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(Brand) New Mexico

Butel's Friday-to-Sunday school (she also offers a weeklong program) combines the best features of a party and a boot camp. In other words, the margaritas flow, but after a short reception and briefing during which Butel extols the 7,010 varieties of chilies and their countless piquancies, students hit the ground running. Working in teams, they cook an elaborate dinner that includes a medley of salsas, guacamole, tostadas, nachos, fajitas with tricolor pepper sauté, blue-corn and jalapeño bread, and Pecos Valley Bowl of Red, a traditional chili stew.

Butel's staff does some, but far from all, of the prep work, and on the first night students don't sit down for the main course until 9:30 or 10 p.m. "But they've been eating all along," Butel says, "so they're not totally starved." Then it's back to the kitchen at 8:30 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday to learn another 15 or so dishes from scratch, including three varieties of tortilla, tamales, enchiladas, quesadillas, chiles rellenos, and chimichangas.

Butel's expertise is tempered with loads of Southwestern charm, so motivating her students to cook till they drop isn't an issue. Oh, there was the Goldman Sachs investment banker from Dallas who wanted only to learn how to master pozole (and did), and the group that showed up for a weeklong course with a case of champagne per person and a French chef to do most of their work. But those are the exceptions.

"Besides," Butel says, "there's something naturally convivial about Southwestern food. My family always said that Southwestern dishes are made to be cooked together. Like tamales—they're not fun to make all by yourself." There's a physiological factor, too: chilies trigger an endorphin high, and what good is that if you have no one to share it with?

While talking with Butel, I managed to ask her two pressing questions, one of which had nothing to do with food: Where does she get the fantastic turquoise jewelry she always wears?Answer: From Indian craftsmen she has known for years, from estate sales, and—the payoff I was waiting for—from a shop called the Palms Trading Co. (1504 Lomas Blvd. N.W.; 505/247-8504; www.palmstrading.com).

Last question: When the waitress in a New Mexican restaurant asks the priestess of Southwestern cooking, "Red or green?" what's her answer?"A good rule of thumb," Butel says, "is red chili with beef dishes or pork, and green chili with poultry and seafood. But I usually say I want both—I want Christmas."

Jane's Perfect Margaritas
To prepare glasses, moisten rims with lime juice, dip into salt or sugar, and chill in the freezer until frosty (a couple of hours). Makes four servings.
1/2 cup freshly squeezed lime juice (four or five limes)
1/2 cup orange liqueur (Grand Marnier, if you want to go deluxe)
1 1/2 cups silver tequila (she likes Sauza)
1 tsp. egg whites, slightly beaten
Combine all ingredients and blend at high speed. Pour into chilled glasses and serve. (The secret ingredient, Butel says, is the egg white; it gives a nice froth and takes the bite out of the limes.)

Jane Butel's Southwestern Cooking School offers a weekend program for $695, including lodging. The final session of 1999 takes place November 19-21. Next year, the program will be held once a month from January through November in Butel's classroom/kitchen at La Posada de Albuquerque in downtown Albuquerque. For more information, call 800/472-8229 or visit www.janebutel.com.

route 66 revisited
For millions of motorists who traveled cross-country on Route 66 in the fifties and sixties, Albuquerque was the ultimate enchilada, the largest city in the Southwest. You could spike your cholesterol in diners and coffee shops, take a hot shower and rest up in an exotic-looking tourist court, and buy pottery from real Pueblo Indians. Albuquerque was also a last-chance garage, a place where legions of service stations and automotive repair shops stood ready to fix your mysteriously rattling engine before you hit the vast, lonely deserts of Arizona and California.

The evolution of the modern interstate has changed all that. Today, Albuquerque can lay claim to the longest intact stretch (18 miles, including four outside of town) of Route 66. It also has one of the largest concentrations of "Mother Road" architecture, and Central Avenue, where Route 66 has run since a realignment in 1937, still makes for an impressive neon gulch at night. Time hasn't stood still for most of Central's parade of Pueblo Revival, Southwest Vernacular, and Streamlined Moderne buildings—one exception is the 1937 adobe El Vado Motel (2500 Central Ave. S.W.; 505/243-4594)—but at least they're still standing. Civic penury proved to be a kind of blessing. "New Mexico has always been one of the poorer states, and Albuquerque didn't go through a lot of redevelopment," explains Rich Williams, president of the New Mexico Route 66 Association.

At the Aztec Motel (3821 Central Ave. N.E.; 505/254-1742), a new architectural genre is unfolding: the motor court as canvas for found objects. Owner Mohamad Natha turned over the façade of his 1931 motel to one of his long-term part-time residents, Phyllis Evans, who has virtually encrusted the place with urban flotsam and jetsam.

"I came here to stay temporarily and found an empty green whiskey bottle and put it on my porch, and then I started some canister plants and what have you and it just grew and grew and now it's my main project in life," says the 70-year-old Evans, without taking a breath. "Right now we're working on tile murals."

More restoration-oriented face-lifts may be in the offing. Albuquerque is gearing up to serve as host to "Remember the Route," part of the National Diamond Jubilee of Route 66 celebrations in 2001, and entrepreneurs are realizing they could have the Next Big Thing on their hands. Not long ago, vintage-car buffs were just about the only friends Route 66 had, but now the road is hot. "The Germans, the Japanese, and the Dutch love Route 66," says Williams. "For us, it's nostalgia. For them, it's mythology."


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