All About the Chile
Living a life based on the hot fruit itself
By August March
But the fact that chile, from cultivation to consumption, is a defining part of the Nuevo Mexicano culture we all share doesn't mean that its attachment to most things New Mexican is particularly ancient or arcane. In fact, except for the science behind its relatively recent establishment as a cultivar, the story of chile —like the plant itself—is elegantly simple yet ultimately satisfying.
When the Spanish invaded the Yucatan peninsula in the early 16th century they came across all kinda cray foodstuffs being grown by local inhabitants. They were unfamiliar with many of these fruits and vegetables, including corn and chile, but began incorporating them into their diets. After toppling the mystical, mighty and militaristic Aztec empire, the Spanish (themselves a warlike and theocratic culture) began introducing European farming techniques to those whom they colonized.
The use of chile spread northward. Though some of the Pueblo people living at the Rio Grande's edge also grew indigenous pepper plants, the Mexican peppers literally took over. Eric Votava, a prominent chile researcher over at New Mexico State University wrote that, “We recently completed a study at NMSU in which we looked at the DNA of landraces from northern New Mexico and compared them to modern cultivars and landraces collected from New Mexico. We found that the landraces from northern New Mexico were genetically unique, and that they were genetically more similar to landraces from Mexico than they were to modern cultivars. These landraces are the direct descendants of chile brought to New Mexico from Mexico. In essence they are a living link to 400 years of New Mexico history.”
Basically a genius named Dr. Fabián Garcia—also from NMSU—began the breeding program that focused on the lineage described above. His research and work began just over 100 years ago. It resulted in the creation of several varieties of pepper plants that became very important economically and culturally to the people of this state.
See, the horticultural science regarding chile is complicated. I rarely use the words cultivar or landrace myself, so I should know. Basically a genius named Dr. Fabián Garcia—also from NMSU—began the breeding program that focused on the lineage described above. His research and work began just over 100 years ago. It resulted in the creation of several varieties of pepper plants that became very important economically and culturally to the people of this state.
One of the people impacted by Garcia's work was my grandfather, a farmer of the Rio Grande Valley who grew chile and pecans. He knew a lot about chile, but probably wouldn't use scientific words to tell about his experiences. I'm sure he'd cuss a lot, since that was one of his favorite things to do as he ambled up and down the fields he managed daily, looking for anything that could potentially go wrong and keeping an eye out for things that might strengthen or broaden his yearly yield.
After all, he was dependent on the plants in his care and made a good living on their use by others. Without the chile plants, in bad years when too much rain or odd viruses ruined the crop, his family—the family that I would someday be born into—would have to subsist on beans and tortillas sin carne to get through the oncoming and unforgiving New Mexican winter.
With such potentials always on his mind, my grandfather cussed in a vernacular peculiar to the farmers of the mid and lower Rio Grande Valley, on occasion darkly singing his sometimes poetic damnations of nature and machinery. He would cuss in order to express just about anything having to do with agriculture, but favored admonitions rose from frustrations borne of a leaky irrigation system or conversely, the joy of realizing a bumper crop.
Cuss-word laden references to machines often signified the tenuous, stressful nature of the lives farmers en el valle lived; the phrase “a la máquina” reflected a general distrust towards machines and technology, which were typically and resignedly viewed as destined to fail at some unforeseeable point in the future.
On those occasions when the world did not disappoint—when my grandfather and his progeny stood watch over several dozen pallets of the fruit he harvested as it awaited loading into trucks bound for Santa Fe and Raton and Oklahoma City and all over Califas—good times were bound to follow.
Using the feria derived from his practical horticultural expertise, he paid a summer's worth of bills, ordered seeds and supplies for the next spring, made repairs to the tractors, the truck and the pumps, bought shoes for his children and a new dress for his wife. Maybe he'd get himself a tube for the shortwave radio or new strings for his fiddle—if the year had gone especially well. Though they lived simply, they never experienced privation; chile was and still is a relatively dependable cash crop.
As my grandmother oversaw the canning, preserving and drying of the chile (along with a bevy of other fruits and vegetables harvested on their farm that year) for the long winter ahead, her husband, mi abuelo, worked to put the farm to bed for the cold, dark months ahead. Sometimes he'd take a break and walk around his place, surveying the land, sifting the earth through his hands while smoking a roll-up frajo, while mi abuela ran the house, keeping the records, finances, children and dogs straight, too.
After the harvest came in, when all that good green chile had been picked and bagged and shipped they'd throw an annual party. All sorts of people would show up for the fiesta. Not surprisingly, it was all about the chile. The enchiladas were piquant and plentiful; one of the boys, who had been in the Navy, thought to put the fresh-roasted stuff on the burgers he was grilling; there was calabacitas and of course a neighbor made a loaf of cornbread loaded with chile that was hard to eat without a gulp of tequila taken before.
The women gossiped about which tortillas were the best; the men compared notes about their own grandfathers’ faraway farming experiences or else tuned up their guitars and violins; two or three score kids ran around kicking cans or chasing their favorite perros through the yard; and the the smell of something greenly gorgeous filled up the air, filled up their lives.
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Erika Wennerstrom • singer-