I’ve lived in Santa Fe all of my thirty-one years, but before this winter I had been to Cafe Pasqual’s only once. That memory is hazy—I was in second or third grade, and the small corner restaurant was the only thing open downtown after a concert. I recall sitting in a corner booth by the large front window, feeling both tired and too excited by the novelty of being out downtown at night to eat. What I remember most is a sundae, vanilla bean ice cream topped with chocolate syrup and small pieces of lavender, which I had smelled plenty but never eaten. Even today, lavender’s sharp, aromatic taste recalls that evening, indistinct though the memory is: string lights like stars around the window, potted geraniums, the warmth of the tile, the glamour and beauty of downtown Santa Fe after dark still nascent in me.
Being at Pasqual’s again feels like visiting my childhood, like being dropped, bodily, back into a Santa Fe I often feel I’ve left behind forever. The small, high-ceilinged dining room smells distinctly of cornmeal: sweet, earthy, moist, like the tortillas coming off my dad’s comal when I was young, like the masa he’d mix for tamales at Christmastime.
Around the windows and adorning the beautiful murals of the moon at a fandango run twinkling string lights; placed carefully in nichos inset in the tile are fine, miniature sets of dishes and a tiny San Pasqual himself, patron of kitchens and cooks, whose image has adorned every stove I can remember from my earliest years. I feel these things opening in me, as inexorable as fine rivulets of snowmelt carving winding channels in the red sand of arroyos.
I sit down to a small, heart-shaped bowl of roasted pepitas dusted with red chile, served rather like an offering, the flavors as surprising and delightful as the lavender atop my childhood sundae. Dense in micronutrients, minerals, fats, and protein, squash seeds have been staples in traditional diets on this continent for millennia. I remember carving my first pumpkin in elementary school and being dogged by the relentless sense that these seeds I was pulling out in handfuls of stringy squash viscera were intensely precious, the condensed essence of the fruit before me. Little wonder: for most of our evolutionary history, having seeds meant having food, one way or another. Sitting in a beautiful restaurant—one as popular and storied as Cafe Pasqual’s—and eating small handfuls of delicate pepitas evokes a sense of abundance, arising, naturally, from engagement with all parts of what has been grown, harvested, and prepared to sustain a body.
I’m used to having this feeling while working outside in the fields or garden, or in my own kitchen. But I’ve rarely experienced it in a restaurant. Dining at Cafe Pasqual’s, though, I find myself gripped by a deep melancholy I can’t quite name, whose locus and shape is revealed to me, gently, throughout my meal.
My very first taste of the dark, dense, smoky, bittersweet red chile smothering the Garden Rolled Enchilada is enough to bring tears to my eyes—remarkable not only because I’m generally stoic but because I have rarely found myself so moved by chile, that ubiquitous and sometimes contentious medium of relationality in this region. Unbidden, memories of my aunt’s kitchen rise from a deep and forgotten place in me. In the dim, limned atmosphere of the restaurant, I suddenly feel myself bathed in the late afternoon light that bounds gently off soft stucco walls, the remembered voices of family members as real as the conversations of my fellow diners.
I’ve been trying to hold—often skeptically, I’ll admit—the possibility and phenomenon of attention as love, a tenet sometimes found in contemporary interpretations of various spiritual traditions and practices. Occasionally, moments of absolute clarity on this point strike me, and one occurs while eating at Cafe Pasqual’s: the satisfaction of thick-enough corn tortillas beneath insistent red chile blanketing soft, sweet islands of squash and corn. It’s enough to make my dinner feel like a conversation, a quality I have special love for; having grown up listening to my large extended family in constant modes of platicando, I am attentive and sensitive to conversation as art.
As profound as the red chile is the toasted piñon ice cream topped with fleur de sel caramel. No tears accompany this element of the meal, but the memories evoked are no less vivid than those arising from the enchilada: countless evenings waiting for the sheet of perfectly salted piñones my parents had picked—working diligently on hands and knees beneath the dense, sap-filled trees—to come out of the oven, heralding hours of sitting around hulling the smooth, oily nuts; watching my grandpa gleaning piñones with both hands, explaining to the children present how his gnarled, work-worn, intelligent hands were just like the gallinas in the yard, scratching the dirt for feed; my dad’s predictions for nut harvests each year, his eager eyes scouring the hillsides for the right conditions, the mental calculus of rainfall to heat alive in his blood, as obvious to him and as subtle as any rule of gravity or physics.
I don’t have an explanation for why memory is so often accompanied by melancholy, except perhaps that the body longs for what it knows. As life returns more and more to business as usual for many of us, I still often feel like I’ve dropped through a rabbit hole. Wasn’t it just a few weeks ago that we were given lockdown orders? Has it really been nearly three years since our collective sense of normalcy was shaken to the core? Even more impossibly: when was the last time my family gathered to eat enchiladas together, all ten million (or just about) of us? As sobering and wrenching as it is to take stock of all that’s changed, it’s equally beautiful to find myself somewhere as familiar and profoundly comforting as Pasqual’s on this winter evening. And isn’t that the magic of food, in all of its complicated continuity?
leticia gonzales lives and works in Santa Fe, New Mexico.