Lummis Discovers Southwestern Cuisine

Charles Lummis was arguably the first true aficionado of Southwestern cuisine. He was so convinced of its virtues that he spent his life spreading the word, but he didn’t take to the spicy food of New Mexico at first taste. In fact, he claimed, the first time he tried chile colorado during his 1884-85 “tramp across the continent,” he was convinced he had been poisoned by the “treacherous Mexican” who served it to him. As it turned out, the poor villager wouldn’t even accept payment for taking Lummis in and sharing his meager rations with the strange young man who said he was on his way to California on foot. From experiences like that during his tramp, Lummis came to regard Mexicans as the most hospitable people on earth. And he became a lifelong fan of chiles, which he concluded were a dietary necessity for anyone who lives in a hot, arid climate.

Lummis wrote lovingly about chiles and contributed dozens of chile recipes to a cookbook that he published in 1903 for an association that he had founded in 1895 called the Landmarks Club. Proceeds from sale of the cookbook, at $1.25 per copy, were used to support the club’s effort to restore the San Juan Capistrano mission and other crumbling landmarks of the Spanish era in California. Of the several hundred recipes in the Landmarks Club Cookbook, 43 were Lummis’s, which he had collected during his travels through Spanish America from the Rio Grande Valley in New Mexico to Chile. His recipes included Peruvian stuffed peppers, stewed jack rabbit, fried bananas, and “Drunken Pigeons,” a concoction of pigeon, toasted tomatoes, citron and raisins.

“These are not the usual cook-book ‘Spanish’ foods, but the real thing, gathered by the Club’s president from the foremost cooks during many years of intimate acquaintance with nearly all Spanish-America–and competently as becomes a pretty fair cook himself,” the introduction boasted. Some of the most famous dishes of old California, New Mexico, Mexico and Peru were printed in the book for first time, Lummis asserted in the introduction.

Why Southwesterners Must Eat Chiles

Lummis went on at length to explain why it is necessary to eat foods suited to the local climate, a lesson he had learned in his rambles through Spanish America. “It is a stupid traveler who mocks the ancient wisdom of the country as to what in that country should be eaten,” Lummis asserted.

300 early California recipes including 23 from Lummis's Landmarks Club Cook Book.

300 early California recipes including 23 from Lummis’s Landmarks Club Cook Book. Buy the book.

Potatoes, corn, chocolate, cocoa, tapioca, lima beans and peanuts were some of the indigenous foods of Spanish America that a prudent resident of the region could safely eat. But one ingredient above all others was a necessity: chiles. “Most Americans do not at first flush like dishes in which it predominates; but it is an easily acquired taste–and once learned, there is nothing of which one becomes fonder than a good concoction of chiles,” said Lummis, speaking from personal experience. “It is one of the most healthful condiments in the world, and almost a hygienic necessity in California and other non-humid lands.”

Americans who come to California from New England or other temperate climates and don’t change their diet are as foolish as an Eskimo moving to the Amazon Basin and continuing to subsist on blubber, Lummis said. “In a word diet must be adapted to climate. Natural man always does so adapt it–by the slow process of the survival of the least foolish–and has his reward. He has little need of dentists or appetizer, and biliousness, dyspepsia and gout are strangers to him.”

Most of the recipes didn’t have precise measurements. He explained why. “I myself–who learned to cook for myself on the frontiers, and to cook well–always take ‘some’ of this and ‘some’ of that, and have not made a very bad dish in a good many years.”

Here are two of Lummis’s recipes:

Chile Sauce (Mexico)

For ordinary sauces, toast lightly your red chilies, dry or fresh, in the oven. Soak in water a few minutes, and grind on a milling-stone or in a mortar, to a wet pulp. Strain in a colander to remove bits of skin. The hotness can be graduated by leaving or removing the seeds, which contain most of the fire. Add a little salt and a tablespoonful of vinegar, and fry all together with a little butter.

Papas Con Aji (Peru)
Peppered Potatoes

Boil potatoes of the best quality, not too soft. Make a smother of the best red chile (Mexican peppers), much lard, fresh cheese chopped fine, a little chopped onion, and a little fine vinegar. Put this in a saucepan, put in the potatoes whole, and stir well while cooking, about 20 minutes. Add a little broth, that the sauce may not be too thick.