Holy Posole: A Soup Crusade

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Holy Posole: A Soup Crusade

For those from the Southwest and Texas, posole needs no introduction. It's a long-simmered, heart-warming, traditional pre-Columbian soup from Mexico that's traditionally made with pig's head, nixtamalized cacahuazintle corn, chile peppers, and meat — usually pork. Filling, flavorful, hearty — posole would seem to be a soup that should be more renowned. But the cooking time associated with traditional posole recipes often deters home cooks; between preparing hominy and boiling the pig's head, many are inclined to put off making the soup. And that's a shame, because it is tasty, something one posole advocate, Sharon Ely, has tried to spread the word about with her own bottled version of the soup, aptly named Holy Posole.

The whole idea of a bottled, packaged posole might at first seem antithetical to the culture and tradition associated with the soup. But Ely attests that her preparation might have an edge on even the most carefully passed down of family heirloom recipes. It was after all, a 100-year-old recipe that inspired Ely's take on the soup. In this interview, Ely talks about her introduction to the soup, its special ingredients, curative properties, and the inspiration for spreading the word about it.

How would you describe posole?
Posole is a warm bowl of liquid gold to heal the heart. To be historically and scientifically clear, posole is an ancient soup from Columbia made of corn/hominy, spices, tomatoes, and green and red chiles with added pork, chicken or beef. But it can even be eaten without any meat as a vegetarian dish. Over the years it has evolved into a staple spicy corn/hominy soup that most Mexican restaurants serve in New Mexico.

Is there a special time to serve posole?
It is a ceremony soup, so it's served at weddings and at Christmas. And in the Southwest, it's even served on New Year's Eve for good luck, similarly to how black-eyed peas are served in the South. Like others who make posole, I have my own special recipe, and it really seems to work for people. The soup has a healing effect that can cure people of whatever may be ailing them, whether that's a broken heart, a cold, or a hangover. Some people have said it has even helped them get over the flu.

You were first inspired in Santa Fe by a steaming pot of posole that was supposedly a 100-year-old recipe. What's the story behind this?
My husband Joe Ely and I had driven 14 hours from Austin to Santa Fe for our friend Michael Ventura's wedding. When we arrived, tired and hungry, at my friend Deborah Milosevich's house late that evening, she fed us some of the special soup she was making for the wedding. She had gotten the recipe from a neighbor who was 100 years old and had cooked posole in Santa Fe all of her life. When we tasted the soup, I was awakened with a new energy and felt so at home. I knew I had to have the recipe so that I could serve it to all of my friends. She gave me the recipe and I have since adapted it.

How have you changed the recipe?
The recipe I was given was scrawled on a napkin. I took it home and made it in a large pot for my family and friends. That was 30 year ago, and it was the beginning of a romance with this soup that has become part of my life ever since. I've included more natural ingredients soup, and reduced MSG and sodium by using natural chicken broth. I added Chimayo chiles, a sweet pungent tasting chile from a region near Santa Fe, and incorporated naturally grown green chiles and tomatoes. I subtracted some ingredients and added other things to essentially make it my own recipe, but it is an ancient soup, an ancient recipe from South America and beyond, and I am so grateful to my friend Deb for giving me this recipe to share with the world. And I'm thankful to the 100-year-old lady, who if she were alive would have to be about 130 years old. She's probably not alive, but at least her soup is!

Did you change the meat? 
As I developed the recipe, I sometimes changed the additive meat from pork to chicken, and eventually even subtracted the meat altogether and just added natural chicken broth instead. This is how my soup today is bottled in jars. People who buy my posole will find the base very good without needing to add any additives of their own, but you can add whatever meat or vegetables you'd like to enhance it.

What's the deal with the heirloom red and green chiles from Chimayo, New Mexico, which you say boast miracle-working properties?
Anyone who has ever visited this region and eaten the chile there knows about the amazing taste of red chile. It is definitely sweeter and possibly more intense and nutritious because of the rich soil it is grown in as well as the high-altitude climate (it's dry and sunny but cool). There is a very old church there, possibly hundreds of years old, which has a special hole in the ground where people go to get healing dirt to put on their bodies to help them heal. There are crutches hanging on the walls as proof that the dirt and prayers healed people. I figure if the chiles are grown in this same dirt, then quite possibly there can be a healing power in the chiles as well. I have heard many testimonies that my posole has healed many illnesses and woes, from a broken heart and a bad back to a dreadful hangover.

What's the secret to making a great posole?
The secret to making a great posole is to make it with love and to make it with very good nutritious ingredients and to make it the day before serving, so all of the spices and vegetables in the broth can "marry" together with it. Make sure you have the time to make the soup, make sure it's a good time, and use natural ingredients if it's at all possible.

Were there challenges in bottling and distributing the posole?
The main challenge was to find the proper factory to cook my soup in. After traveling all over Texas and serving my soup to the people in charge at different factories, we finally visited a place in Dallas that took on the challenges of bottling a soup that is rarely mass-produced. Putting hominy in the glass jars, and making sure there are equal portions of hominy in each jar was the biggest challenge. With the help and knowledge of the wonderful people at the Bartush Factory, we eventually developed a beautiful jar of equally portioned Holy Posole that I was ecstatic to have made into truckloads of soup to be shipped to 49 H-E-B Texas grocery stores. This all took some time and patience and none of us gave up, which would have been easy to do. Being fanatical about using certain ingredients is imperative. People always want to get the cost down by using cheaper, less delicious products. I refused to allow them to use anything but the best and thus we have a product that tastes good, but may be a little higher in price. This is one reason the soup tastes so great.

You've sent your posole to David Letterman, Garrison Keillor, and food critics across America. How have they responded to your crusade?
Well, Garrison opened the jar up immediately and stuck his finger in it and tasted it cold. The soup is ready to eat right out of the jar so I was thrilled when he said he really liked it. Robert Duvall served it for New Year's after Van Redin, a film photographer, gave it to him and his wife. They all loved serving it for their New Year's Eve party for 2012. I am awaiting a response from David Letterman, but it would be great to serve his entire audience my soup and have him, his crew, and his audience all say "Holy Posole!" at the end of the show. We'll see what happens. Also, Tom Russell, the great songwriter who lives in El Paso, Texas, bought a case of it and said he was taking it across the border to Juarez to serve it to the poor people who have been fighting there. He coined my slogan, "Peace Through Posole and Harmony through Hominy!" I actually drove a pickup load to El Paso myself and donated it to a priest to carry across the border to an orphanage to serve to the children who had lost their parents in the drug wars.

Where is it available to be purchased?
If you live in Texas, you can buy my soup at 49 of the largest H-E-B grocery stores. I also sell it online one jar at a time. I intend to work fervently this year to have Holy Posole placed in many more grocery stores across America. Peace through posole and harmony through hominy!