Cooking with a Pinch of History: Pozole

by Brittany Avila

Last month I had the honor of partaking at the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation’s  annual “Presidio Pastimes by Candlelight” event, where the birthplace of Santa Barbara is brought to life solely by candlelight for an evening full of historical demonstrations of Presidio life. I had the honor of running La Cocina, naturally, where SBTHP Receptionist Brittany Sundberg and I prepared pozole by candlelight. This was not an easy feat, but the hearty and warm recipe from California Rancho Cooking was a welcome treat at the end of the cold night. The next time you’ve got a little chill, this is the perfect dish to warm your body and soul.


2 cups canned hominy

2 lbs of pork (butt end of the loin, chopped)

6 cups chicken broth

2 cups onion (chopped)

1 tbsp. oregano

1 tsp. cumin seeds

1 tsp. salt

2 tsp. garlic (minced)

2 cups red chile sauce

2 bay leaves

1 cup water

4 poblano chiles (charred, peeled and chopped)

1 tsp black pepper

Inside la cocina at El Presidio SHP. Photo by Brittany Avila.

To begin, I thought I would give you a glimpse of our lighting conditions in La Cocina when Brittany S. and I prepared the pozole. As you can see, this picture showcases our “stovetop” which is a counter of ladrillo with a small cut-out for a fire, and copper pot on top. Settlers of El Presidio de Santa Barbara would have been in the same conditions if not worse to prepare their night time meals–based on first hand experience, it’s a challenge!

Preparing the pork. Photo by Brittany Avila.

Begin by chopping  the pork loin into bite-size chunks. As you can see by my chopped pork pieces, I like my stew “chunky.” Bring the chicken broth to a boil in a large pot and add pork.

Different types of meat can be used in pozole, leaving hominy as the signature ingredient in the recipe. Hominy comes from maize, which was originally grown by the Aztecs in chinampas, or raised gardens.

Hominy. Photo by Brittany Avila.

This is our pile of hominy for the stew straight from the can. Settlers in Early California wouldn’t have simply had to open a can to get this ingredient, but instead would’ve have to soak maize kernels in mineral lime to get them to the nixtamal or hominy texture.

Allow pork to simmer for one and one half hours. Meanwhile, begin preparing the poblano peppers and other chopped ingredients.

Roasting poblanos on the comal. Photo by Brittany Avila.

Chili peppers are native to the New World, and were commonly used as spices by Native Americans.

Cook the poblano peppers on skillet until charred. Then, peel the charred skin off of the pepper.  We used a comal, or iron skillet over a fire on our ladrillo stove top to char the peppers. This took about 5-10 minutes on each side.

Photo by Brittany Avila.

Of course, Santa Ines Mission Mills olive oil (my favorite!) was used to grease the comal.

Chili peppers have five different forms, with the three most popular being bell pepper, jalapeno, and cayenne.

Brittany Sundberg prepares the vegetables. Photo by Brittany Avila.

Chop the pepper, onion, and garlic into fine pieces. My sous chef ever so carefully chopped ingredients as close to a candle as she can get in our dim lighting! Add hominy and all other ingredients, and stir continuously for 30 minutes or until the broth has thickened.

When Europeans first settled in Mexico, maize was considered to be any grain grown in a particular region, including other grains such as wheat and barley. Later, it was exclusively referred to as the corn we now consider maize today, which is soaked in an alkali treatment of lime mineral to create what we today call hominy, or formerly nixtamal. It was this treatment of maize that prevented the spread of pellagra, a disease of the skin caused by maize consumption, because it brought more nutrients within maize to the surface.

The finished pozole. Photo by Brittany Avila.

Here is the final product, which received rave reviews from our cold and hungry volunteers at the end of the evening. It was perfectly described as hearty with a kick! And just like that, you have a hearty, traditional stew! Serve hot, and prepare for some spice!

The Brittanys, seen here in traditional Early California dress, had a blast setting off smoke alarms and creating delicious aromas in La Cocina.

Brittany Sundberg and Brittany Avila. Photo by Mike Imwalle.

Works Cited

Foster, Nelson, and Linda S. Cordell. Chilies to Chocolate: Food the Americas Gave the World. Tucson: U of Arizona, 1992. 3-4+.

Johnson, Sylvia A. Tomatoes, Potatoes, Corn, and Beans: How the Foods of the Americas Changed Eating around the World. New York: Atheneum for Young Readers, 1997.

McMahan, Jacqueline Higuera. California Rancho Cooking: Mexican and Califorian Recipes. Seattle: Sasquatch, 2001.

Brittany Avila is Volunteer Maestra de Cocina for the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation


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