ALABANZAS ALBARCOQUES ~Ode to the Apricot
Updated: Sep 22, 2018
Excerpts of a lecture to launch Santa Fe’s First Annual Apricot Festival
In preparing for today's lecture, my mind wandered back to my own childhood and to a woman who also had a hand in raising me, my mama, my grandmother who most inspired in me, imagination. Her wisdom always encouraged me to draw deeper still from the wells of memory, and to take those stories, center them, and raise them up. I learned that even the smallest gifts have resonance.
It was at her home in Questa where I spent my formative years, a home surrounded by an orchard several varieties plums, pears, apples and perhaps the most iconic up north, indigenous chokecherries. However, at the center of this magical grove, stood and stands still, the largest tree of them all; some in the community say it is the oldest in the village. To this day, that apricot tree remains the most precious thing that was passed down to me from my grandmother—a living, savory and elegant gift that reminds me of why it is so important to steward our cultural legacy, a thing of sensory beauty and one that holds the potential to connects us.
Chuang Tzu, a Chinese philosopher in the fourth century BCE, told a story that Confucius himself taught his students in a forum surrounded by the grove of apricot trees, revealing that for the Chinese, apricots are widely associated with knowledge. I loved learning about this, especially because I have dedicated my life to elevating our collective imagination by raising consciousness, building community, and inspiring creativity and to recognize that this single fruit that resonates globally and locally, both its meaning and essence, holds the power to awaken our senses. So before we awaken our taste buds today, I want to share some stories, and thoughts about this precocious, precious fruit.
When I was in Turkey several years ago, I was astonished by feeling that so much there, somehow felt familiar.
Part of this was only a sense — recognizing something perhaps deeper that I would never be able to name and even understand.
Part of this came from being a student of history, a scholar of genizaros- New Mexico’s version of the Turkish Janissaries, as well as knowing how intricately connected we are in our humanity, across time, place and across seemingly disparate cultures.
Part of it was just seeing things that for me were so iconic in New Mexico, cultural glimpses of things that reminded me of home— gestures, food, buildings. But, I also remember distinctively the number of apricot trees there. I recall wondering, were these the trees from which seeds were carried eventually to NM, like the word genizaro?
While Turkey is certainly the top producer of apricots globally now, it is not the land where apricots first grew. Although their origin is still disputed, where apricots are said to have originated was about 500 miles away from Turkey, in Armenia, the distance from Santa Fe to Las Vegas, Nevada; so fairly close.
The scientific name for the apricot, prunus armenian (Armenian plum) comes from the assumption. After all, apricot seeds have been found in the Armenia’s Garni Temple and Shengavit from the Bronze Age in the 5th millennium.
The reality is, however, is that human cultivation of apricots goes back 5000 years and they have been introduced like an evolution, slowly and gradually. Many argue that its origin can be traced 3000 miles away from Armenia, in China and others argue that the apricot was first cultivated in India in about 3000 BC.
But like people, ideas and objects, roads connected these civilizations and cultures, connections that are old knowledge and some that we continue to recover. The Silk Road did not only convey silk; but ideas, people and information; it conveyed this fruit, if not whole, then its seeds. The Chinese merchants, botanist Berthold Laufer suggests, that the Silk Road probably introduced the fruit to the Persians, where it was called the “yellow plum” (zardaloo). Widely dispersed, it was spread throughout Eurasia by nomadic, horseback-riding tribesmen.
Its introduction to Greece is attributed to none other than Alexander the Great; later, the Roman General Lucullus (106–57 B.C.) also would have imported some trees , including the apricot – from Armenia to Rome.
Moors also took the luxurious fruit from Central Asia to the Middle East. The caliphs, who ruled the vast Islamic empire, stretching from the Gulf to Sicily between A.D. 750 and 1258, imported apricots from Tus in northeastern Persia to their capital in Baghdad. It is said that the chefs of the court created dishes for the apricot, which were adopted in the many Islamic dominions.
Apricots flourished throughout the Islamic dominions. The Moors, who conquered Spain, planted apricots in Granada and from there, they spread throughout the nation. Syria was another bastion of the fruit. In the garden oasis outside Damascus, the 19th century English naturalist Canon Henry Baker Tristram wrote, “The great apricot-trees were laden and bent down under strings of ripe, golden fruit. The lanes were strewn with apricots. Asses, mules, and camels in long strings carried heaped panniers of these ‘golden apples.’”
