In New Mexico, you know autumn is coming when you smell the chile roasting.
The bitter aroma rises from street corners and grocery store parking lots, where spicy green peppers plucked during the September harvest are blistered to perfection in cages cranked over an open flame.
We buy them by the sack and put them in or on nearly everything we eat: burritos and tamales, of course, but also hamburgers, pizzas, pastas and pies.
When I left Albuquerque for college on the East Coast, it was the food back home that I missed as much as the family cat or the yawning desert sky. Each time I visited, my mom would have a pan of enchiladas waiting in the oven.
All families have their comfort food, and all regions have their trademark cuisine. But New Mexican green chile inspires a unique obsession, even among outsiders.
A colleague who vacations in Santa Fe recently told me that he views my home state “as one vast restaurant.” Every trip, he ships a big box of chile back to Southern California.
The mania is most fervent among those of us who grew up on the stuff, who were told to sip green chile stew — not chicken soup — when we got sick. So when an art gallery in Echo Park in Los Angeles announced it was hosting a green-chile potluck last month, the invitation quickly circulated among my expat friends.
The email from Ken Ehrlich, who was raised in Santa Fe and now teaches at CalArts, read like an artist’s statement: “Elsewhere in the world, the passing of the seasons is marked by changes in the weather. In Los Angeles, we need ritual reminders that summer is turning into fall.”
Ehrlich often collaborates with Machine Project, the art collective that hosted the potluck in its space just north of Sunset Boulevard. The gallery gave out chile and asked people to bring them back, cooked in dishes. He was there when I went to pick up my batch.
Immediately our conversation turned to food, which he said bonds New Mexicans together like a “weird tribal identity.”
I asked his favorite dish.
“Green-chile stew with a tortilla and grated cheese on top,” he said. “And also just enchiladas smothered in green chile. A giant plate. It comes out and it’s just like, a big chile cheesy mess.”
By the time I left, I was starving.
I was also curious: What makes our habit-forming peppers different from those you find in Southern California grocery stores? I dialed up the Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University to find out.
Researcher Danise Coon said the variety I grew up on, known for its meaty texture and smoky flavor, was developed by a scientist named Fabian Garcia 100 years ago, specifically for the state’s dry summers and loamy soil.
New Mexico’s pueblo Indians had been farming chiles for centuries, but Garcia hybridized their peppers with less spicy varieties “to develop a chile that the gringos could eat,” Coon said.
Green chile is one of New Mexico’s top crops and an integral part of its culture. We put the peppers in mashed potatoes on Thanksgiving and on top of posole on New Year’s Day.
In 1996, the Legislature passed a bill declaring “Red or green?” the official state question. That’s what waiters ask in restaurants, where diners are given a choice of sauce made with green chile or red chile, which is the same pepper, only riper. Many argue that red is more delicious.
As the product of a mixed marriage — my mom swears by red, but my dad prefers green — I usually order my meals “Christmas,” with both.
In recent years, international foodie culture has awakened to the wonders of New Mexico chiles. A few years ago, I ordered a red chile Bloody Mary off the menu at a restaurant in Chicago.
At the potluck in Echo Park, there were tables lined with traditional as well as more avant-garde chile offerings. I started my meal with a delicious appetizer of fig, green chile and goat cheese and finished it with a frozen pepper filled with vanilla ice cream and dipped in caramel that I can only describe as paradigm-shifting.
While we ate, a live band played Mexican tunes.
Forest Graham, a native New Mexican who moved to San Francisco in his 20s, told me he used to barter chile trafficked from New Mexico. “I actually used it like currency,” he said. “I would say: ‘I’ve got chile, what do you got?’”
Eve LaFountain’s story reminded me of my own.
A filmmaker who grew up in Santa Fe, she suffered a bout of culture shock when she went away to Hampshire College. One day another student who grew up in Taos asked if she wanted to make dinner.
“She said, ‘My mom just sent me green chile.’ I said, ‘Shut up, my mom just sent me a quesadilla maker!’” LaFountain said. They’ve been best friends ever since. Once they cooked with so many chiles that their East Coast roommates couldn’t enter the dorm kitchen without their eyes watering.
New Mexicans view their tolerance for spicy chiles as a point of pride. When I told LaFountain that the apple pie she made was almost too hot to eat, I meant it — and she took it — as a compliment.
I brought two dishes to the party: Christmas enchiladas made with my mom’s recipe, and Frito pie, a Southwestern tradition that consists of corn chips smothered in beef or beans, cheese and, of course, chile.
In recent years, it’s gotten easier to get New Mexican chile in Southern California. The peppers are hauled out here by the truckload, and some grocery stores even offer roasting.
I didn’t have time for that, so I seared the peppers myself, at home in the broiler. After about 10 minutes, their skins shriveled and blackened, and the house filled with their smell. I savored it. Outside, it was more than 90 degrees, but in my kitchen, it felt like fall.