Article and photos by Alejandro López
We can all agree that eating excellent-quality chile is an unforgettable experience. This is particularly true when its heat is matched by its flavor. Should chile—either the roasted green peppers in midsummer or a red sauce in late fall—successfully induce a sinus- or head-clearing sweat on a par with the best saunas, then it can be said without a doubt that this food is nothing less than “exhilarating, restorative, cleansing and even life-changing.” And that, my friends, is saying a lot for any one food.
Most of us also readily acknowledge that chile, with its flavor and health-enhancing properties, is indeed a precious gift from the pre-Colombian gods of México and the many generations of people who cultivated this invaluable crop across millennia. They cared for its seeds and handed down the many traditions associated with the plant and its fruit.
What most people do not know, however, is that through careful cultivation, this unusual food/spice reveals myriad hidden faces and its deepest essence. It is through the close symbiotic relationship between humans and the plant that one’s understanding and appreciation for this digestible form of fire grows exponentially before it is put on the table, where it is often relished with equal measures of dread, awe and delight.
I was lucky enough to have been a member of one of those generations that had been charged by history to cultivate this plant, care for its seeds and, during my youth, fill endless baskets and gunnysacks with its firm pods, both red and green. I did not start out loving chile as I do now. Actually, I had quite the opposite reaction.
As a child, whenever my tongue came into contact with this food that found its way into many of our staple dishes, I would cry out in pain and reach for the nearest bread, milk, or other neutralizing food or drink. Besides disliking its sting and my inability to eat it, I also disliked the endless work it created for my brothers and me out in the fields.
Chile was my father’s favorite food as well as his most cherished cash crop. For that reason, he grew acres and acres of it. He never doubted that the many thousands of plants that populated his fields would be adequately cared for because, luckily for him, he had seven obedient sons who would see to it.
Each year, late in the winter, my father would ruminate about what crops he would plant, and where. Not long after that, the tall coffee tin in which the chile seeds were kept would come out of hiding. A few months later, when spring was at its apogee, he would find an old broad-brimmed blue flowerpot and fill it with rich soil. He would also soak nearly two pounds of the tiny, flat, yellowish seeds for a couple of days in another can partially filled with water, before burying them in the flower pot. He would place the pot on a windowsill where the sun’s light and warmth would cause the seeds to sprout within a couple of weeks. With all of the cariño or affection of a father, he doted over the pot and the seedlings that soon began raising their little cabecitas.
Days later, around the 15th of May, when the danger of frost had mostly passed, he would arrange for our land to be plowed and furrows made. He would have us dish out a spoonful of damp seed for every cluster of plants we wished to grow at certain intervals along a given row. We carefully thrust spoonfuls into small holes about three to four inches deep. The holes had been dug into the sides of the furrows where the flow of the water could easily reach the seeds. The seeds were covered with dirt using a hoe handled by a second person. They were spaced about 18 inches apart so that each plant would have ample room to grow.
With the pool of delicate chile seeds, it was always difficult to predict whether they would come up in thick clumps, as sparse individuals here and there, or not at all. If they came up in clumps, we would wait a few weeks until the plants grew to a certain size before thinning them. Transplanting young plants was carried out while irrigating the field so that they would avoid going into shock. On wet ground, with a single movement of the hand, one could desahijar the surplus plants while leaving the rest undisturbed.
The seedlings that had been removed would be placed in a small pot of water beside those that had been grown on the windowsill. Together they constituted a plentiful supply of young plants that would replenish areas where sown seed had failed to germinate or had come up sparsely. When this labor-intensive process called la traspuesta del chile (the transplanting of chile) was over, it left the fields thick with plants and redolent with the promise of an abundant yield.
We did not particularly mind transplanting chile because both in the early morning and late evening, bird song filled the air and the light was so fantastically beautiful, especially when it reflected off the water. Aside from this, we enjoyed dodging places where water had seeped deep into the soil, where a misstep would result in our sinking deep into the mud (amid much raucous laughter).
