Curator’s Corner: Agave

by Amanda Mather, Curator of Collections

As we continue on with our gifts of the West series I want to talk about one of those gifts that keeps on giving. It gives us fiber, food, booze, awls, needles. I mean what can’t this baby do? I am talking about our friend: Agave.
Agave has been cultivated in Mexico and the Southwestern United States by Native peoples for thousands of years. Although most of the farming of Agave was concentrated in Southern Central Mexico and Southern Arizona, the Mogollon people of New Mexico were also known to plant agave.
This plant can almost do it all — it doesn’t know when to stop! Its leaves can be eaten when full of nectar in the spring and fall. The leaves can also be stripped and made into strong fiber for rope, clothing, or other household items. The leaves were can be processed and turned into paper, the paper on which the Aztec Codices, for example, were written. The tips of the leaves are sharp and strong and can be used as needles for making baskets or clothing. The flowers can be eaten when it blooms as can the root, or pina, of the plant.
When roasted, Agave takes on a deep smoky sweetness that can either be eaten right away or turned into the ancient drink pulque, the beer of the Americas. I have had it before, tucked in little corners of the markets of Mexico, sold to you out of a large clay pot in a gourd and often sprinkled with chile salt. At first you’re like, “OK, this is pretty weird” but by the end you can’t get enough!
When the Spanish arrived they brought stills to the west and Agave became yet another great thing: Mezcal. Mezcal’s most famous iteration is tequila, which, like Champagne, has certain standards to ensure quality. For example, it can only be made of Blue Agave in the Mexican state of Jalisco.
So let’s drink a toast to the agave — giver of clothing, fiber, paper, rope, needles, awls, food and last but certainly not least, margaritas. Cheers!

Curator’s Corner: Cranberries

by Amanda Mather, Curator of Collections


As part of our ongoing series about all the good stuff that came from the west I present to you: The Cranberry.

What would our turkey be without our beloved cranberry? Especially all the leftover turkey sandwiches that follow Thanksgiving (Not to mention a well-made Cosmopolitan…).

Cranberries are native to the East Coast of the United States and have been eaten and used as dye for cloth by Native peoples for millennia.

First mentioned by Europeans in the 1550’s, cranberries soon became a staple of American eating — they are featured in early American cookbooks and records.

Cranberries are harvested in a very unusual manner by which the berries are flooded in a bog and then scooped up on the top of the water. They can be dry harvested but this is tedious and time consuming and although it does produce a less beat up berry, it is not often used.

Cranberries ripen in late fall, which is why they are such a staple of the holiday season. Today in the United States over 40,000 acres are dedicated to cranberry production and we produce almost 400,000 tons of them a year. Although some are also grown in Canada and Chile, the United States still ranks first in cranberry production.

Although the United States does export cranberries to places like the European Union and China, most of our crop stays domestic. The cranberry is one of those fantastic foods I really think of as American as apple pie. A quintessential food of our holiday tables and 1/3 of a Cosmopolitan, the cranberry is very important indeed.

Curator’s Corner: The Pineapple

by Amanda Mather, Curator of Collections


We continue on with our series about all good things that originated in the Western Hemisphere I present to you: the pineapple!

The pineapple was indigenous to South America but spread wherever it could grow, which is a pretty limited tropical region, by the time of contact. The Azteca and Maya both grew and ate it often, because it’s delicious. Upon contact it was observed that Native Peoples ate lots of it, and cultivated pineapple widely.

Pineapple was first described by Europeans in the 1500s and was brought back to Europe at that time. It quickly found a home in India by the 1550s, took much longer to get a foothold in Europe, since you can’t grow a pineapple in England (unless you go to some serious lengths).

The Europeans must have loved pineapples, because they did indeed go to great lengths to grow them. Because they couldn’t be cultivated in Europe until well into the 1600s, and importing them was incredibly difficult and expensive, pineapples became a symbol of great wealth throughout Europe.

Eventually Europeans learned how to grow pineapples in hot houses, specifically called “Pineries.” Rich aristocrats had some serious competitions to see who could grow the best pineapple. Ironically, because of their status as a symbol of wealth, they were often used just as decoration to welcome guests, so during this time pineapples largely went uneaten — they were simply used as table dressing until they just rotted away. Due to this use, pineapples became of symbol of welcoming and were incorporated into European architecture; often carved or forged on gates or doors to welcome visitors.

Meanwhile, back in this hemisphere, pineapples continued to be cultivated, eaten with gusto and exported. The Spanish introduced the pineapple to Hawaii, which started cultivating it as a crop in the 1860s. In 1899, a man name John Dole moved to Hawaii and founded a pineapple farm that — as we all know — would soon dominate the industry. In 1911, the automatic pineapple coring and peeling machine was invented and canning and exporting became a serious business.

