ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Writer and filmmaker Kelly Urig has embraced her blog moniker, Chile Chica.
The “chile girl” carries powdered red chile in her purse.
“I carry a little dried red chile and I add it when I buy a mocha or maybe a latte. It’s like Aztec hot chocolate or coffee,” she explains, adding that she treasures New Mexico’s favorite vegetable for it’s curative power as well. “I haven’t gotten sick this year and I do it religiously. It’s really good for your immune system. It will kick that tickle in the back of your throat.”
She adds that green chile is high in vitamin C (one pod has more than three oranges) and as it matures into red, vitamin A is higher (more than a carrot).
Chile has been good for the 27-year-old Santa Fe native. Urig has recently been promoting her book, “New Mexico Chile: History, Legend and Lore,” published this past summer just as the chile ripened, she says.
She got the book contract from publisher American Palate, a division of The History Press in South Carolina, after winning a regional Emmy for her documentary, “The Chile Film, La Sangre Rojo y Verde de Nuevo Mexico.”
That’s all in addition to her work in the state film industry as an art department assistant and film and writing freelancer.
She says she made the film to pay tribute to chile and New Mexico as her master’s project in film school in San Diego.
For both the film and the book she let chile and the people who grow it and cook it do the talking. “I’ve met so many amazing people. Albuquerque has more chile diversity, more Latin influence than the north (of the state). Chile is one thing that blends all of our cultures. It doesn’t matter where your family started, chile wants to be part of your food.”
But sometimes like one recent afternoon, she wants the pure taste of a traditional plate, so she was lunching on a green chile stuffed sopapilla at Mary & Tito’s Cafe on Fourth NW, where both the red and green chiles hail from Hatch.
“I’ve become a chile snob,” she admits. “This is it for me as far as Albuquerque goes. It’s harder and harder to find the kind of chile we make in my family’s farm. To me this is fresh. It’s not overly seasoned. I like my chile with a solid hot consistency. A kick.”
She comes by her chile passion naturally. She’s part of an extended family of chile growers.
“My extended family, my cousins, all farm in Hatch in the colonia of Salem called Berridge Farms,” she says. “They’ve been growing chile for over four generations.”
Right about now in Hatch and all along the Mesilla Valley, her cousins and other farmers are beginning to plant chile for this season’s harvest, as the danger of frost passes.
Her favorite varieties are Heritage Big Jim, Sandia Select, Chimayo and Alcalde Improved.
As she researched her book, she uncovered the chile origin debate. The kind of chile New Mexico is famous for originated thousands of years ago in central South America, near Bolivia. A whole chile pod found in a cave in Peru was dated to 6,500 B.C.
Birds, immune to the heat of capsicum, the chemical that makes chile hot, carried the seeds to new regions.
But most scholars, both historians and archaeologists, say it was the Spanish and their Mesoamerican allies that brought the seeds north. Although evidence of the Pueblo’s three sisters crops – corn, squash and beans – were found in pre-Columbian dwellings, not so much for chile seeds, she says.
Also, about 40 years after Coronado’s 1540 foray into the state, Baltasar Obregón, part of a returning survey crew, wrote in his diary, “They have no chile, but the natives were given some to plant.”
Pueblo scholars and farmers disagree, saying that the seeds and the crop were already here.
“It’s still a hotly debated topic,” says Rose Diaz, library and research historian at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center.
“I researched that for three months,” Urig says of the origin debate. “I tried to find proof of that. We know that Pueblos traded turquoise with Native Americans from Mexico, why not chile seeds?”
Chiltepins, a wild kind of chile, grows in Texas and Arizona, but the kind of chile harvested in New Mexico developed from chile from Mexico, she says. “The chile we know was domesticated and cultivated by people who lived in what is now Mexico. The pastilla, negro and green varieties.”
“Chile is a fickle crop. It’s hard to grow,” she says. But no need to worry, yet anyway, about chile becoming genetically modified.
“The chile’s gene structure is unique and resistant to modification,” she says. “The chile pepper is giving the (brush-off) to the scientists. As of yet, anyway.”