The Heat Is On

It used to be so simple.
Each fall, when the leaves turned and you wanted chile, real chile, the kind that made your sinuses clear and your belly warm, you'd drive past the tracks and beyond the highway to an empty lot in the country, where an old farmer wearing a baseball cap and overalls sat in a lawn chair beside a plywood sign scribbled with green spray paint: "Hatch."

There you'd buy a bushel or two of New Mexico's finest, half hot, half medium, roasted and bagged, with maybe a sack of pinon on the side. Then you'd go home and rinse the peppers in cold water, peeling the pods one by one, freezing most and simmering the rest with a little garlic and tomato.

While the potatoes fried and the beans bubbled for supper, you'd snatch a tortilla hot from the stack, spoon some chile inside and take a bite of your sandwich. Then you'd lean back against the kitchen counter, eyes watering, temperature rising, suffering in blissful silence.

"Every decade has its food: something with the suggestive scent of danger and sex. In the Seventies, it was garlic: musky, potent, aggressively assertive. In the Eighties, it was chocolate: rich, indulgent, sensual, famously addictive. In the Nineties, we have chiles: exotic, mouth-searing, vibrantly colored. Ten years ago, outside of the Southwest, you could hardly find them to save your life. Today, they're everywhere. They're now. They're not only hot, but hot."--John Thorne, author of Chile Peppers...Why? And Why Now?

"The enchantment of peppers is like that of a lovely woman whose charm of shape and subtle perfume entice you to her and whose inner fire creates mystique and desire."--Jean Andrews, author of Red Hot Peppers.

All along Federal Boulevard, signs scream from the curb: "Pueblo X-Hot!" "The Best Hatch Chile in Town!" "Last Last Load!" The chile crews are starting to pack up. Gunnysacks lie piled in parking lots, bushel baskets stand stacked for storage until next year. As the first frost approaches, vendors count their earnings and scramble to sell their final crop.

Outside the Hatch New Mexico Chili stand, Roger Sanchez leans back in his chair, props a foot on the counter and reflects on the year.

"It's been one of our best seasons," he smiles. "It's been like a convenience store around here. People lined up to get in. We sold 400 bushels one Saturday. We did a hell of a job this year. A hell of a job."

For Roger, who claims to move more roasted chile than anyone else in Denver, the market has been this good for the past several years. And getting hotter all the time. As coffee became latte and latte became Frappuccino, chile hitched a ride on the trendy bandwagon and became chic. Where once there was just chile, there now is green-chile crabmeat pudding, Yugoslavian green-chile eggplant relish and green-chile jelly.

One winemaker supposedly compared the complexity of chile flavors to those of red wine. Another connoisseur described some pods as exhibiting "a dusty, toasty flavor with sweet, ripe apple tones and hints of licorice and cherry." And another writer wrote, "You'd be surprised at what a spoonful of sweet, dark New Mexican chile powder can do to a scoop of chocolate ice cream."

Like so many other Southwestern traditions, chile has gone the way of the tortilla, once made by grandma without much fuss or fanfare, now mass-marketed, merchandised and added to "Mom's fried lumpias."

Walking up to a roadside shack and asking for chile can be like walking into a Starbucks and ordering coffee. You'll get a moment of silence, a blank stare and a bemused grin. "Yes. But what kind?"

Roger saw it coming. Ninety percent of his new customers are Anglos, he says. And ninety percent of them have no clue how to buy, cook or store chile.

Which is why, a few blocks up from the Sanchez stand, under the little blue tarp shielding her chile shack, Penny Benavidez advises: "Buyer beware." Especially in these last days of the season, when buyers are eager to buy and sellers are eager to sell.

"It's time," she proclaims, "someone told the truth about chile."
Penny is a former dental technician and current bartender who decided two years ago to sell "Pueblo XXX-Hot" in the parking lot of Joe's Cave. Although she's a relative newcomer on chile row--some vendors have worked Federal for decades--what she lacks in experience she makes up for in salesmanship, smiles and free onions.

On this afternoon, she wears purple jeans, a tube top and a delicate silver necklace. When she talks, which is often, she jabs forward an index finger as lethal as a stiletto.

"I love people," she says. "And I love chile. And I love my little tent."
At her side stands Andy "Buffalo" Cordova, a chile veteran from Albuquerque, who wears a sleeveless T-shirt that says, "Second Place Is the First Loser," and smokes one of Penny's cigarettes with the filter snapped off. "I bag, I roast, I load, I pick--I do everything," he says.

Benavidez and Cordova are part of a crew called the ChileMasters, which has adapted to the Nineties market with such innovations as a Web site, where customers can find recipes, trivia and "everything you wanted to know about green chile but nobody would tell you."

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