Tag Archives: origins

Churro Wool: How the Spanish Brought Sheep to the Americas

In a week, I climb on the magic bird to carry me back to Oaxaca. It’s been a year-and-a-half since I left, just before Covid became a pandemic in March 2021 that erased all our plans and created this hunker-down-for-a-while, I’m scared mentality. Yesterday, I got my third jab, the Pfizer-BioNTech booster, plus a flu shot. I’m ready, face masks and sanitizer in the packing pile. Back to Teotitlan del Valle where churro sheep wool is carded and dyed to weave into rugs.

Churro sheep came to the Americas with the Spanish conquest. We find this breed in Northern New Mexico and Colorado, where the high altitudes are conducive to growing a thick pelt. When it is shorn, carded and woven, it makes thick, sturdy, resilient blankets (for humans and horses), and later adapted to the making of floor rugs.

Display of churro wool rugs at Taos Wool Festival

My adopted Zapotec family in Teotitlan del Valle, Galeria Fe y Lola, buy their handspun Churro wool from Chichicapam and the Mixteca, where 7,000 feet altitude guarantees a higher quality pelt. This elevation is similar to the Mountain States where livestock growers, spinners and dyers work in this wool to textile weavers who use the ancient European treadle loom that was also introduced by the Spanish in the New World.

Baby yak, whose wool is amazingly soft and luxurious

This sheep is descended from the Iberian Churra, prized by the Spanish for its hardiness and adaptability. It was the first breed of sheep domesticated in the New World in the 16th Century, when it was used to feed and clothe the armies of the conquistadores, clergy and settlers. We can trace the lineage to 1494 when Spain established colonies in the Caribbean and Mexico. There were no four-legged animals in North America and only llamas in South America before the Spanish arrived.

Carolyn wrote to me to add this:

How the Spanish brought sheep to America? In slings in the holds of their ships! Several years ago a replica of the Santa Maria sailed into the Oakland estuary and docked for several days. We were able to tour the ship and the sailors were more than happy to answer our questions. Four legged animals were kept in slings so their legs would not break in rough weather. The smell must have been atrocious. But the image stuck with me.I’m happy for you that you finally get to go back to Oaxaca.

Taos is host to the annual Wool Festival, now in its 38th year, and always held the first weekend in October. I made it a point to attend. Fiber art and textiles call to me here, too. Why was I surprised to see rugs woven on the peddle loom using churro sheep wool? I shouldn’t have been. I know the Navajo were resourceful in growing their herds of churro sheep, and all those beautiful blankets and rugs trace their origins to the Spanish introduction of this breed.

Today, non-native weavers use this breed, too, to make and sell beautiful rugs. I saw plenty of them at the festival, many reminiscent of Zapotec and Navajo textiles. Over the years, the churro has been cross-bred with the softer, finer merino sheep. Sometimes, churro and merino are also spun together to give a silkier, softer luster.

When I first moved here to Taos, NM, four months ago, one of the first things I did was join the Millicent Rogers Museum. It has an extensive collection of Native American folk art and craft, including early Navajo looms and textiles. This loom is more similar to the back strap loom, used as a vertical frame loom. This got me thinking about how technology is adapted to the user. It´s not a floor loom and it´s not a back strap loom. Weavers sit on the ground to weave.

History of Navajo Weaving. Some scholars speculate that the Navajo picked up this weaving technique in the 1600´s from nearby Pueblo tribes who were adept using the vertical loom. It couldńt be used to weave a textile wider than 18 inches. Larger pieces needed two identical textiles that were then stitched together. We find thesame circumstance in Oaxaca, Mexico.

In Teotitlan del Valle, the floor loom has hardly changed from when it was introduced there by the Spanish in the 1500´s, who taught the local men to weave in the tradition of the European tapestry loom. It was too heavy and cumbersome for women, who were versatile cotton back strap loom weavers, to use.

Last week I wrote about pronunciations and mis-pronunciations. Here we have another one! Settlers had a difficult time saying Churra Sheep so they said Churro instead. And, that’s how we know this breed today!

Contemporary New Mexico woven churro wool rug
Contemporary churro wool rug with natural dyes woven by Eric Chavez Santiago, Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca (psst, it’s for sale, ask me about it)

Where is the Chili Pepper Capital of the World?

In a nod to Mexican Independence Day today, and in appreciation for all that Mexico has given us, me thinks the answer to this question is MEXICO. However, New Mexico thinks otherwise. It’s newest license plate proclaims this as truth and features big red and green chili peppers next to the identity number of the plate and the slogan: New Mexico, Chili Capital of the World. It’s true, New Mexico was once a part of Mexico and before that New Spain. Spanish and Mexican roots run deep here. So we don’t get confused, the license plate here also says, New Mexico, USA.

