Still in kindergarten, I savored chile for the first time. Yes, that’s chile, with an e, the piquant pepper that smothers and tops most New Mexican food—and not just enchiladas and burritos. Chile layers burgers, fills sushi rolls, mixes in ice cream, and flavors beer. Everything tastes better with chile, New Mexicans reckon. Chili with an i is a meat-and-bean stew. Confuse the two as a native New Mexican—as I am—and you’re likely to be dropped off at the state line with no invitation to come back.
In New Mexico, kids sample chile young. Better to burn their taste buds early, we joke. I remember sitting in the creaky wooden chairs at my grandmother’s kitchen table, barely tall enough to see over the edge, and dipping a modest tortilla chip corner into the crimson sauce pooling on my mom’s enchilada plate. The chile coated my tongue, spreading heat through my mouth and flushing my cheeks. It tasted earthy, smoky, fruity, spicy—and irresistible.
Beyond that tastebud thrill, chile is a flavor I’ve grown up with. It has punched up eggs on Christmas morning breakfasts, been an afterschool snack (there are few better ways to eat green chile than on a warm, fluffy tortilla laden with butter), and been a centerpiece of my wedding menu. My sense memories are lost in a swirl of heritage and tradition. It tastes like Grandma’s cooking, like home.
Chile season in New Mexico rises with the same fervor and reverence as the grape crush in California’s Napa Valley. Each September, we rush to farmers markets and corner stands for bushels of just-off-the-plant green chile. Farmers toss 40-pound burlap sacks full of peppers into cylindrical, steel-mesh drum roasters. As they turn, we sit in rows of plastic lawn chairs to watch. These are our pews at the altar of flavor. Mesmerized, we observe the flames licking the verdant peppers in a propane roar. Gradually, the peppers’ skin blackens, curling back from the flesh as a sweet, smoky aroma rises—strong enough to stop New Mexicans in their tracks.
The farmers toss the still-hot peppers into plastic garbage bags, cinching the tops so the chiles will sweat and the skin will peel more from the pod.
At home, the true work begins. I’ve peeled chile for countless hours, first on a stepstool alongside my grandmother, then next to my mother, and now my husband. Wearing plastic gloves—touch your bare hand to your eye after hours of peeling chile, and you’ll never do it again—we coax the burned skin away from the main action. We run our fingernails along the interior to remove the seeds. Over the hours, we breathe in the capsaicin oil (which gives chile its heat). Coughing and sputtering from “chile lung,” we peel on, driven by the fear that we won’t have enough precious pods to last until next season. Once they’re clean, we lay them whole or diced into zip-topped sandwich bags to freeze so we can dole out the chile over the coming year. It’s so treasured yet kept so humbly. That’s New Mexico for you. We’re not much for pomp.
Fall is red chile season too. They’re the same peppers, just left on the plant until they blush. We tie red chile stems with twine, stringing them into garlands called ristras that we hang outside to dry in the sun. When the pods crackle under our fingers, we grind the chiles into powder, called molido, to be mixed with water, garlic, and salt for a smooth sauce, or we add them whole to simmering pots of posole (hominy stew) or pinto beans. Chile harvesting is equal parts food prep and ritual.
How did chile put down such deep roots in New Mexican culture?
Native Americans spiced food with chiltepin, cultivated chile’s wild relative, before European contact. Chile from Mexico could have arrived in what is now New Mexico as early as Antonio Espejo’s 1582 to ’83 scouting expedition or in 1598, when Juan de Oñate settled the area north of Santa Fe (now New Mexico’s capital) on behalf of the king of Spain. Journals tell us that by 1695, settlers planted Mexican chile seeds in the upper Río Grande Valley’s rugged terrain. Over the ensuing four centuries, the plants grew in seclusion to become a landrace. Chimayó chile is genetically distinct from the state’s other cultivars and even from its Mexican ancestors. Unlike the commercially grown chile in other parts of the state, Chimayó chile has an untamed quality that befits the landscape where it’s grown: At times it’s as long as your palm, other times as short as a finger. Sometimes it’s straight, other times it curls into a comma. It’s always thin-skinned and prepared ground.
Pilgrims journey to Chimayó, once a Spanish colonial town, to collect what is believed to be healing dirt at the legendary Santuario de Chimayó, but they collect another curative: red chile powder. Chile’s medicinal powers are as renowned as its flavor. Generations have treated colds and sore throats with its sauces and stews. Modern-day New Mexicans still follow the practice, reaching for chile instead of cough syrup. The cure isn’t all placebo effect: Chile is packed with vitamins C and A. Chile’s curative powers have only increased its cultlike following.
Southern New Mexico has its own chile traditions, though that region leans toward commerce. As early as 1907, horticulturalist Fabian Garcia began breeding chile pods for reliable size and heat levels to serve Las Cruces’ commercial chile canning industry. Chile researchers—you know you want that job—at New Mexico State University’s Chile Pepper Institute, bred varieties to make commercial harvesting and preparation easier, like the spicy Sandia, the superhot Lumbre, and the large, meaty, thick-skinned Big Jim.
Hatch, a town neighboring Las Cruces in that chile-rich growing region, is the self-proclaimed chile capital of the world. It flaunts the title with an annual festival with carnival rides and triple-hot-chile eating contests. The Hatch name holds cachet among chile fiends, and in 2016, a U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that just as a Champagne must be made in the Champagne region of France to be called Champagne, Hatch chiles must be grown there to earn the name. But that doesn’t always keep Hatch-style copycats from cropping up.
New Mexican chile may be shipped to Seattle and Brooklyn, to China and Germany, but it tastes just a little bit better in New Mexico, where our chile affection isn’t just a crush; it’s a full-fledged love affair.