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Horno heritage: A sense of home
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Arnie Valdez removes bricks and mud that seal the front of his outdoor abode oven, or horno.

SAN LUIS, Colo. — For farmer Arnie Valdez, few things in life conjure the senses of his home in the San Luis Valley more than fresh-roasted corn chicos, warm from the family horno before they are dried.

Chicos are ears of corn steam-baked in a traditional outdoor adobe oven, or horno, then dried in the sun, often for winter food storage. The kernels are reconstituted when prepared as a hearty and nutritious ingredient primarily in soups and meat stews. 

The practice of seasonally drying corn dates back to this land’s First Peoples. Evidence of chicos have been found in horno remains at Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon.

Valdez learned the practice of growing, harvesting, and making chicos from his parents — who learned from their parents. “They farmed, and made chicos every fall,” he said. Valdez is a descendant of early pobladores, settlers to what was Ute land. 

“To make chicos, we grow a heirloom variety of white corn called maiz del concho, or concho corn,” said Valdez from his heritage farm southeast of San Luis. 

Chicos, a local tradition
Colorado Voices

Chicos, a local tradition

Traditional, fresh-roasted chicos from the family horno.

The corn is planted in spring, watered with the Cerro acequia—an irrigation system of hand-dug ditches and harvested from the field toward the end of summer.

[Read more about acequias here]

To make chicos, “I start a wood fire inside the horno and let it burn for about four hours,” said Valdez. “This charges the floor and the walls to get a big thermal capacity. When the fire is just about ready to go out — and it’s just a bunch of ashes — I put the corn in.”

Valdez places the corn onto the ash base and sprinkles water over the corn to encourage steam.

“Then I seal the horno door with adobe bricks. You also seal the smoke hole in the back,” said Valdez. The corn is left to bake overnight. 

“Most of the baking occurs within the first few hours of putting it in the horno — after that, it just sort of coasts,” said Valdez.

The next morning, the door is removed, and an aroma of savory comfort food emerges. 

Valdez removes the bricks and mud sealing the oven. Once the front of the horno is open, he is ready to pull the corn out, using a rake to reach the furthest ears. 

The corn is husked by hand, leaving its kernels on the cobs. The cobs are then sun dried for about two weeks, said Valdez.

“Once the cobs are dried, you can store them through the winter,” said Valdez. “People like to buy chicos off the cob to mix with beans or cook with meat. Actually, I like to eat it when it’s just like this, so—” Valdez takes a bite of the warm corn, savoring the end product of his crop.

Meanwhile, no part goes to waste — happy goats feast on the leftover husks.


Kate Perdoni is a multi-media journalist with Rocky Mountain PBS who can be reached at kateperdoni@rmpbs.org.

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