A Twenty-Year Love Letter to My Beautiful Frenemy

A Twenty-Year Love Letter to My Beautiful Frenemy

It happens to everyone sooner or later, I guess.  Our relatives, our family, perhaps our very home comes to feel like a source of embarrassment.  Anyone who's ever had teenagers, or been a teenager, will know this to be true.

I myself have reached a point in my Chicago life, my many-year absence from my home state, where I feel grave embarrassment, even shame, sometimes in telling people I am from Arizona.

Don't get me wrong.  I think of Arizona as my motherland, my Blessed Homeland, my source, a lifelong aesthetic inspiration, the definition of natural beauty.  And it is filled with the people I love.

But my state, my beautiful state, has become something difficult to talk about now.  In recent years it has implemented a number of racist policies in law enforcement and education. My own home county continues to re-elect the most racist sheriff in the nation.  It's almost like a joke, it reads like an Onion story--except it's real, and sad, and pretty awful to watch from afar.

But no matter how bad things get, I will always have a special place in my heart and a nagging tug to observe and celebrate one particular day in the life of my complicated home state.

It started with a newspaper clipping my mother sent me, a recipe for a cake that was supposed to look like a barrel cactus.

She thought it would amuse me, and it did, enough to create a little party around it. The cake was green, covered with what looked exactly like cactus tines (who wouldn't think that was yummy?) and had an artful sugar cactus blossom on top. The recipe arrived in February, the most miserable and oddly the longest month of a Chicago winter.

Just in time, I was happy to note, to conjure up a celebration of Arizona Statehood Day.

You know, the day the Blessed Homeland entered the union, February 14, 1912. (Why so late, you ask? Well, Arizona was simply too progressive for the federal government's liking to be admitted into the union sooner. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.)

This is not, I am loathe to report, an actual observed holiday in Arizona. In my Chicago life as a graduate student in a house full of roommates, I never said it was, I never said it wasn't. I just decided to begin celebrating it because why not think about the desert and eat Southwestern food in the darkest, dreariest part of the winter? Why ever not? So that first Statehood Day it was just me and the roommates, and the cactus cake.

They helped me make it. What graduate student could possibly withstand the temptation, the challenge, to help pipe hundreds of tiny royal icing cactus tines, as thick as yarn and a 1/2” long? While the cake—chocolate with distracting “Mexican” flavorings of coffee and cinnamon—baked in a bowl, we piped. And piped. And piped.

I thought this was time consuming but truly, we had not even gotten to the prodigal, flamboyantly idiotic part of the process. After frosting the cake in a green buttercream that was a bit beyond cactus, we began to place the tiny tines (“they go in columns!” I barked to little avail, “they must be no more than a 1/2” apart!”). When we were finished, this cake looked less like a barrel cactus than a hedgehog, or perhaps a giant miscolored Hostess Sno-ball. And when I adorned the top with a fuschia blossom, it took on the look of a great spiky alien breast. Hard to say what this cake precisely resembled. All I knew was, after many satisfying hours avoiding schoolwork with my roommates, we had an entirely unappetizing cake to show for it.

So I donned my mother's turquoise 1950's squaw dress, a full-skirted, sorority party number covered with silver ric-rac. The dress seemed to match the whimsy of the cake, and became, with my cowboy boots, the de rigueur uniform of Statehood Day, all the way to the point when I could no longer zip up the skirt 20 years later.

How do these things happen? How does one festive foolish dinner turn into a decades-enduring, annual event of staggering effort, bloated enough to match the blow-up life-size cactus brought along by a very game boyfriend one year?

Who knows. There were a few factors. It sort of picked up slowly at first, a guest for dinner, maybe two, some new dish attempted to honor my desert Southwest. Probably the date itself had much to do with the loyalty it engendered among Statehood Day observers. Here we were, wandering matelessly through our twenties and beyond, in an environment somewhat unlikely to produce Valentine sweethearts. We were grateful to have the party to distract, delight, and exhaust us on that dreadful day.

