For several years after finishing high school, I worked at a coal mine. Yes, an actual functioning surface and underground coal mine. My mom even landed a job there in compliance a few years later.
Sidenote: she kept my old hardhat and still uses it today. Awww. How sweet.
Coal mines and their associated power plants generally tend to be built far away from most major cities and towns. In fact, the physical mailing address of the coal mine where I worked is literally in this format (not actual address):
Matthew Yazzie’s Coal Mine
22 miles West of Farmington, New Mexico
County Road 2100
Waterflow, New Mexico 87421
I was fortunate enough to have been given an academic scholarship by this local mine to fund my Computer Science education. As a result, I was eligible for a paid full-time summer internship. Score!
My coursework was geared towards writing actual software. However, since I was fairly junior and the programming jobs were reserved for the overseas corporate programmers, I was given the onsite role as an IT department helpdesk intern. My summer job was to solve most helpdesk problems, whether they be over the phone, in offices, or on the actual mine site.
With my steel-toe boots on my feet, official government Mine Safety and Health Administration training in my head, and my awesome hardhat protecting that head, I was ready to take on anything. Anything, that is, except hunger pains around noon.
The Lunch Rules
Being an hourly intern meant I had to officially be a member of a union of some sort. I probably should have learned more about that because it also meant, per union rules, that I had only 30 minutes total for lunch on this remote coal mine site.
The problem becomes more apparent when you do some coal mine math.
14 miles to nearest restaurant + 30-min lunch time limit = 3 lunch options.
- Bring your lunch with you. Yawn.
- Haul ass and drive twelve minutes one-way to the nearest town, order a fast-food meal, and eat while driving back. Dangerous.
- Do Option 1 all week, sulk, then wait until Friday when the best red chile stew would be served just a few miles down the road. Heaven!
The Awesome Mom
I have no idea how my mom knew of this particular red chile’s existence or how she came across it. I had worked at the mine for two summers and never knew about it. One Friday afternoon, I received an email asking me to come to her office for lunch. Sitting on her desk was a large styrofoam bowl, clearly filled with something hot as indicated by the steam escaping the flimsy semi-translucent plastic lid. On top of this were several slices of homemade bread wrapped in small clear plastic bags.
As all moms do, she immediately told me to eat. I opened the lid and the most wonderful spicy smell radiated from the rising steam. I had a tiny bite of this still-very-hot stew and it was absolutely amazing. New Mexicans do not mess around when it comes to chile. Yes, that is chile with an ‘e.’ We don’t deal with any of that chili with an ‘i’ nonsense like they do one state over to the east. I digress.
“It’s pretty good right?”
I responded with the typical, “Urrrrggggmmmm!” Loosely translated it’s some combination of wide-eyes, “Yum,” “OMG,” and “Mmmm” all rolled into one.
She then proceeded to tell me about the lunch.
This weekly culinary treat actually began the Tuesday before when a family from Zia Pueblo, New Mexico would begin a twenty-four hour cooking process for the red chile posole stew. The mom would make about eight to ten large pots of this stew and then freeze it in large blocks for two days to allow for easy transport on Friday.
To go along with this amazing meal was freshly baked pueblo bread made in an actual horno oven. The oldest daughter in the family would stay up all night on Thursday evening making the dough, baking the bread, slicing up the round rolls that would come out, portioning the pieces, and finally wrapping them. It seems almost an insult to think of the bread as something that was just served “on the side.”
Then, at 3 AM every Friday morning, the family would pack the bread and all the frozen chile bricks in dry ice-filled ice chests to begin the 165-mile one-way drive to the coal mine entrance to set up.
The family sold red chile off the back of their pickup truck in a parking lot near the entrance to the mine site. They arrived fairly early in order to sell to employees leaving the “graveyard / third shift” and those beginning the “first shift” at 7 AM. The frozen chile was reheated on campfire propane stoves and portioned out onsite as employees would order. It was literally my first trendy food truck.
If the family wasn’t able to make it for some reason, they didn’t have a way to let all the soon to be disappointed employees know. I’m unsure if the family had a cell phone and, even if they did, there weren’t many folks they could call to pass along the message to that many people. Interestingly enough, they didn’t even need a cell phone or messaging system. Word would just spread slowly amongst the mine employees if their pickup truck wasn’t around at 7 AM.
As time went on, my mom got to know the family more and more. The daughter in the family also made jewelry and on occasion she would bring pieces for my mom to purchase, even making custom pieces for my mom. By the end of the summer, I had met the family several times. My mom made sure they knew everything about me, my college plans, and all the academic nods I had received. The matriarch of their family treated my mom just like family and by extension, I was treated the same. This type of familiarity between Native American families never surprised me and I grew up never second guessing it. To feel this sense of community with friends who were strangers only a few weeks before and lived 165 miles away was something I always loved. Just like the outdoor scenery and rolling thunderstorms in New Mexico, I love and miss it more and more the longer I’m away.
After that summer, I moved to California to begin my transfer college career. I was offered various summer internships for the remainder of my education that allowed me to diversify my work experience, so I never returned back to the coal mine. Eventually, I accepted a job offer in a tech company’s legal department to start my post-college career.
Five years after meeting the Zia Pueblo family, I found myself home over a May weekend to surprise my mom for Mother’s Day. I arrived the Friday before so I could surprise her at work. I was successful. She had no idea I was going to visit and was very happy, albeit a little confused. She had a few work items to wrap up for the week and needed a few hours to focus on that. I expected this, so I told her I had planned to run a few errands.
When I returned home, I saw on the kitchen table two cups of the Zia Pueblo red chile stew and an entire loaf of freshly baked bread. My mom had stopped by the Zia family’s truck on the way home to pick up some earrings she had ordered and she shared the news I came home to surprise her. They were very excited to hear that I was home and gave her two cups of red chile to bring back just to “make sure I was eating,” since I believe my mom had been going around telling everyone I was getting too skinny. They also said they were very proud of me.
I gobbled up one and a half bowls of the red chile and half a loaf of the bread in minutes. The skinny alarm was now temporary silenced. My mom and I drove back to the mine entrance so I could say hello and thank you, but they had already left for their long drive home by the time we arrived.
On the way home, I kept tending to my sniffly, runny nose caused by the chile spiciness (at least that’s what I kept telling my mom was causing it). I stared out the window into the vast high desert and had this overwhelming warm feeling of gratitude come over me.
Every mom, I imagine, is excited to see her son home safe and sound. That particular day, I was fortunate enough to have two.