Accidental Chef in the Wild West

PORTAL, AZ – As if we were all Wild West outlaws lowering our bandanas for the first time, my neighbors in tiny Portal, Arizona and I are finally seeing one another’s faces.

Never having seen their mouths, I made many of them extravagant Thanksgiving and December holiday dinners, alongside my friend Zola, who’s pushing 90 and has been holding bake sales forever down at the Portal Post Office.

I had no plans to live or cook here when I arrived from Chicago March 1, 2020, for what was supposed to be a three-month writing research visit. But my plans changed drastically, like they did for so many people during this last tumultuous year. Now I’m living a life reconsidered.

Almost none of my neighbors thinks of me as a writer or a journalist, though that pursuit is what brought me to this 300-person hamlet in the Chiricahua Mountains, named for the local Apache, among them Cochise, Geronimo, and the female warrior Lozen, who famously fought being separated from their home. It is arguably the most beautiful and inarguably the most biodiverse of the “Sky Islands,” small mountain chains in Southeastern Arizona and northern Mexico, marooned by oceans of desert that lap at their foothills.

As one ascends 6,000 feet, bark scorpions, gila monsters, rattlesnakes and cactus eventually give way to alpine meadow, red-faced warblers and hibernating black bear. Somewhere in the middle, a young paddle cactus and a sapling Douglas fir can be found growing side by side.

Living in the desert and living with mountains were both new to me, a flatlander born in Kansas with long stints in Florida and Chicago. Tornadoes, hurricanes, humidity, yes. Rattlesnakes, being attacked by vegetation, monsoons, no. It can be harsh and unforgiving, and is at the same time beautiful beyond measure.

Sometimes people here still call me “the donut lady,” because before the pandemic struck, I was plotting an early-morning coffee and donuts stand as bait for birders who flock here during Portal’s famed spring migration. I planned to yank their binocular cords with a humorous essay about the quirks and subspecies of these deep-pocketed world travelers. I was also researching a less funny piece about the effects of climate change on highly biodiverse places, a subject that has become ever more concerning during my time here, as a lengthy drought lingers and annual bird censuses turn up attenuated results.

The pandemic stretched and transformed my three-month visit, much the way ancient geologic forces upended its ruggedly beautiful landscape. I lost a job I didn’t really like anyway as a managing editor for a small financial publication. I applied for PPP money. And then I started to think of what I could do to earn a living here, rather than returning to Chicago where my odds of finding work in my field were far higher, but so were my chances of catching COVID-19. My friends there went stir-crazy in their apartments, while I walked around bathed in beauty.

Of course, the donut stand got scrapped immediately, cooked before the dough could rise. Portal is an elderly community, populated by retired scientists, many of whom spent time at the Southwest Research Station, a major blood-pumping organ to this town funded by the American Museum of Natural History in New York. People like me in their 50’s are the youngbloods here, with most in their 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. The idea of inviting outsiders to Portal during the pandemic was anathema on its face. Businesses that wouldn’t survive without tourists first shut down and then resumed operations with stringent restrictions.

I started cooking for people, first on a volunteer basis, “adopting” five of my neighbors and dropping off cookies and fruit salads and other un-requested treats. Later, I partnered up with local non-profit Sew What? to make fundraising pastries several Saturday mornings in a row outside the Post Office, among them blueberry-lemon fritters and corn, cheese and Hatch chile muffins.

As the pandemic stretched into Thanksgiving, a local home care nurse suggested it would be a community service to do takeaway turkey dinners, as both local cafes would be closed and not offering holiday meals. With group gatherings out of the question and shopping even more a chore than normal (nearest grocery, 2 hour round trip), we did it. Forty-one people took me and my cooking partner, Zola, up on it, with almost as many ordering December meals.

To accompany the turkey and house-made Tofurky (resplendent but traumatizing to concoct) we let people choose sides and pies from lists that were unquestionably too long.

Distribution was comically disorganized but the food was well received. Next, as jets were grounded and borders closed, Zola and I cooked up a 10-week meal subscription with a starter, main and dessert, taking a dozen or so of us on a culinary journey all around the world. 

It featured takeout I took for granted in Chicago and recipes I found online: palak paneer from India, a veggie-stuffed flatbread called msemen from Morocco, a Puerto Rican rice and shrimp stew called asopao and coyotas, the flat, piloncillo-stuffed cookie of Sonoran Mexico. 

If it’s not obvious by now, I am one of those people who brings three things to a potluck because I can’t bear to narrow it down. I’ve always got something in the fridge that wants cooking or a new recipe I’m dying to try. Friends have told me throughout my life I should cater, or I should have a restaurant. But I know from voraciously reading about food and cooking that restaurants, like boats, can best be described as holes one puts money into. I never, until this past year, wanted to risk turning something I have always loved into a chore. But this was a year, if ever there was one, for the question ‘Why not?’