Recognizing the importance of trade routes, I think of how a tree that stands tall in Questa or the ones that have grown for over a hundred years in Santa Fe could have found their way here.
From China, to the Middle East and from there to Spain in the 1100s, where they would eventually be conveyed to the Americas, throughout Mexico and up the Camino Real into Santa Fe and from there, as each family moved north in search of arable lands, those seeds went with them to Santa Cruz, Chimayo, to Trampas, Penasco; to Abiquiú, and up to Taos, into Arroyo Hondo, and finally into Questa and further north, each seed, each tree, carrying the genetic memory of what preceded it.
History in NM
Apricots were joined by a medley of fruits on this journey. In the Americas the Mediterranean trilogy of wheat, grapes and olives met the Native American trilogy of corn, squash and beans. Colonizers of the Americas encountered fruits and vegetables that were unfamiliar to them as well, the most notable being chile. In Mexico, the colonizers were introduced to the tomato and eventually the potato from South America. These food have served as the main ingredients for New Mexican foods ever since.
While wheat certainly changed the diet, giving us not only breads of all types, but sopaipillas, buneullos, emelados and what is so iconic at powwows today, fry bread.
Grapes were certainly part of colonial New Mexico, but never fully caught on and only recently have they seen a revival in New Mexico. Olives, even less so.
More impactful were the fruits carried in caravans moving up from Mexico: apples, peaches, plums, watermelons and more… Based on the movement of these fruits, I have pulled together a snapshot of the appearance of apricots in the written record, sparse as it may be.
Although Euro-Mestizo settlers had only been in New Mexico a couple of decades, when Fray Alonso Benavides visited New Mexico in 1625 and 1629 and upon his return to Mexico City, he wrote a long Memorial describing land and people, including a paragraph describing the “Fertility of the Soil” where he noted:
All this land is extremely fertile, yielding with very great abundance all that is planted on it—corn, wheat, beans, lentils, garbanzos, check-peas, lima beans, vetches, squash, watermelon, cantaloupes, cucumbers, all sorts of garden-stuff, cabbages, lettuce, carrots, artichokes, garlic, onions, prickly pears, cacti, very good plums, apricots, peaches, nuts, acorns, mulberries and many others…
It is clear that within decades these fruit trees had taken hold in this arid landscape, of little rain, but an abundance of sun, similar to the Middle East, highlands of Spain and northern Mexico. Apricots typically start to bear fruit at two years of age, but might not produce a substantial amount of fruit until they are three to five years of age. So if we assume that trees immediately began to be planted at the point of New Mexico’s Spanish settlement in 1598, it would not be rare that a quarter of a century later, when Benavides visits, that whole orchards would have been present.
While it is challenging to find something as obscure as an apricot the colonial period, it is clear that the trees were there. A reference in the Bernardo Lopez de Mendizbal and Teresa Aquilera y Roche 1664 Inquisition testimony reveals an orchard east of the Palace (Casas Reales).
A watershed moment in New Mexico history came with the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, an event that represented one of the first and greatest revolutions of the continent, where after decades of unspeakable violence upon land and indigenous communities, exacerbated by drought, Pueblo people responded by revolting.
As a part of the process, we have learned that people were advised to eradicate all vestiges of the Spanish presence, including fruit trees…
However, the reality was that among the many things that were brought by the Spanish, by 1680, these had become integral part of Pueblo life. It is difficult to say whether all orchards were destroyed, though some scholars have speculated that in the middle of a drought, destroying food would have been antithetical, even if symbolic and assuming that some may have been, others seeds may have been hidden away, but in time perhaps even replanted. Excavations at the Palace have revealed layers of peach and apricot pits, dating as far back as this early period.
Following the reoccupation of the land, the nearly two centuries of European-Mestizo settlement in New Mexico revealed that these orchards continued to expand. One of the most vivid descriptions of the “geographical and ethnological data” came in 1776, when Fray Atanacio Dominguez was ordered to inspect the two-dozen missions and report on their condition and his report covered the major villages and Pueblos and provides an fascinating snapshot of New Mexico at a pivotal moment in American history. He describes various New Mexico villages as follows:
“The Villa of Santa Fe [population of 1,167) consists of many small ranchos at various distances from one another,… for each owner built as he was able, wished to, or found convenient…the harvest consists of wheat, maize, legumes, and green vegetables and also fruits such as melons, watermelon, and apricots, of which there are small orchards.”
