Unfolding the Map
We cross another border into New Mexico with William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) and discover why New Mexico chile is a force to be reckoned with. Let's stop a moment and savor the delicious heat. Click on the thumbnail of the map at right to see where Deming, the town that where we pass some time, is located.
"She served a stack of unheated flour tortillas, butter and a bowl of green, watery fire that would have put a light in the eyes of Quetzalcoatl. Texans can talk, but nowhere is there an American chile hot sauce, green or red, like the New Mexican versions, with no two recipes the same except for the pyrotechnical display they blow off under the nose. New Mexican salsas are mouth-watering, eye-watering, nose-watering; they clean the pipes, ducts, tracts, tubes; and like spider venom, they can turn innards to liquid."
Blue Highways: Part 4, Chapter 10
Deming, New Mexico
Every year, in Albuquerque where I live, there is a National Fiery Foods Show. In a large casino convention hall, the room is packed with booths where vendors show off their latest chile sauces, barbecue sauces, salsas, chile powders, and other hot and spicy confections. Did you know that there is chile ice cream? How about chile-spiced chocolates, or even better, chile spiced chocolates wrapped around bacon. The newest technologies and techniques for harvesting chile is on display, and at the last one, I got to sample the latest of the hottest chiles ever grown, the bhut jolokia chile cultivated in India. I had a sample of a sauce made with a little of that chile, and it was extremely mouth burning. One goes to the Fiery Foods Show with an iron stomach and, if one needs it, a lot of antacid.
In southern New Mexico, chile is king. The area around Hatch, New Mexico is prime chile growing country, but even backyard gardners around the state try their hands at making their own chiles. One thing I love about New Mexico is the fall, when suddenly the air is filled with the smell of roasting green chile. At our local farmers market, we can often buy fresh chile from an organic farmer, take it over to a guy with a portable chile roaster, and have it roasted right there in front of us in about 10 minutes.
If given a choice, I usually prefer green chile over red. They are really the same plant - the red chile is really green chile left on the vine a little longer. But I like the taste of a good medium to hot green chile. You can still taste the flavor with the hotness built in. My wife likes mild to medium green chile. At a local restaurant in Albuquerque, the Frontier, she will often order her meal with chopped green chile on the side so that she can mix in the spiciness to her own comfort. However, I love a good carne adovada, which is shredded or diced pork slow cooked in a red chile sauce. I also love posole - a really good posole can make you weep in happiness - which is hominy and beef or pork in a red chile broth.
New Mexico chile is important to the state. It is one of the things that gives New Mexico its identity. New Mexicans are very quick to take some umbrage if it is spelled wrong. Often you see, in other states, the spelling of "chili." Chili actually refers to a type of stew. In New Mexico, it is always "chile." Chiles are used for food and also for decoration. Many houses hang ristras - tied-together bundles of red chile that serve as outside decorations, mostly on adobe houses to give them an extra air of authenticity.
I tried to grow chile once. I put in a couple of small plants and got a couple of small chiles out of them. I felt a little proud that I, too, was able to participate in something that is so much a part of this culture that I find myself living in, even if only in a small way.
I've never been to Deming, though I've been in the area, but I can imagine that what LHM describes in the restaurant he visited still holds true today. One gets Tex-Mex in Texas, but one gets a unique, regional cuisine that is completely different in New Mexico. And always, one is asked the ubiquitous question: red or green with that? Most people line up on one side or the other - a few like both. Regardless, it's a cultural and gastronomic identifier that gives New Mexico a uniqueness as real as anywhere else.
In the spirit of food, the musical interlude for this post is by Boston group Sol y Canto, driven by the voice of Puerto Rican and Argentine singer Rosi Amador and the guitar of her husband, New Mexico's Brian Amador. In any Latin culture, cuisine is king. The song encourages us to forgo fast food and join the sumptuous feast of Latin home-cooking. Salud, and enjoy!
If you want to know more about Deming
Next up: Hachita, New Mexico