Today we still love our pineapple and it is commercially grown everywhere it can be. I ate some today, it’s prevalent in smoothies and what would the world be without the Dole Whip or the pina colada? However, I do want to point out something controversial about pineapple: Pizza. And the answer is simply, not acceptable. Enjoy this tropical treasure!

Curator’s Corner: George McJunkin, Unsung Archaeology Hero

by Amanda Mather, Curator of Collections

George McJunkin

George McJunkin was born a slave in Midway, Texas. When he was about 10, the Civil War ended and he and his family were freed. He was born into a ranch and cowboy life and spent most of his life in the saddle. Mr. McJunkin worked at several ranches in Texas before finally settling in New Mexico.

The cowboys he grew up around taught him to read and write. As a young man he also taught himself to speak Spanish, play the guitar and violin. He loved history and archaeology and that love would play a pivotal role in Mr. McJunkin’s incredible find.

In 1908, the small New Mexico town of Folsom (near Raton) experienced a horrible flood that killed 18 of its citizens. After this terrible event, McJunkin was on horseback assessing the damage done to the fences and arroyos at the Thomas Owens Pitchfork Ranch where he worked. Upon entering an arroyo named Dead Horse, he noticed something odd. Huge rib bones were sticking out of the side of the arroyo and since George knew his archaeology, he knew they weren’t from any modern animal species.

McJunkin was correct; the bones were from a species called Bison antiquus, an animal that had died off with the mega fauna at the end of Ice Age, about 10,000 years ago. But even more striking amongst those ribs were projectile points, clearly put there by a group of humans.

He knew what he had just discovered. At the time of his incredible find, the archaeological establishment thought humans had only been on this continent for several thousands of years. Finding a point stuck in a bison that’s been gone for 10,000 years is proof that someone’s data is wrong.

McJunkin tried for years to get archaeologists to come see the site, to no avail. Finally, ten years later a man named Harold Cook from the Denver Museum of Natural History came to Folsom and did some exploratory digging with George. McJunkin had sent projectile points and some bone samples to Cook several years earlier.

Sadly, a full blown archaeological expedition was not launched at the Folsom site until after McJunkin’s passing in 1922. If it had not been for George’s passion for archaeology and keen eye, it may have taken much longer for us to discover that people had been on this continent for over 10,000 years.

Today, the type of point McJunkin found amongst those bison bones is called a Folsom Point, named for the little town of Folsom. It is the earliest type of projectile point found in both North and South America, and (if you ask me) one of the most striking. I have never found one personally, but always said if I ever do you’ll hear my holler from miles around.

In 2019, McJunkin was inducted into the Hall of Great Westerners at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. There are small exhibits dedicated to him at the Denver Museum of Natural History and the New Mexico History Museum. You can visit McJunkin’s grave at the Folsom Cemetery. The last time I went to visit him, there were fresh flowers on his grave, I gave him some more. I guess someone out there loves George as much as I do.

Curator’s Corner: Fabiola Cabeza de Baca Gilbert – NM Foodways Pioneer

by Amanda Mather, Curator of Collections

Today for my book “report”” as it may be I would like to do something a bit unusual, emphasize just one author. Her name was Fabiola Cabeza de Baca Gilbert, she lived almost 100 years and was one of the great advocates for New Mexico’s rural people and it’s traditional food ways.

Born and raised in Las Vegas, NM, Fabiola was educated at New Mexico Normal College (which would later become Highlands University) and later earned a second Bachelors’ Degree in Home Economics at NMSU in Las Cruces.

She then went on to teach rural women all over the state how to make the most out of what ingredients they had. Fabiola introduced them to modern farming and home technologies that helped to greatly improve their lives.

Fabiola also founded the La Sociedad de Folklorico in Santa Fe to help preserve traditional Hispanic folkways in New Mexico. She spoke Spanish, English, Tewa and Tiwa and invented the u-shaped hard taco shell — she was amazin! In the midst of all this she also managed to write several books, each of which have their own merits.

Historic Cookery: This is probably the first New Mexican cookbook ever written and published. Written in 1931, this book helped spread the good word of chile to American households everywhere. Recipes collected from her family as well as from her work with rural New Mexico housekeepers, the book is full of traditional New Mexican techniques and foods. I love pouring over this book; it’s like a great little window back in time and has helped preserve New Mexican foodways into our future.

The Good LifeThe Good Life: New Mexico Traditions and Foods: Published in 1949, this book not only has great recipes but they are in the context of an average rural New Mexican household. The book is broken down into seasons and as the family goes through the year the recipes and lifeways of that particular time of year are revealed. This book is small but mighty and helps one get perspective on how daily life worked here at the turn of the century with the added bonus of some great recipes.





