Chile: A Love Affair

Chile: A Love Affair

New Mexico's pepper obsession runs deep.

By Ashley M. Biggers

New Mexican food is swimming in chile — the piquant peppers, either red or green, smother and top just about everything. And not just the burritos and enchiladas. Chile is mixed with ice cream, rolled into sushi, and dashed into jam for only-in-New-Mexico PB&Js. The state's chile devotion earned the pepper the title as the state's official vegetable. (Yes, it's technically a fruit. Don't ask too many questions.)

The pepper's roots in New Mexican culture run deep. Native Americans flavored food with chiltepin, cultivated chile's wild relative, before European contact. Later, chile traveled north from Mexico in Spanish settlers' wagons. Journals attest that by 1695, these farmers were planting chile in the rugged upper terrain of Northern New Mexico. In the four centuries since, the plants, growing in relative seclusion, have become a landrace that can't be found anywhere else. The genetically distinct Chimayó chile still has a wild streak. Unlike its more uniform, commercially cultivated cousins, it varies in length, can be curled or straight, and is always thin-skinned and difficult to peel. It's most often dried, ground, and turned into a sauce. It's earthy, fruity, spicy, and imminently craveworthy.

Southern New Mexico's chile traditions lean toward commercial production but are no less distinctive. In 1907, horticulturalist Fabian Garcia began breeding chile pods for the canning industry that had taken root in and around Las Cruces. Today, New Mexico State University's Chile Pepper Institute researches peppers, including those that make harvesting and preparation easier. The state's most abundant varieties, such as the spicy Sandia, the superhot Lumbre, and the large, meaty, thick-skinned Big Jim, trace their origins to this region.

Las Cruces' neighbor, the town of Hatch, has proclaimed itself the chile capital of the world and touts the title with a Labor Day–weekend festival. The county-fair-like fête hosts tortilla-toss and triple-hot-chile eating contests to celebrate the plentiful crop that's strung into ristras or frozen for the trip home. Only chile grown in the town's fields can bear the Hatch name — just as only tequila made in the town of Tequila can earn that name. New Mexico's chile, whether from Chimayo, Hatch, or any other town in the Land of Enchantment has cachet with chile lovers in the state and well beyond its borders.