LAS CRUCES, N.M. — Pete Domenici, who served six terms as a U.S. senator from New Mexico before retiring this year, took to the floor of the Senate in 1983 to extoll the wondrous powers of his state’s chiles and lecture his Senate colleagues on the correct spelling of the tasty delicacy.
“New Mexicans consume mass quantities of this magical and lifegiving fruit from birth, and labels on chile products, descriptions of dishes at New Mexican restaurants and billboards and advertisements all reinforce the fact that chile is spelled with an ‘e’ and not an ‘i,'” Domenici said in the speech, entered into the Congressional Record. “A naivete exists among native New Mexicans who wrongly assume that everyone spells it with an ‘e.’
“Even the dictionary makes the error,” Domenici waxed on. “Knowing that criticizing the dictionary is akin to criticizing the Bible, I nevertheless stand here before the full Senate and with the backing of my New Mexican constituents state unequivocally that the dictionary is wrong.”
A lot of those constituents in the Mesilla Valley apparently didn’t get the message.
Domenici told the Senate that chili — spelled with an ‘i’ — is what New Mexicans know as “that inedible mixture of watery tomato soup, dried gristle, half-cooked kidney beans, and a myriad of silly ingredients that is passed off as food in Texas and Oklahoma. The different tabascos and jalapeno sauces added to the mixture do little good and in most cases simply cause a casual visitor to suffer great gastrointestinal distress.
“Contrast this to New Mexico, where ordering a bowl of chile is a delightful experience,” Domenici said. “Hospitable as we are to all visitors, we have chile that is mild enough to make a baby coo in delight, or hot enough to make even the strongest constitutions perspire in a sensual experience of both pleasure and pain.
“I could go on and on about the wonders of red and green chile, but in reality, all I wanted to do was inform Congress on the correct way to spell the word.”
However you spell it, chiles are ubiquitous in this part of the world. 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.
Some of our riders stopped in Hatch, a community of about 1,700 that calls itself the “chile capital of the world,” to admire the ristras of chiles hanging in front of the shops.
Several riders had ristras shipped to family and friends.
Hatch was the highlight of a somewhat boring 57.14-mile ride on Thursday from Arrey, N.M., to Las Cruces. The mostly flat route took us through the Mesilla Valley along the Rio Grande, whose waters irrigate the valley. We passed, of course, fields of chiles, now turning red on the bush, fields of pumpkins and orchards of pecan trees.
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 in the past. 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.