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Sacred Stew : Posole, a Native American corn dish, is served at pueblo festivals, but it can also be sampled in restaurants around Albuquerque

<i> Butel is director of Jane Butel's Southwest Cooking School in Albuquerque and author of 12 cookbooks</i>

The winds were sharp and cold. It was the weekend after Thanksgiving and we were traveling west on Interstate 40 from Albuquerque, nearing the Arizona border. As we turned onto the road to the Zuni Pueblo, we breathed a sigh of relief at finding it dry and inviting--unlike the previous year at the same time.

This was our second attempt at seeing the reverent, colorful Shalako dances. The year before we had been turned back less than 20 miles from the pueblo by dense snow that we feared was turning into a blizzard. By the time we headed home, we had already driven for more than three hours.

This time we were determined to get there. We had heard from friends that for admirers of Native American art and culture such as we are, these dances are the ultimate experience. As with all of the pueblo dance performances, the corn dish called posole (po-SO-lay)--the ceremonial dish for celebrating all of life’s blessings--was to be served and I was eager to try it. Although I had made it myself and sampled it in area restaurants, I was interested in experiencing it at one of its sources.

Posole (or pozole , in its Mexican version) is both the name for the rich stew-like dish (which may remind some people of a kind of chili) and its chief ingredient, corn. Posole corn is prepared by soaking hard kernels of field corn (traditionally white, although blue is sometimes used now) in powdered lime and water--a method thought to mimic the ancient preservation of corn in limestone caves. After several hours, when the corn kernels have swollen, the liquid is allowed to evaporate and the kernels to dry. At this point the posole kernels can either be ground into masa flour and made into tortillas, or they can be stored in whole kernel form for use later in the posole stew.

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The stew often combines the corn kernels with red or green chilies, garlic, meat or game and sometimes cumin, a contribution of the Spanish conquistadors who embraced the dish and gave it their own twist. (Posole is different from hominy, another kind of processed corn, which tends to be mushier and less flavorful. Compared to it, posole has an intense earthy flavor and a much more robust consistency. While hominy is sometimes used as a substitute for posole in stew, it is not authentic or traditional in New Mexico and the flavor is quite different.)

My friends and I were looking forward to tasting authentic posole at the Zuni Pueblo, but we were richly rewarded by more than just food.

Of all the Native American dances I have been privileged to watch, these Shalako dances were the most compelling. The dances are conducted once a year, on a weekend in late November or early December, to bless all construction new to the pueblo that year. They are usually open to the public and reservations are not necessary.

The dancers--all in elaborate, traditional costumes of bright primary colors, feathers and animal skins--had fasted and practiced their special dance steps for many hours before the ceremonial dancing began.

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Some wore headdresses that extended more than seven feet in height, and those whose homes were being blessed had dug out the dirt floor so that the dancers’ headdresses could clear the ceiling.

They danced in groups, and the costumes varied depending upon the spirit they represented. For example, one group, referred to in English as the mud heads, dressed in exaggerated round brown headdresses, their skin painted brown and wearing a bright colored sashes, leather loin cloths and ankle-high boots with bells that jingled as they danced.

No sketching or photography was allowed, a fact that I understood, given the religious nature of the ceremony.

The dances started at sundown and lasted all night. About 4 a.m., posole began to be served to the participants by the Zuni women. The dancers were fed first, the women ate next and, finally, the several dozen guests, mostly non-Native-Americans, were served. Out of a huge terra-cotta colored bowl, the rich, thick steaming hot brown stew was spooned into disposable cups that were passed out to the several dozen of us.

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Even though I am a native of the Southwest, this was the first time I had eaten posole in a pueblo, and I can still taste the spicy flavor of the crisply browned bits of meat--probably game--flavored by mahogany colored pods of piquant chilies. Despite the bitter cold and my fatigue that night several years ago, I clearly remember those haunting dances and the dish that seemed to nourish my soul as well as my body.

While sampling Native American posole at its source in a pueblo is best, there are as many versions of it as there are Native American cooks. Add to that a wide variety served in restaurants in the area, and you have ample opportunity to sample a dish that offers a glimpse into the varied nature of Native American culture and history.