During the rest of the summer, the plants required constant weeding, much of which had to be done by hand in order to do it well. Indeed, the weeding of every last plant was the true test of our collective regard for this crop. Two or three days after weeding, the field would be irrigated with carefully regulated streams of water in order to prevent erosion. When the plants finally produced buds and their customary five-petaled downward-turned white flowers, one felt requited for all of the effort to that point. It did not take long for pods to form, and before you knew it, you found yourself searching for a few firm chiles to bite into (if you liked the stuff). At around the same time, it was necessary to support the plants’ elongated stems and stalks by piling mounds of dirt around each cluster. This was carried out with a hoe and plenty of muscle. If you did not do this, the wind would wreak havoc with the plants and hasten their demise. My father’s chile plants were always carefully tended and normally grew to nearly three feet. They were his absolute pride and joy. It could almost be said that, as his sons, we had to compete with them for his attention.
The harvesting of chile verde began in earnest once it was clear that many of the pods had grown macizos or firm, that their surfaces were shiny, and that they exuded the prerequisite aroma peculiar to the biting variety of the medium-sized, flavorful chile common to northern New Mexico. My brothers and I would start amassing lots of baskets and every available gunnysack. We each would take one or two rows and strip every plant clean of harvestable chile. In some cases, after several pickings, the chile that remained would be left to ripen into the highly prized chile colorado or red chile. In other cases, entire patches were off limits to everyone. All of the pods on those plants were left to ripen into chile colorado.
Unending streams of local residents always came directly to our farm to buy green chile. Even though our prices were extremely reasonable—especially by today’s standards—my mother always insisted that we fill to the brim the containers we used to measure the quantities, especially the bote de diez or a pail that had contained 10 pounds of some cooking ingredient. Rather than exploit the customer in any way, it was always her desire that they benefit in some way beyond a purely commercial transaction. I am certain that this practice accounts for the good karma our vast family enjoys to this day.
Like other farmers, we too, on a daily basis consumed a portion of what we produced. There was always fresh green chile being roasted on a griddle or stove and served at our table. Once or twice during the season we lit large fires in our outdoor adobe oven, got it red hot, cleared out the coals and finally threw in several bushels at a time to roast. We made sure to stir the pods with a long wooden paddle so that they would not burn—just blister and pop open, letting out their intoxicating aroma, which signaled the arrival of late summer and fall.
My mother and sisters would gather around the kitchen table with its mounds of roasted chile and peel the skins off of each pod until they could no longer stand the burning sensation in their hands. They would tie small bunches into ristras and hang them up to dry on the porch beneath netting of some sort. In the wintertime, that chile would end up in green chile stews without losing any of its rich flavor or bite. An alternative to this process was to fill innumerable small plastic bags with the peeled chile and stick them in the freezer for occasional use until the next year’s crop came in.
Once the red chile was picked, it needed to be dried quickly or it would start to rot. At times we tied red chile into ristras and hung them on a south-facing wall to dry during the long sunny fall days. Other times, we removed the stems and seeds from every last pod and carried them in baskets up a ladder to our scorching-hot attic. We would deposit bushelful after bushelful on the floor, which we had covered with butcher paper.
After the chile had thoroughly dried out, we collected the translucent, brittle, crimson pods and took them to a local mill where they were ground into a fine red powder that made you sneeze and cough. Red chile powder served multiple uses. Most often it became the basis of a fierce chile con carne that fed the whole family and that no one, myself included (eventually), could stay away from, even though it burned like the dickens.
In the summertime, the culminating expression of this unofficial Nuevo Mexicano chile cult (heir to some of the most interesting chile traditions of the ancient Meso-Americans) were the pure fire sandwiches my father made. These sandwiches consisted of the hottest green chile he could find. My mother roasted it, but it was my father who finely chopped and seasoned it with fresh garlic and a profusion of salt, which turned the top of this concoction nearly white. He then thickly piled it between two pieces of Wonder Bread. Next, with one hand on his plate, he compressed this dangerous mix of a sandwich, picked it up with both hands, held it up to his mouth and took the first bite. He would then proceed to turn colors, of course, but would not stop carving away at it until it totally disappeared.
I have often wondered if the fire of his preferred food was not in some way responsible for the ardor with which he worked and made us work, and especially for his fiery, no-nonsense temper, which prevented us from ever telling him that we would have preferred to have spent our summers doing things like walking on stilts or rolling discarded car tires. Now, of course, we are proud to be heirs to the singular tradition of the indigenous chilero, or chile farmer/merchant that identifies us as being native to the Americas in some fundamental way.
Alejandro López is a northern New Mexican educator, writer and photographer.