A famous Southwestern restaurant turns 50, and you’re all invited

Should you be near the tiny town of Chimayó, New Mexico, tomorrow afternoon, you owe it to yourself to stop by Rancho de Chimayó, the legendary restaurant built in an 1890s hacienda.

Fifty years ago, Arturo and Florence Jaramillo turned their historic family home into a restaurant, and on Saturday, September 19, from noon to 5, they’re offering free food and a cash bar, plus local bands, art, proclamations, and more. You don’t need a reservation. “Just stop by and have fun!” says senior hostess Mary Ross.

The food at Rancho de Chimayó, essentially unchanged since the 1960s (and with roots far older), was envisioned “as a living tribute to the Spanish American heritage of New Mexico,” write Bill and Cheryl Jamison in The Rancho de Chimayo Cookbook, newly updated for the 50th anniversary.

The book, first published in 1991, offers classic New Mexico dishes like carne adovada, enchiladas, posole, flan, and fluffy sopaipillas, but it’s much more than recipes. It also describes, in vivid detail, the daily life of Spanish colonial settlers in Chimayo before the U.S. Army claimed it for America in 1846, weaving in just enough history to enrich the cooking that follows. The book went on to be a classic, and made the Jamisons—travel writers who had never before written a cookbook—famous in the food-writing field.

A few days ago, I talked to Cheryl Jamison about the experience of writing the book, and the unique place that Rancho de Chimayó holds in the West.

Sunset: What do you find most remarkable about Rancho de Chimayo?

Cheryl Jamison: In the beginning, they were unique in showcasing local food. At that time, New Mexico food was considered “home food”; you didn’t find it in restaurants. The fact that Florence Jaramillo has kept that at the core of the restaurant, through all kinds of food fads, is a testament to New Mexico cooking.

As for Florence, it’s just amazing to have the same person still operating the same restaurant for 50 years. She is the most amazing octogenarian around, with warm hospitality, business skills and savvy, and a real commitment to the community. Over all these years, she and Arturo employed something like 30,000 people, most of them from Chimayó.

S: What parts of the book are new since 1991? I noticed that the original edition has quite a few pages on chiles and other local ingredients.

CJ: 25 years ago, New Mexico ingredients were so unfamiliar that we felt we had to explain a lot. Now, cooks are much more sophisticated, and their understanding of chiles and spices has come light years, so we cut back on that part. We updated the history, of course, since 15 years have gone by. Also, the restaurant now does breakfast on weekends, so we added a chapter about that, with recipes. I want the blue corn pancakes right now! They’re fluffy, but not dry, and the combination of vanilla and the nubbly blue-corn texture makes them irresistible.”

S: What was the most enjoyable aspect of writing the book?

CJ: For both editions, being in the kitchen with the cooks, who weren’t professionally trained—they were home cooks. It gave me new ideas and perspectives. For instance, I was a snob about Velveeta cheese until I learned that for them, since Chimayo was so isolated—they couldn’t just drive to a grocery store when they needed something—having a shelf-stable cheese was a wonderful thing. Mrs. Martinez, the head cook there for a long time, is over 100 now, so clearly that food is good for you! (laughs)

S: Will you be at the party tomorrow?

CJ: Yes! I’ll be signing the book at the restaurant from noon to five. Everyone is invited to come. There will be mariachis, proclamations from the mayors of Española and Santa Fe, and lots of local artisans—and also video cameras to record people telling their memories of the restaurant over the years. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”

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