Welcome to El Norte where flavor is measured in BTUs
A lad from Cimarron joined the submarine service to see the world from underwater. He was submerged for 90 days at a time. Day after day of whale sounds, creaking bulkheads, silent running. No sunshine except through the periscope. He is fond of saying the only thing that brought him through it was the case of canned chiles (chopped and whole) his mother sent him before each patrol.
The beans did it.
The beans were good,” he says. “We had the best cooks in the Navy. But beans without chile are just beans.”
A passion for hot chile, red or green, is just part of life here in the Chile Occupied Zone of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado. And it’s got to be hot – the zing of chile adds sparkle to extreme sport. Chile is there for you, standing between you and the hard times.
The Zone follows the line of Spanish Colonial settlement in the Southwest and is roughly defined by how quickly a bowl of good red will bring sweat to the brow and tears to the eyes. Watch for the fields and signs that say “”Will work for chile.” The northern boundary extends as far as southern Colorado around San Luis, Chama and Pagosa Springs and east as far as Clayton, NM. After that you might as well be in outer space.
Spaniards of the 16th century already had a taste for spicy food from the followers of lslam who occupied the lberian Peninsula for some 600 years. They were not driven out until 1492, the year of trans-Atlantic exploration. Mexico and the Aztecs opened Spanish eyes to the incredible scope of pepper potential and from there they never looked back.
Chile is a drive and certainly there are enough oxygen-deprived mountain dwellers here who need the kind of jump-start that only chile can give. Actually they need it a lot. Sailing off a 40-foot cornice on skis with a full pack or kayaking the raging, rocking Rio during runoff can do that, both are a decent rush. Chile is just a little more universally accessible.
Chile-poor blood, inherited or acquired, is chronic here. The system demands a certain level of the hot stuff just to maintain equilibrium. People either live here because they love chile or they love chile because they live here, it works both ways. The only place where serious addicts can sustain the habit. Leaving the Zone is just asking for a plunge in the blood-chile level and a brutal case of the joneses.
You don’t know deprivation until you’ve been around norteños living without the green stuff, people trapped like souls in purgatory in chile-less lands, places otherwise civilized except for this one serious dietary omission. I know a Southwest archaeologist who carries a chile, like insulin, in his pocket whenever he’s on the road, handy for use in case of an attack. It clears his head, keeps him from going into a coma.
And the lines at the post office after chile harvest!People groaning under the weight of cardboard boxes, even Hefty bags filled with freshly roasted chile, still hot and a little damp, waiting to send supplies off to needy loved ones trapped in the States. Naturally the boxes have air holes in them to release combustible gases that might build up inside a sealed unit and cause heaven knows what in the delivery truck.
Stacking chile before a long trip is one way to survive the crisis. For year-round residents, stacking is actually a way of life associated with mealtimes, weekends, happy hour a night on the town and the changing of seasons – the solstice, the equinox or the first snow. The need for chile becomes palpable at those times.
New Mexicans gathering peacefully in numbers can only mean one thing. Someone brought the chile. If it’s potluck, probably everyone brought it, it’s the beauty of partying with locals. Expect a pot of red chile con carne, jalapeño combread, chile con queso, tamales and chile beans if it’s a small group; the green chile chicken enchilada casserole, homemade salsa with cilantro and garlic, two more pots of chile (elk and green with pork) and a ham come out of the closet for serious celebration. A ham? Well, it’s not bad smothered in chile.
Let’s address the BTU issue. A bootlegger in southem New Mexico used to test his White Mule by standing three feet away and lighting a cigarette. lf it blew up, it was done. Good chile should be like that. Chile lovers like living on the edge, that narrow margin between total control and complete abandon.
Once a friend of mine invited a prospective honey over for chili rellenos made with freshly roasted green, a real delicacy. Unfortunately, the chile was of a extreme variety, the guy thought he was being made sport of and left, never to be seen again.
Hot chile requires backbone, a sense of humor and a willingness to roll with the punches. Like certain diamond runs, punitive chili should not be attempted unless you can remain in control or have your attendant standing by for resuscitation. It also requires plenty of cold beverage, preferably beer to fulfill both yin and yang, the cooling of the fires before re-stoking. (A moment of silence here for chile beer, a delicious brew but tragic: what do you wash it down with?)
This playing with fire isn’t meant to be a macho thing; it’s a love affair, a way to achieve catharsis. Chile brings passion into our lives and a level of consciousness as intense as the little pod itself. Chile has personality, a very dependable unpredictability that speaks to the spirit. Call it shared orientation or group hallucination, this need for radical Gs and a desire to, well, crank up the heat a bit is at the very foundation of living New Mexican.
Because life without chile is… just life.
Charlotte Amrine Hollis, editor, also writes for “GO!,” the adventure section of the
This article appeared in the 2001 edition of HighCountry.