IT MAY BE SHOWN IN COLORS ON ARTIST’S CANVAS; pictured on the pages of Western stories; visitors may try to describe it to stay-at-home friends after seeing the Southwest.
Whatever the medium, no description of the New Mexican scene seems complete if it fails to convey at least a suggestion of grey-dun adobe walls splashed by strands of crimson chile peppers.
The walls may be those of a humble casita on the edge of inhospitable desert; they may support the tiled roof of an elegant hacienda. The terraces of an Indian pueblo may provide the walls for the scene. Or the dun background for crimson ristras of fiery chile may be modern hotels or dude-ranch houses where local color lends native atmosphere to attract the interest of visitors. Modest to the point of poverty or luxurious—whatever its station in the social order—Spanish style architecture seems to demand the display of chile peppers glowing against sober earthen walls.
Decorative? Effectively so. Exotic? To the eyes of the visitor, yes. Usable? Almost any Spanish-American will tell you with enthusiasm that chile fills an important place in his scheme of life: for food, as a condiment, for medicinal purposes.
To name this variety of botanical heat appears variously as chile, chili, and chilli; most frequently as chile. The Brittanica says: "Chile or chiles, pods of Capsicum Cayenne Pepper, also called Guinea or Spanish Pepper or chilly. Capsicum is a genus of family Salanaceae; fruit is a pod fleshy, then leathery. Chillis have been in use from time immemorial."
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"In the heart of chile land."
But Bailey’s Cyclopedia of American Horticulture states:
"American peppers are botanically Capsicum. Natives of American, not known before Columbus. Washington Irving’s Life of Columbus says it is first mentioned by Martyr in 1493: 'Columbus brought home pepper more pungent than that from Caucasus.' Was introduced into Europe during the next century by way of Africa. It spreads easily in warm climates.
“First record of use is apparently by Chauca, physician of Columbus’ fleet who in 1494 alludes to it as a condiment. Writers a century later considered it an aid to digestions, also for dressing meats, dyeing, etc. It was used medicinally for dropsy, colic, ague, toothache; and mixed with honey was applied externally for quinsy. Later its preparations were used for black vomit, tropical fevers, gout, paralysis, and as a tonic. Modern use is as condiment in almost every dish of warm countries.”
It should be clear, then, that chile has many uses other than adding a picturesque touch of color to scenes which without it might seems “of the earth, earthy.” Physicians who practice among people using chile in the daily diet say gastronomic disturbances of serious nature are almost unknown among such patients.
Chile con carne (chile with meat) approaches the status of a national institution among Spanish-speaking people. Other nationalities, too, have adopted it, just as they adopted the caviar of Russia, the tea and rice of China, the spaghetti and macaroni of Italy. If there be any true internationalism, it must be that of the kitchen.
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When first introduced to chile con carne or tamales, the palate of the average Anglo-Saxon—rendered more or less sluggish in reaction to pastry, potatoes, and pickles—is apt to recoil in fright and horror before the fiery food. But something in the experience invites further experiment. Soon the neophyte becomes converted and finds unsuspected gastronomic delights in consuming chile con carne and tamales. Those dishes are on short-order menus almost everywhere; chile “parlors” specialize in peppery dishes in hamlets and cities all over the United States; “tin can” tourists usually include chile con carne in their portable larders.
During tourist “season” (which in New Mexico usually means twelve months of the year) thousands come to discover the wonders of the Sunshine State. In camp or cottage they may open canned chile con carne bought anywhere from Brooklyn to Seattle. It is to be wondered whether they realize the chile in the can probably came from New Mexico.
Strands of chile peppers, sun-dried and sacked, are shipped from New Mexico to all parts of the nation. Metal drums of pulverized peppers, and even packaged chile powder, are shipped to canneries, meat-packing houses, and wholesale grocers from coast to coast and from border to border. There is a New Mexican industry regarding which few residents have been fully informed, and of which others perhaps know even less.
While few insects will attack the growing plant, a blight known as chile wilt has caused serious concern among growers. New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts has conducted extensive research and experiments in controlling this blight. Findings are published in bulletins available from country agricultural agents or the State College.
