World Championship Burrito Eating Contest

If there is one unifying theme in New Mexico, besides the breathtaking landscapes, it's the peppers. Thousands of acres are devoted to pepper growing. And to celebrate that, the New Mexico State Fair hosted the first ever, World Championship Burrito Eating Contest. Fifteen contestants competed for the grand prize of $3,000. There were no "reversals of fortunes" (what they politely call it when you gag and upchuck), but doing so would disqualify the contestant. The burritos, which were prepared by the sponsor, a local restaurant, were 1/4 pound burritos and you won or lost by the number eaten in a 10 minute period. There was a large crowd, an impressive production with lots of lights, music and fanfare. The third prize winner was from Wisconsin, but the winner of the $3,000 was a local guy, who ate 32 1/2 burritos!

I was running short of time when I left Bent's Old Fort and had to miss driving through Rocky Ford, Colorado, home to the famous Rocky Ford melons. I would have actually made it had my normally trustworthy Garmin navigator not led me wrong. She kept giving me wrong directions. A trip that amounted to 14 miles off the main road, to get to Rocky Ford, turned into a 38 mile trip in the wrong direction. I turned off
Ms. Garmin after a giving her a sharp tongue lashing and threatened her with going back into the box unless she did better on the rest of the trip. 

I admit I was tempted to steal some melons along the way. Fields, some of them 80 or 100 acres, had melons laying everywhere, rotting. The melon harvest season has passed, produce companies are wanting squash and pumpkins now, not melons. And there were lots laying in the fields, going to waste. I did stop at a little roadside stand and buy 3 not great Rocky Fords that nearly spoiled before I got home but at least we had a taste of that rightly famous melon. Last time I went through that area 10 years or so back, I took great delight in eating Rocky Fords, in Rocky Ford, CO. 

One of the things I looked 
forward to along the Santa Fe Trail, was the roadside pepper roasters. The roaster, seen here, is typical. It's a wire cage with propane pipes underneath. Hank Hill, (from King of the Hill) would certainly approve, since he's the promoter of "propane and propane accessories". 

You could bring your own peppers to the roasters and have them roasted, or buy them from the roasters in little baggies. The big advantage of these roasters over roasting them yourself on the grill, is, a guy stands there slowly turning the wire cage and as the peppers roast, the peelings fall off through the wire into a catcher below. So what you are buying are bags of roasted peppers, with the hard work of peeling the skins, already done.

I also found this booth at in the Santa Fe Farmer's market, selling some pepper varieties I'd wasn't familiar with (Padrone and Shishito). The seller was demonstrating how to cook them, and handing out samples. One taste and I was hooked. I bought a bag of both varieties. The cooking consisted of a hot skillet with about a teaspoon of olive oil. A good handful of peppers were dropped into the hot skillet, tossed around for about 60 seconds so they began to burn on one or two sides, then they were dumped out onto a plate and dusted with coarse sea salt. Because the peppers are quite young and not mature, the seeds are tiny and there is almost no heat. What you get is a slightly charred, smoking tasting pepper that is still crisp. They are addictive whether you like heat, or not!

The roadside flowers this time of year are primarily yellow and purple. Rabbitbrush is in full bloom with waist high bushes of bright yellow. I'm not sure whether the name comes from the fact there's a rabbit under every bush, or from the berries, which look a lot like rabbit droppings when they fall to the ground. 

I found this interesting white blossomed plant along the highway but have no idea what it is. Anyone recognize it? If so, leave a comment. I collected some seed. It grows in dry roadside settings, takes winter freezes and appears to be an annual. The flowers are substantial, even though they look somewhat fragile. I'm going to freeze the seed, then plant them in a marked area in the garden to see if I can get them to grow next year.


Bent's Old Fort

I arrived at Bent's Old Fort, a National Historic landmark on the Santa Fe Trail. Traders set out in Missouri, stopping at Dodge City and the few other trail towns. Bent's Fort was a major stopover, because it had supplies, both to trade, and to help the traders make it the rest of the way to Santa Fe.

The old storehouse is said to be accurate to what was sold there in the 1820s and '30s. Some of the items may surprise you. Crackers were shipped from Philadelphia; macaroni came in large wooden cases, also from that city. Pepper sauce, lemon syrup (used in medicines and to prevent scurvy), crates of candy, both peppermint and horehound, I assume. Shanghi tea was shipped from China. Cloth, scissors, coffee, guns, gun powder and lots more, came down the Trail.

There weren't gardens at the Fort as best as I can tell. The Indians used native plants and grew gourds, corn, beans and squash, and may have traded it at the Fort. But by and large, the traders who traveled up and down the Trail, relied completely upon the goods they carried.

