From USA

Queens Love

Hi all. I’m in Dubai as we speak, watching from the 18th floor of a building as a minor sandstorm swirls around about 28 construction cranes. I haven’t yet had a chance to collect my thoughts (or all my funny pictures) on this subject of grandiose city construction.

So in the meantime, allow me to introduce you to:

Queens Love!

This fantabulous new tumblr is a great outlet for a dozen or so Queens denizens, including Our Illustrious Leader and Generator of Brilliant Food Ideas, Jeff Orlick. As you’d expect from anything about Queens, it’s mostly about food.

PS: OK, OK–here’s one funny Dubai picture.

handsome man

I like to think I keep life waiting too.

Gallup Flea Market: Back Again

On my birthday, I went to Gallup, New Mexico. Not a typical place for celebration, I realize, but I’m kind of fond of how this town has developed in the last decade. There are murals everywhere, you can get handmade moccasins, the county courthouse is cool Pueblo Deco, and there are demonstration dances on the plaza in front every single night during the summer.

These dancers were from Zuni, just south of Gallup. Most of the crowd was local, or American Indians from other reservations.

Another thrill, for my vintage hotel fixation, the El Rancho is one of America’s finest examples. The desk clerk has a pompadour and a bolo tie, and the rooms are named after Hollywood stars who came to the area to film in the 1940s. I slept in James Cagney.

It’s true, I didn’t go to Gallup just for my birthday. I was also on assignment to write about the flea market that takes place every Saturday, from about 10am on, in a big gravel lot on the northwest side, just off the highway that used to be 666. I visited once before, and I was so thrilled about all the cool stuff there that I made this haul video.

What I really noticed about the flea market this time is how it reflects Gallup’s roots–and I don’t just mean its Navajo ones, as Gallup is the “Indian Capital of the World” and where everyone from the rez comes to sell crafts and stock up at Walmart. The town grew up when the railroad came through in 1881, bringing all kinds of enterprising immigrants from everywhere.

So the majority of shoppers and vendors are Navajo—grandmas in velveteen skirts alongside teenagers in giant T-shirts and calf-length denim shorts, carrying pit-bull puppies. But there are also Mexican vendors—selling tacos, handmade Navajo-style clothing in inexpensive fabrics and even sacks of green chile. In July, green chile wasn’t yet in season in NM, but it’s got to come from somewhere, right? Why not drive a truck up from south of the border, filled with chile from hotter climes?

And I saw young Arab girls in headscarves—no idea whether they were new to town, or had deep roots here. Arabs and Muslims from the Balkans came to Gallup very early on, and there’s a big mosque right on Route 66. And then there were the missionaries—still active now as they were more than a century ago, though the current vocal bunch take a particularly strange form. And as if to round out the archetypal Wild West market vibe, I even saw one stand run by very-new-to-town-looking Chinese people, selling imported tchotchkes like paper lanterns and frilly fans.

The main reason I went was to write about the food, which you just don’t see anywhere else. Here’s some “kneel-down bread”—ground-up fresh corn packed in a husk and roasted.

These are so cleverly wrapped up in corn husks, they look just like regular ears of roasted corn.

I asked the woman selling it if it was called that because you had to kneel down at a metate to grind the corn. “No,” she snapped. “That’s just what it’s called.” It reminded me of when I’d asked in Zuni why the bread was shaped that way and got similarly stonewalled. Later, I felt a little vindicated when I was eating my mutton sandwich, and the Navajo woman next to me at the table pointed to the kneel-down bread stand and said, “It’s called that because ladies used to have to kneel down to grind it on the metate…” But next time, I’ll try not to pry.

At Diamond “T” Grill, people were seated expectantly at tables before the signs are even up, waiting for lamb ribs and achii (sheep intestines around strips of fat) straight off the grill. When I asked the grillmaster if I could take a photo of his work, he cracked, “Did you set your camera to Navajo time?”

That's achii in the foreground.

There was plenty else I wished I’d eaten. Not necessarily because it looked tasty–honestly, Navajo food can seem a little Spartan, and it appears to value the sensation of sheep fat coating your mouth. But just because where else, and how else will I ever taste this stuff? It’s a portal into another world. That’s what makes the Gallup flea so special—and heck, worth a birthday trip.