The origin of the chili pepper is clear. The indigenous peoples of Mexico had fully domesticated chili peppers far earlier than 1492 and the arrival of Columbus in the Americas. Archaeologists date the origin of chilis back to 5000 BC in the country’s Tehuacán Valley.  The word “chili” can be credited to Nahuatl, an Aztec language from which many modern terms are derived, such as chocolatl and tomatl. The history of chili is a fascinating read.

There are over 60 types of chilis that claim Mexican origins. These include jalapeño, habanero, poblano, Anaheim, and more. These are the names for fresh chilis. Once they are dried, they take on a different identity because the flavor changes. For example, the chilaca chili, rarely used in its fresh form, becomes chili pasilla when dried, a staple of Oaxaca mole sauce. For more about biodiversity and origins, click here. For a varietal explanation, click here and here.

Here in New Mexico, chili pepper history comes much later. By all accounts, seeds were introduced by the Spanish in the late 1500’s to many of the pueblos and by the early 1600’s, became an important cultivar to use in southwest cuisine. Chili, as in the stew that combines spicy chili pepper flavor, meat, onions and tomatoes, traces its origins to Texas and rapidly spread throughout the region. Adaptations in the Midwest added beans and fat. Have you ever been to a chili cook-off?

Now is the season for roasting Hatch Chili in New Mexico.

The Hatch Chili is uniquely New Mexican, first cross-bred in Northern New Mexico in the early 1900’s by a horticulturalist wanting a milder version of jalapeño. It is available in August and September, depending on the weather. This short window of buying and eating opportunity gives it a caché of being rare and has taken on a mystique of desirability. There is a Hatch Chili frenzy here now. In front of the Taos Albertson’s and Smith’s supermarket, on the historic plaza, in the Walmart parking lot, I see outdoor roasters fueled by propane, with serious young men loading and tending the roasting bins. Bags of fresh roasted Hatch Chilis are offered for sale inside. The aroma of smokey chili goodness fills the air, invades naval passages, causes eyes to tear if you get too close.

Does the Hatch Chili make New Mexico the Chili Capital of the World? Not likely. However, I concede, my adopted state is the Hatch Chili Capital of the World, and I salute her for that. Hatch Chili pancakes anyone?

Where to Buy Hatch Chilis fresh and frozen:

It’s September. Tomato Ginger Chutney Time. Recipe.

I posted photos and ingredients of my favorite September past-time: making tomato-ginger chutney on my Facebook page. People wrote to ask for the recipe, so here it is (below).

Now this is appropriate. Did you know that tomatoes originated in Mexico as early as 700 AD? It’s no wonder I love this concoction.

Ready for the pantry … or the belly!
Try it on blue corn chips — gluten-free!

I’ve been making this condiment for 40 years every September when there is a plethora of ripe garden tomatoes. It is a ritual that started in South Bend, Indiana, where I was a young mother and met my long-time friend, Natalie Klein. We would go to farmer’s market (or grow our own) and stock up on the harvest. Over the years, I’ve adapted the flavors of Natalie’s original recipe to make it my own.

The slow simmer — ready when froth is no more

Next week, I’m taking a road trip to Indiana where Natalie and I will have a jam-making reunion. (We are both virus-free, virus-safe, super-cautious.)

Using tool to remove from hot water bath

This is a perfect accompaniment to any meat, fowl or fish dish. Schmear it on a toasted bagel, with or without cream cheese. Use it as syrup over pancakes or French toast. Gift it for the holidays. Serve it at Thanksgiving alongside your turkey.

Ready to eat!

Prep time: About an hour. Cooking time: About an hour.

Ingredients:

  • 4 cups of peeled, cored and thinly sliced tomatoes (about 4-5 tomatoes)
  • 4 cups sugar (I prefer organic, cane sugar)
  • 1/2 t. salt
  • 1 stick cinnamon, broken into pieces
  • 1/4 tsp. hot red pepper flakes (optional)
  • 1/4 tsp. ground turmeric
  • 3 T. fresh grated ginger or 2 T. minced candied ginger
  • 1 medium navel orange, sliced thin
  • 1 small lemon, sliced thin
  • 1/2 C. chopped fresh pineapple (optional)
  • 3-4 whole cloves (optional)
Ready when slow drips from spoon — like syrup

To peel tomatoes, bring an 8-qt. pot of water to boil. Core whole tomatoes. Score an X at the blossom end with a sharp knife. Immerse in boiling water for 30 seconds. Remove. Cool. Peel.

Add all ingredients to a stainless steel 4-6 qt. saucepan. Base of pan should have a thick aluminum core. Do not use a thin based pot or you will burn your ingredients. My preferred cooking vessels are made by All-Clad Aluminum, which I sold 40-years ago in my gourmet cookware shop and cooking school, The Clay Kitchen, South Bend, Indiana.

I like to recycle jelly jars, too.