Bread was shipped from Philadelphia, although I can't imagine what state it would have been in. Accounts in the Diary of Susan McGoffin, one of the few women to have traveled the Trail (and one of the best accounts of life on the Trail), the bread was usually buggy or full of worms and very stale. Considering it took 3 months to travel from Missouri to Santa Fe, and the bread was made in Philadelphia, you can imagine what it was like. You had to pour water or juices of some kind just to soften it enough to chew.

Just outside the Fort are marshes and in those grew (and still grow) cattails, rushes and swamp milkweed. The cattails are edible in several stages. My friend, Billy Joe Tatum, makes biscuits out of cattail pollen when it's in bloom in the spring. Even earlier, just as the young cattail leaves are poking up through the water, you can pull up the tender shoots beneath the water and wash them; cooked, they are very tasty. I steam or boil those and add a bit of some butter. They taste an awful lot like roasting ears.

The Santa Fe Trail was about buffalo and commerce. The Fort would not have existed without trade for buffalo hides, which were shipped back East. They were tanned for leather, the fur used for hats and clothing, and would bring a good price in the East. The photo here is a buffalo hide press. The hides were folded 4 times and put in the press, stacking more and more hides on top. The press was screwed down tight and ropes wrapped around the hides to make a square bundle. Those were loaded with a small wooden crane, into the wagons to send back to Missouri and beyond.

So I'm still here on the Santa Fe Trail, taking lots of photos and updating my little Herbal Medicines of the Santa Fe Trail book, which is sold at the Fort, as well as on my website. Happy Trails!


Santa Fe Trail

Westward ho! I'm heading out West this week, checking out other people's gardens as I go. I drove down the Santa Fe Trail several years ago when I gave a lecture to the Santa Fe Trail Symposium, in McPherson, KS. I drove about half of the trail and the result of that trip was my little book, Herbal Medicines of the Santa Fe Trail. On that trip I photographed a lot of plants, and acquired a serious addiction to fire roasted peppers. (More on that later).

The Santa Fe Trail was totally about commerce, trade and making money. It was the Wal-Mart and Hunts Trucking of its time. The U.S. had just taken the land that is now southern California, all of New Mexico, Arizona, Texas and a piece of Kansas and Oklahoma, away from Mexico. That done, traders set out into "our" new land. Never mind that the Native people were quite happy here, both the Plains Indians, and their cousins, the people of Mexico.

That's a representational statue in Kansas City, of Massasoit, a Wampanoag Indian, who likely wouldn't have given the Pilgrims that first mouthful of food had he known what was in store for his people. But he did share food with the visitors and they reproduced and kept moving Westward. The Santa Fe Trail existed between 1822 and 1846 and carried freight between Independence, Missouri and Santa Fe, New Mexico.

The Trail began near St. Joseph, Missouri, down through Independence and on through Dodge City, then the Trail splits into the Cimmaron Cutoff, through the corner of Oklahoma, and the Mountain Route, that headed farther west to Bent's Fort in southern Colorado, near the present town of La Junta, where I stopped for the day. Tomorrow I visit Bent's Fort, which has a gift shop that sells my books.

Tonight, though, I visited one of my favorite (ok, I've just visited it once before, years ago, but it instantly became a favorite) restaurants - the Hoggs' Breath Saloon. The sign says Boss Hogg, simply because Clint Eastwood, it turned out, owns the trademark rights to Hog's Breath and in order to not be sued, the Hoggs Breath folks, changed their name since I was here last. What do you eat in the Hoggs Breath Saloon? Steaks, of course, it's cattle country. What did I eat? The salad bar, an order of Snake Eggs (jalapeno peppers stuffed with cream cheese and wrapped in bacon) with a plate full of Mountain Oysters. If you have to ask what that is, you don't want to know.

Lots of the trading that took place had a strong impact on those who lived at either end of the Trail. Lea & Perrins Worchestershire Sauce, went southwest. Cayenne pepper made its entry into medicine in the East during that time, traveling back up the Trail. The addition of cayenne pepper helped the body absorb other medicines faster, just as it is sometimes used today. You can read all about medicines of that period, and how they changed because of the Trail and it's commerce in my little book if you are interested.

I pushed right on through Dodge City, which someone called, "Branson, without the music and a lot of fake tombstones and faux gunfighters." I drove highway 50, which mostly follows the original Trail along the Arkansas River. There are pull asides where you can still view the wagon tracks. They're just variations and folds in the prairie, but after those thousands of wagons went back and forth, compacting the soil, there are still different plants that grow in those tracks. Hopefully, if you click on the photos to enlarge them, you can see the variations in the grasses.

Kansas doesn't have a wide variety of wildflowers this time of year, mostly varieties of native sunflowers, some beautiful blue flowered salvia and lots of liatris (those are the purple spikes at the top of the page). Tumbleweeds are still green and are simply innocent looking weeds along the roadside. But come fall, a good heavy frosty night, and those waist sized weeds will curl into balls of stickery, stiff mobile objects. When the limbs curl inward, making the ball shape, the stem at the base of the ground weakens, and at the first wind - the wind blows a lot out here - that weed becomes a rolling ball of stickers that you won't want to be in the way of.

