Now, what’s all this crud about the red and green chile?
That was the question posed by Karen, one of the women I met with over ice teas one afternoon at a Las Cruces cafe about two years after I arrived here. Her expression seemed only half-serious, but I wasn’t sure.
None of us had grown up in New Mexico but had spent most of our lives somewhere else. So guessing she meant the question to be a conversation starter I returned the ball by saying:
I guess it’s their “thing.” Every place has a special thing it’s known for, and chile is New Mexico’s “special thing.” You’re from Florida right? So you’ve been all about gators, oranges and DisneyWorld. And I’m from New York, so we were all about . . . everything else.
When Karen didn’t take offense to my comment and we all laughed, I knew she had been kidding, too. Then our conversation went on to other things.
Now, after living here for some time, I’ve come to appreciate chile as more than an agricultural product New Mexico does especially well. This “special thing” is much more than a tasty menu choice. Chile is everywhere and touches everything in the state. Green or red,
Chile makes New Mexico’s world go round. Here’s how:
1) In New Mexico, you learn to plan your calendar year around chile.
An event where chile plays an important role takes place every single month.
- You can begin each year in northwest New Mexico, sampling the cooking of local chefs competing in chile cook-offs at the Chama Chile Ski Classic. Come September, chile mania ~ and maybe your waistline, too ~ reaches its peak. That’s when the green chile harvest is on. Celebrations such as the Hatch Chile Festival, where you can taste the best of prize-winning chile in local cuisines and buy fresh chile to carry home, take place almost every weekend. Then finally, at year’s end, you’re in southwest New Mexico city of Las Cruces watching a gigantic metal chile drop from the sky while counting down to the new year.
2) New Mexicans put chile in ANYTHING and everything.
Unless a restaurant is blatantly “international” ~ offering cuisine from France, India, or some other country ~ it’s a good bet whatever you order will have chile in it.
- You’ll find green or red chile, on their own or in sauces and salsas where you might expect them. Think scrambled eggs topped with green or red chile, red chile short ribs, green chile cheesesteaks. And, of course, green chile cheeseburgers.
- You’ll also find chile in foods that might surprise you: Imagine red chile-flavored pistachios, green chile macaroni and cheese, chile-infused mustards and gourmet chocolates. Ever taste a spicy red-chile wine? Or a sweet green chile salsa over soft vanilla ice cream?
One friend of ours, Bernie Guerrero, a vintage car restorer, says he puts chile in his breakfast cereal! But he’s only joking.
3) Studying all things chile is serious business in the Land of Enchantment.
- The New Mexico State University campus in Las Cruces is home to the Chile Pepper Institute. The Institute is the only international non-profit organization devoted to studying chile. Scientific research and hosting events to get the public smart on chile peppers are its main work.
How cool is that . . . an entire institute of research and education devoted to the study of a single vegetable? Or is the chile pepper really a fruit? (It does have seeds.) Some people say chile is a berry and that once, a long time ago, it actually looked like a small berry . . . . okay, yes, maybe I need to join the Chile Pepper Institute.
It’s a fact . . . at festivals and in eateries all over New Mexico, people celebrate their “special thing” and make it easy for you to join in. They’ve even established an “institute” to help us learn more about it.
So the next time a server pops the “green or red” question, remember that chile is a way of life in New Mexico. Then smile, my friend, because you are about to become a part of it.
Chile is the delicious heart of New Mexico and putting some on your plate is her best way of sharing it with you.
What special food means “home” to you?
Hanging Red Chile Peppers by tamifreed.