"Bring me something from Santa Fe."
Whether you live here or you're visiting, just as sure as Hatch chiles grow, somebody is going to say those words to you. Usually, you'll hear it from your house or pet sitter when you ask them what they'd like as a thank you from your trip. You'll hear it from your hostess if you're going out of town. We're not talking about the goodies you'll blow your credit limit on buying for yourself. We're talking about a gift: Something Southwestern; something portable, that won't add a ton of weight to your already crammed suitcase; and something that looks like you spent way more money on it than you actually did.
Bringing something from Santa Fe is easier, and more fun, than it sounds at first. After all, people like to eat, and eat well, and they love a change of pace. Local grocery stores like Kaune's on the Old Santa Fe Trail, and the gift shop inside the La Fonda Hotel, a Santa Fe landmark, carry a selection of salsas, jams and jellies, along with gift goodies like piñon chocolate and piñon-roasted coffee. The salsas and jellies range from everything that can incinerate your brain to sweet and savory. A word of caution: Check the label, because not everything is made in New Mexico.
For the choicest in locally made comestibles, though, head over any Saturday morning to the Santa Fe Farmers Market. Named one of the top ten farmers markets in the country, they're currently just a couple of blocks from the Plaza in the big parking lot at the PERA Building, 1120 Paseo de Peralta, until their permanent home in the Railyard is built. [Please check their website for location and directions to the smaller Tuesday market.] You can enjoy fresh brewed coffee and munch a fat breakfast burrito while you browse the tasty and flavorful stuff (as well as handicrafts) to take home. For $20, you can pick up a sturdy cotton tote bag with the market's colorful logo that's handy to take with you for all your other shopping.
Speaking of food leads to thoughts about cooking, too, and again there's some great gift ideas. The place to go is the shop at the Santa Fe School of Cooking on West San Francisco Street. Dried white, blue or red posole, blue cornmeal, sopapilla mix, tequila-habanero grill sauce-there's enough to tempt every palate and tastebud, plus a wide selection of regional cookbooks. To go with those goodies, head nearby to Doodlets, on Water Street. Doodlets carries locally made, hand-silk-screened cotton potholders depicting classic New Mexico scenes and people with warmth and humor. There's San Pasqual, the patron saint of cooks, holding a mixing bowl and spoon; there's a red pickup truck bouncing down a desert road; and there's a turquoise potholder of a lady calavera (skeleton) in pink bunny slippers, trying to "revive' with her first morning cup of coffee.
One Santa Fe gift is always in big demand. Almost everyone who lives here, at one time or another, has had a request from their hosts to please bring a chile ristra. A "ristra' is the long strand of dried red chiles tied together which hang from the eves of houses and portales (porches) all over New Mexico. Ristras can be found all around town, though they're most plentiful in the fall when the chile harvests come in. At Christmas, chile wreathes make a bright splash of red on front doors and windows. If you think the person for whom you're buying a ristra wants to use the chiles for cooking, be sure to ask for one that is untreated. Treated ristras are intended for display and have been sprayed to preserve them longer.
Loads of shops in Santa Fe offer beautiful Southwest-themed china, pottery and tableware. The issue, though, is whether any of it comes from a local company. Flip over that cute chile-pepper-shaped pottery dish, and it may well be made in China or Mexico. It's important that your gift from New Mexico is authentic--otherwise, what's the point? The real deal is the handcrafted porcelain, crystal, metal and colored art glass from Nambé. Named for the Northern New Mexico village near which the company was founded in 1951, the Nambé shop on West San Francisco carries a wide range of their prize-winning designs. Of course the big ticket items for which they're famous are more suitable for wedding gifts, but there are plenty of gifts available of the "thank you" variety, like salt-and-pepper shakers, a snack dish or a wine coaster.
Naturally, the first gift from Santa Fe that most often comes to mind is something Native American. That's a thorny subject, because too much of the so-called Native American arts and crafts around Santa Fe are made somewhere else, like the Philippines. On jewelry, especially, there may be nothing to show where it comes from. Some earrings may be fastened to a small card that says "Genuine Navajo." Technically, that's correct: The earrings are a genuine Navajo design. But somebody in Taiwan may have made them. The smartest move for finding authentic Native American-made art, jewelry, or goods is to go to the stores that will guarantee it. The museum shops, of course, are always an excellent and reliable resource, like the Case Trading Post at the Wheelwright Museum.
But one of your best choices will offer you an experience that can become a favorite Santa Fe memory. Go shop with the Native American artisans who display and sell their wares year-round under the portal at the Palace of the Governors on the Plaza. Aside from jewelry, there's beadwork, pottery and things for kids. Shopping "under the portal' is a wonderful opportunity to get to meet and talk to the person who actually made your gift, and to discover a little bit about their heritage. It's also a good idea to take cash and avoid bargaining, because prices are extremely fair and reasonable.
Another place worth seeking out for Native American-made gifts is Sun Country Traders, on Water Street near the Plaza. With its cheerful yellow awning and creaking wood floors, Sun Country Traders is like a friendly, old-fashioned country store where they can tell you all about each and every person whose work they carry. They feature folk art nobody else has, like wonderful Zuni beaded ornaments and decorative objects, as well as a huge selection of jewelry, fetishes, katsinas (or kachinas), drums, and hand-painted rawhide lamp shades. There are delightful baby items, like sterling rattles and cups, as well as money clips, beaded or turquoise-and-sterling hair barrettes, and silver keyrings, just to mention a few of their gift items.
Apart from the satisfaction of finding the perfect gift, shopping in any of these places offers everything that is uniquely Santa Fe. Above all, by buying local you've helped carry on the culture, art and traditions of New Mexico, not to mention supporting our farmers and communities.
For that, we thank you.