Julie: "She is wrong. Lee Marvin isn’t in The Magnificent Seven – it’s Horst Buchholtz and Charles Bronson, Michael Vaughan too, you know The Man from Uncle, and James Coburn, she is mistaking Lee Marvin for James Coburn." The fat girl pretended not to hear me. The waitress came and the young people ordered Manhattans. "Shoe - were," the waitress replied.
Julie’s lobster bisque was strangely bitter – it was as if the soup had been made with coffee. The Burrata turned out be a platter on which there were arrayed grape-sized slices of heirloom tomatoes, purple and orange beets, some flakes of parsnip, and a ribbon of prosciutto crudo decorating a fig-shaped white cheese. I searched the plate for comestible diatomaceous earth, but couldn’t find any. Unless the prosciutto had been made with donkey flesh, neither could I locate any burro on my plate. (The cheese was a little mucky when I cut into it, but it didn’t release a fine, tangy spurt of cream when sliced and there was no asphodel, as William Carlos Williams says "that greeny flower", and, so, according to the canons by which classical burrata is judged this dish was a failure.)
The girl wearing the body-armor corrected herself: "No, it wasn’t Lee Marvin but James Coburn."
The boy seemed amazed "James Coburn?" he said.
"And Charles Bronson," she told him.
"Lee Marvin was in Cat Ballou," I said. "She’s probably confusing Cat Ballou with The Magnificent Seven."
"I confused Cat Ballou with The Magnificent Seven," the girl said.
The Pork Osso Bucco was a disgraces to porks Osso Bucco everywhere – the meat was overdone to the point of being half-charred and, therefore, difficult to eat. I had to choke down the wretched overcooked pylon of leathery meat.
Across the dining room, a group of people were gathered for some kind of celebration. They sat like Christ and his disciples, perhaps, 13 strong at the table. The people were young and hip and they looked like workers at a Tech start-up company, everyone decorating their eyes with horn-rimmed glasses regardless, I suppose, of whether those spectacles were required. At the center of the table, flanked by John, the beloved disciple, and Judas, the group’s leader sat. An oddity in the lighting cast a persistent black shadow over the leader’s handsome face. This black shadow didn’t obscure the entirety of the man’s face but only his nose and eyes and his upper jaw. The effect was disconcerting and, when I looked in the direction of the happy celebrants, I shuddered to see that their leader had a great black crater inscribed into his features, a charred sooty pit.
When you leave the Coyote Café, dazed by the sum on the bill, take hold of the railing on those long and slippery steps and take care not to fall.