A time for reflection (about food, of course).

Photo: Caroline Härdter

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Even those of us in the hectic world of restaurants must occasionally take a break, and so it is that Inauguration Day found me in the High Desert north of Santa Fe, New Mexico. I took the train from my home in Iowa and am now enjoying the healing waters at Ojo Caliente and reflecting on the new world we’ve entered. Much has been said about the myriad ways this milepost in history marks profound change: in matters of state, matters of race, matters of politics and compassion; and rightly so. A new day is indeed dawning, and if you’ll pardon the mixed metaphor, joy cometh in the morning.

As a nation, though, there is an important aspect we still refuse to grapple with in its totality: food. Maybe because it is such an immense prospect to ponder — food is one of the very few things that we all share in common, and it touches nearly every aspect of our lives. We work in the daily grind each day, perhaps in part because of our love of the work (for the lucky among us anyway), but mostly in order to put food on our tables and nourish our families. Yet in our national discourse, the closest anyone gets to talking about food is either in considering the minutia of the farm bill or decrying the latest food-borne illness outbreak that is often brought about by that very minutia.

Wisdom in the Waters

A world of centralized agribusiness guarantees that when an outbreak happens, it affects thousands of people across many states. This is not to say that the local and sustainable “utopia” that Slow Food advocates like myself yearn for would be free of such outbreaks entirely, but at least when they did happen they would be confined to much smaller groups of people rather than threatening thousands of our grandparents and children. And this is just one tiny aspect of a subject that has profound effects upon each of us, and the planet, every day.

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When pondering big things, occasionally it helps to take a bath, and here at Ojo Caliente, we can quite literally bring the Earth in on the conversation. There are four different natural mineral pools here, and each is supposed to help the body with particular maladies. The iron pool aids the blood. The soda pool, we’re told, is good for digestion. Lithium, as you might imagine, helps those suffering from depression and related illnesses. And then there is the arsenic (yes, arsenic), which is “believed to be beneficial for relief from arthritis, stomach ulcers, and to heal a variety of skin conditions,” they tell me.

And so as I soak I wonder how these restoratives might be applied to the world of food. The soda pool seems obvious, as our digestion has been hampered (to say the least) by edible food-like substances, made mostly from what used to be corn, and our bodies have no earthly idea what to do with these once they’ve entered our systems.

After a good soak in the soda pool, wherein we renew our desire to eat real food and banish anything our great-grandparents would not recognize as food, it is time to visit the iron pool, where our circulatory system gets some help. It is not too big a stretch to imagine the circulatory system as somewhat analogous to our nation’s food transportation system. It struggles mightily to get necessary nutrients to whatever part needs it at the time that it needs it, but in America many parts are underserved. In what is still the richest country the planet has ever seen, children go to sleep hungry every night. Millions more are overweight and yet undernourished because they have no access to — or knowledge of — real, beneficial food.

Consolations of the Dinner Table

From here I suggest we head to the arsenic pool to face the bitter poisons we have ingested over the last several decades and, in fire-with-fire fashion, have them leeched from our very pores. If left to do so, the earth can heal itself well, but we need intervention. We need a conscious choice to be made: Do we continue to feed our children in the same manner that we fuel our cars, often with the very same ingredients? Or do we return to the wisdom of our elders, who did not consume things they could not pronounce?

Following these soaks, a sip from the lithium well might have us all feeling a little better about our prospects. I raise a glass in a toast to our new leaders, hoping that they will at last put food on America’s political menu.

Last night I enjoyed a salad of fresh organic greens with a local goat cheese and a delicious prickly pear vinaigrette, followed by a breast of chicken with a mole, a traditional Mexican sauce combining chile peppers with nuts, spices, and in some versions, chocolate. (It’s pronounced moe-le, with the emphasis on the first syllable.) Mole was born of the mixing of Spanish and indigenous culinary traditions in Mexico — a true melting-pot dish appropriate to our time. At Ojo Caliente, the chef served a peanut-based version. He wouldn’t part with his recipe, so here’s my take on it. Enjoy it while hoping that we can one day see a (local, free-range, and organic) chicken in every pot.

Peanut Mole

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and diced
2 cloves garlic, peeled
1 pound diced tomatoes (I use canned at this time of year)
8 ounces roasted green chiles (any kind, from sweet to very hot, depending on your preferences)
2 teaspoons toasted cumin seed, ground (or substitute chili powder, to taste)
1/2 cup roasted peanuts
2 tablespoons unsweetened or bittersweet chocolate
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
1 pint chicken broth


In a sauté pan over medium heat, sauté the onion and garlic in the oil, stirring frequently, until tender but not browned. Add the tomatoes, chiles, cumin (or chili powder), and peanuts, and bring to a simmer. Add the chocolate and the cinnamon, and stir until the chocolate is melted.

Transfer to a food processor or mortar and pestle and puree or mash until mostly smooth, adding chicken broth as needed for a thick-but-pourable consistency.

Use immediately to simmer chicken, or store in the fridge for up to 4 days.