By Henry Shukman, "The Chile That Saved Chimayó,"September/October 2010
Just 25 miles north of Santa Fe, Chimayó, New Mexico, is a beautiful place. To the east stand the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, capped with glistening plates of snow. To the west is the blue Jemez range. The town itself is a scattering of adobe homes, nestled among cottonwoods.
At one end of town is the congregation of mud buildings around the Santuario de Chimayó, the most famous pilgrimage shrine in New Mexico, tended by a nonagenarian priest from Spain, Padre Roca, who arrived in 1955. Famed as the “little priest who restored the shrine,” he still shuffles around greeting visitors, telling them how when he first arrived—“reborn” in the mountains after a long illness—mules were stabled in the vestry and chile plants grew right up to the church door.
Chimayó is celebrated for two things: its “sacred dirt,” which has been credited with healing miracles over the decades, as testified to by the long lines of crutches hanging in the shrine room; and its near-sacred chile pepper. The stories of the shrine and the chile are intertwined. Pilgrims started coming here in the nineteenth century. Even today, each Easter tens of thousands of people walk up, some from hundreds of miles away. Over the years, the pilgrims who came would leave with vials of holy water, buckets of holy dirt and sacks of the local chile.
I used to be afraid of chile. Ever since I bit into what I thought was a small, wrinkled tomato and a pain exploded in my mouth that didn’t dissipate for 24 hours, I feared the Scoville Heat Unit—the index of a chile’s fieriness. But a few years ago, on a long lonely drive across the plains of New Mexico, the only thing I could find to eat in a tiny general store was a pack of tortilla chips and a jar of “Religious Experience” hot sauce. By the end of the drive, I had lost my Scoville virginity and become a devout convert.
The chile is miraculous: it is packed full of vitamin C and it actually increases the tactile sensitivity of the mouth, which may be one reason it’s popular in places that have bland staples. Liable to bring on a light sweat, it turns a meal into a multidimensional experience. It’s about the only way of hurting yourself without harming yourself, which creates a flood of endorphins. At the end of a serious chile-infused meal, you can feel dreamily, deliciously lightheaded, and lighthearted.
The New Mexican chile is famous, with names and variations like Hatch (a name loosely given to chiles of many types grown around Hatch, New Mexico), Big Jim, Española Improved and NuMex Conquistador. Chile peppers grow easily in New Mexico, ripening from green to red (green chiles are simply picked before they turn red) beneath the strong Southwestern sun. They can be used fresh, roasted or dried and used as a seasoning, most commonly as a ground deep-red powder.
With the best chile, there’s something comparable to the terroir of fine wine, and the town of Chimayó is to chile as Havana is to cigars. After centuries of selective breeding, and irrigation from a particular mountain stream, there’s an unmistakable complexity to the chiles here, a citrus tang, a depth and richness you can’t quite find elsewhere. Throw anything in a skillet—steak, chicken, vegetables, even tofu—sprinkle a couple of spoons of ground Chimayó red chile powder on top, add salt and enough water to create a grainy, blood-red sauce, and the result will defy all logic, all culinary chemistry or experience.
Yet, in spite of its fame, the Chimayó chile—a particular strain of chile that may have been brought here by Spaniards in the 1500s— almost became extinct a few years ago. Only three farmers could still be bothered to sort out its seeds from the other varieties they grew, and because it’s smaller and harder to process, even they were about to give up. On top of that, a large chile-farming agribusiness further south in the state had been labeling its product “Chimayó Chile” for years, even though it was neither the Chimayó variety nor grown near the town of Chimayó.
After a long battle, with a good deal of corporate foul play thrown in, the Chimayó Chile Project, a consortium of local farmers and activists, finally succeeded in passing legislation so that only actual Chimayó peppers could be labeled as such. Today, more than 56 farmers are part of the project. Most of them farm organically, and some even use mules to plow their small fields. “Chencho”—or Crescencio Ochoa—a burly, handsome man who farms alone, says that mules are easier to use in the small acreage he tends (around six acres), and that they don’t pack the earth so hard, so the seeds and seedlings are easier to plant by hand. And all chile farming here is done by hand: farmers carefully pushing each seed down with their fingers and one by one opening up sluices that bring precisely monitored amounts of water down the furrows from irrigation ditches fed by a mountain river.
The current president of Chimayó Chile Farmers, Inc., Ross Martinez, a pillar of the local community, is an imposing, soft-spoken man with a splendid mane of silver hair. Like many involved in the project to save the chile, he credits the crop with also saving the once-shattered community here. For decades, the holy town was a hub for heroin distribution. People here talk of a generation lost to trafficking. But now as more and more people are plowing up their yards to resume the long-disrupted chile cultivation, it is once again binding the local community. Today, just four ounces of Chimayó chile powder can go for $20. Edward Medina, from a family that has been growing chile for over 400 years, explains why: “It’s a difficult chile to process. It’s small and its flesh is thin, so when you peel it, the flesh tends to come away with the skin. It’s tedious work. But well worth it for the taste.”
Gloria Trujillo, who grew up here eating chiles three times a day, shows me the little patch where she grows Chimayós behind her house. These days, she tells me, people stop to chat about their chiles. When to plant is a big issue, because the frosts at this elevation—7,000 feet—are notoriously unpredictable. “Some say when the snow has melted off that peak”—she gestures toward a distant crag—“it’s safe to plant. But my grandfather used to say you had to check this peak over here.” She points towards the Jemez Mountains.
One of the myths about chile is that it’s nothing but heat, or piquancy. But great New Mexican chiles needn’t be especially hot. “You know you’re eating chile,” Gloria Trujillo told me, of her own chile. “But that’s not the point. It’s all about the flavor.”
She is right. When I made my first sauce with Chimayó chile powder, I couldn’t believe I had added nothing except salt and water. It was like an all-in-one mole—dark and gleaming like river-mud, glistening as if gold flakes had been stirred in, and full of extraordinary, rich flavors. What was this stuff?
A religious experience. Henry Shukman has lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for a number of years, where he teaches creative writing at the Institute of American Indian Arts and writes periodically for The New York Times. His poetry and fiction have won numerous awards, and his latest novel is The Lost City (Vintage).