- The Washington Times - Friday, August 29, 2003

EMBUDO, N.M. — A morning mist settles onto basil leaves, blackberries and eggplants as the first guests arrive. We don’t realize it right away, but we are powerfully hungry.

It’s a good thing Margaret Campos has added a cooking school to her 20-acre farm on the Rio Grande. Even better, she starts with breakfast.

A green chili quiche and a peach-raspberry tart alight upon tables in an outdoor kitchen equipped with gas grills, a rotisserie, refrigerator, stove top, wood stove and two hornos — traditional American Indian ovens.

This land has been tended by Miss Campos’ family for five generations, but in this generation, it has blossomed under her self-starting oomph.

“I always loved to eat more than anything,” she says, “but I grew up on TV dinners and tuna casseroles. By the time I was eight, my mother built me a little stool and said, ‘This is a stove. Learn to cook.’”

Mugs of steaming coffee in hand, the six of us taste her home-schooled success. Divine.

This is just the start, too — the hors d’oeuvre, if you will — to a homespun day down on the Comida de Campos farm. From harvesting to chopping, roasting to digesting, we will do it all — accompanied by two ticklish children and three grumpy goats.

On the menu is northern New Mexican cuisine, although this summer, a series of guest chefs from Santa Fe’s top restaurants expanded the fare. Famed cookbook author Deborah Madison taught one class.

Today’s main cast: Miss Campos, a 41-year-old entrepreneur with a master’s degree in business administration, a part-time career at Los Alamos National Laboratory and a hankering to be a full-time farmer.

Eremita, her 67-year-old mother, partner, lead farmer and testament to the power of healthy living.

Five-year-old Analisa, an intrepid finder of lizards and kittens, and 7-year-old Joaquin, an unabashed comedian.

Together, we wade into the fields, checking Eremita’s crops and gathering the fixings for Miss Campos’ alfresco cuisine.

“Last spring, I called all the neighbors to help thin the strawberries,” Mrs. Campos says, standing in a choked patch of greenery. “But they didn’t take as many as I would have liked, so these didn’t fruit so well this year.

“I know it will hurt, but I’m going to have to rototill them.”

Anymore, too much growth is the least of a New Mexico farmer’s problems. First came the drought. Despite the tumbling current in the nearby Rio Grande, the water flow is down; the ditch delivers but a trickle.

Second came the hardhearted heat. It has cooked the soil, seared the celery and shriveled the chilies.

Third came the bugs.

“Look at this cauliflower,” Mrs. Campos says. “See? I’ve lost these already. First the cutworms and now the aphids.”

Fourth came the wilt.

“We planted 960 tomatoes,” Mrs. Campos says. “We have 70 left.”

Not all is lost in this season of suffering, however. Sixteen long rows of eggplants strut their reproductive stuff. The basil grows thick and bushy. The carrots taste sweeter than any she has ever grown. “I should have planted nothing but carrots this year,” she says.

Returning to the kitchen’s shelter, we set out to turn corn, chilies, onions, garlic, tomatoes and cilantro into a feast.

Miss Campos starts by placing two brined chickens onto the rotisserie for 1 hours of churning over coals. A pressure cooker filled with pinto beans rocks and hisses as she demonstrates the fine art of making handmade tortillas.

“If you want your tortillas to last a few days, you should use cooking oil,” she says. “But if you want them to taste good, use lard.

“My grandmother made the best tortillas,” Miss Campos tells us while mixing dough with her fingers. “They were plate-sized and thick. One day, I was making tortillas for her and she said, ‘You know? These taste better than mine.’ To me, that’s better than getting a Julia Child or James Beard award.”

Giggling around the table, we attempt to mimic the perfection of her rolling technique, to embarrassingly sloppy ends. But how those amoeba-shaped tortillas taste right off the grill.

We help conjure calabacitas and salsa fresca before finally sitting down to a chemical-free feast on bumblebee-yellow plates.

Maybe it’s the succulence of the chicken, the zing of the tomatoes or the heaven of the tortillas. Maybe it’s the open air, the view of the crops or the shush of the river. Maybe it’s the gentle camaraderie of a community table.

Probably it’s all of the above.

We wolf down more food than any of us could imagine while laughing at Joaquin’s tales of ill-behaved goats and Analisa’s attempts to steal a guest’s hat. Lucky us, we avoid the fate of an earlier batch of students, who had to wait while Miss Campos chased down a black widow spider and then a rattlesnake.

“You know,” one student told her afterward, “Martha Stewart never had to do this in the middle of a class.”

Now in her third year of running the cooking school, Miss Campos is looking to her next market: not Martha Stewart’s audience, but children.

A set of pint-size cooking classes just began, partly so future chefs can forge a connection with the source of their food. Miss Campos also wants them to discover healthier ways to eat. Mainly, she says, “I want to see them eat raspberries to their fill.”

Around the table, we swoon with pleasure at having had our fill, but the Campos ladies aren’t through with us. They dish up homemade blackberry ice cream and then invite each of us to fill a bag with fresh produce.

“We just want to keep farming,” Miss Campos says. “If I won the lottery, I would keep farming. The cooking classes? That’s just a way to get you here for a day on the farm.”

Left unsaid is that they’re also a way to get guests to leave with a full belly, a happy palate and the quiet smiles of newfound friends.

• • •

Comida de Campos: A chemical-free fruit, vegetable and herb farm on Route 68 between Santa Fe and Taos, N.M., Comida de Campos offers a variety of cooking classes for children and adults. Costs range from $25 to $95. For a schedule, visit www.comidadecampos.com, or call 877/552-4452.

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