We Fed Them Cactus: The title of this book is in reference to an autobiographical event in Cabeza de Baca Gilbert’s life on a ranch in rural New Mexico, when the family, having fallen on hard times, had to feed their cattle cactus to keep them alive. This book is a tale of life from the perspective of the camp chef. An autobiographical narrative, Fabiola wanted to show Americans what Hispano life looked like and preserve traditional lifeways for future New Mexicans.

Hope you enjoy reading about Fabiola’s New Mexico — and let us know if you give any of her recipes a try!

Curator’s Corner: Chile

by Amanda Mather, Curator of Collections

There are certain cuisines and specific foods that are almost impossible to imagine without chile. Thai and Chinese cuisine, pasta arrabiata, I mean what did they even do in Szechuan before they had chiles?

Before contact, there wasn’t any chile to be had outside of the Americas. It’s hard to even imagine a world without chile, but for those not residing on this side of the planet that was indeed the case. In the Americas, chile was one of the first cultivated plants humans got their hands on. We have been eating and growing chile for about 6,000 years, which speaks to both its importance and deliciousness. The first chiles were likely cultivated in Northern Mexico and they have been a fixture in our cuisine ever since.

The word chile comes from the Nahuatl word ch illi; the pepper part came with Europeans who called them chile peppers on account of pepper being that only thing he could acquaint with the spicy bite of chile. And with that, chile began to spread all over the world, and quickly. Portuguese traders took them to Asia in the 15th century where, as we now know, their popularity was immediate and widespread.

What gives chiles their bite is a chemical called capsicum and other related chemicals called capsaicinoids. The amount of capsicum in a chile is measured in Scoville Heat Units, named for an American chemist that developed a test for capsaicinoids around the turn of the 19th century.

Here in New Mexico chile is our lifeblood, our identity, a source of pride and love. In the fall the smell of roasting green chile fills our grocery store parking lots, while people wait patiently to get their stash for the year. It gives us our state question “Red or Green?” and our ristras that we hang proudly in front of our houses. Here at El Rancho de las Golondrinas we grow our own, harvesting chile as summer turns into fall. We sure do love the stuff, and it is definitely one of the things that make New Mexico so special.

Curator’s Corner: Yucca

Flowering Yucca
by Amanda Mather, Curator of Collections

We eat it, use it for fiber, use it for needles and awls, make sandals out of it, make soap out of it, we just love the many uses of Yucca!

Yucca is the state plant of New Mexico — it grows throughout most of the Americas but most notably in the Southwestern United States, Central and South America as well as the Caribbean. There are about 50 different species of Yucca roaming around the Americas but the one New Mexicans are most familiar with is the Yucca Baccata with its green stiff leaves and beautiful white flowers.

As mentioned earlier, Yucca has been used for all manner of domestic objects and is eaten as well. For thousands of years, Native Americans have harnessed the power of Yucca to make both everyday and extraordinary objects.

Both plain and simple sandals to footwear dyed and woven with staggering intricacy are made with yucca fiber. The root can be fried, baked or mashed for a tasty, carbohydrate-rich treat. The leaves can be used as needles to sew with or paint brushes for delicate line work on pottery. Perhaps the most exciting thing about Yucca is its magical properties.

Yucca root contains a chemical called Saponin which naturally causes foam/soapiness to be created when it comes into contact with water. The Yucca root is rich in Saponin and for many years in New Mexico, up until the development of the railroad in the mid 1800’s, people used Yucca root to clean themselves, their wool, their clothing and many other things.

Here at El Rancho de las Golondrinas during our festivals, you can see how people used yucca root to clean wool for processing it into fiber, and try your hand at it as well!

Yucca is certainly one of those plants that is a fixture in the Southwest — it is hard to imagine life in New Mexico without it.

Curator’s Corner: Spindle Whorls

by Amanda Mather, Curator of Collections

Here is a little insight on an overlooked object, but one that helped keep us clothed for a very long time.

Spindles are long sticks used to spin yarn, and the Spindle Whorl is the weighted piece at the end that helps maintain the spindles speed and spin.

Spindle Whorls were made of a myriad of material — coral, amber, stone, antler, and as shown in the photo to your left, pottery. For the past 9,000 years, the spindle and its ever-trusty helper the whorl has been spinning fabrics all around the world.

When weaving artifacts are found, often the spindle is gone, having been made of an organic material (often wood) that is no longer with us. Since the whorl was often made of tougher stuff, it is usually the thing that is found for the archaeological record.

Spindle Whorls have been found everywhere — Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas – where there is fabric to be woven, there are spindle whorls.

