Working a century ago for the New Mexico State Land Office, California transplant Alice Stevens Tipton was smitten with the cuisine she sampled as her job took her around the state. “The taste for chile and the many tempting dishes prepared with it is an acquired one,” she wrote, “but when one has become accustomed to the use of it in cooking, nothing can take its place.”
Tipton decided to compile recipes for the foods she came to love, using what she called “time-honored methods of the native people.” Being in charge of the publicity department for the land office, she evidently spied an opportunity. The office agreed to publish her proposed cookbook because it would call attention to the affordable agricultural land of New Mexico and the ample room for new settlers, which the state was eager to recruit. So in 1916, a trim 64-page booklet entitled New Mexico Cookery came off the press, available to anyone in the country who wrote to the land office and asked for a copy. That was, until a short time later, when a judge ruled that spending land money for advertising was prohibited and the publicity office was shuttered. Nonetheless, the short-lived advertising ploy gave birth to what is most probably the first cookbook of New Mexico cuisine, 15 years before the publication of Fabiola Cabeza de Baca Gilbert’s famous Historic Cookery, which is sometimes referred to as the first-known published cookbook of New Mexican cuisine.
The author of New Mexico Cookery came to New Mexico after marrying Will Tipton, a Santa Fe widower whose wife had been the daughter of José Manuel Gallegos, one of the state’s delegates to Congress prior to statehood. He worked for the U.S. Court of Claims and had become famous when his expertise in handwriting was used to put an end to the fraudulent and storied land grant claims of James Reavis, also known as the Baron of Arizona. The newlyweds became “a popular Santa Fe couple in the era of New Mexico’s admission as a state, she for her table and he as the widely known interpreter for the U.S. Court of Claims,” according to Will Harrison, the managing editor of The Santa Fe New Mexican in the 1940s and ’50s, who later had a hand in resurrecting New Mexico Cookery.
Once settled in Santa Fe, Alice Stevens Tipton had a crash course in all things New Mexico. In this capacity, she was spotted in Raton, Las Vegas, Mora, Springer, Taos, and other spots, gathering information regarding climate, agriculture, and economics that could be of interest to those considering a move to New Mexico. She was a prodigious researcher, as the statistical information about New Mexico crops contained in her book attests. But her use of numbers is merely a manifestation of Tipton’s passion for the state’s cooking. She sought to celebrate both the chile-infused foods of New Mexico and the state’s agricultural bounty.
New Mexico Cookery is best read rather than seen as a step-by-step instruction manual. For those used to modern cookbooks, Tipton’s “receipts” (she chose this now-out-of-date spelling for recipes) may be hard to follow. But for cooks willing to make the effort, the book is filled with authentic and time-tested recipes for enchiladas, chiles rellenos, nopal con chile, carne adobada, and posole, along with soups such as albóndigas and dulces such as green fig and quince preserves.
Tipton describes methods of hulling corn with ash or lime and warns of the hazard of adding cold water to the pot during the day-long process of cooking pintos. When it comes to the state’s famed vegetable, she emphatically says that one should never use ground chile, seeds, or skins in cooking.“Burros may eat the skins with impunity,” she quips, “and the seeds may safely be fed to poultry, because fowls have no stomachs.”
Tipton also displays no patience for bad advice. On chile con carne, she writes, “So many spurious receipts for this delicious dish of New Mexico have been given publicity, that it is almost appalling to even contemplate the disastrous results of preparing a dish according to some of the rules laid down by those utterly ignorant of the first principles to be followed in making chile con carne.” One of those principles, it turns out, is the same throughout the book: One must start with the best of ingredients.
Her efforts to make New Mexico cuisine more widely known did not go unnoticed, despite the quick end to the free distribution of New Mexico Cookery. Four years later, the Chicago Daily Tribune food columnist Jane Eddington — the pen name for Caroline S. Maddocks — used the cookbook to tell readers how to prepare chiles. “The chile has not yet been fully accepted in my food philosophy,” she wrote, “but I do know that it is annually becoming the more common in our markets.”
In the 1930s, the New Mexico Tourist Bureau published a less elegant mimeographed version of Tipton’s book, but soon after, New Mexico Cookery faded from view. It might have remained a relatively unknown work had it not been for the efforts of Richard Polese decades later. Fresh out of college, Polese was working for Jack Rittenhouse, who in 1962 had brought his Stagecoach Press, which published books in small runs of 250 copies, from Texas to Santa Fe.
Rittenhouse owned a copy of New Mexico Cookery and agreed to let Polese publish a new edition on his own. Polese said he hand-set the type for the title page and some new introductory pages. “The rest of it,” he said, “is a complete reproduction of the original type in the original book.” In February 1966, on the 50th anniversary of its first printing, Polese printed 1,000 copies of The Original New Mexico Cookery. Although he did not know it at the time, bringing out the book was the first step in his establishing Ocean Tree Books, a long-lasting Santa Fe independent press. Now, 50 years later, Polese is considering printing yet another edition of the cooking classic.
Reading the Tipton book a century later, it’s hard not to be impressed with her ardor. “There are no more picturesque scenes in the entire state of New Mexico than the gray adobe houses, adorned with long strings of red chiles suspended from the roofs to dry in the warm sunshine, late in the fall,” Tipton writes. It is a scene, she continued, captured by painters on canvases that fetch high prices in eastern art galleries. “But no artist can picture the savory taste of the succulent chile, which grows to such rare perfection in the fertile soil of this productive state.”
That fervor is what caught the attention of bestselling Tesuque-based cookbook author Cheryl Alters Jamison when she first came across Polese’s reprint of The Original New Mexico Cookery in the 1980s. She was in Villagrá Bookstore in Sena Plaza, she said, “trying to acquire every kind of book I could find on New Mexico cooking.” Tipton’s book, chock-full of strong opinions about the value of New Mexico ingredients, wowed Jamison. “Right after statehood, so proudly using New Mexican ingredients,” she recalled thinking. “This was so unapologetically New Mexican.”
Tipton’s New Mexico Cookery may have been a first as a book, but the recipes she detailed were not new. When New Mexicans stir their red or green chile on modern stovetops, they are engaged in a culinary practice dating back hundreds of years that connects them with our state’s earliest settlers.
Pueblo people have been making red chile, as well as sharing recipes for it, for centuries, according to noted Santa Fe food historian and chef Lois Ellen Frank, who has spent more than 25 years working with and writing about Native American foodways and cuisine. Frank said that Tipton’s compilation of these centuries-old recipes was done in a manner and style that originated in books based on European cuisine, using a model that the French introduced. Her achievement in New Mexico Cookery was to translate these recipes into a format familiar to cooks used to following instructions in books. “Making these centuries-old recipes available to a wider audience outside of New Mexico and popularizing the cuisine unique to this region is an important historical contribution to the cuisine of this area,” Frank said.
It was certainly a labor of love. In a poem dated “Valentine’s Day 1916,” which Tipton composed for the front of her book, she asks that readers keep two thoughts be kept in mind:
“Not learning alone ever yet made a saint,
And it’s love for the work makes a cook.”