Waving the Santa Fe flag: Thoughts on Anthony Bourdain and Frito pie

Plenty of commentators are arguing about the federal government shutdown this morning. Balloons are in the sky over Albuquerque, football is on the tube. President Obama says Iran is still a year away from having a nuclear bomb. So, I’ll take on Anthony Bourdain and Frito pie at the Santa Fe Five & Dime.

My two cents: Bourdain stepped on an institution last week when he dished out his usual wise-guy treatment on the Frito pies at Woolworth’s, or the Five & Dime, on the Plaza. I got heartburn.

He seemed to have his mind made up in the “Parts Unknown” piece on CNN that downtown Santa Fe is the dubious side of New Mexico reality. His gun-love diversions were curious, but the northern New Mexico Hispanic culture stuff was fun and finding the Horseman’s Haven was decent local navigation even if the show turned predictably silly on the hot chile score. Bourdain even called the Frito pie at the Five & Dime delicious after a couple of poopy jokes, although the jokes seemed as odd as the gun fascination.

In essay called “Guns and Green Chile” on the CNN website, Bourdain said, “The upcoming New Mexico show is not about guns … This show is about the American cowboy ideal, about the romantic promise of the American West, about individuality and the freedom to be weird.”

Okay, if he says so. But I thought the script was a little wobbly. My objection to the Santa Fe Plaza segment was that the lunch counter at Woolworth’s, now just the Five & Dime, got lumped in with the Plaza’s feathered curios and hangers-on in odd hats and heavy jewelry. In other words, City Different kitsch.

It rubbed my Santa Fe chauvinism the wrong way.

Bourdain was in fair territory in making fun of some aspects of the town. It is after all a city where a hysterical, uh, historical, styles ordinance used to mandate dumpy looking mud architecture and where a commercial building on Don Gaspar once opened with ready-made holes in its exterior plaster for that special Santa Fe look. But wrong track in taking on the lunch-counter Frito pie at Woolworth’s — the Five & Dime. It would have been safer ground to make fun of coyotes wearing bandanas.

I’m not saying the offense was as grave as painting a bikini on a religious icon, giggling about crystals dangling from rear view mirrors, spelling chile with an “i” at the end or calling farolitos luminarias. It’s not like disparaging the Palace of the Governor’s, a real mud building, facing the Five & Dime from across the Plaza.

But as someone who spent several decades of his long-running adolescence in Santa Fe, I was among those wounded by Bourdain’s piece.

The Frito Pie, in addition to being a culinary treat to some, represents Santa Fe’s old Woolworth’s on the Plaza.  Woolworth’s, you see, is real, even in its Five & Dime reincarnation by Earl and Deborah Potter and Mike Collins.

It was there when Sears Roebuck was on Lincoln Avenue, with Cushman motor scooters in the front window  — the stuff of dreams for newspaper delivery boys like me  — and where my well-meaning mother, incautious with a small paycheck from the Villagra book store or Dendahl’s, outfitted me with a plaid suit for a 7th grade dance at the Scottish Rite Temple. It was as real as Zook’s and Kahn’s and Cooper’s, the Plaza cafe, Bell’s, La Fonda and The Guarantee. I think you could buy socks and jeans and school supplies there, not just Frito pie. And you could walk through the place from the Plaza to Water Street — or was that neighboring J.C. Penny? — once a kid’s adventure almost as exciting as riding La Fonda’s elevator up and down until the manager chased you out.

The Woolworth’s lunch counter and the Frito pie make for an island of reality in a sea of fake kachinas, designer ice cream, pricey coffee drinks and New Age visionaries slouching on park benches.

The Five & Dime markets some of the same tourist junk, some might say. But to me it’s still Woolworth’s and vintage Santa Fe. I think that was the Potters’ idea, and I’m glad they did it.

I’m not even a big fan of Frito pie — and I cringe at the boiled hamburger meat element of the real recipe — but I applaud my friend Tom Sharpe of The New Mexican for taking the lid off Bourdain’s incorrect assertion that the Five & Dime’s chile is made by Hormel. While I stopped by my grocery the other morning to buy a bag of Fritos –preparing to dose it at home with chile and cheese for a risky cultural celebration — I have not yet had the gumption to open the bag.  I contribute to my coronary artery disease with only a couple Frito pies a year and — please no hate mail — confess that they are usually on a plate at Dos Hermanos in Albuquerque or the Albuquerque Journal’s cafeteria, where they also are standard fare.

But my point is less about culinary criticism than defending my sepia-toned memories of an older Santa Fe.

You see, I still cannot walk past what used to be Free Frasier pharmacy, across from what’s now the Capitol, without seeing and tasting a cherry Coke in an icy soda fountain glass. And the Five & Dime will always be Woolworth’s to me.

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