culinaria eugenius in the southwest: red or green?

IMG_4894In many ways, Durango, Colorado — one of the four corners that make up the intersection of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah nestled in the Colorado Plateau — is like Eugene.

Hippie foods at the co-op
Can’t tell if liquor store signs are inside joke or just illiterate
head shop features local products
Sushi interpretations (salmon sashimi served with mango, cucumber, and black tobiko at Cosmo Restaurant)
and alternative corn dogs exist (lobster version at Cosmo Restaurant)

It is also not like Eugene at all.

Ghost hot sauce in a place called “the Switzerland of America,” Ouray, CO
The Old Livery building in Silverton, CO
Green chile and ham benedict at College Drive Café, Durango, CO.  “Red or green?” is the question one is asked at every establishment that wants to give you delicious, delicious chile sauce made with the local Hatch chiles, which look like Anaheims and taste much punchier and grassier and hotter
Freshly gathered pinon (pine) nuts in the shell, sold on the side of the road


Bigger buttes and artists who forge their own metal in house (and make me a copper dude’s face necklace) (above, Ouray, CO hotel and Silverton, CO enamel artist in his studio)

They filmed True Grit there, and have John Wayne’s hat at a local bar, The Outlaw (in Ouray, CO, below).  That’s pretty cool.

IMG_3524John Wayne aside, there’s a confluence of populations: Native American tribes (Navajo, Ute, Hopi and Zuni), Mexican-Americans, and white people, some hailing from Mormon traditions, some working for big oil companies, some just rich and wanting to ski. It’s an area of great historical import and racial tensions, a clash of resources, wealth and power, land use, and religion.

At the stunning cliff dwellings of ancient Puebloan tribes at Mesa Verde National Park (below), I joined about a thousand overweight American tourists marveling at the architectural might of these farming communities. Those little circular enclosures are called kivas, which do not resemble in the least our local organic food market, but if you’re interested in the origin of the term, see this fantastic write-up in a blog I wish I had studied before my trip.

We also hiked out alone to see the terraces in the hill formed a thousand years ago to catch rain water and silt run-off for growing corn, beans, and squash.

IMG_4866IMG_4881Also of note, perhaps, was the Navajo taco I ate at the park canteen.  It was not good.  I understand they usually aren’t good — fried dough with canned chili beans, processed cheese shreds, iceberg lettuce, sad tomatoes, and processed salsa with a blob of sour cream does not usually transcend the heights of culinary offerings — but I wanted to see if I could make it better with some green chiles and removing the offending lettuce and salsa.  To no avail.  The kind lady on her break from the cook line even intervened, stealing into the back to bring me more chili beans, but this one would have gravely disappointed the Anasazi.

IMG_3502The Old West nostalgia/mystique is still very much a part of the ethos, with exhibits of old liquor bottles (above) and saucy stereoscope pictures (below) and even a real mutoscope in the rather glorious old Strater Hotel in Durango.

IMG_3505And as a pushback to the wild, liberal, crazy, free-wheelin’ Durango, there’s Farmington, NM, a city that scolds its populace via signs.  It’s been a long time (maybe never?) since I’ve seen so much regulatory signage, much of it of the religious variety.  There are signs outside of churches that scare girls away from considering abortions, signs at intersections warning drivers of exactly what they’ll pay if they commit various traffic violations, signs that call readers nuts and signs that hate Obama and love Jesus.  And a sign that says Jesus.  Yes, that’s a sign:  Jesus.  Even shorter than my favorite short sentence in the New Testament: He wept. Jesus.


Jesus is watching you in Farmington when you go into that porn store housed in a former Pizza Hut.  He is STILL watching you, says the back of this particular sign, as you exit.  I personally think he’d be of more use watching over the junk collector and the Americans, native or otherwise, living in crumbling trailers with inadequate medical care and schooling along the river, but maybe it’s better he stays out of it altogether.

IMG_4902Poverty, as you might imagine, is a huge problem, especially on the reservations that make up most of the high desert land surrounding Four Corners.  Continual tensions exist between Those With Oil and Those Without, provoking resentments in communities that have money for services and well-funded institutions and those that don’t.  Oil and gas companies own the biggest buildings in town, and community services are tied to the taxes they get from oil drilling.

Perhaps the most poignant sign I saw was that of an old movie theatre in Farmington, NM, guarded by a drunk man on the sidewalk, sprawled out in front when I stopped to take a photo. ‘Totah’ is the Navajo name for the region that encompasses Farmington, the theatre empty save for private events.  Seemed fitting, somehow, and somehow awful.


My one regret is that we didn’t eat at the Chat An Chew [sic] on the Navajo reservation in Shiprock, NM. They served diner food, everything from green chile burgers to frito pie to “steak fingers,” which are like fried chicken nuggets but with steak.

But that Navajo taco was sitting like lead in my belly, mocking me. Jesus.

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