Jane Butel’s love of chile was born in, of all places, Kansas.
“We always loved … the Southwestern taste,” she says.
How exactly does a Midwestern girl get hooked on that flavor?
Butel – who has since built her own culinary empire around Southwestern cuisine – traces her interest to her grandparents. They spent the early 1900s in Albuquerque, where her grandfather worked as a railroad executive and her grandmother, a college-educated home economist, studied local foods and wrote recipes. Future generations enjoyed the same dishes, even in the face of limited supplies.
“It used to be hard,” Butel says. “You couldn’t buy pinto beans back in Kansas, so we had to do refried beans with kidney beans.”
Chile was also hard to find, so Butel’s father grew his own on the family farm. He loved chile, Butel remembers. He also liked to cook.
In fact, with the exception of her paternal grandfather, Butel says “every man, woman and child in my family liked to cook.”
Butel learned her way around a kitchen early. As a teenager, she made a killing at the county fair, consistently walking away from the baking competitions more than $100 richer.
“That’s like $1,000 today,” she says.
But the kitchen wasn’t big enough to contain Butel’s ambition. She was, she recalls, “maybe an incredibly high achiever.”
A star student, she also showed promise as an artist. A crayon drawing she did as an 8-year-old was picked for the UNESCO Christmas card. By age 12 she was also president of the town’s Methodist Youth Fellowship and the 4-H club.
She fantasized about becoming a movie star and says a teenage friendship with Bing Crosby’s sons had helped her land a scholarship offer to study at the Pasadena Playhouse.
But by the time she graduated high school – at age 16 – Butel’s mother had convinced her to go a more traditional route. She enrolled at Kansas State, where she studied journalism and home economics, with an emphasis on fashion advertising.
If she wasn’t headed to Broadway as an actress, she figured she could at least get to New York as part of the fashion industry.
She says Vogue magazine offered her an assistant editor position out of college, but her then-husband had taken a job as a nuclear structural engineer at Sandia National Laboratories. She wound up in Albuquerque instead.
It would not be the last time Butel – who is coy about how many times she’s been married – opted to follow love.
“I’ve always been an incredible romanticist and always think there’s got to be this perfect relationship,” says Butel, who is currently engaged again.
In Albuquerque, Butel was a consumer affairs manager for what is now Public Service Company of New Mexico. In an effort to save her department – which she feared was on the chopping block – she tapped into her culinary expertise. She orchestrated cooking classes throughout the state and wrote a New Mexico cookbook with recipes that incorporated the use of electric appliances.
“We were peddling kilowatts,” she says. “‘Live better electrically’ was our theme song.”
Others took notice of her go-getter spirit. In 1969, Consolidated Edison of New York offered her a job as consumer affairs manager. She followed her big-city dreams to the Big Apple and, within a few years, “I was the darling of the headhunters,” she says.
One corporate job led to the next, including high-ranking positions at General Electric and American Express – all at a time when she had few, if any, female peers in her executive circles.
Work-related radio shows and TV appearances continued to raise her profile.
It was all exhilarating and overwhelming. As vice president of consumer affairs and marketing for American Express from 1976-1978, the responsibility was seemingly never-ending. When a future husband convinced her to give it all up and move away with him, she did.
“I guess it was … exciting to have your own limousine and have a seat on the corporate jet and do all that sort of thing, but you were just constantly pushed and pulled,” she says. “Work always had to be first. Something happened at work – no matter any time of day, seven days a week – you had to be on the spot.”
Still, she sometimes regrets letting a man lure her away.
“I was really on a fast track and I just let myself get talked (out of it),” she says.
Butel didn’t completely sever her ties to corporate America. She continued to consult for major brands like American Express, Nabisco and Bloomingdale’s.
And back in New Mexico she set about building her own company.
She founded Pecos Valley Spice Co. in 1978 and Jane Butel’s Southwest Cooking School in 1983. She now has more than 20 cookbooks to her name.
Butel continues to teach locally – presently using her Corrales kitchen as the classroom – but still does larger engagements, including one this fall aboard a Holland America cruise liner in Mexico.
She has other plans, too. She’s currently seeking backing for a new culinary institute in Albuquerque.
“I never let grass grow under my feet,” she says with a laugh.
Q: Do you have any regrets about not following your movie star dreams?
A: Sometimes I do because I really think I could’ve done it. But I did really well with my career.
Q: What is something most people don’t know about New Mexican food, even people who live here?
A: I get a lot of them taking my classes, and most of them don’t realize the healthful benefits of chile. Chiles are really, incredibly healthy for you. They don’t realize that the food can be cooked to where it has a great flavor and just a real exciting taste … and it doesn’t have to be greasy and fattening. A lot of people think it’s really fattening, and they don’t want to eat Mexican or New Mexican food because it’s fattening.
Q: What’s your speciality? Is there one dish?
A: People ask me that all the time. I have a lot of things I like to make that are not necessarily New Mexican or Southwestern. Like Saturday – I (make) this periodically – my Mexican aunt taught me how to make Bolognese sauce, which is the pasta sauce of Bologna, Italy, which has ground meats and the mushrooms. (It’s an) herb-flavored, wine-flavored, very full-flavored pasta sauce. I like to make – it honestly sounds really corny – but I like to make almost everything.
Q: What are your thoughts on retirement?
A: I don’t know that I’ll ever really, totally retire. I love to play duplicate bridge, so I’m getting polished on doing that twice a week or more, and I want to continue writing. And I like to garden. We (she and fiancée Lou Christen) just started this huge daylily garden.
Q: Do you picture a wedding (with Lou)?
A: No, I think it will just be very quiet.
Q: What’s on your bucket list?
A: I really want to create this culinary institute (in Albuquerque). That’s just a really big goal. I love to travel. I’d like to do more traveling. I’d like to explore South America a little more. … (There are) another two places I’ve never been where I really want to go. I’m part Viennese from my dad’s side, and I’ve never been to Vienna. I’ve been to Austria about four times but never got over to Vienna. I want to do a Danube River cruise, and also I want to do the Baltic Sea with St. Petersburg.
Q: What is your perfect way to spend a day off?
A: Oh, there’s lots of different ways. I like to fish. I like sun, being in the sun. I like to just read a good book in front of a fire.