Soil of the Rio Grande and other valleys in Rio Arriba county—sandy loam for the most part—seems particularly well adapted to the culture of chile. The length of the growing season, from about April 20th to October 1st, seems also very favorable. Chile is not a dry-land crop. It requires ample irrigations and demands extensive cultivation after each such period.
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MAY 1935 NEW MEXICO MAGAZINE COVER
The narrow-gauge railroad which serves Rio Arriba county moved so much chile before the days of extensive motor trucking, that it earned the name of the Chile line. One firm in Chamita—San Juan buys, prepares, and markets great amounts of peppers annually. It is difficult to estimate tonnage because peppers are bought when only partially dry, sold in strands, drums of the pulverized product, and packages of prepared chile powder.
“What,” I asked H.H. Kramer, dealer in chile, “would you say is the average size of plots planted to the chile in the parts of Rio Arriba county well known to you?”
“The plots vary from very small domestic patches to fields of two or three acres. The average contains about two acres.”
How much chile may such a plot be expected to produce?
“Given the necessary attention, an acre should produce from 75 to 150 strings. Thus, the average field should produce from 150 to 300 strings, depending upon the season, the moisture, and the attention it receives.”
What steps are necessary in preparing chile powder for the market?
“The peppers are picked by hand when they have turned red or become ripe. They are tied in bunches, then in strings four or five feet in length; the strings are hung up to dry and cure in the sum. Later, the pods are taken from the strings, sorted, and ground pure on a special grinder.”
On an average, how much chile do you prepare and market in a year?
“We buy from 12,000 to 13,000 strings in an average year. We cannot estimate what amount of this is ground, for large amounts are shipping in strings.”
What is the retail value of that amount?
“The retail value is governed by the crop, whether normal or short, and upon conditions generally. In a five-year period, the price has been from $.35 to $1.25 per string.”
How much does the grower receive for his product?
“The grower receives very nearly its retail value as merchants take it to clear his account and do not make much profit.”
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Are most growers Spanish and Indians or has American capital entered this field?
“Spanish-Americans raise the bulk, Indians balance. Very few white Americans raise chile and there is no outside capital invested on a large scale.”
Increasing popularity of chile has resulted in more widespread cultivation to meet the demand. With a greater interest in the product and its cultivation New Mexico State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts has turned its attention to the problems of raising chile and through experimentation a New Mexico chile pod has been developed.
On the records as No. 9, the chile pod is more generally known in New Mexico as Las Cruces chile. This pod is longer, more full, has a greater yield, and is better adaptable for market.
It is not as hot as the native chile, and while for that reason is not as acceptable to the native New Mexican, from year to year it is being grown in increasingly larger quantities for the general market. The flavor is slightly “warmer” than the popular California chile, and it seems to find a warm welcome among those who like highly spiced foods but who are not regular chile fans.
For the native New Mexican, chile—the hotter the better—is an indispensable part of the diet, and he would no more care to do without it than the average person would care to do without bread or potatoes.
Chile is used with meat, with frijoles (beans), with potatoes, and is an essential ingredient for Spanish dishes too numerous to mention.
Every little rancho up and down the Rio Grande valley produces at least enough chile for home consumption during the year, for that is the most important concern. Whatever isn’t needed by the family finds its way to market, either through direct sale or in exchange at the nearest general store for other articles. While New Mexico has no chile canning factory large amounts not only of the peppers but of the powder and sauce are prepared for local consumption and shipment to other parts of the country.
With the exception of machine grinding of dried pods and packaging of prepared powder, every step in culture and preparation of chile is picturesque. The farmer with his hoe cultivates the plants after irrigation; crimson ristras dry in the sun on fence or wall; massed banks—thousands of strands—shine in drying courts and sheds before grinding; the workman stirs the powder to insure perfect sun-drying before packing.
The industry is one in which “high pressure” selling seems not to figure. Chile contains enough high pressure of its own. Time may see application of mass production methods and principles. Great volume yields may be developed—but, porque? Leisurely, picturesque methods belong with this spicy fruit of Capsicum. The industry is another which cannot become a tool of technology.
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