You have to dodge them on the highway, they pile up against the fences and buildings and can be a real pest. But of course, from the tumbleweed's point of view, it's how they spread their seed and get ready for next season. (No, those aren't tumbleweeds pictured, but some variety of perennial sunflower cousin that lines the roads).

I also found evidence of what really won the West, a piece of it laying in the road as I was walking off the plate of mountain oysters and eating my dessert of a local Colorado peach. Copenhagen, the label says, "since 1822" which means it came on the Santa Fe Trail. More about what else came on the Trail another day.


Garam Masala, Indian Rice Pudding, Chapatis

This is the Texas Star hibiscus, with deeply serrated leaves and big rosy blooms, each having a star in the middle. The flower petals make a mildly tart, pink hot tea. It's growing in the upper bed of the garden.

Random thoughts for today...
1 - I was at dinner one night with friends and one of the guests asked the late Adelma Simmons, Grande Dame of herbs and owner of Caprilands Herb Farm, if she was a vegetarian. (She was 80+ years at the time); she said, "I don't really like vegetarians. When someone comes up to me at Caprilands and asks me if I'm a vegetarian, I pretend like I'm asleep. I'm old; I can get away with it." She was a feisty but quite wonderful lady.

2 - In the July issue of Southern Living magazine there's an article on Big Cedar Lodge, an upscale wilderness resort near us on the lake. In the article the owner, Johnny Morris (owner of Bass Pro shops nationwide) said of his lake cottages..."When it's hot in July here, I encourage our guests to crank up the air conditioning all the way, then build a fire in the fireplace to set the mood." (I'm paraphrasing the quote; I'd heard the rumor from guests many times and just didn't believe anyone would be that wasteful, or to encourage such waste).

3 - In a restaurant outside of Miller, MO, on the 100 mile yard sale where we had breakfast, I spotted this item on the menu: "Granny's Eggs Benedict. We take a big ole' buttermilk biscuit, split it in half, cover it with sausage gravy, put the top on and add a fried egg." (So you trade the English muffin for a biscuit, the gravy stands in for the Hollandaise sauce, the sausage for the Canadian bacon and the fried egg on top stands in for the poached egg. Gotta love down home cookin'!

The big event in the garden this week was a visit from our two friends from Washington, DC. Puneet is a long time friend and former penpal who we visited in India in 2001, and his friend, Robert, who's family was from the Philippines. They meditated in the vine covered gazebo in the garden and gathered things from the herb beds for several of our meals.

Puneet threw out my 8 year old container of garam masala, which his mother had made for me when we visited his home in New Delhi. You can't buy authentic garam masala here, and it is the only seasoning I like in black beans and rice in the winter. So I've been stingy with it, and even though it's lost its flavor and smell, I would not throw it out. (Spices, as you likely know, last 9-12 months; beyond that, their flavoring demise is rapid). Garam masala is a highly individualized and variable blend of 8-15 spices and seeds and varies from family to family in India. It's used in cooking many kinds of dishes. It's not hot, but has a robust flavor; the English tried to duplicate and standardize it, and what we know of as, "curry powder" here in the West, was the result. Indians don't use curry powder, most don't even know what it is.

The spice seeds are roasted separately. Fennel, fenugreek, peppercorns, black cumin and several others are dry roasted first. Then a substantial amount of whole coriander is added after the other spices have nearly finished roasting. Coriander roasts quickly; then other spices, included asophedita, are added at the very last. Once the mixture has cooled, the whole batch is ground to a fine powder and stored in an airtight container.

So Puneet cooked up a new batch then went right to cooking. Our Friday night dinner group came over for dinner on Sunday so Puneet and Robert cooked all day. I've not had homemade chapatis in years and Puneet whipped up a batch for us. (Chapatis are a flour & water dough, dry-fried in a particular way, not unlike parathas, tortillas or other similar flat breads around the world. However, chapatis are finished right on the flame of the gas grill and puff up with air like baloons).

Robert made pork adobo, a typically Filipino dish from his parents' country, and fried bananas wrapped in phyllo dough and baked. Puneet made grilled, curried chicken, a spinach dish which included queso fresca (fresh cheese that melts quickly), a rice and carrot dish with cinnamon and a big batch of kheer, also known as Indian rice pudding. Kheer is made by slowly boiling rice in milk for several hours, with a small amount of sugar and green cardamom pods, along with slivered almonds. There are no eggs, like rice puddings we make here, but it is rich, creamy and thick like American rice pudding when cooled. And it tastes incredible.

The meal was a big hit and even with 14 people, we had enough leftovers for lunch the next day.