Chefs

Meet Mrs. J, a 90-Year-Old Guardian of Traditional New Mexican Cuisine

At Rancho de Chimayó, Florence Jaramillo has proudly and tirelessly championed the region's culinary heritage for 57 years
TIMEJanuary 11, 2022

Florence Jaramillo pays $64 per pound for real honey.

She’s been known to drive through the night to pick up a truckload of red chile, her restaurant’s most crucial ingredient. She and her staff have pulled all-night sessions in the past to make 300 dozen tamales—by hand.

And, at age 90, the grande dame of Southwestern cuisine still gets up at 5 a.m. to go to work at her famous northern New Mexico restaurant, Rancho de Chimayó. Waitstaff and cooks must be found, accounting records must be maintained, supplies must be ordered well ahead of time, and work schedules must be set. A newly troublesome pinched nerve in her hip hasn’t slowed her down, although she doesn’t spend much time in the kitchen now and uses a walker to help her get around.

“I can’t sit still,” Jaramillo said.

Autumn’s amber light poured through casement windows in thick adobe walls in a quiet room in the 19th-century territorial ranch house that holds the restaurant.

“No one’s going to knock me down,” she said, labeling the COVID-19 pandemic and pinched nerves as just the most recent in a lifetime of challenges.

Epoch Times Photo
Each year, Mrs. J hangs ristras, strings of drying red chiles, all over the restaurant exterior. Once they’re dry, she’ll replace them with fresh ristras and use the previous ones in her famed red chile. (Chris Corrie Photography)

A Living Treasure

Born in the Great Depression and growing up during World War II, Jaramillo—“Mrs. J.” to everyone in New Mexico and the culinary business—has operated Rancho de Chimayó for 57 years now. She treasures her role as a shepherd of quality and guardian of tradition.

Her menu focuses on traditional New Mexico dishes—red and green chile, blue corn flat enchiladas, tortilla soup, carne adovada, chiles rellenos—including a large section titled “Comidas Nativas.” One creation, stuffed sopaipillas, was originated by Mrs. J. in 1967. Another menu mainstay, a New York steak topped with green chile, hasn’t changed in a half-century. Cooks still make the 350-seat restaurant’s signature red chile stew one five-gallon batch at a time.

Epoch Times Photo
The menu focuses on traditional New Mexico dishes, such as red and green chile, carne adovada, and blue corn enchiladas. (Chris Corrie Photography)

“The other day, I told someone I had once bought an item on layaway. ‘What’s that?’ they asked,” Jaramillo said. “The concept of paying for something before you take it home is outdated, I guess.”

Opened in 1965, Rancho de Chimayó received a James Beard Classics award in 2016, a recognition that barely topped a 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award for Mrs. J. from the National Restaurant Association. She’s been named a Living Treasure of Santa Fe and Woman of the Year in the New Mexico restaurant industry; the state legislature has declared a Florence Jaramillo Day in her honor.

Epoch Times Photo
Jaramillo was named a Living Treasure of Santa Fe in May 2019. (Zina Jundi)

Deep Roots In the Valley

In a world where new and shiny things race across the globe like tsunamis, Rancho de Chimayó’s fame and Mrs. J.’s stewardship provide gratifying evidence that the old ways still hold great meaning and value. Execution and quality distinguish the food there, not innovation, that glistening bugaboo that has changed human life so much. The cultural folkways still alive in Chimayó hark back thousands of years and have sifted through centuries of challenge and change.

“If times were hard, around here people always had chile, corn, and beans. They grew what they needed. They hunted and fished,” Jaramillo said.

This is a fact that suggests her menu’s rainbow trout is perhaps not as non-traditional as it may seem, and the rellenos, enchiladas, and more are anchored in the tides of time, not the Mexican food craze that seized the United States in the 1970s and ’80s.

The vale of Chimayó lies in a foothills basin watered by streams from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains above, where the first snows of autumn fleck the peaks with ivory. Massive old-growth cottonwoods anchor the narrow bottomlands along the creek just downhill from the restaurant. Across the way, the 1816 Santuario de Chimayó has been drawing many thousands of devotional pilgrims each year for almost two centuries. Discarded crutches hang on the walls of the chapel’s pocito (healing room), where handwritten testimonials and prayers testify to humanity’s incandescent embrace of hope in the face of despair. Do miracles occur there? Spend a couple of hours on a quiet autumn day and one can only conclude that serene, beautiful Chimayó itself is a miracle.

