Chiles

an excerpt from Seeds of Change, A Living Treasure by Kenny Ausubel, noted in EL #23, Fall 1996, p. 19.

At a distance of twenty yards from the Coyote Cafe in Santa Fe, you can smell the unmistakable dark, earthy aroma of roasting chiles. So far from any visible physical source, the scent rises as a smoky puzzle. One wonders whether perhaps trickster chef and restaurateur Mark Miller has alchemically released an etheric chile loop, an Akashic relleno stuffed with the eternal pleasure and nourishment of some of the most cherished foods in history, and the hottest.
"Food should be a catalyst for creating meaning in our lives," Miller says passionately, "and part of that meaning is a sense of place. Cuisine belongs in a certain place, culturally, historically, and geographically. Our food should connect us to our cultural path. We used to have a food legacy when religions were full of food prescriptions."
It comes as no surprise that Miller completed graduate anthropology work at the University of California at Berkeley in cross-cultural aesthetics before signing on as a chef with Alice Waters. During his tenure at famed Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse, he frequented the Oakland produce market, perfecting the selection of fresh and unusual varieties of vegetables and foods for the restaurant. During his gathering he became "aware that the commercial hybrids were not of the same intensity of flavor as some of the older heirloom varieties."
Three years later he launched, in succession, the Fourth Street Grill and the Santa Fe Bar and Grill in Berkeley, firing up the mesquite grill and hot haute cuisine that became widely popular. The fuse of chile peppers was lit, and it burned a trail to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he opened the Coyote Cafe in 1987.
Though Miller remains an admirer of Chez Panisse for its "honesty, integrity, and spirit of place," his personal destiny lay in a pod. 
It seldom takes Miller long to get around to chile. He points out that chile is not a fad food like the baby vegetables, but an ancient staple. "I've been fighting for chile. Chile is a great food source. It's heavily nutritious. It's been used for eight thousand years in the Americas, and we just relegated it to the backstage because of the status system, because it's not European. We have to lose our Euro-bias. The older foods are usually ones tied to the older cultures that need to be understood as we become more multicultural and multi-ethnic. We can create a food culture." Surrounded by Mexican and New Mexican folk art, Miller is a true genius of the cuisine of the Americas, and eating at the Coyote or its Washington, D.C., counterpart, Red Sage, is an archetypal food experience.
"Nature has a way of taking care of itself," Miller says. "Somehow these vegetables and seeds and cultivars that have survived over time have more to do with an ecological balance that we don't even today understand exactly. Some of the Native American cultures did. When I make wild mushroom tamales, people say, 'Well that's incredible, and it's so different from the greasy tamales that I get at the marketplace.' Wild mushroom tamales are one of the oldest Mexican or Native American foods. They knew very well every single food source that was available that was nutritional and not poisonous.
"Why did the Hohokam Indians have two hundred domesticated plants in the fourth century? Europe in the fifteenth century had only seventeen. Native Americans in the Southwest had 279 wild plants and 200 plants that they cultivated. They understood perfectly what we call genetic engineering. They didn't come up with these diets randomly. They knew their own bodies. They knew their own taste. They learned foods, and they learned growing seasons culturally. They had a respect for these things.
"They also knew the seasonality of all the food. The importance of the seasonality is that it is tied to a cultural mainstream of people who understood their place in nature. The corn poems that were created by the Hopi and the Zuni, the rituals, the colors, were a proto-scientific way of making this knowledge more meaningful in everyday life and giving it respect.
"To me as an anthropologist who spent most of his life studying art, the great thing about art is that it is an affirmation of life. And what does this have to do with vegetables? Our food supply has to be something that is real within our own life experience. As long as we talk about taste and the earth and trees, we get closer to the acceptance of the natural cycle. It has to do with feeding ourselves. It has to do with a generation of ourselves over time, our own death and the death of others around us. It's a mirror. I think that nature becomes a mirror, an education for ourselves."
Miller is a forceful proponent of organic food, and he proposes that fresh foods should not have to be trucked more than a hundred miles from where they are grown to where they are consumed.
But above all, Mark Miller's food is organic to culture. "I'm trying to get people to respect cultures through the foods that I introduce. If I can get someone to have a mole from Oaxaca, maybe they'll change their mind a little bit about what Mexican food is about and what Mexico and Mexicans are about. We can create in our food supply a social bridge to acting as a cooperative culture, as a multi-ethnic, multicultural society.
"We don't have poems on animals, we don't have rituals of corn dances or reindeer dances. I'm working with the cultures in the Southwest that are the last vestiges of really understanding what food and nature mean. Continually we talk about species that are disappearing - what about endangered cultures? What about endangered philosophies?

"There are only four things that happen internally to people," Miller concludes. "There are birth and death, and sex and food. Everything else is outside of us. Cultures in the past have seen food in this way. Religions have seen food in this way. They have used food as a connection to teach about life."  ###

Kenny Ausubel is a filmmaker, founder of Seeds of Change seed company, and producer of the annual Bioneers Conference. Reprinted with permission from his book Seeds of Change: The Living Treasure. 


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