Southwest and Rocky Mountain

History and Influence on Cuisine

The Development of Southwestern Cuisine

When the Spanish first came to the Southwest, they found 98 Native American settlements, called “pueblos,” along the Rio Grande. The Spanish were amazed to discover that the Native Americans had already developed an irrigation system capable of bringing enough water to the desert fields to sustain a variety of local crops, primarily consisting of corn, squash, and beans.

The tribes that have most significantly influenced the cuisine of this area include the Navajo, Pima, Hopi, Pueblo, and Zuni. Typically, food for the Native Americans meant much more than simple sustenance; it had religious and cultural implications as well.

The Pima tribe is known to have lived in this region since the fourth century, when they established a highly effective irrigation system that brought water to their fields in the desert. The Pima were descendants of the ancient Hohokam tribe and were known for their expertise in growing beans—so great that they were also referred to as the Papago, or “bean people.”

The Navajo tribe migrated from arctic regions in the 13th century. Originally, the Navajo were nomadic hunters and gatherers, but after arriving in the region, they adapted to some of the agrarian ways of the Pueblo tribes already living in the area. When the Europeans arrived in the region and brought with them sheep, cattle, and horses, the Navajo learned to be herders as well as farmers.

The Hopi tribe is considered to have made the most significant contributions to cooking. The Hopi, descendants of the ancient Anasazi tribe, cultivated many varieties of squash, beans, and corn. They learned to cook in beehive-shaped ovens, called hornos, made of adobe clay, and frequently used cooking vessels made of fired pottery ornately decorated with geometric patterns to boil foods.

The Spaniards Arrive

The first Europeans to venture into this region were the Spanish. In 1540, Coronado led an expedition north from Mexico in search of the Seven Cities of Cibola, where the streets were allegedly paved with gold. Finding only mud huts and hostile Indians, Coronado returned home to Mexico, discouraged and disgraced. In the following decades, the Spaniards returned and solidified their control over the area.

The introduction of meats other than wild game is attributed to the Spanish, who brought livestock with them. Capitán General Juan de Onate first introduced sheep to the region in 1598, and by the 1880s, millions of sheep, cattle, and hogs were being raised, many of which were shipped to other regions of the United States. The Spanish also grew crops and introduced wheat flour to the Native Americans. Wheat became so popular that it was planted all over the region, and by the 16th century, it was more common in the American West than in Spain. Eventually, flour tortillas became as popular as corn tortillas, the original staple bread of the region. They also introduced peaches, apricots, and apples. As they had in other areas of the country, especially in Texas, the Spanish introduced many varieties of chiles that were integrated into the cuisine.

The Native Americans and the “Three Sisters of Food”

The “three sisters”—corn, beans, and squash—are the New World foods indigenous to the Southwest and Rocky Mountains. These foods supported the Native Americans and early European settlers of the region. The crops were easy to dry and store for long periods and, when eaten together, provided a complete source of protein. The farming techniques are also designed to be harmonious. When all three crops are planted together, the tall stalks of corn provide the vertical structure to which the bean plants cling, and the squash vines help provide shade and control weeds by forming a groundcover.

The Native American Indians believed that corn was given to them by the corn maiden as a life-giving grain. It is the food that has the most cultural significance for them. Corn in the region comes in six colors: red, white, blue, black, yellow, and variegated— which many Native American tribes associate with the six directions of the compass. The Zuni tribe believed that if dried corn kernels were scattered in the path of the Spanish conquistadors, they would be protected from the invaders. The Hopi tribe used each of the six colors of corn for distinctly different purposes, many religious in nature. Native Americans learned to use wood ash while cooking cornbread, and discovered that wood ash could be used as a seasoning and leavening agent.

Another of the three sisters foods is beans. Native Americans used wild beans in their diets almost 7,000 years ago. Beans, when combined and eaten with grains, seeds, or nuts, provide all the amino acids needed to create complete proteins. The Europeans, until the 15th century, were familiar with only a few varieties of beans, such as fava and broad beans, but were introduced to a large variety of New World beans by the Native Americans of the Southwest. The most common beans utilized today in the American Southwest are the pinto bean and its smaller relative, the pinquito. However, a number of ancient varieties, called “heirloom beans,” are experiencing a resurgence in the United States.

The last member of the food triad is squash. Summer squash such as zucchini, yellow squash, and numerous varieties of Indian squash are all grown in the Southwest. This culturally important food staple is often referred to by its Spanish name, calabacitas.