One of my favorites in Albuquerque, where I have lived off and on for the past three decades, is Antonio’s, a restaurant in what we locals refer to as the Near North Valley, about 15 minutes from downtown. Not only is the food good, the restaurant has a beautiful mural in a large side room off the main dining room, which is filled with antique ranges. And there is lots of Native American art hanging on the wall. Everything the restaurant makes, including their posole, is flavorful and well prepared.

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Another restaurant I like is an unadorned coffee-shop kind of place called Padilla’s Mexican Kitchen. Despite the bare-bones atmosphere, the food is quite good and they specialize in wonderful fluffy sopaipillas (deep-fried bread usually sprinkled with confectioners sugar) and have reasonable prices.

Their posole is not listed on the menu, but it is served daily.

Another find is a tiny place called Ramon’s, which is very popular with the local Native American population. It is tucked into a small shopping center north of town, a few miles west of I-25. Primarily a takeout place, the restaurant does have limited seating.

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Its posole is one of the most tasty that I know of, and they claim to serve more posole at breakfast than at any other time of day.

I also like the posole at Las Mananitas, a beautiful, well-appointed historic adobe home that has been transformed into a restaurant.

Although it is served as a soup du jour (most often during the winter), the posole is well seasoned and an excellent accompaniment to the full dinners, which are also good. When the weather is nice, dine outdoors on the patio.

Out in the beautiful New Mexico countryside, I stumbled upon posole in the Zia Chief gasoline station. It is set in an area studded with high mesas and beautiful canyons, just across from the entrance to the Zia Pueblo and about 50 miles northwest of Albuquerque. There, I sampled the stew along with a handful of locals. The posole was a little greasy and the pork not as well browned as I like, but the flavor was good and it was fun to take my soup on the honor system--everyone helps themselves.

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A visitor need not wait until after Thanksgiving to enjoy posole at the Zuni Pueblo. It is eaten in all of the 19 pueblos in New Mexico at festivals, and some others allow outsiders to partake. Among the other days of celebration at which it might appear are: the Blessing of the Fields rites in May; Corn and Harvest dances in June, July and August, and Celebration of the Hunt dances that take place in October.

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Schedules of dances and other ceremonial days are available from the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque and the New Mexico Department of Tourism in Santa Fe. But be warned: Schedules are subject to change for various reasons, including weather, state of the crop or private events at the pueblos.

In addition to festivals and restaurants, a good place to sample posole is at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque. The center is dedicated to sharing the art, history and culture of New Mexico’s pueblo peoples and is particularly well done.

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It includes two museums (the main museum and one designed for children), a restaurant specializing in Southwestern food and several gift shops that sell authentic Native-American pottery, paintings, sculpture, rugs and jewelry. Each weekend, traditional dance performances and art demonstrations are offered at the Cultural Center. The posole I sampled from a continually simmering caldron in their pleasant restaurant is not as highly flavored as I have found in the pueblos, but it does offer another example of the diversity of the dish.

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GUIDEBOOK: Posole in New Mexico

Where to eat: Antonio’s, 5024 4th St. NW, Albuquerque; posole is $3.95 per bowl. It is not listed on the menu but is served daily; (505) 345-0843.

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Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, 2401 12th St. NW, Albuquerque; posole is $4.80 per bowl; (505) 843-7270 or (800) 766-4405.

Las Mananitas, 1800 Rio Grande Blvd. NW, Albuquerque; full dinners about $8-$14 (posole served occasionally as a soup du jour); (505) 242-6334.

Padilla’s Mexican Kitchen, 1510 Girard St. NE, Albuquerque; most full dinners under $6.50; posole $3 a bowl; (505) 262-0115.

Ramon’s, 6601 4th St. NW, Albuquerque; posole is $3.15 for a small bowl, $3.85 for large; (505) 345-6732.

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Zia Chief gasoline station, New Mexico 44 across from the entrance to the Zia Pueblo; less than $1 per serving (no telephone number available).

For further information: New Mexico Department of Tourism, 491 Old Santa Fe Trail, Santa Fe; (800) 545-2040; Albuquerque Convention and Visitors Bureau, 600 First St. NW, Albuquerque; (800) 284-2282.


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