Bonus birthday give-back for my copy editor friends. Slightly misguided proofreader marks from Route 66 in Gallup, on a wild Friday night:

Saturday night in Gallup rocks.
Greater than what? You tell me.

New Mexico #4: All Aboard the Rail Runner

The wild West of yore is all about trains and cows and gunslingers and dudes in hats. Today, cattle still roam the range in New Mexico, and folks wear pistols on their hips and hats indoors. But the trains have, for the most part, gone.

Sure, there’s the venerable Super Chief, Amtrak’s service that plods across the desert, often running eight hours late by the time it hits Los Angeles (I know from personal experience), and there’s the scenic Cumbres & Toltec steam train up in Chama.

But for real getting around? People use cars, just like everywhere else in the American West.

This makes me sad, because I am a bit of a train geek. Not a mouth-breathing, clipboard-toting railfan, but someone who really enjoys a good train ride. No bickering with the navigator, no squinting at traffic signs—just pure relaxation as the scenery whisks by. I’ve ridden trains (often with my more-railfannier-than-I-but-still-not-foaming-he-would-like-me-to-assure-you husband) everywhere possible—even in Australia, which made Australians laugh.

This is all leading up to the Rail Runner, Albuquerque’s commuter train. It started service in the ABQ area in 2007, and there was talk of extending to Santa Fe. Miraculously, before I even had time to get cynical about it, the service was running, as of December 2008.

I admit, I got a little teary-eyed watching this video:

So I finally got around to riding the thing on this trip. You’d think it might not be all that exciting—it’s just an hour and a half, and it makes the same trip I’ve made at least a thousand times in my life.

But it was even better! First, just saying the words, “Let’s get the 4:13 train,” while sitting at my mom’s kitchen table outside Albuquerque, was such an amazing novelty.

Then, also, the idea of anyone in New Mexico following a real schedule—also delightfully novel.

On the train, for the first time in my life in Albuquerque, I got to peer into people’s backyards. I saw real, live hobos hunkered down by the freight tracks. (I guessed they were pros, because they didn’t wave at the train, unlike the various regular guys just sitting and drinking by the tracks.) We zipped past bizarre arrangements of industrial scrap in giant junkyards.

So Albuquerque isn’t sounding so scenic.

But after just a little bit, we were out in the back of beyond—not even a road to be seen. At this point, the train conductor advised us not to take photos, at the request of residents in the pueblo lands we were passing through. I wonder where else train passengers are banned from taking photos, and not for security reasons?

This photo was taken before the ban, I swear (and features my dad off to the right):

RailRunner View

The whole area around the last stop in Santa Fe has been swankily redone—what used to be a vast scrubby open space by the tracks is now parkland, and there are galleries and train-station-themed coffee bars. It’s a whole new side of Santa Fe, one not cloaked in faux adobe finish, and if I’d come by car, it would seem insignificant. Getting off at the station, it seemed like the center of the world.

Railyard

We walked back down the tracks to dinner, stuffed ourselves with enchiladas (at La Choza), and walked over to the plaza for dessert (at the Haagen-Dazs place, because everywhere else was closed). Just like in a regular city! (Except for the places being closed.)

On the trip up, we chatted with some great people—a younger guy who managed a band and worked on a Tennessee shortline, along with his friend, who’d never been on a train (like most New Mexicans probably, he asked, “Why does it have to follow a schedule? Why can’t it just go?”).

RailRunner Mountains

There was also a couple who were reading my guidebook!

The landscape of New Mexico is forever changed. Thanks, Rail Runner!

RailRunner at Night

Today’s the last day for a chance to win free copies of my Santa Fe guidebook–enter here.

New Mexico Trip #3: It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Texas

I admit, I was instilled with some serious anti-Texan prejudices as a child. The flatlanders came to New Mexico to ski (“If God had meant for Texans to ski,” went one typical grumble, “He would’ve given them their own mountains”). They set up resort enclaves in Ruidoso and Red River, and decorated them with chainsaw-carved bear statues. They came to Santa Fe to swan around saying, “How kaaaay-uuuute!” about everything, and then buying it.

