Although for fifteen years, before moving to New Mexico, I enjoyed excellent Mexican food in Colorado, I never noticed late-summer commercial chile-roasting on the state’s street corners and in the state’s supermarket parking lots. Now, in the San Luis Valley, I continued to assume this was a charming practice confined to New Mexico.
Thus, I was surprised when, one late afternoon in mid-August, while driving on Hunt Avenue just south of downtown, I got the unmistakable whiff―that intoxicating, sweet-smoky odor―of roasting long-green chiles. Sure enough, a roaster, a gridironed metal drum that revolves just above some propane gas-fed flames, was operating in the parking lot of Atencio’s Market, so I just had to pull into the lot―not, I told myself, to make a purchase, merely to watch and smell. By the roaster, I joined several other addicts, along with the man with the denim apron, long brakeman’s gloves, and wire brush who operated the device.
As I watched the peppers tumble in the drum―slowly, carefully blackening and becoming increasingly limp―my gaze turned to a nearby pallet stacked with burlap bags of freshly-harvested raw chiles. The bags read that the chiles were from a farm in . . . Pueblo, Colorado?
I was surprised. I didn’t think a chile seed had a prayer beyond the air, water, soil, sunlight, and agricultural sorcery of Hatch, New Mexico, the (self-proclaimed) “chile capital of the world.”
Good heavens, had I been greatly enjoying Colorado chile in various Alamosa restaurants since my arrival?
I had to explore this further, so I walked into Atencio’s and headed for the fruit-and-produce section. In a bin were piled some individual chiles, with a sign indicating they were “hot.”
“Hah!” I thought. I held up one. “From Pueblo?” I asked a nearby employee, a woman un-boxing bananas. She arched her brows and nodded as if to affirm the obvious. I bought several of the peppers and headed home.
There, I spread some foil in our stove’s broiler, upon which I laid the washed peppers. I turned on the broiler. I dumped some ice into a pot of water.
I turned the chiles over and over until they had sufficiently blackened and blistered. I dropped them into the pot of ice water and stirred, to coax the hot chile flesh from the charred skin, a technique I’d learned in Anthony.
When the ice cubes had all but melted, I asked myself, “Should I don latex gloves?”―to protect my hands against the capsaicin, of course. “Nah. After all, we’re talkin’ Pueblo. We’re talkin’ el norte.”
I plunged my bare hands into the pot and removed the peppers. I carefully removed the skins―generally not eaten when charred―from the flesh. Hunger increasing, I took a knife and sliced off the head of each pepper. Then I sliced open each pepper lengthwise and scrapped away the seeds.
As I reached for the salt shaker, I noticed my fingertips beginning to burn. Then I felt entire fingers aflame. I opened the kitchen door with one alarmed pinkie and carefully removed the half-gallon milk bottle. I generously flushed both burning hands with milk, to neutralize the capsaicin: I’d learned that in Anthony, as well. Yet this provided only a modicum of relief, so I rinsed my hands under cold tap water, despite the fact that I’d read this was basically futile.
But never mind this temporary discomfort: I was curious, my taste buds were longing, and those chiles weren’t getting any warmer by the thermometer. I lightly salted the flesh of a chile, cut off a segment of it, and, with a fork (gratuitous, really, at this point), popped the segment into my mouth.
And, lo and behold, there it was. That slightly sweet, slightly citrus-y, mostly indescribable flavor. Then I felt a blowtorch on the lips, which spread to my tongue and gums, and then a firestorm filled the entire buccal region.
I polished off the remaining long greens.
Well, Viva Pee-EB-low!