New Mexico’s “Caviar”

-Chile ristras grace an adobe wall in Chimayo, New Mexico

The single food staple that makes me howl at the moon is the piquant, savory, peerless—and misunderstood—chile. I am not alone. The mere mention of the word—whether chile for the peppers or chili for the meat dish made from them—can bring tears of anguish or bliss to multitudes of people. The chile, an ancient symbol, glorious spice, tangy condiment, is the soul food of the gods.

Botanically a fruit but commercially a vegetable, the chile was not developed by Spaniards, but was one of the earliest plants cultivated by the ancient Indians of America. Some chile seeds found in Mexican excavations date from 7,000 B.C. Known as “chili” to the Aztecs, the pods of this versatile plant were in abundant use before Columbus splashed ashore. He discovered Indians cultivating ancestors of today’s chile, and he mistakenly called the plan “pepper” because of its pungency.

Deeply rooted in the history of the Aztecs, this plant, with its hundreds of varieties has spread throughout Latin America, jumped the border, and consumed the Rocky Mountain West. The love of chile went on to cross the continent at a prairie-fire clip. Like cowboy boots, blue jeans, and tequila, chile became respectable.

Still, the truth, the whole truth about chile can be found in the growing fields and kitchens of New Mexico. It is there that chile is most cherished. New Mexicans eat more chiles per capita than anyone else. They grow it in backyard gardens and munch raw chilies like candy. Chile is the fiery essence of New Mexico. Some aficionados would just as soon give the plant deity status.

Chile pilgrims hungry for action should make the trek to New Mexico in the autumn. That is the perfect season—aspens are at their glory, piñon smoke hangs in the air, and ripe chiles are brought in from the fields. It doesn’t get any better.

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