Dinner with Julia, Redux

May  9, 2012

This is the eighth installment of Sunday Dinners, a biweekly column from our own Tom Hirschfeld featuring his gorgeous photography, stunning Indiana farm, and mouthwatering family meals.

Today: A trip to New Mexico throws Tom off balance in all the best ways -- plus, a recipe for Corn Tamales with Swiss Chard.

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- Tom

In New Mexico the sky is bigger than the ground. When every crevice or rise on the long flat plains is your only sense of place, it is easy to feel insignificant. For me in this situation, it is best to find an anchor. Something to tie me to the dirt under my boots. A spiritual weight, so to speak.

The dirt at El Santuario de Chimayo is supposed to be healing but I am not prepared. I didn't expect to be here at the sanctuary because I didn't know it existed -- I came here for dried Chimayo chiles. I didn't know about the dirt, but I am glad to find it, and now I stand in a long line of pilgrims -- impatient pilgrims, at that. You can't just dilly dally, there are too many people. This is especially true when you finally reach the back room of the church with the dirt pit. It is a little room with a low ceiling, a single bare bulb hanging down, and artifacts-cum-testimonials -- things like crutches, eye patches, and in one corner, a hearing aid -- hanging low from above, forcing you to bow your head.

Standing at the precipice of the pit of holy dirt I rifle through my pockets looking for some sort of container. The only thing on my person is a Bic ball point pen. People are staring. One woman crosses her arms and taps her foot in a display of annoyance with me. I put the tip of the pen into my mouth, bite, and pull out the ink cartridge like it is the cap on a syringe. I fill the clear tube with holy dirt and cap it, but not before I scoop up a capful of dirt and shoot it down like a good anejo. Well, not quite a good anejo. The dirt moistens with my saliva, then reverses course and sucks every bit of moisture out of my mouth. The mineral taste is its only real similarity to tequila -- other than that I need a good chaser. A beer would be great, but I'd settle for water.

With a string of Chimayo chiles slung over my shoulder, I walk the streets carrying my burden back to the lodge. I can't shake the big sky -- I am in limbo and feel that I am being sucked upward into the clouds. The scent of cedar and sage burning in fireplaces floats down to street-level from the chimneys. I come to love that smell.

By late morning, the sun comes out and melts the morning snow. It snows every morning while I am in Taos. We drive to the hot springs.

The two old Native American men with the long and graying ponytails talk Republican politics while up to their armpits in a hot spring. It is during this conversation that they pause for my interuption. They direct me to the Dixie cups and proceed to tell me why it is a good idea to partake of the water. They have been coming here to the hot springs of Ojo Caliente since they were little kids, they say. To drink the mineral water is to heal your ills, spiritual and earthbound -- and if not that, at the very least your stomach.

I shuffle through the pool over to a pipe. A mineral-brown and chalk-white stalactite hangs down from the opening and water trickles out into the pool as I fill a paper cup with some water. After the first swig I feel no different, so I take five more swigs. Still nothing. I turn around to continue my conversation but they aren't there. They are leaving this pool for one of the other mineral baths. I take another swig of water for good measure.

I head inside for a soak in the hottest water I can stand, for as long as I can stand it. Then the attendants wrap me head-to-toe like a mummy in a thin sheet, with a final wrap of scratchy wool blankets that are old enough they might have poxy (I needn't worry, since more toxins are leaving my body than coming in). I sweat. I sweat so much I imagine I am a horse being run until I collapse, except I don't work a muscle. Being bound by the blankets does nothing to lessen my fear of the sky.

I am spent. Back at the lodge I nap the afternoon away.

Now it is late in the evening, and I am elbow-to-elbow with Julia Roberts eating dinner at the La Fonda Hotel -- but then, how can I be sure after a revitalizing lunch of holy dirt and arsenic water? I wonder if I am hallucinating. Maybe I am lost in a vision quest. I could be having dinner with her. It is her unmistakable laugh, after all. Her smile, too.

I smell the tamales as the waiter sets the plate down in front of me.

Under the table a shoe jabs into my shin. I feel a warm hand grab mine.

"How are your tamales?" Amy asks, shaking me from my trance.

"Great!" I say.

"You're having dinner with Julia Roberts again aren't you?" she suspects.

"Yep," I say.

"That was a great trip," she says, and we both laugh.

Corn Tamales with Swiss Chard

Makes 8

For the Tamales:
2 1/2 cups fresh corn kernels off the cob
1 1/2 cup yellow masa
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup lard
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup parmesan, grated
1 cup warm water or a light stock
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon fresh garlic, minced
1/4 teaspoon lime zest
12 to 14 dried corn husks

For the Swiss chard:
8 cups Swiss chard, rinsed, dried, stems removed and cut into 1 inch strips
1 yellow onion, peeled and julienned
2 teaspoons fresh tarragon, minced
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 tablespoons canola oil

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • aargersi
  • healthierkitchen
  • mrslarkin
  • thirschfeld
Father, husband, writer, photojournalist and not always in that order.


aargersi May 11, 2012
Those are the chilis my sister sends - did you get the sundried chili powder too?

We used to go to Ojo when we lived there - great memories. I have a photo of 70's me with my little sis out front of it - should send to you! I remember La Fonda too - but sans Julia Roberts :-)
thirschfeld May 16, 2012
They are really wonderful chills! I really like Taos for such a small town it is really cool.
healthierkitchen May 10, 2012
I was in New Mexico last summer, and revisited Chimayo which I'd been to 20 years earlier on a cross country drive. I got all kinds of chiles, dried and some ground smoked chile at that little shop (Virgil?) next to the Santuario. It is quite moving even though I'm far from a pilgrim. It was quite built up since my earlier visit - now there's paving and parking, etc. It seemed much, I don't know, dustier, then. And completely empty in May. Thanks for taking me back in a whole new way!
thirschfeld May 16, 2012
I am far from a pilgrim as well but it seemed like a good thing to do since I was there. I do really like that part of NM
mrslarkin May 9, 2012
That was really fun to read. Thanks for sharing yet another great recipe, thirschfeld. Can't wait to try. And Happy Mother's Day to Amy! (and Julia).

For the dried corn husks, is that something I should buy, or make myself?
thirschfeld May 10, 2012
mrsl I hadn't thought about it but if you buy the corn in the husk, save the husk and use them. I can't imagine they wouldn't work and would probably be better!