Flash in the Pan
The great chili debate
Red or green?
If you partake in the local flavor of New Mexico, as I did on a recent road trip, this is a question you get to answer a lot. It refers to the color of chili you want, and in this case, specifically the color of the sauce. To some it’s just a preference, for others it’s a rivalry of near Hatfield and McCoy proportions.
In one corner is the thick-skinned New Mexico green, or Hatch, chili variety, grown primarily around the town of Hatch and its surrounding areas in southern New Mexico’s Rio Grande valley. The Hatch chili is usually harvested before it turns red and its fleshy body makes it good for roasting and canning. The sauce has a natural, creamy body and is not as hot as its counterpart.
In the other corner is a variety commonly associated with northern New Mexico but grown statewide. Thinner-skinned, the red chili is usually allowed to ripen to its natural color—red, like all chilis if you let them—and dried. There are hundreds of varieties of red chilis, called landraces, each one adapted to its particular microclimate. Red sauce has a delicate complexity.
Don Juan de Onate, the Spanish conquistador, was a regular Johnny Appleseed of red chili in the 1500s. The New Mexico green chili, meanwhile, was bred in the early 1900s by New Mexico State University agriculture professor Fabian Garcia, who wanted to create a milder and thus more gringo-friendly chili than the status quo.
Farmers in Hatch, about 40 miles north of Las Cruces, went big on Garcia’s chili. So did some California farmers, who ended up with their own landrace they called the Anaheim. Today, Hatch chili comprises the bulk of New Mexico’s chili harvest, the nation’s largest and more than double the size of California’s. But who has time to worry about California when there’s a more interesting and friendly rivalry at home.
Take, for instance, Don Bustos, a farmer near Santa Fe, who says growing chili is a spiritual act that connects him with the land and his ancestors. His family’s landrace red chili has been cultivated for over 100 years.
“Our chili is flavored by the soil, the cool nights, the sun and the rain,” he says, “not like those weeds they grow in Hatch.”
This is a very fiery rivalry, to say the least.
Danise Coon is from northern New Mexico, which means she probably prefers red chili. She’s a senior research assistant at the nonpartisan Chile Pepper Institute in the southern city of Las Cruces, at NMSU. Coon pooh-poohs the whole red vs. green rivalry as silly.
“We’re all in this together,” she says. But when pressed, she admits to more often choosing red chili on her enchiladas.
The Chile Pepper Institute is devoted to education, research and the storage and dissemination of chili-related information. The Institute was founded in 1992 by NMSU professor Paul Bosland, who teaches chili agriculture and genetics, to help field a steady stream of chili-related inquires that were reaching him. Nowadays, the Institute is just as often at the receiving end of important news, like a recent tip provided by the Indian military.
For undisclosed reasons, India’s military had been investigating the Bhut Jolokia chili, which grows in northeast India’s Assam province. Named Bhut Jolokia (which means “Ghost Chili”), it was suggested that it might be the world’s hottest. Bosland acquired seeds, which he grew into peppers, and tested them in the lab, determining that Bhut Jolokia chilis exceed a million Scoville units—nearly twice the punch of the previous champ, the habanero.
To the folks who’ve cultivated Bhut Jolokia for generations, it’s part of their blood, and the heat isn’t news. They’re so used to it, in fact, that one local, a woman named Annandita Dutta Tamuly, recently ate 60 Bhut Jolokia (that’s 6,000 jalapeños worth of heat) in two minutes.
Chili produces an endorphin rush similar to a runner’s high. It can speed up metabolism and burn calories. And it can send you crying to mama, even if you avoid heavyweights like the Ghost Chili. Which brings us back to the debate at hand: green or red?
I myself got KO-ed at the salsa bar of Andele, a Mesilla restaurant just south of Las Cruces. With six different salsas to choose from, I can’t be sure which did it, but I think it was the coarsely chopped salsa of lowly jalapeños.
Luckily, another offering of the salsa bar, a pile of grilled onions basted in butter, lime and soy sauce, brought out a rich sweetness that chased off the pain.
Because that salsa bar was flush with red and green salsas, I did not even have to choose a side in New Mexico’s rivalry. That’s good, because I really wouldn’t want to be without either. If variety is the spice of life, then I’ll choose variety of spice.
Ask Chef Boy Ari: Morel dilemma
Q: Dear CBA,
People are asking me for tips about where I’m finding my morels. I don’t like to be covert about the whole thing, and it feels weird to deny information to my friends, but at the same time, if I tell people, and they do as I did, then soon my stash will be cashed.
I’ve thought about swearing my friends to secrecy and then telling them, but secrets have a way of escaping despite the most sincere of intentions. I hate the idea of withholding information from my friends, and I don’t like feeling that I have to choose between them and my stash.
What should I do?
A: Dear MC,
First of all, you should tell me where the stash is so I can evaluate it and get back to you.
Next question please.
Hmm, no other questions this week?
Okay, MC, you’re in luck. I’ll give you a little more to work with.
There will always be things you don’t share with your friends—your lover, the contents of your bank account, your half-eaten hamburger. So don’t be ashamed about exercising your rightful down-low.
This is an issue that comes up around elk hunting spots too. In both cases, it’s a good idea to have company, and who better than your trusty friends? So I draw the line between showing and telling. I won’t show my spots on a map, but I might say something like, “I don’t discuss my stash, but if you want to go out there with me I’ll show you.” And ask that they do the same. This will at least slow down the inevitable transfer of information enough for you to clean out the stash before the hoards arrive.
Send your food and garden queries to email@example.com.