By the 19th century, many tribes raised a variety of fruits including peaches, figs, and apricots. Most of this fruit was dried for winter use.

Indians used a variety of implements—such as stone mortars—to grind or pulverize their foods. They shelled or hulled seeds and ground meat to tenderize it. They soaked corn in water mixed with wood ashes (forming lye) to turn the corn into hominy. Both fish and meat were pulverized and then mixed with berries and fat to form a nutrientrich, easy-to-carry food source. If it contained meat, this mixture was known as pemmican and was stored in a buffalo-skin bag.

The Mexican Influence

The spiciness and high seasoning of many traditional dishes are similar to those used in the Mexican states of Chihuahua and Sonora—typically, not simple but rich and complex. Flavors derived from different chiles, herbs, and seasonings are generally used to attain the characteristics of American Southwest cuisine.

Major Influences in the Rocky Mountain States

The most significant influence in the region was the rapid settlement of the American West in the mid-1800s, before the transcontinental railroad was built. Prospectors and others heading to the gold rush of California traveled two main routes: the Oregon Trail and the Santa Fe Trail.

The northern route, the Oregon Trail, began in Missouri, crossed the Rocky Mountains into Utah, and veered north through Idaho and into Oregon, while the Santa Fe Trail took a more southerly route through Colorado into New Mexico. The first known group to follow the Oregon Trail, left Independence, Missouri, in 1842 and, over the next two decades, hundreds of thousands of settlers left their homes to follow the quest for gold. The Mormons, however, followed the Oregon Trail for religious freedom. The Mormons left Illinois in the winter of 1846 to move their church to the west. They veered south once in the Great Basin of Utah, and by the end of 1847, some 5,000 pioneers had settled in the Salt Lake Valley.

In the 1820s, Mexico finalized its independence from Spain, and the Santa Fe Trail from Missouri to New Mexico opened. This caused the city of Santa Fe to become a trading hub for the region. During the Civil War, Congress passed the Homestead Act of 1862, offering 160 acres of land free to any citizen or intended citizen who was head of the household. From 1862 to 1900, up to 600,000 families took advantage of the government's offer.
In the late 1880s, railroad companies laid their tracks across the Southwest, bringing with them improved commerce and access to new markets. Thousands of settlers from the East began to arrive in masses. The beef industry boomed, creating vast cattle kingdoms on the southeastern plains, and by the 1900s, the settlers who had brought modern tools and farming techniques had transformed over five million acres of land into fertile farms.

The Pioneers

The areas first tracked by trappers, prospectors, and trailblazers began to attract farmers and families and other pioneers by the 1840s. The Oregon Trail—nothing more than two wagon ruts—was blazed in 1841; by the mid-1840s, a trickle of pioneers had made that long walk west. Their daily sustenance included sourdough breads, quick breads, salt pork preparations, wild game and fish, and what could be foraged from the forests, mountain valleys, and plains. Their “prairie schooners,” or covered wagons, were piled high with flour, beans, bacon, dried fruit, coffee, salt, and vinegar. Their cooking styles were similar to that of the cowboys who ate chuckwagon cooking in Texas.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, German-Russian immigrants came to homestead and farm. They found that the San Luis Valley in Colorado did not have to depend on rivers for its water supply. The valley has artesian wells that do not need pumps to bring the water to the surface. This enabled the valley to be turned into an important agricultural area, where a variety of vegetables, especially potatoes, are grown.

The Basque people who emigrated from southwestern France and northern Spain came to the West as sheepherders who worked on the ranches of Idaho, Nevada, and Wyoming. In many remote areas, thriving communities of Basque descendants developed. Hearty stews of beef, chicken, and lamb flavored with onions, garlic tomatoes, bell peppers, and herbs best describe the Basque contribution to the cooking of the region. The largest Basque community in existence today, outside of Europe, is in Boise, Idaho. The Basque restaurants found in America today are known for their family-style service and many courses of hearty food, served on long communal tables.

Much of the wild game enjoyed for its own sake today in the Rocky Mountains was first eaten out of necessity; today, game is considered a delicacy. Fowl, venison, boar, and bison thrive in the mountains of the region. But today, the game animals served in restaurants are not considered true wild game. Because the U.S. Department of Agriculture does not inspect wild game, the meat served in commercial food-service operations is raised in closely controlled environments and developed specifically for the industry by game farms and ranches. Considered to be low in fat, game available to the public is increasingly popular.