Chimayo,Santuario,Chapel,In,New,Mexico,Is,America's,Most,Popular
The Santuario de Chimayó has been drawing many thousands of devotional pilgrims each year to the rural, remote village of Chimayó—and Mrs. J.’s restaurant. (James Mattil/Shutterstock)

The steady traffic to the Santuario was perhaps the only sensible reason Mrs. J. and her ex-husband Arturo left a stable life in Connecticut to return to his ancestral family home in 1963 and create a destination restaurant. Chimayó was—and is—a remote place. To this day, cell coverage in the area is sketchy at best, and diners can’t get on TikTok while waiting for a table. The road is a seven-mile winding country lane from Española, the nearest big town. Her vast parking lot is unpaved gravel, a fact that amazed her colleagues during her 11-year tenure on the board of the National Restaurant Association.

Facing the Future

Of course, no one can defy change completely. Rancho de Chimayó was forced to close for seven months in 2020, then again for two months in early 2021. When Jaramillo reopened, she abandoned her lunch menu in favor of an all-day version. Now, like millions of small business owners, she’s bedeviled by staff shortages, and for the first time ever, she’s contemplating signing up with a Santa Fe temp worker agency.

Even more daunting changes lurk. Her daughter, who lives in Texas, can’t take over the restaurant because of health problems. A couple of prospective buyers have approached her, but she’s uncertain how they would honor the restaurant’s heritage and dislikes the r-word that denotes our culture’s usual path for elders.

“I keep prices down so locals can still afford to come here. And I like seeing people from the valley and our regular customers. How are your kids? Your husband?” Jaramillo said. “And I’m committed to the quality of our food. Never skimp on that. Ever.”

She gazed around the small room, in which the tables and chairs were handmade using floorboards from the original territorial house.

“There is so much history here,” she said. “So much.”

Epoch Times Photo
The restaurant is set in Arturo Jaramillo’s ancestral family home, a 19th-century territorial ranch house with adobe walls. The tables and chairs were handmade using the original floorboards. (Chris Corrie Photography)

Red or Green? New Mexico’s Enchanting Dilemma

“Red or green?”

“Well, which is hotter?”

“Usually the red, but it varies.”

The preceding conversation takes place thousands of times every day in New Mexico restaurants such as Rancho de Chimayó. It’s as integral to life in the Land of Enchantment as the regular or decaf question heard in coffee shops around the world. The red or green query determines which sauce you’ll get on your enchiladas, chimichangas, tacos, steak, and so forth. The two standard sauces are made with fresh or roasted green chiles or with fully ripe, dried red chiles.

The outcome can be as distinct as the result of the coffee question: Chile is a low-level mood-altering substance, just as powerful as caffeine. In the case of chiles, the alkaloid involved is capsaicin, and the level of that in any given chile determines how hot it is.

Usually green is milder. The chile isn’t ripe when picked, after all.

But that’s not always true. Jalapeños are hot when green and so are their higher-octane cousins, serranos. And red-ripe jalapeños are smoked to make chipotle, a hot powder—yes, that’s what the restaurant chain is named for. And chile heat varies by season, weather, locale, growing technique—even from plant to plant. It’s a wonderful illustration of nature’s infinite variety.

Red chile stew (sauce) is made from dried red chiles ubiquitous in New Mexico. Red chile is generally hotter than green. Green is generally thicker and lusher than red, which is sharper, slightly acrid, and smoky; both usually include onion, garlic, perhaps a thickener such as cornstarch.

The most famous red chile pepper is a distinct variety known as Chimayó red, grown for generations in the valley surrounding its namesake village. It’s a very rare type, grown in local backyards non-commercially: A few shops in Chimayó sell some in the fall. The local supply can’t begin to meet Mrs. J.’s needs at Rancho de Chimayó, so she brings truckloads of both red and green chiles up from the Hatch Valley in southern New Mexico.

So, red or green? The New Mexico legislature has declared this to be the “Official State Question.”

“I really can’t pick just one,” said Mike Hultquist, of Chili Pepper Madness. “Each is perfect for something. Life is too short to be bland.”

RECIPE: Rancho de Chimayó’s Carne Adovada (New Mexico Braised Red Chile Pork)

Eric Lucas
Eric Lucas is a retired associate editor at Alaska Beyond Magazine and lives on a small farm on a remote island north of Seattle, where he grows organic hay, beans, apples, and squash.