But since I’ve grown up, I’ve met some perfectly excellent Texans, who have much better taste, and realized my attitude was probably not productive. Besides, now New Mexicans have moved on to hating Californians.

So now when I go to southeastern New Mexico, where the state line is just a formality, it’s kind of cool—like two vacations in one.

Rancher Signs

You get your green chile (admittedly, often mixed with cream-of-mushroom soup, which gives me the heebie-jeebies), but you can also get your barbecue. I ate some beautiful brisket in Carlsbad at Danny’s BBQ—the smoke ring was lurid, and the flavor was so good I didn’t even bother with sauce. Here’s my dad’s pork, which came in a portion bigger than his head, and we had to stuff it into sandwiches the next day.

I seem to have lost my photo of that (or perhaps I never took it–the beauty is just seared in my brain), so in lieu of that, here’s the menu board at Pat’s Twin Cronnie in Portales, NM, where fad diets are not catered to:

Menu Board with "carb watchers" section empty

I didn’t realize how deep the Texan strain went until this visit, when I noticed the much-fetishized Blue Bell ice cream in grocery stores in Tularosa and Artesia. I imagine the Dr. Pepper down in those parts is also fresher.

I also saw that this doughnut shop in Hobbs had kolaches on the menu:

Eagle Donuts

Unfortunately, the doughnut shop was closed by the time I rolled up. Actually, maybe for the best—if the paint job outside was any indication, it was the kind of place where I wouldn’t be able to decide what to order.

Another food item I associate with Texas is pecans. But they’ve got pecan trees all around Tularosa (and yummy pistachios!). And just south of Las Cruces is Stahmann Farms, the largest privately owned pecan orchard in the United States. Take that, Texas!

This week, I’m giving away copies of my Santa Fe guidebook–go here to enter!

New Mexico Trip #2: Know Your Meat

Southern New Mexico is a little alien to me because they do weird things with their chile down there, and they engage in businesses that you don’t see that much of up north, such as oil drilling, UFO spotting and cattle ranching. I was driving around Roswell, headquarters of “alien” in southern NM, when I saw the sign: Sale Barn Cafe.

I pulled in, as it’s well known that cafes near livestock auctions are good. Or at least it seems like they should be—even though of course they are not slaughtering the cow right out back, like you imagine.

The parking lot was packed, but it didn’t occur to me there was an auction in session until after I’d wandered through the cafe, cautiously nosed into the main building itself, perused the ads for ranch horses, and then heard the buzz of activity through the swinging doors behind me.

Roswell Cattle AuctionI stepped through and found myself in a short concrete hall leading up to the front, below the rings of seats. I stood there a bit, trying to decide whether I was welcome or not. When it became clear that the place was not going to fall silent, and the entire crowd of cowboy-hatted men was not going to swivel around to stare at me, I sidled in and took a seat, all casual-like. After a while, I took a little sound recording of the auction:

Roswell Cattle Auction

And after a bit more, I started taking some photos. When I eventually moved up in the bleachers for a better vantage point, a handsome younger rancher leaned over and said, “Hey, you’re one of those animal-rights people, aren’t you?” Best pickup line ever.

Roswell Cattle Auctioneer

I said no, I wasn’t, but I was curious about where my meat came from. He went on to explain the whole system—how these cattle weren’t being sold for slaughter, but between ranchers to round out their herds. Ranchers running short of grass were selling extra head to those whose sections were just now getting green. He clued me in to the various codes, signals and marks on the cattle—it felt a lot like learning the basics of a new sport.

Roswell Cattle Auction

He also explained, as a side note, that they used to auction horses for slaughter here, but that got banned—and as a result, now New Mexico is infested with horses that have been set loose because their owners couldn’t afford to keep them and had no other way to get rid of them. I’d always suspected there was another side to the ‘protect the wild horses’ story, but had never heard it.

As I left, I asked the rancher for his name or a card. But he politely declined. He still thought I was one of those animal-rights people after all.

I’m running a contest all this week, for free copies of my Santa Fe guidebook–enter here.