First cook over low heat until sugars begin to melt. Turn burner to medium-high heat and bring to boil. Adjust heat and allow mixture to cook at low boil for about 1 hour. You can stir occasionally to make sure mix isn’t sticking to bottom of pan. You need to check the pot periodically to be sure! Safe bet: Use a jelly thermometer. Mix is done when temp reaches 220 degrees Fahrenheit.

Preparation of jars: clean canning jars. Immerse in hot boiling water just before filling. Use new canning lids and bands. Immerse these in boiling water, too, to sterilize.

Sterilizing jars. Some put theirs in dishwasher.

Use a canning funnel and insert it into the jars. Ladle mix into jars with about 1/4″ head space. Wipe rim with wet paper towel to clean off any jam residue. Place lid and band over jar top and tighten band so it is secure.

Immerse jars in an 8 qt. stock pot of boiling water. Cover. Process for 10 minutes. Remove and cool. You will hear the lids pop if the top is properly sealed. You can also press on the lid. If there is no movement, the top is sealed.

Yield: about 2 pints of jam. You can use 1/2 pint jelly jars to prepare for gifting. Natalie doesn’t do a water bath. She refrigerates jam. It will keep open and refrigerated for several months.

Lids and bands waiting in hot water

Explaining Day of the Dead to Friends

Day of the Dead — Dia de los Muertos — is one of the many Mexican holidays that blend Spanish Catholicism with pre-Hispanic, indigenous mystical rites. Despite political rhetoric, with a culturally permeable border, Halloween has crept into Mexico and sugar skulls have crept into the U.S.

My friend Sue said, I thought Day of the Dead was on November 1.

That is when it starts, I replied. It continues through midnight, November 2, when we accompany the spirits of our loved ones back to the cemetery, and sit at the gravesite with them to ensure a tranquil return to their eternal resting place. 

November 1 is All Saints Day.

November 2 is All Souls Day.

My Durham, NC, altar — under construction. What’s missing?

On October 31, All Hallows Eve or Halloween, with Celtic origin, there are children’s masquerades in Oaxaca to remember the young ones who have left earth at an early age.

Sunflower bouquet, NC Farmer’s Market, Raleigh

In the village where I live, Teotitlan del Valle, Day of the Dead conjures up a celebration of life and its continuum. Death is merely a continuation of life. We see this greca symbol woven in the rugs and interpreted as the steps through life, from infancy to adulthood to old age to death and then the pattern repeats. Circular. Continuous.

There is something reassuring and elemental about this, which is why I love this spiritual approach to living and dying, why it is easy for me to build an altar and celebrate the lives of my ancestors.

Rows of pumpkins, squash and gourds at NC Farmer’s Market, Raleigh

This time of year also conjures up abundance. Altars are filled with bread, chocolate, fruits, beverages and edibles that the deceased persons we honor enjoyed. It is harvest time, when the sun sets early and we want to cozy up with our memories.

There are photos now of our loved ones on the altar. But not long ago, before access to cameras in small villages, people sat on the floor with altars on the floor, slept on the floor atop handwoven palm leaf petates.

Hot Tamale! or Habanero Heaven at NC Farmer’s Market, Raleigh

They conjured up their memories, visions of the deceased. They lit candles and kept the flame burning for 24-hours. They lit copal incense to entice dead spirits back to earth for a visit with the heady aroma. They cut wild marigolds, also called Mexican mint marigold or winter marigold, a variety of tarragon, and put them in gourd vases, another scent to bring the ancestors home.

My own altar is now under construction. It will be finished by November 1.  On November 2, from Durham, North Carolina, I will sit with the memories of my parents, Dorothy and Ben, light candles and copal, honor them.

Rooster crown, or cockscomb, is as popular as marigolds in Oaxaca

On November 2, in Teotitlan del Valle, my friends and neighbors will share a comida midday meal with the spirit world. At 3:00 p.m. the church bells that have been tolling continuously for 24 hours will stop.

Families will then go to the cemetery, sit quietly, drink beer and mezcal, bring an evening meal, consider the meaning of life and death. Their ancestors graves will one day become theirs. The plots are familial; graves are recycled every ten years to accept the body of another, old bones moved aside to make way. A reassurance.

These Calacas came to the Raleigh Art Space from Mexico in time for Muertos

Many spiritual traditions have an annual day of memory. In mine, we light a 24-hour candle on the anniversary of a parent’s death. I will do that, too. It is good to always remember.

Altar at NC Art Space honor organic food and the farmers who grow it

Wherever you live, I bet you can assemble your own altar. Look for farmer’s markets, Mexican groceries, art centers that want to merge multicultural practice to promote appreciation.  The papel picado came from a local gift shop. The sugar skulls from the local Mexican sweet shop. What’s missing? Pan de muertos. I’ll buy that next week.