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KotW: New Mexico Food, Part One. July 15, 2008

Posted by sarawr in Kip of the Week, New Mexico.
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December 2004: Driving through south-central New Mexico, Adri stops at a gigantic general store and total tourist trap called Clines Corners. Wanting a present for Kip that’s compact, mailable, authentic, and intriguing, she selects a four-ounce packet of Santa Fe red chile powder.

January 2006: Kip, Sara, and various family are sitting on the patio of one of P’ville’s better lunch joints. Kip tastes his first spoonful of New Mexico’s national dish, green chile stew. It hits him with the force of a mild psychedelic drug.

June 2008: At home, Kip has roasted green chiles in the freezer, green and red bottled chile sauce stacked in the garage, canned chopped green chiles and red chile honey on the kitchen shelves, and the tag end of a bag of dried red chile pods. But his stock of other crucial New Mexico ingredients is perilously low.

In P’ville — not Wal-Mart, which in context is kind of lame, but a local supermarket — he buys various grades of red chile powder in cellophane bags, a whole bunch more dried red chile pods, and a six-ounce bag of Mexican oregano. Sara supplies him with a cardboard box for all this stuff, which he packs up and takes as checked baggage on the flight home.

No doubt about it. Kip’s chilefication is complete.
……………

Zia the sun god is the inescapable deity of New Mexico. His symbol, a red sun circle with four groups of four red rays on a yellow field, adorns New Mexico’s state flag, license plates, public buildings, and signage. Zia is everywhere, but nowhere more than above and around you in the sky. Standing on a street corner in P’ville at two in the afternoon, for more than five minutes, can make you feel like people jerky.

The pepper is a gift from Zia. Only this sun in this sky allows the pepper to grow as it should. You can find this chile in most of New Mexico, some of Arizona, a little bit of West Texas, a sliver of southeastern California. But Zia is unyielding. Where the pepper grows, it grows, where it does not it will not. And without the pepper there is no green chile stew, no carne adovada, no stuffed sopaipillas.

Alas! Where Kip lives the sun is not Zia, it is only the sun, and Zia’s gift is barren.
……………

We’re on Sara’s porch. “In New Mexico,” a friend says, “you can talk about peppers just about more than you can talk about pickup trucks or sex.”

There are kinds of peppers: Barker, Hatch, Sandia, Santa Fe, maybe more. You can buy peppers green, or red, or pintado (green with red streaks). You can buy them fresh, frozen, dried, whole or chopped, powdered, or made into sauce; mild, medium, hot, or extra hot. Best of all, in August and September, you can buy peppers that have been freshly roasted in metal mesh drums crank-turned over gas flames. Take those home, hold them under cold water and slip off the dark-speckled skins, then top them. Remove the seeds or not, depending on how much heat you like.

Real New Mexico cooking depends on using the pepper in several forms in almost any dish. Some of the techniques are subtle, like using chile powder — alone or mixed with flour — to thicken stew. Some are rough-and-ready, like the directions on the jar of the popular chile sauce called 505: “Warm thoroughly and pour over any meal.”

New Mexican food, at least in restaurants, generally is not searing hot — mouth-hot. But as you eat, warmth builds up first in your chest and belly, then in your limbs, finally all through your blood and soul. (A really good bowl of green chile stew once made my eyelids itch. Go figure.) Zia, repairing your human frailty, has given of himself, and the Sun God is within you.

Honest chile heat is one of the best feelings ever. I won’t say it’s better than sex. It sure as hell is better than pickup trucks.
……………

A last caveat: What I’m discussing here is not Mexican food, Texas food, Tex-Mex food, or (especially) big-city “Southwestern” food. It is the food you get in New Mexico’s small towns, either by making it yourself, or by shunning the pestilential chain restaurants and braving Zia to saunter down side streets in search of the real thing.

Next: Green chile stew in all its glory…and where to get some.

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