Of the still small population of Albuquerque (763), he notes, “There are also little orchards with vine stocks and small apricot, peach, apple and pear trees."
Much of the report covers the Pueblo communities and in several he notes explicitly the presence of non-indigenous fruit trees.
In his visit to Nambe, he writes that, “there are also small orchards with apricot trees, chabacanos and peaches which belong to the Indians.”
In Ohkay Owingeh, (San Juan) Dominguez notes: “There are little fruit trees of apricot and very delicious plums.”
In Santa Clara, he notes: “there are peach, apricot and plum trees…”
In Santo Domingo, he notes that “there are small trees of very tasty peaches and apricots…”
The archaeology confirms the written record as well; excavations at Awatovi at Hopi Pueblo reveal that missionaries had not only introduced wheat, chile, watermelons, plums, but also apricots.
Some of my favorite documents are, last wills and testaments, which are especially interesting, perhaps even more than the actual decrees and civil records, since they carry the stories of how people are connected, their spirituality and about where value is placed in the material culture.
At the end of their lives, as the people of New Mexico took stock of their lives, and decided what material matter to pass onto their heirs, these objects reveal a great deal about what held value in colonial New Mexico. Among the saints, rooms of house, animals, and land can be found fruit trees, sometimes left as whole orchards, some divided and other times, simply a tree is left to an heir. There are countless wills, but I think of Bernardino Sena, who had an orchard in the original Sena house on the Barrio de Analco east of San Miguel Chapel. That orchard is mentioned in Bernardino's will of 1765.
Another visitor to New Mexico, but this time during its Mexican Period of rule, Jose Agustin de Escudero, a lawyer from Chihuahua, visited New Mexico in 1827. Following his visit, he commented that “there are few kinds of fruit, but these few have an usually good flavor; there are good apricots, strawberries, wild mulberries, plums, grapes, peaches, capulines, and excellent muskmelons and watermelons.”
Just as is true of the Spanish and Mexican periods of New Mexico history, we have bits and pieces of travel writers commenting on New Mexico post U.S. occupation of the land, including trader, J. Webb who notes in the 1850s, that “Don Augustin Duran, Don Felix Garcia, Don Antonio Sena y Baca, and James Conklin and one or two others lived not far from where the Presbyterian church now stands and had quite grand houses for the time; and some of them two or three acres cultivated in corn, beans, and red peppers, and a few apricot trees, the only fruit then raised in the town.”
A decade later, among the notes of the Surveyor General John Anderson Clark in 1861, he notes that when he arrived in La Hoya, present day Velarde, and found apricot trees “6 to 18 inches in diameter looking in size and shape like old apple trees.”
By 1865, when Kentucky native James Giddings was providing testimony and commenting on the landscape near Fort Sumner, he notes that among the peaches, grapes, “that apricots do very finely here.” It is important to note that when Kit Carson rounded the Navajo from Canyon de Chelly in 1864, he had his men destroy most of the orchards, but a few fruit trees were tucked away in remote side-canyons and managed to elude the officials. To this day, when I was doing research in Dinetah, the Navajo homeland, I could not help but notice that farmers still raise peaches and apricots, reminding me of the power of resilience.
There are actually very few native Hispanos and Hispanas commenting on apricots specifically in the historic records that I could find, but one of the most well known was Fabiola Cabeza de Baca, an author, nutritionist who made tremendous advancements in food safety in the southwest and taught many 20th century village woman how to properly can, dry, and preserve food. In some of her early writings, she also describes orchards of family members, including that of apricots.
I have traced this fine fruit as best as I can through the record, but wisdom and story also sit in the words that describe these things. Indeed, the words that have been assigned to this fruit over time reveal a fascinating narrative journey, not just of culture, but of language, which tells of people, places and ideas. It is for this reason, that I have always loved etymology, the science and story of words.
