Tomatoes, Thieves and other Treats

Miles of gratitude go out to all the readers who sent messages of support and concern during our recent emergency. Fortunately, the shutdown of Frontera NorteSur was averted and we plan to bring you more stories from the greater borderlands in the coming year.

I don’t always have time to respond to every message, but suffice it to say I take all of them to heart. If it weren’t for the readership, I wouldn’t be hacking away at this day after day. I think Frontera NorteSur truly has the best readers in the world.

This year has really been a dizzying one. The Mexican peso tumbling, California on fire, the Middle East in flames, the hottest year on record….

FNS commenced 2015 covering the crisis of the missing 43 Ayotzinapa students and the overall issue of the disappeared in Mexico. Nine months later the issue still boils, with no resolution, and people are once again taking to the streets.

As the summer transitions into fall, politics is blazing in the United States with issues of class, race and immigration at the forefront.

Politics, or political scandal, make thick headlines here in New Mexico. Scandals involving public officials have been big news as of late, including the indictment of Republican Secretary of State Diana Duran- the official in charge of overseeing New Mexico’s election law- on charges of fraud, embezzlement and money laundering.

The New Mexico Attorney General accuses Duran of funneling campaign money into a personal account, which was then apparently tapped at area casinos. The allegations contend Duran withdrew hundreds of thousands of dollars from ATM machines at gaming palaces. She pleaded not guilty at an arraignment in Santa Fe last week.

Duran remains in her position, but an impeachment committee from the New Mexico State Legislature is looking at removing her from office, according to press reports.

It’s interesting to note how gambling is a recurrent theme in New Mexico  scandals. The mysterious 1949  death of Las Cruces waitress Cricket Coogler (a story previously covered in these pages) might remain unsolved to this day, but the suspected murder exposed a labyrinth of corruption involving illegal gambling and pay-offs that extended from the Dona Ana County Sheriff to Santa Fe.

More recently, there was the 2010 case of Kathy Borrego, business manager of the tiny Jemez Mountain School District, who was charged with embezzling upwards of $3.4 million dollars from the little system and going on a spending spree in casinos. Borrego accepted a guilty plea, but apparently committed suicide before sentencing, according to the Albuquerque Journal.

Overall, 2015 has not been a pretty one in the Land of Enchantment. While other states add jobs, New Mexico subtracts them. According to an Associated Press dispatch last week, the state’s unemployment rate increased to 6.7 percent in August, up from 6.4 percent during the same time in 2014.

Another cheery statistic was recently reported by the AP. While declining college enrollment has been a national trend, the latest stats show New Mexico as number one in the competition, with registration at the state’s institutions of higher learning falling 8.3 percent from the spring of 2014 to the spring of 2015.

Like last year, violence has been a big story: explosions and bomb threats in Las Cruces, police shootings in Hobbs, Roswell and elsewhere, regular stabbings and gun play in Albuquerque, SWAT teams on the streets and helicopters in the Duke City sky. In the four-county Albuquerque metro area alone, FNS has counted at least 59 homicides from January 1 to the morning of September 23, based on press reports.

I was accustomed to reading about Mexico violence online from New Mexico, but lately I’ve been glimpsing similar stories about New Mexico via the Internet while in Ciudad Juarez.

For many years analysts in Mexico have spoken about national crisis and the breakdown of the social fabric caused by the combination of economic inequality, austerity regimes, political corruption, rampant substance abuse and social violence. So far, few in New Mexico seem to have connected the dots.

On to “lighter” matters. Why are pizza and craft beer the rage in New Mexico? It’s even gotten to the point where a pizza parlor right next door to the University of New Mexico pulled up for new quarters and will apparently be replaced by a craft brewery, located mind you, a couple blocks from an elementary school and in a neighborhood already teeming with craft brew houses and bars.

Whatever happened to New Mexican food and eateries, at least the non-gentrified kinds that aren’t reviewed in the New York Times? The mom-and-pop establishments where regulars greeted each other and the warm surroundings made it feel like home. The places where enchiladas, turnovers, burritos and more were bathed in chopped green chile, while the green chile stew, calabacitas and hearty tortillas were to die for?

A fair number of these treasures still exist, but how many new joints of this stripe do you see opening up these days?

Could it have something to do with the economy? The killing of popular taste?  The continued out-migration of native Nuevo Mexicanos? The price of staple chile?  How many of you have noticed that the servings of chile dished up in your favorite restaurant seem to be getting skimpier and skimpier every year, if not charged separately?

As for this year’s chile crop it’s been a wacky one, with some plantings maturing early and turning red ahead of schedule. The other day I left the store with a batch of green, red, orange and even purplish chile, in some cases splashed with different colors on the same pod.

A bit of good news, however, greets the land. It’s Tomato Time! ‘Tis the season when the hungry can find real tomatoes as opposed to the rubbery red monstrosities sold in chain groceries.

Head to your local growers’ market and you’ll behold the heirlooms in all their glory, big and small and red and orange. They’re tasty, tangy, juicy and actually have flavor. But you’d better hurry. In New Mexico, the home-grown culinary heroes are most available between August and October, the weather cooperating. Get them while they last. Bon appetit!

-Kent Paterson

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