At just about any New Mexico restaurant that serves the local cuisine, you can expect to be asked: “Red or green?”
The question refers to the sort of chile you’d like with the meal. And New Mexicans have been asked that so often and for so long that the state legislature — apparently with too much time on its hands — passed a House Joint Memorial in 1996 declaring “Red or green?” the official state question.
The legislature, during another period of looking for something important to do, got involved with chiles again this year — and caused a stir among chile growers.
Rep. Elias Barela, a Democrat from Belen, introduced a bill that would make a poem about chile peppers the official state poem. The poem, We Love it Real Hot, by Alberto Onaldo Martinez, reads in part:
Ah, Chimayo chile is so delicious to eat!
That cure-all food is a special treat,
So fiery good, it makes us sweat,
A runny nose is more proof yet.
A hot bite and you’re chile afflicted,
Another bite and you’re chile addicted!
Caramba! It’s hot, turistas say,
They beg for more when out our way.
What got some chile growers riled was that the poem singled out Chimayo, which straddles the border of Santa Fe and Rio Arriba counties in northern New Mexico. Chimayo, no doubt, produces some fine heirloom chiles. But what about the southern town of Hatch, which calls itself the “chile capital of the world”?
Our bike caravan will pass through Hatch, a town of about 1,700 in the Hatch/Mesilla Valley 37 miles northwest of Las Cruces. Unfortunately, we’ll miss the Hatch Valley Chile Festival Sept. 5-6 during the Labor Day weekend.
Some New Mexicans say that just by tasting a chile pod they can tell whether the pepper was grown north or south of Interstate 40, which runs east-west and bisects the state.
“Chimayo chile?” sniffed Marcia Nordyke, chairwoman of the Hatch chile fest, quoted in a Feb. 20 story in the Las Cruces Sun-News about the poem flap. “I’m not a poem writer, so I can’t review a poem, but you’d think Hatch — we bring 20,000 or 30,000 people to New Mexico. You think they would at least bring up our name.”
In the same story, Rep. Andy Nuñez, a Democrat from Hatch, dissed the northern chiles as “small and mostly skin” and said chile growers in northern New Mexico lack the techniques, varieties and meat of the Hatch chiles.
But the Sun-News also quoted Deborah Madison, who defended Chimayo chiles on the food Web site saveur.com: “Unlike larger, mass-produced chiles grown in other parts of the state — whose conformity makes them perfect in the way that iceberg lettuce is perfect — Chimayo chiles are unpredictable.”
According to local newspaper accounts, the chile harvest this year looks good throughout the state. Around Hatch, the harvest began in the last week of July for green chiles. It will continue through the red chile harvest or up through the first frost.
Last year, New Mexico produced 60,140 tons of chile, about a 23 percent more than in 2007, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. Though production was up from the previous year, it was still much less than previous years. In 2000, for example, New Mexico produced 99,000 tons of chile valued at nearly $49 million.
Chile production in New Mexico, which produces about two-thirds of all the chile consumed in the United States, has been trending downward because of the increased costs of farming and labor and competition from Mexico.
Some facts about chile from the Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University:
— One fresh, medium-sized green chile pod has as much Vitamin C as six oranges.
— One teaspoon of dried red chile powder has the daily requirements of Vitamin A.
— Hot chile peppers burn calories by triggering a thermodynamic burn in the body, which speeds up the metabolism.
— The color extracted from very red chile pepper pods, oleoresin, is used in everything from lipstick to processed meats.
— The Indians of the American tropics cultivated the chile pepper for centuries for both its culinary and medicinal uses.
— On his first voyage to the Western Hemisphere, Christopher Columbus mistakenly called the fiery chile pepper pod “pepper” because of its heat, thinking it was a relative of black pepper.
And in answer to the perennial question: I prefer green.