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Love Letter to

Lately I find myself in love with the smell of places: the sharp, bay-leaf infused air of Pt. Reyes, the stinging, salty sea-smell of the Pacific, the loamy, soil-rich fragrance that marks Sonoma County. Scent and memory are, for me, intertwined, and Northern California does not lack for delicious and wonderful natural aromas — here, the air is thick and complex with water and earth and fog.

But underneath all of this — underneath all my deep and enduring love for coastal California — is the scent-memory of the dry, clear, piñon-scented air of New Mexico.

I visited the state four years ago for just a brief trip, but it burrowed its way into my heart and stamped dusty desert footprints across it. Is it possible to miss places one has visited merely once? And yet, I do miss it: the cold, clear stars; the sweet, smoky, air; the flat, dry land rimmed by mountains; the shining ribbon of the Rio Grande cutting through the canyons; grey casinos huddled like rocks against a vast expanse of dark earth; the bones of the Spanish settlement laid bare and forgotten to the sun. I’ve often asked myself if I lived there, would I feel land-bound, hemmed in without an ocean? Somehow I feel I would not, for there is the grand river, and the wide-open.

This, then, is my love letter to New Mexico on this trumped-up holiday celebrating all things garish, and lovely. It may be an unconventional Valentine, but it is mine nonetheless.

Today, rather than plying myself with chocolates, or other sweets, I remember the fry bread I tasted for the first time in a little restaurant in Albuquerque. Instead of dressing up for a meal at a fancy — and overpriced — restaurant, I wish for my down vest, a necessary accoutrement for clambering up wind-swept rocks to explore abandoned pueblos. I remember strongly the sweet smell of the ever-burning piñon wood fires, smoke curling into the bluest sky. I would like to bake my obligatory dessert in a mud oven, rather than in my own tiny, indoor specimen. I want to cook with sage and piñon nuts, and all the other wild herbs and plants that were used by native people long before Europeans landed here. I want to bring the outdoors into the kitchen.

It is true that some places are close in your heart forever. I choose the Sierra Nevada, the Yosemite, a point on the edge of California, and the stretch of land in between Santa Fe and Taos, as mine.

I was in love with the whole world and all that lived in its rainy arms
-louise erdrich

Wild Sage Bread, from the Pueblo Indian Cookbook, by Phyllis Hughes

1 package dry yeast
1 cup native or cottage cheese
1 egg
1 tb. vegetable oil
1 tb. sugar
2 tp. crushed dried wild sage
1 tp. salt
1/4 tp. baking soda
1/4 cup lukewarm water
2 1/2 cups flour

Mix all dry ingredients thoroughly. Dissolve the yeast in the water. Beat together the egg and cheese until smooth in a large bowl, then add the oil and yeast.

Pre heat oven to 350 F. Beat in the flour mixture slowly, beating vigorously after each addition until a stiff dough has formed. Cover dough with a cloth and let rise in a warm place for about an hour, or until doubled in bulk. Punch dough down, knead for a minute, then put into a buttered loaf pan. Cover and let rise 40 minutes. Bake for 50 minutes.

Piñon Cakes

1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
1/2 cup piñon nuts, ground to meal
2 tp baking powder
1/2 tp. salt
2 tb. sugar
2 tb. butter or olive oil
1/2-1 cup water

Sift flour, piñon, salt and baking powder together. Add the butter or oil and mix thoroughly. Add water a bit at a time to form a medium dough.

Knead dough for 5 minutes. Cover and let stand a few minutes. Divide the dough into egg-sized balls and roll into round cakes about 1/8-inch thick. Cook on a stove-top griddle, or bake in a 350-degree oven . Serve hot, with honey.


  1. Your recolection of New Mexico, coupled with the comfort of food,was a lovely and image laden read.


  2. I like that Nicole, claiming a place that is yours. It is good to know what places are yours — where you come from — even if you have only been there once, or even if you have never been there.

  3. Mmm … lovely. I lived in Santa Fe for two summers, working at the Opera, 1990-1991. I miss it terribly and have not been back since. You’ve inspired me!

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