Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Chile lore and pepper pilgrims

By S. Derrickson Moore
LAS CRUCES — While interviewing visitors to the Hatch Chile Festival, I fielded more questions than answers.
I found myself explaining the state question and answer. (Q. “Red or green?” A. “Christmas,” if you want both red and green chiles.) I answered questions about ways to make chile sauces, how to roast, freeze and ship chiles, or where to get someone else to do it for you. I fielded queries about ristras and why I no longer make them myself (it’s an art, and I’d rather support the pros). How to protect your hands from fiery oils. How heat is determined. What to add to stews and other dishes to tame too-hot chiles. What best-selling wine expert and author Alexis Bespaloff recommended as the perfect complements to chile dishes (beer or Champagne).
I realized that sooner or later, if we’re paying attention, here in the Chile Capital of the Cosmos, we all become pepper pros ourselves, sages of spicy myths and lore.
Though I make it to Hatch now and then, usually to and from other destinations up I-25, it had been a few years since I’d been to the chile fest, and I’d never managed to make it to their parade before.
The Hatch exit was pretty congested — actual gridlock by New Mexico standards — and as most of us pulled over for the parade before attempting to make it to Hatch International Airport for the big event, I expected people to be stressed and grumpy.
But, no. Everybody I talked to, even the big city visitors, seemed full of good cheer. I recalled what Chile Pepper Institute founder and NMSU professor Paul Bosland has stressed over a couple of decades of interviews: everything about chiles seems to put people in a good mood, he’s told me.
And it’s not just the endorphin rush and sense of well-being that comes from consuming the capsaicin- and vitamin-laded peppers. People also like seeing chiles, talking about them, growing them, sharing them.
I’ve discovered they are the most appreciated gifts I give, in all of their forms: ristras, fresh, frozen, dried, in various exotic concoctions. Dr. B’s Bhut-kickin Brownies (named for Bosland and the Bhut Jolokia pepper) got raves last holiday season. I stocked up on mixes from the Chile Pepper Institute (call 575-646-3028, or find it online) baked ’em up and took them to parties and sent the mix to chile-deprived far-flung amigos.
People love chile-related items, too: chile-ornamented shirts, pants, scarves, mugs, baseball caps, books ...
And, I discovered, we all love a chile parade. My fave paraders were the bouncing lowriders decorated with chiles, but I also enjoyed talking to people headed for the big fiesta.
I had fun touring Hatch Chile Express (that’s the much-photographed landmark known this time of year for its roof covered with bright red chiles, drying in the sun) and the other shops.
There were vats of chiles, labeled by name and heat, where I met Alan Thornburg, from Hazel, Texas, who said he was here to teach his son about different kinds of chile. It seemed almost like a coming-of-age ritual, crucial to farming and appreciating life in the Southwest.
For some, the Hatch Chile Festival seemed almost to be a kind of pilgrimage, or a crucial item on bucket lists.
Christine and Richard Fassler, who identified themselves as “gringos from upstate New York,” said they’d looked forward to their visit since they relocated to Farmington, and heard friends and relatives sing the praises of Hatch chile.
The festival was a romantic impulse for Jim and Lora Pierce of Tulsa, Okla., who decided the fiesta was the perfect place to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary … and their favorite food.
It was a nostalgic homecoming, and maybe even a philosophical quest for Chris Lujan, visiting with his father.
“It’s tradition: the smells, the excitement. I’ve been looking forward to this time of year,” said Lujan, who grew up in Las Cruces.
He’s now an architect based in Las Vegas, Nev., who’s seen a lot of the world.
“Wherever I travel, people — especially the Chinese — want to know about our chiles,” said Lujan, who may have a line on a solution to world peace, or at least a way to get diverse groups to the same negotiating table: serve popular chile dishes.
“Chile is a global unifier,” Lujan opined.

S. Derrickson Moore can be reached at; (575) 541-5450. To share comments, go to and click on Blogzone and Las Cruces Style. Follow her on Twitter @DerricksonMoore.

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