It is fitting I was on the road when I started cooking for strangers for the first time, since my culinary education is so far-flung. It all started with a poor child’s version of the cooking show “Chopped,” as 12-year-old me struggled to make sense — or at least dinner — from castaway ingredients extracted from food pantry boxes and bags. I tasted things I otherwise never would have living in the projects of Kansas City: Marinated artichokes? Yes, please! Jarred asparagus? Oh my God, no. Every sauce sardines come in. Every shape of pasta. How to debone cans of salmon, and add crushed saltines, mustard and eggs to make passable pan-fried fishcakes. I learned how to balance improbable flavors, and how texture imparts excitement to humble ingredients.

My favorites were the mystery cans that had shed their labels at some point in their preserved food journey. Most of the time it was just boring old corn or chicken noodle soup, with its thin layer of greasy clouds floating on top. But every once in a while it would be three bean salad or neon orange paper-wrapped tamales or sweet peaches in thin, clear syrup. Mostly it was the anticipation of opening these cans I liked. Their potential.

Though I had difficulty scraping together enough money to go to college, I shamelessly spent my student loans indulging my fantasies of food and travel, a decided departure from the ramen-and-peanut-butter ascetics who I met in the dorms.

In the narrow kitchen of our apartment, I threw elaborate international dinner parties with my live-in boyfriend Brian, a professional cook who taught me knife skills and how to grow tomatoes, among many other things. We would choose a country, like Spain or France, and tell our friends to bring geographically appropriate wines or cocktails.

We’d spend two days assembling elaborate buffets of dishes we had never made or even tasted, like paella and cassoulet, whose pale green flageolet beans reminded me of Chiclets the first time I saw them.

In the decades that followed, I was fortunate enough to travel widely, bringing home novel flavor combinations and regional recipes as souvenirs. Occasionally a dish would stump me (looking at you, Bukhara of Cape Town, South Africa’s mustard and fenugreek kingklip curry), leading to fantasies of return and resampling.

  • Mesquite Beans on the tree
  • Hatch Chiles Roasting
  • Dried wreaths and ristras of chile peppers in Hatch.
  • Chiricahua juniper is juicy and purple
  • Bumble Bee and Hummingbird in a race to my pole bean flower.
  • Prickly pears, or tunas, have fine spines in addition to the big ones.

Naturally, Southwest ingredients are now folded into my mix. Some of them I foraged, learning the hard way why every recipe for prickly pear jelly I could find includes a collection of  spine-removal techniques. I raked mesquite beans from their feathery trees and pulverized them into nutty, sweet flour well worth the map of scratches on my arms and legs. I collected juicy juniper berries, reddish purple here rather than the boring old blue I’ve seen everywhere else, and ground them into fragrant sugar to dust shortbread of local pecans. I made harvest-time pilgrimages to Hatch, NM, for fresh, dried and flame-roasted chiles whose flavor I am sure will haunt me should I ever move away.

These Southwest ingredients came along for the ride when I wrote the multi-country meals subscription menus. Caribbean night’s rice featured, rather than pigeon peas, protein-rich and drought-tolerant tepary beans sourced from the Tohono Oʼodham reservation south of Tucson. Mardi Gras night featured not red beans and rice, but Anasazi beans from the Four Corners area. They lose their pretty red-and-white-speckled appearance when you cook them, but more than make up for it by exuding a rich and starchy gravy. Portal is Border Patrol distance from Mexico, and small avocados are often 4 for $1 at the grocery and perfectly ripe. They feature in many of my recipes, but are the absolute star of my Mexican-spiced dark chocolate cake with avocado-Belgian chocolate buttercream, their earthy undertone a familiar mystery in dessert.

  • Texas Caviar Minus Avocadoes

The success of the winter meals subscription led to me cooking for birding groups, (finally!) as a personal chef for nature and tourism company Naturalist Journeys, which has a Portal HQ. A respected player in small-group ecotourism with tours to all seven continents, it suffered alongside the travel industry as a whole during the pandemic, but has since rebounded.

As we mingled in the kitchen of Cave Creek Ranch cooking for her guests, the owner of that company, Peg Abbott, and I connected about my deep experience in journalism, marketing and PR, and, as travel has become viable again, I have come full circle back to my “normal” job: writing, editing and managing her company’s social media.

I’m not sure as I write this if I will end up living in Portal long-term. I’m a renter, and rentals are few and far between.

It’s possible I’m an “accidental,” as birders call species that turn up out of place, usually blown off course by bad weather. Or maybe I WILL nest here, like last year’s Eared Quetzals, an adventurous couple from Mexico who came up, looked around, and liked what they saw.

No matter what, I will always be grateful for this past pandemic year in Portal. When I became one more strange creature thrown into the mix.

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