The scent of roasting chiles in autumn is one of the great pleasures of New Mexico. It’s a sign of nature’s annual cycle as sure as the turning of the Aspens.
But, as good as freshly roasted green chile tastes, I prefer red chile in almost every situation. So the smoky rapture of green chile shedding its skin as it rolls and tumbles in the roaster is just a primer for the sensual siren call of sweet, hot, complex chile ripening into redness.
In the southern part of the state, where the growing season is long enough to produce red chile in great quantities, the sweet smell of thousands of acres of ripening chiles is as intoxicating an inhalation as I know.
In the days before we could freeze five pounds of green chile without a second thought, red chile coated our posole, thickened our stews and smothered our burritos through the winter and spring.
Traditionally, of course, red chile has been dried and stored as ristras, the now-iconic vertical strings of chiles that have become a staple of southwestern décor.
Dried chiles on a ristra may be plucked as need and crushed and cooked into a velvety, wonderful sauce. But for all the abundance of ristras, very few of their chiles ever become food—rather they sway under portals and in the windows of kitchens until they become dusty and desiccated, inhabited by spiders before we replace them with new versions.
By the time I first visited New Mexico in the early 1980s, it was already common practice to coat ristras with shellac and even insecticide—you don’t want pests getting into your ristra while you’re busy not eating it. In the intervening years, ristras have increasingly been made out of ceramic, or they appear in the form of Christmas lights or other inedible oddities.
Frankly, it pisses me off: I’d call it a pet peeve, except that my peeves are not pets. My peeves are wild, undomesticated things—not always rational but, if you ask me, guided by a true enough instinct. In this case, the instinct is that food should be eaten, especially in a food-insecure state like New Mexico.
As a California native, I remember kitchens in which strings of garlic rotted from year to year. Garlic is a point of pride in parts of California—not so all-encompassing as the chile in New Mexico, but long braids of garlic are a common enough sight.
But unused garlic braids and decorative ristras are the same as hundreds of dollars of ignored pots hanging in a trophy kitchen. All of these things take resources, care, expertise and time to craft to perfection—only to be too often relegated to detritus of a casually abundant culture.
I’d find it less insulting if so many people out there—even in America, especially in New Mexico—weren’t ready and willing to make use of such food and materials.
So, this year, don’t buy a lacquered ristra and don’t allow your red chiles to languish in an ornamental hell. Love them, use them, crush them, eat them.
If you need help making a ristra or figuring out how to turn your ristra into red chile sauce, check out the New Mexcio State University agriculture department circular on the topic.
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