The word apricot itself comes from the same root as the word “precocious” and essentially means the same thing since the early definition of precocious, praecocia literally means “early ripen” and was first used by Gaius Plinius, an early Roman author and naturalist who referred to this “early variety” of peach (persica) which “ripens early in the summer, the precocious one”
The early Greeks referred to it as berikokkia, which Arabic then turned to al-barqūq revealing the linguistic journey of the word that we know today in English. In Argentina, Chile, and Peru, however, the word for “apricot” is damasco, which could indicate that, to the Spanish settlers of Argentina, the fruit was associated with Damascus in Syria.
In NM, ‘apricot’ has two terms for the fruit: a border term and a traditional Spanish term, words that as I have had to use interchangeably, a code-switching necessary for many modern Latinos. In southern New Mexico and Mexico, the term chabacán or chabacano is more common.
In northern New Mexico, the term is albarcoque and central New Mexico it is more common to hear albercoque. The traditional Spanish term represents one of the early borrowings from Arabic, much like many words, acequia, adobe, algodon, almohada and arroz. Although it was well established and in use in 16th century Spain, it also remains in use today in Spain as well as albaricoque.
The origin of the border Spanish term is more difficult to trace since it is more widely used as the name of a language of the Phillipines and as an adjective meaning ‘awkward,’ ‘crude,’ or ‘tasteless.’ Linguists have surmised that this last meaning is the source for the fruit. The linguistic scholar Corominas suggests, “that it is after all, a sort of insipid peach.”
A moment ago, I mentioned that Mexico City native, Atanasio Dominguez’s visit in 1776. It is notable that in his description of the small orchard of Nambe, that he uses both terms—essentially saying that there are trees there, with both “albaricoques and cabacanos…,” which an early 20th historian simply notes that chabacanos are a variety of the apricot.
Apricots Connect Santa Fe
As Catherine mentioned in my introduction, I have spent the past several months, working with the residents of Santa Fe to design and implement a cultural plan, one that names, recognizes and elevates culture for the health and well being of the community. As challenging as it has been a joy, we opened up a conversation about the beauty and joy, as well as the pain and fracture, about disparities as much as the possibilities.
When John asked if I would sing my alabanzas to the albarcoque, the work of Culture Connects Santa Fe inevitably was still fresh on my mind, still is. One part of my approach to opening this community wide conversation was about how our senses provide a framework for connectivity. In order to test my assumptions about what culture is and to begin the dialogue, I simply asked what culture looks, smells, sounds, tastes, and feels like. What emerges was a broadened view of culture, one that is held throughout the community. As I begin to put my thoughts together for this talk, I wondered in what way the apricot provides a sensory approach as well, one that may give us a metaphor for this delicate fruit.
By appearance, the apricot trees is not large, growing 40 ft high (though my tree is probably 60 ft high), but because of its often dense spreading canopy, it implies breadth, perfect my mother always said, for shade. While the cherry blossoms of Washington DC are magnificent, they seem similar somehow, with five white to pinkish petals, which when they emerge, delicate, always give me pause to whisper a prayer, hoping that they will survive a chill. By appearance, the fruit ranges in color from yellow to orange, though it captivated poets like English writer John Ruskin, who described it “shining in a sweet brightness of golden velvet.”
The scent of apricots begins with its flowers, but when plucked from the limbs of a tree at the just the right time, where the smell of an apricot is nothing less than inviting an instant gratification.
To the touch, its surface is smooth and velvety.
Depending on the tree, the taste can range from sweet to tart, but savoring it should be moderated.
As I mentioned that of the many lessons taught by my grandmothers, one was that even the smallest gifts hold meaning and the promise to bring us together and I think this may be true of the apricot.
As I think of the apricot as metaphor, interestingly enough, there is another Arabic word for the fruit, mishmish. This term refers to the notion that if someone is making plans or a promise that you know will not be completed, or if they are speaking of lofty dreams, Egyptian and Palestinian Arabic speakers might roll their eyes and say bukra fil mishmish, which translates to “tomorrow, when apricots are in season,” the equivalent perhaps to our notion of ‘when pigs fly.’ This refers to the fact that some apricots are only really delicious on the day that they’re picked and go all mealy the day after.
As I think about the narrative and journeyed history, meaning and essence of the apricot, if we can think of it as a metaphor, it is really about seizing the day, the moment, what is most precious right now, savoring it. This is perhaps the gift of wisdom most carried by the apricot, to not let what is before us, pass us by.
Copyright 2018 Estevan Rael-Gálvez