It’s that magical time of year when New Mexicans can step outside just about anywhere and take a deep, aromatic lungful that makes their hearts flutter and stomachs rumble, and become seized by the impulse to pack one’s freezer to bursting. That aroma, of course, is roasting green chile.
People are lined up outside grocery stores and farmers’ markets to have their sacks of green chile roasted, the precious peppers frolicking about in that tumbling steel cylinder while being caressed by the flavor-enhancing flames. Those contraptions of conflagration are a part of New Mexico’s landscape, identity and collective consciousness, but few stop to think about where they came from.
In 1896, using scrap metal and ingenuity, Emilio Ortega created the fiery cylinders New Mexicans take for granted every harvest season. Where in New Mexico did this happen? It didn’t. It happened in Ventura, Calif.
According to Gustavo Arellano’s book, “Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America,” Ortega fell in love with New Mexico chile after spending time in the territory working for the railroad. He took some seeds back home with him to Ventura, where the plants flourished. Ortega ended up growing more chile than he could sell, and decided to can the surplus.
He needed a way to roast the chiles in bulk prior to canning, and developed his simple yet ingenious machine. His device was a success, and he went on to found the Ortega Co. that many people know for its canned chile, canned refried beans, taco shells, and other products.
John Gonzales, manager of the Fruit Basket on Fourth Street in Albuquerque, has grown up in the family business surrounded by chile and chile roasting. He had never wondered about the machine, either, but can’t imagine doing business without it.
“This is our best time of year, or busiest time of year, and we go through so much chile,” Gonzales says, adding that some customers buy and roast up to five sacks at a time. “Without that machine? Oh, forget it.”
Loren Buclaw owns Chile Monster, a company that ships roasted New Mexico green chile all over the country to New Mexico ex-pats, or anyone suffering from an unbearable green chile deficiency. “I had honestly never questioned where the chile roaster was developed,” Buclaw says. “I’ve just been thankful they exist.”
Her business, like many others across the state, would be quite different without the roaster. “It’s an interesting piece of history there, and so important to New Mexico,” Buclaw says.
“It’s neat rolling up to work and you see the smoke coming from the machine and you can smell the chile as you’re driving up. It’s an awesome smell, man, and it’s a New Mexico tradition,” Gonzales says. “The roaster’s a big part of it, for sure.”