Current and historic food in Cortez |

Current and historic food in Cortez

A kiva in Lion Canyon.
Marilyn Gleason |

Sunset magazine singled out Cortez, Colorado, tucked in the southwest corner of the state, for its “buzzy food scene.” The October issue praises the town’s Saturday farmers market, up-and-coming vineyards and wineries, and notable restaurants serving up dazzling dishes made from ingredients sourced locally.

“It’s all happening at 6,000 feet, amid ancient ruins about five hours from the Grand Canyon. This ain’t your grandpappy’s Four Corners.”

I read the write-up just before Stevie set out a feast of roasted beets, green beans, beef with gravy and peach cobbler, a lot of it from Jim’s garden outside. Stevie opened her cupboard stacked with fruits and vegetables she’d canned and gave me a jar of her tomatillo salsa.

Jim ski patrolled with Ed once upon a time, and a ski run at Snowmass bears his name. They hadn’t seen each other in ages.

It’s the archeology that drew us to Cortez for a September getaway. Driving through McElmo Canyon on the flank of the sacred Sleeping Ute Mountain toward our lodging, we passed vegetable gardens, orchards and vineyards draped with protective nets. Winemakers are reviving endemic styles nearly lost from an earlier era of viticulture when abundant Colorado grapes supplied the pioneers with drink.

More than one friend had painted Cortez as a blighted place beset by shacks and trailers and meth. I was pleasantly surprised to find a thriving business district lining its long Main Street strip. A few charming downtown blocks of well-kept historic buildings displayed inviting storefronts, cafes and restaurants.

Off the central strip, most of “greater Cortez” appeared to be sprinkled over a large area of rolling sagebrush and juniper guarded by sandstone monuments, Sleeping Ute Mountain and an arm of the San Juans.

But this modern population of Americans and Ute Indians is not the first settlement to sprawl over this landscape. Just beneath the surface, obscured by the wearing effects of time, crouch the remnants and relics of an earlier, long-lived civilization.

Ruins of an agricultural people lay scattered thickly over a vast plateau concentrated in the Four Corners region.

Mesa Verde is a wedge carved from the middle of reservation land deeded to the Ute Mountain band of Utes. Tucked under the caprock in the cliffs and canyons of the surrounding tribal lands are late-era Anasazi pueblos and granaries, one after another, spectacular in their preservation, just like those found in Mesa Verde. Except only one or two dozen people tour the antiquities in the 150,000-acre Ute Mountain Tribal Park on any given day, always accompanied by a Ute Indian guide. No crowds, no paved walkways, no lines of traffic.

Curled lengths of yucca split open to yield threads of fiber lay in a corner of a cliff house in Lion Canyon. Our group found little corn cobs here and there, not baby corn from Chinese take-out, but leftovers from eight centuries ago, embalmed by the clean dry desert air. Scooped depressions in rocks next to dwellings fitted with smooth oval stones served to grind corn. Sand left in the food slowly ground down the cliff dwellers’ teeth, shortening their lifespans to about 30 years. That’s how long their teeth lasted, and then they were finished.

Much is mysterious and unknown about the ancestral puebloans: their language, their religion and rites, the art they carved into rocks, and most of all, what happened to them, why they left. They abandoned their homes so suddenly that furnishings and implements sat in place atop relatives buried in the floors with their treasures, silent and undisturbed for centuries, until looters, collectors and archaeologists picked them clean in the last century or so.

Worn out from a day of encountering the ancients, we sought out The Farm Bistro, touted in the Sunset article for its great menu sourced within 75 miles. We learned it was usually closed on the weekends, except on this Saturday when they hosted a benefit for a regional wholesale farming cooperative. For $20 we could vote on the best homegrown tomatoes and slurp a suite of soups.

We sampled and compared about a dozen red, yellow, orange and striped tomatoes, juicy and rich and salty, and threw tickets in the glasses next to our favorites. Chafing dishes offered up savory soup choices: potato and sausage, spicy black bean, tomato and basil, poblano and sweet corn.

Big photos of chickens and farm scenes decorate the old brick walls. The restaurant owner heard we were from out of town and stopped by to introduce herself. We shared a table with Eric, whose wife Kim runs Southwest Farm Fresh cooperative, beneficiary of the night’s festivities. It turns out they live on the orchard next door to our bed and breakfast.

The next morning we stopped by to check out the organic apples Eric sells in Albuquerque. The Lindgrens live in a yurt, a pleasingly jumbled yet airy space where they raised two grown daughters. Boxes of freshly picked tomatoes and peaches and pears lined up near the door for distribution. Outside, turkeys and chickens strutted in front of Kim’s garden, a riot of sunflowers and kale and towering burgundy amaranth volunteers.

It was Sunday morning, but they were burdened with the concerns of the farm. Before we parted, Eric waved toward a rocky promontory behind the garden where an ancient mortared stack of stones rises up in clean lines from the rosy sandstone. It’s their own antiquity, one more sigh in the chorus that whispers through the canyons, remembering the ancient ones.

Marilyn Gleason writes Eating Local periodically for the PI’s Good Taste pages.

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