The example that is in our exhibition hall at the Ranch is made of a recycled piece of Puebloan pottery that has been repurposed as a whorl. It comes from a 17th century Spanish Colonial archaeological site named LA 20,000, a site for which El Rancho de las Golondrinas is the custodian.

LA 20,000 is a site that has been researched by archaeologists, including Dr. Heather Trigg of the Fiske Center for Archaeology and her graduate students, who come to toil away in the hot summer sun to learn more about Spanish Colonial lives.

Come by El Rancho de las Golondrinas during our season (June through October 1) to watch our talented weavers use spindles and whorls with expert hands — it’s an impressive thing to see to say the least.

Curator’s Corner: Adobe—The Mud You Can Live In

by Amanda Mather, Curator of Collections

Adobe — who doesn’t love the stuff? Talk about an easy-to-find resource — it’s literally everywhere. Adobe was the first construction material used by homo sapiens — to this day, 50% of the world’s people still live in some form of mud dwelling.

When people quit chasing big animals around and started settling down they used mud to build more permanent living spaces. At the end of the Neolithic Era, around 10,000 B.C, we see the beginnings of adobe, and many millennia later we are still using it with gusto.

The earliest we see the word adobe is in the form of an Egyptian hieroglyph that translates to brick. This was then later adopted into Arabic as at-tubu, which found its way into 10th century Spanish as adobe. The English then borrowed the Spanish word in the 18th century and the rest is history.

Here in the Southwest, we have a very special relationship with adobe. Native peoples of the Americas, especially America’s more arid regions, have been using adobe to build their homes since they began agrarian communities around 900 C.E.

Unlike modern adobe, or Spanish adobe, Ancesteral Puebloan adobe buildings were made by what is called “puddling.” Instead of using molded bricks, the mud was molded by hand and then added to the soon to be building. Some of the most famous structures in the Southwest were made using this technique — for example, the buildings at Bandelier National Monument as well as the pre-contact buildings of Pecos Pueblo.

When the Spanish arrived they brought their brick making techniques with them, so the adobe of the Southwest became the brick variety. The beautiful earthy brown of an adobe wall against the staggering New Mexico blue sky is one of the most striking visuals of our region. The state of New Mexico boasts one third of all the nation’s adobe. My house is made out of adobe. And darn near all of El Rancho de las Golondrinas is made of adobe. Adobe is our jam!

During our summer and fall festivals we let kiddos make their own adobe bricks to learn how to keep the tradition of New Mexico adobe alive. Come join us this summer and watch your kiddos try their hand at making adobe bricks — they will love it!

Curator’s Corner: The Ever-Humble Turkey

by Amanda Mather, Curator of Collections

turkeyOne of the few domesticated animals (dogs, llamas, guinea pigs, and Muscovy ducks being the others) in the New World, turkeys were ubiquitous in the Southwest. Although there is some debate among archaeologists as to whether turkeys were domesticated in Mesoamerica, most evidence suggests that they were first domesticated in the Southwest and later exported to Mesoamerica and other regions.

The turkey was most likely domesticated within the Rio Grande Valley of Northern New Mexico and then spread south to Mexico and beyond. The world can thank the Puebloans of Northern New Mexico for the holiday table centerpiece.

First-hand accounts speak to the sheer number of turkeys being kept and bred in the Southwest, specifically New Mexico. Hernando Gallegos, historian who chronicled the Chamuscado-Rodriguez expedition in 1581 in the Northern Pueblos of the Rio Grande writes, “There is not an Indian who does not have a corral for his turkeys, each of which holds a flock of one hundred birds.”

The turkey was also used for its feathers, which were were used in making warm blankets for cold New Mexican nights. Fray Toribio de Benavente who was with Coronado on his 1540’s expedition speaks to their use for this purpose, “They have a few turkeys (which he called gallinas ) which they keep in order to make mantas from their feathers.”

It is interesting to note here that he never once speaks of them eating the turkeys, only in reference to the use of their feathers. We find this in the archeological record as well, turkeys usually lived into ripe old age, or had injuries that had clearly been cared for. I personally dug up a ritualized turkey burial at Philmont Scout Ranch, and it was quite clear that tender care had been taken in the burial of the bird.

Although from the archeological record it appears Spanish colonists strongly favored their own domesticates, such as the chicken, turkeys eventually incorporated themselves into the Spanish Colonial diet.

Today, turkeys are not raised in any kind of scale in New Mexico; ironic, since it appears this is the place of their first domestication. The turkeys we think of at the holiday table are a far cry from their Ancestral Puebloan roots; most are raised on the East Coast or Midwest.

When you are giving thanks this holiday season, be sure to include a shout-out to the ancient Puebloans for making turkey a part of our lives!