What really kicked things into a higher gear was the arrival of a second displaced person from Arizona, our roommate Christine. She was from Tucson, and like me loved all things desert. She was most receptive to becoming a chief co-conspirator for the event. Christine knew how to do things I did not, such as make tortillas, and had patience to do things I would not, such as refry her own beans from dried, and roast and peel fresh chiles. I built on basics like my uncle's recipe for green chile, a pork-based burro filling flavored with green chiles from a can. I found a reliable recipe for a lovely mole that did not require roasting and grinding my own nuts and seeds.

Every January we would sit down, an array of cookbooks before us, and choose a soup, a salad, five or six entrees, three or four sides in addition to the tortillas and beans, and debate over the necessity of confronting our dangerously stuffed guests with dessert (which usually turned out to be Grandma Randall's ginger cookies). We tried several different ways of mixing sangria. Sometimes special ingredients had to be ordered from neighborhood stores, like the dried juniper berries I persuaded my produce market to get for me--I needed 6 of them for a Hopi-style lamb hominy stew, and the rest of the berries sat on the store's counter for several years after that.

We always had to make trips to the Mexican grocery stores on west 55th Street for things like piloncillo sugar and certain kinds of dried chiles and true Mexican cheeses. Our preparations took weeks.

Certain dishes had to make an annual appearance we loved them so much, like a creamy rice and poblano casserole. Others were so difficult to make just right on a large scale, like fish tacos, that we only trotted them out a couple of times.

Because the scale was becoming large indeed. As our guest list grew, we faced the same question every year. How do you make a dinner party for morally energetic eaters of every imaginable stripe? For our neighborhood was nothing if not morally energetic. Well, you just have to make a lot of different dishes. We wanted to make sure every guest could put together an entire meal, regardless of dietary constraints. We fed vegetarians and vegans. Gluten free. Dairy free. I internally bristled at the requirements of the free-range-chicken-only eaters, and I crumpled in defeat in the face of guests who kept kosher.

Somewhere in these years my co-conspirator's boyfriend was added to the mix, and he went whole hog with the theme, toting in chile-pepper light strings, a blow up cactus, larger than life decorations. Somewhere in these years I turned up my own sweetheart, who was always a bit flummoxed by the day (“...Am I supposed to give her flowers? Candy? A cactus arrangement? What??”). We always played old Arizona music like Marty Robbins or Rex Allen, and mariachi music. Guests stayed till midnight or one in the morning, long eclipsing my capability to fête my state's entry into the union.

And by that February when I was seven months pregnant with my second child, staggering along in my boots (which now had holes in the toes) picking up the detritus of a feast while happy guests sat, gregarious and laughing, I was through, absolutely through. Arizona had been celebrated sufficiently, I decided. By then the party had followed me through three homes and into my marriage; several generations of PhD students had come and gone; we were now feeding everyone's children and I was starting to feel obliged to come up with children's activities. What was coming next, a bounce house? A magician? No. Things had come to an end point. And so Statehood Day disappeared, just like that. Oh, sure, every few years my friend Christine and I exchange an email, think about rolling out the whole apparatus again. We think about it. We long for creamy rice with poblanos. We get together and pull out the cookbooks. One of us looks at the other with a raised eyebrow. Then we decide to cook for each other and leave it at that.


This year, to mark Arizona's 100th anniversary, for the first time in 8 years I cooked up a Statehood feast--even without beloved Christine--for some friends, and was aided by others bringing along salsa, tamales, pecan cookies, Mexican beer, and Arizona Ice Tea.  Though I discarded the idea of sending Gov. Jan Brewer a Statehood Day card and formal complaint signed by all our guests, I hold out hope that Arizona will come to its senses one day.  Try a few of these recipes and honor the beauty and the good things of the wild west: cowboys, Indians, the blending of many cultures, matchless beauty, wide open spaces, a blue sky you have to see to believe, and spring training.


Statehood Day Recipes


Jim's Green Chile
This burrito filling, a recipe from my aunt, is easy and delicious but takes some time.  You must stir it frequently during cooking to prevent sticking.  I am printing the recipe as written by my aunt, although I haven't been able to find the called-for Ortega products for some years.  I substitute with the closest things I can find, though this year I used a canned tomatillo salsa with less success and I don't recommend it.

