first person

Mike Powers | News-Bulletin photo

Steven Sichler, of Snake Ranch Farm in Los Lunas, says the Middle Rio Grande Valley is ideal for growing chile.

When I arrived in the Land of Enchantment in 1985, my new boss at KGGM-TV, now KRQE, ushered me to the Albuquerque Country Club not for a round of golf but for a taste of New Mexico — posole specifically.

What lingered wasn’t the taste but how Bruce Hebenstreit was so excited to introduce me to New Mexico cuisine.

That was a continuing theme. My wife and I were often asked if we knew about red and green, menudo and that New Mexican food was not Mexican food.  The pride of those sharing their thoughts flowed like cheese on an enchilada.

Thirty-seven years later, my knowledge of the cuisine remains limited. I know what I like but that’s about it.

So, as the VCNB staff went over assignments for “Traditions That Feed Us,” I meekly protested when assigned “A Tale of Two Chiles,” suggesting, “This Montana boy doesn’t know anything about red or green.”

“That’s what reporters do, ask questions,” a collegue replied.

Nothing like a swift kick in the pants!

Mike Powers | News-Bulletin photo

Evelyn Jaramillo has been making red chile at Pete’s Café for nearly 40 years.

With that, I’m off. My first stop was a Peralta landmark, the Perea Farms food stand on N.M. 47. It was buzzing. After all, I learned Labor Day weekend begins chile season.

Sarah Martinez, of Albuquerque, stops every year to get her fix.

“It’s worth the drive,” Martinez said. “They have the chile peeled. They have it stacked. They do exactly what I want.”

Nearly a dozen Perea family members are working the stand — peeling, packaging, roasting and chopping. A way of life for 51 years.

“I think we do pretty well for Valencia County. We are proud of our little town,” Jimmy Perea says about Peralta. “This is the only place we’ve ever planted.”

Also working chile fields is the Sichler family, celebrating their 150th anniversary in Valencia County. Steven Sichler says they started in Los Lunas, and now farm near San Antonio in Socorro County.

The family runs Snake Ranch Farm stores in San Antonio and Los Lunas.

“I wouldn’t sell a lot of stuff if it weren’t for the chile here,” Sichler says. “It’s just New Mexican. Most of our cuisine is based on chile.”

Sichler says the Middle Rio Grande Valley is ideal for growing chile.

“Geography, altitude, climate our water. Everything has an impact on how it tastes and grows,” he said.

The chile, with names like Big Jim’s, Española, Sandia, Lumbre and Barker, is certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to make sure the seeds are pure.

“The diversity of chile peppers is unlike any other crop. That’s what makes chile peppers interesting,” says Danise Coon, a senior researcher with The Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University.

Coon says CPI answers hundreds of questions each month about peppers and problems with plants.

What about cooking chile? Next stop, Pete’s Café, in Belen, which opened in 1949. It too is a family operation, started by the grandparents of new owners Marie Torres and Camille Padilla.

“Our ingredients never change,” Padilla said. “It’s the same recipe we used back then” by grandmother Eligia Torres.

What’s the secret? It’s a secret.

“It’s all up here,” Torres said, pointing to her head.

“You have to blend it, put all the ingredients in, soak it and cook it for six or seven hours,” Torres said of their red chile. “The ingredients can make it thicker, thinner; what you want is right in between.”

Evelyn Jaramillo has been the cook at Pete’s Café for nearly 40 years. That’s part of the consistency they strive for.

When asked what makes good red chile, Jaramillo simply raises her arm. “I do” was the implication.

Now to New Mexico’s official question — red or green? At Pete’s it is red.

“When people come in to buy just chile, it’s usually red,” Torres says.

Sichler points out that a green plant ripens into red, while praising the versatility of red.

“It makes more sauces,” he said. “You can turn it into powder.”

“Red is special because it is a sign of brisk weather,” says Perea, who doesn’t have a favorite. “It’s more Christmasy.”

As for green, Perea prefers the hot. The milder stuff “has no taste. It’s like eating lettuce!”

New Mexico is the top chile-producing state, and there is no question chile is associated more with New Mexico than just about anything else.

A chile feud between the governors of New Mexico and Colorado recently gained national attention. A New Mexico license plate proclaiming “Chile Capital of the World” was named best in the country. The internet and social media spread the word.

“The CPI receives hundreds of visitors a month from all over the world who want to learn about New Mexican-type chile peppers,” Coon said.

Yes, the word is out. A waiter in Orlando, Fla., once told our visiting Valencia County youth basketball team that he once lived in New Mexico. Prove it.

“Red or green?” we asked.

After a brief pause he told us his choice and explained why, passing the test.

As my search wound down, it became clear. For many, chile is about family — at Pete’s Café, at Perea and Sichler Farms.

“It’s just family — the tradition of New Mexico is red and green,” said Sarah Martinez at Perea Farms. “It’s just the best part. Got to have it.”

I felt left out of that tradition until remembering the Blue Bear Café, a short-lived restaurant on Main Street and El Cerro Loop in Los Lunas. Their green chile chicken enchilada was killer. It became the family go to place on weekends, centered around the kids’ soccer or basketball games.

We were often joined by the Matthews family, John and Becky with Nadia, Janelle and Luke. Lots of conversation and laughs, topped off with the flavor of New Mexico.

While the owners of Blue Bear were soon off to Colorado and the Matthews off to Arizona, the smell and taste of that time remains, as do the feelings of love and friendship from those gatherings. That is our chile tradition.

Menudo and Posole: The delicacies of pork and tripe

Whether during Christmas, Thanksgiving or on the weekends at a favorite local restaurant, both posole and menudo continue to be traditional New Mexican favorites, no matter how they are enjoyed.

Enchiladas: Rolled, Flat and Casseroles

At their heart, enchiladas are three simple ingredients — warm, supple corn tortillas, hearty red chile and your shredded cheese of choice.

Tortillas and Sopapiallas: Fabulous, floured foods

For some, the smell of bacon in the morning transports them back to childhood nostalgia, and for many New Mexicans it’s the rhythmic clacking sound of a round rolling pin hitting the countertop while their mother or grandmother rolls out tortillas, ready to cook on a hot comal.

Desserts: Sweet and sustenance

For Betty Jean Villa, baking has been a tradition passed down from generation to generation. She remembers helping her grandmother bake, and then her father, Manny, who opened the bakery 26 years ago. She continues the baking tradition with her own daughters, Mari Cruz and Beatriz.

Matanza: Tradition, food and family

The centuries-old tradition was once the primary way families throughout the Rio Grande Valley and New Mexico prepared and stored meat for the winter months. While some families still use the cool fall months as a way to fill the freezer, matanzas are now typically hosted for large celebrations.

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Mike Powers spent more than 40 years as a television news and sports anchor, mostly in the Albuquerque market. He has won numerous awards including New Mexico Sportscaster of the Year. He covers a wide range of sports, including the Valencia County prep scene.