Earth Notes: An Old-World Baking Oven, Recreated

Feb 21, 2018

In 1846, U.S. soldiers swept down the Santa Fe trail to seize the province of New Mexico for the United States. Santa Fe was then part of Mexico, and for a time during this war soldiers camped in the roomy courtyard at the city’s Palace of the Governors. One soldier wrote an evocative description that includes mention of baking ovens there.

Horno building
Credit New Mexico History Museum

These were likely traditional, dome-shaped, adobe structures called “hornos.” The ovens were removed from the courtyard more than a century ago, but now the New Mexico History Museum has recreated an horno in the historic palace courtyard.

Instead of a Native American or Spanish design, the newly built oven is an Old World style, to honor the long, intercultural history, says museum executive director Andrew Wulf.

Supervised by Felipe Ortega—an experienced Apache potter and traditional horno builder—the oven was built by members of Cornerstone Community Partnerships, a Santa Fe nonprofit preservation group. The aim was to create an oven that was not only authentic-looking, but fully functional too.

Initial test bakes have been successful. So the museum is on the cusp of launching a food heritage program with frequent baking sessions.

In these interactive “bake-offs,” local Native Americans and visitors will learn how to cook bread and treats like biscochitos—traditional New Mexican cookies. A tangible sharing of an old technology and foods across cultures and centuries—made possible by a humble earthen oven.