Green chili: a flavor like religion
It's a taste of culture and a taste of heaven
It happens: A Southwest native gets transplanted somewhere far away — Tennessee, Vermont, Florida… Let’s not call it the hinterlands, but it isn’t here.
So, one day, Southwest native is perusing the aisles of Walmart, leaning casually on the shopping cart, meandering past the jars of salsa and trying not to be too dismissive, when lightning strikes. There, on the shelf, is a flash of familiar yellow: cans of whole Hatch green chiles.
Now, Tennessee, Vermont, Florida, wherever, these are really nice places, great places with wonderful regional cuisine. But just try getting decent huevos rancheros there. Or try going to a Mexican restaurant and finding a green sauce that isn’t tomatillo salsa. It’s a quest that generally ends in disappointment.
The green chiles on the shelf, then, appear like a dream, seemingly conjured from the pure strength of desire. In the familiar environs of redrock and sagebrush and endless vistas, they would be a thing of last resort, if a heartbreaking miscalculation led to the last bag of green chiles being pulled from the freezer in March. But in places far away, where September doesn’t mean old men roasting chiles by the side of the road, the cans of green chiles are a lifeline. They are the flavor of home.
“It’s our culture,” said Wayne Smith, an assistant technical professor of culinary arts at Western Colorado Community College. “It’s who we are.”
The first step toward understanding this complex, confounding place called the Southwest is to know green chili. To know that a green chile is a thing that grows in the garden, which makes a sauce that goes on pretty much everything, or becomes a meal, and is shorthand for where you’re from and who you are.
“We have people that come here and try it and then go back home and say, I’ve got to have more of that,” said Danise Coon, a senior research specialist at the Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University. “We have alumni constantly contacting us asking how they can get their hands on green chili.”
For this, thank Brazil, thank birds, thank the Pueblo Indians, thank Dr. Fabian Garcia.
Chile peppers originated in Brazilian lowlands and were spread beyond that “nuclear area” by birds, according to the Chile Pepper Institute. Birds lack receptors in their mouths to feel chile heat, and their digestive systems don’t harm chile pepper seeds. The first chiles were small, red and round, like berries, but as they began springing up beyond Brazil, farmers began cultivating them.
Christopher Columbus ate them on his travels in the New World and called them “peppers” because they produced the same burn and heat in his mouth as black pepper. He took the pods back to Spain and they quickly spread through Europe and Asia, according to the Chile Pepper Institute. Meanwhile, Toltec Indians in Mexico and Pueblo Indians in the American Southwest cultivated peppers and integrated them into a distinct cuisine.
In 1907, Dr. Fabian Garcia, a horticulturist and the first director of the Agriculture Experiment Station at what’s now New Mexico State University, began a chile breeding program that produced the New Mexico No. 9, the first version of the New Mexican pod-type of chile.
“He wanted to make the New Mexican chile more marketable — longer, flatter, easier to roast and peel, a little more mild than what Mexicans were growing in the pueblos,” Coon said. “He wanted everyone to partake of it and it really started taking off. People started using it in all of their cuisine.”
Garcia is responsible for the green chiles people roast today, but the taste for them is something that seems organic to this region. Transplants quickly acquire it.
“A lot of newcomers to the Grand Valley want to get in on chiles, but they don’t know how,” said Leta Nieslanik, owner of Okagawa Farms in Grand Junction. The farm sells quart bags of the different green chile varieties it grows and roasts “so you can figure out what strength you want, the heat, the taste.”
Not all green chiles (the pods) are created equal, and not all green chili (the sauce) is, either: The thin, Albuquerque-style sauce, or the thick stew with chunks of pork and potatoes?
“It depends on what you like,” said Kate Brierley, who makes her green chili at the Business Incubator Center and markets it as Guera’s Chili. What she likes, and what her family has always liked, is the green chili she learned to make when she was in high school from her ex-husband’s grandmother.
“She didn’t speak any English and I didn’t speak any Spanish, but we made it work,” Brierley said. The recipe, which “I’m not going to be giving out any time soon,” she said, laughing, calls for shredded pork and simple spices, plus loads of fresh, roasted green chiles from New Mexico.
“It’s good over eggs, over potatoes, on beans and burritos — whatever you want to serve it over,” she said.
Smith also has his own green chili recipe: “I start with diced pork, a pork shoulder that I sear in oil in a skillet or a big braising pot,” he said. “I sear the meat well, season it with salt and pepper, then toward the end of the (meat) browning, I throw in flour for a roux. Then, I add chicken stock, because I don’t usually have pork stock around, then toward the end throw in onions and garlic, add liquid, add diced green chiles, and let that stew until the pork’s tender. I keep it pretty simple.”
Green chili in the Southwest is like tomato sauce in Italy, Smith said: There are as many different types as there are people.
It has become, in fact, something of a religion. The quest for the perfect green chili is the quest for the Holy Grail. Those who make a good green chili are always welcome at parties, and being able to differentiate by taste alone the different types of green chiles becomes a snobbery on par with wine connoisseurship.
It is not uncommon to meet people with secret green chili recipes and secret spots for procuring the chiles. Those truly in the know have returned to growing heirloom chiles, because some modern strains are accused of having lost their flavor, Coon said.
The love of green chili, the fact that the pods are grown in most gardens in this region and the sauce is liberally poured on anything edible, has come to represent the Southwest: the unpredictability, the spice, the piquant independence that stands on its own but cooperates and enhances as needed.
Plus, it’s just good. Pity the benighted souls in other parts of the country who on extremely rare occasion buy a tiny can of diced Ortega green chiles and use maybe a third of it in some recipe or other. Little do they know the particular joy of a mellow September when the scent of roasting chiles fills the air, of a freezer packed with roasted and peeled green chiles, of a smothered burrito and spicy scrambled eggs.
Green chili isn’t just delicious, it’s necessary. It’s the Southwest and the people in it. It’s breakfast, lunch and dinner.