1 chuck roast, 2 to 3 lbs.
1 pork roast, 2 to 3 lbs.
3 T. flour
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 large onions, diced
Cumin, salt, pepper, oregano, to taste, maybe 1 t of each to start
2 6-oz. cans chopped green chiles
2 8-oz. cans Ortega taco sauce
2 8-oz. cans Ortega green chile salsa
2 c. water
2 T. lemon juice

Cube meat and discard fat and gristle.  Coat with flour and then brown slowly and thoroughly with onions, garlic, and seasonings.  Use a heavy-bottomed pot to prevent scorching.  Add canned ingredients, water, and lemon juice.  Simmer several hours (2 to 4)  until meat can be shredded with forks and liquid has thickened, stirring occasionally.  Makes about 20 burros.  Freezes well.


Carlos' Chicken Mole
This is adapted from a recipe by legendary Native American flautist R. Carlos Nakai, which first appeared in the 1985 Guild cookbook of Phoenix's Heard Museum, From Metate to Microwave.  It has been a favorite of mine ever since.  Over the years I have made a few alterations for ease of preparation.  Sometimes I will buy a roasted chicken from the grocery store for this and add the cilantro and sauteed garlic and onions to the sauce later.

1 whole chicken
1/4 c. chopped fresh cilantro
6 cloves garlic, diced
1 large onion, diced
1/4 t. black pepper
2 oz. Mexican chocolate
2 8-oz. cans tomato sauce
2 heaping T. peanut butter
2 heaping T. sesame tahini
1 t. cumin
1 t. good New Mexican chili powder
1/4 t. cinnamon
2 c. chicken broth

Pressure cook chicken with cilantro, garlic, onion, and black pepper in 3 c. water.  Save broth, cool chicken.  Debone chicken and shred or chop into small pieces.  Melt chocolate in a bit of broth in a large pot.  Add tomato sauce, peanut butter, tahini, cumin, chili powder, and cinnamon and simmer for 20 minutes.  Stir in 1 c. chicken broth and add chicken pieces.  Add salt to taste, or use lime juice instead of salt.  If sauce is too thin make a thickener out of remaining chicken broth and a 1/2 c. of masa harina.  Serve with warm corn tortillas.


Creamy Rice with Poblanos
This recipe comes from a wonderful book called Food From my Heart: Cuisines of Mexico Remembered and Reimagined (Macmillan, 1992) by Zarela Martinez, a Mexican chef from the Sonora region who ran a successful restaurant in New York.  The recipe is featured right now on her website (http://www.zarela.com).  My Mexican friend in attendance this year said his family ate rice like this growing up.

4 c. water
1 T. butter
2 t. salt, or to taste
2 c. converted rice (yes, really)
2 T. vegetable oil
1 small onion, chopped (about 1/2 c.)
1 garlic clove, minced
2 poblano chiles, roasted, peeled, seeded, and diced
2 c. fresh or frozen (thawed) corn kernels
1 1/2 c. Crema Agria Preparada (note below*)
2 c. shredded white cheddar cheese

Bring the water to a boil in a medium sized saucepan, add butter and salt.  When butter is melted, add rice and bring back to a boil.  Reduce the heat to very low, cover the pan tightly, and cook for 20 minutes.  Allow to cool in the pan uncovered.  Preheat the oven to 350 degrees (325 degrees for a Pyrex dish).  Heat the oil in a heavy skillet over medium heat and add onion and garlic.  Cook, stirring, until wilted, 2 to 3 minutes.  Add poblanos and cook, stirring, for another minute.  Let cool then combine with the rice.  Mix in the corn, sour cream mixture, and shredded cheese.  Pack into a casserole dish, 9 X 9 or 7 X 11, and bake for 30 minutes.  Serves 6.

*Crema Agria Preparada: mix 1 1/2 c. sour cream with 1 small onion, very finely diced, 1 garlic clove, minced, and 2 T finely chopped fresh cilantro leaves, adding salt to taste.  Let rest 5 minutes to blend flavors before using.

photos of Mt. Baldy aspens, Antelope Canyon cavern, the view of Phoenix from the mountain preserve, and the juniper berries on a branch are all by Ann Wheat of Phoenix and used with permission

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    as one of the few lucky privileged guests to the 2012 Arizona Statehood Day celebration I must say IT WAS DELICIOUS! :-)

  • I'm happy you thought so! Now you too can make most of it at home....

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