I was nervous about Cook ‘n Scribble’s three-day food writing intensive in Santa Fe. I’ve lead weekend Master Classes in my my little town in Upstate New York, always by request and never more than 6 writers. But this retreat was Cook ‘n Scribble’s first official real-time event. Creating a three-day workshop for a larger group of writers, each of various levels, made me nervous. As always, we’d worked hard to select a group of compatible writers, still I was daunted.My miscalculations – there were a few, mostly in the eyes-bigger-than-stomach department!- were erased by the magic of this place. The hot sun, a spring bloom on the dessert, smoke, chilies, salt-and-pepper beards, Birkenstocks, horno ovens.
The sheer otherness of Santa Fe is a dramatic remove from one’s familiar; the shake-up seemed to reverberate in people’s work. It jiggled habits of pen and thought. It stoked a fire in the belly and, at least for some, opened hearts as wide as the red clay vistas.
The inimitable Rosa Rajkovic, memoir student and, apparently, the Majora Doma of Santa Fe helped locate and rent a compound in the village of Tesuque, about seven miles from the center of Santa Fe. It was a walled fortress — what is it with these gated driveways in this town? Is it an aesthetic? A serious crime rate? Second home guilt? Fear of tumbleweed? If you could get the gate to respond to the code, it opened to a desert garden and a modern Adobe-style mansion, with a bunch of bedrooms and two kitchens that immediately became cooking and eating and hang-out central.
There was also had a smaller house with a great room that became workshop headquarters.
There were also two outdoor dining rooms — one in the sun made a fine lunch spot; the other had a fireplace that we kept stoking until the wine ran dry or the campers dozed. I felt a twinge of regret. I get up at dawn and tend to fade when the fire is still roaring. It was hot during the day; mornings and evenings were chilly.
Most days, our morning session began with some writing exercises aimed at limbering the mind and reducing its noise. Shauna Ahern and I have a similar approach, we both see writing as a practice, not an event or a feat. The second series of exercises we did in the morning sessions were designed to wake up the senses, to help writers inhabit their full selves. Oh, how the mind clamors for dominance. I caught a glimpse of her, now in her black leather thigh highs and bustier, cracking her whip, now in her nun’s costume, snapping her ruler, as the writers scribbled past her demands. And then she was gone. The words and images were flowing, the writers revealing themselves to themselves and each other. It’s amazing to witness the power of shared intention.
After lunch, we work-shopped individual pieces. Most, but not all, of the writers brought a significant body of work, most, but not all, had a food interest. All were personal narratives. The work was insightful and sensitive — I felt smaller and more awed by the writers’ perception and ability to be heard every day — but a lot of “the work” also occurred between sessions.
Sharing activities and outings forged a sort of intimacy, and allowed the writer’s mind to wander and resolve itself, as it so often does when the notebook is closed and “the work” ended. The first night we trooped off to La Fonda, the Santa Fe classic chowed down on old-fashioned New Mexican fare: guacamole made tableside, chile rellenos, and red chile-covered blue corn enchiladas stuffed with queso blanco. Another evening, we made dinner en nuestra casa with cookbook author Deborah Madison, Shauna Ahern, aka Gluten-Free Girl, improvising Madison’s recipe for berry crumble.
Another night, the normally nonchalant Dan Ahern (The Chef of “Gluten-Free Girl and The Chef”) became agitated over a shipment of wild game and vegetables from Matt Romero, who farms for the greenmarket in the summer and stalks wild game in the colder months. His idea of a good time is a roasted venison haunch, braised wild hare and slow-cooked elk shanks. It worked for us.
One evening the writers dropped all decorum and became a swarm of screeching locusts over aluminum baking pans of both red chile and green chile enchiladas, pork carne adovada, three kinds of tamales, frijoles, Spanish rice, red and green chile sauces, salsa and the justifiably famed fresh tortillas from Garcia’s Kitchen in Albuquerque.
“They think food writers are pigs,” Rosa had said when the restaurant’s tractor trailer pulled through the gate that would never open and large strong men alighted to unload the meal, “They’ve brought enough to feed 100 people.” Several nights later, midnight ‘fridge raiders found nary a crumb or schmear for snacking. We know a good thing. We are willing to put selfish dietary restrictions aside, at least for an evening.
(Hands down the best New Mexican fare we had. We were all relieved to learn that Garcia’s will mail order care packages of frozen fare to the chile-deprived :www.garciaskitchen.com; or 505-242-1199 — several shipments have already eased my withdrawal)
We drove up to Ohkay Owingeh, the San Juan Pueblo, another day to make lunch with Norma Naranjo, in the horno ovens that her husband, Hutch Naranjo builds. Bread, a slow baked pork shoulder, fresh tortilla, stewed beans, oven-stewed vegetables and dried corn, and plum turnovers.
(Norma, a seedsaver, gardener and cook, has a wealth of knowledge about traditional Pueblo foodways and teaches small classes in her home on the Pueblo. www.the feastingplace.com)
Another day we decamped at 11 am to get to Bobcat Bites in time to claim tables and get lost in green chili cheese burgers. Be still my beating heart.
In fact, my heart had quite the workout in Santa Fe. Doing the morning writing exercises with the group, I felt the same warming of hand, tingling of finger tips, the pounding pulse that, finally, drowns out doubt and pushes the hand further, faster, on and on. There is an opening, when words are flowing through you, when you question the surge no more than you would the flash of an electric light bulb at the flick of a switch.
My heart swelled like a flexed bicep, when I listened to a student’s work become richer, more nuanced, more alive. It jumped when the lights of Ah-Ha! popped and snapped over students’ heads and constricted like a fist — hey, I’ve been saying that for months! Why is she only hearing it now? And from her roommate, for heaven’s sake? Because sometimes it takes months and many voices to break the chains of a writer’s love of a passage, a perception, an entire approach, a single word. Or maybe because I’ve done my job: these writers can do for each other what they used to rely solely on me to do.
Some of the professors who’ve audited our virtual workshops have remarked on the level of intimacy that develops in the groups. Maybe the virtual format — the phone calls, digital chats and social media interaction — offer a veil of anonymity that emboldens. The medium of our weekly exchange pronounces thought and words, allows who we say we are to loom larger than who we might, actually, be. I worried that meeting in person might be more like a disappointing coffee date after months of promising cyber chat.
It wasn’t. There was the companionable quiet of scribbling side-by-side in easy chairs and big couches, otherwise, the conversation never stopped.
I don’t think any of us wanted it to end. Most huddled around the fireplace until dawn o’clock the final night in Santa Fe. A few shared Pashminas, others were tangled beneath Navajo blankets, still others were sitting close to the fire, flushed and in tee-shirts. It was Big Chill with a happier purpose; it was that single moment in a family’s life when the power is perfectly balanced, the laughter is unstoppable, the hope is intact; and everybody is on best behavior as well as exactly who they meant to be. The magic may have been the place, or the people or the shared purposed. Whatever it was loathe to break its spell. I didn’t want to leave.
We’d long-since gathered every stick of dry, burnable wood, the fire was embers when I crept backwards into the shadows toward my car. Pausing for a second on the drive beyond the walled garden, I heard the clippity-cloppity-clippity-clop of a keyboard coming from a window above. Stampeding fingers, a writer alone and on fire after months of stuttering. I knew just how he felt. My hands were burning. I couldn’t wait to get back to my own writing. My heart was as full as the moon.
All photos by Jen Reynari.