It is autumn in northwest Denver, and the smell of roasting green chile is why. From now until the first frost, the fragrance will hit you as you drive down Federal Boulevard, past the hand-lettered signs with neon green letters reading: HATCH/PUEBLO CHILI! FREE ROASTING!
At least fifty two-bushel burlap sacks of chile are piled up on the pavement at Vigil's Service Station at 13th and Federal. But the first customer of the day walks right past them. She is lugging her own supply of hot peppers, stashed in a Hefty trash bag.
"My father-in-law went down to New Mexico and brought me back all this chile," she tells Dino Quintana, a seasonal laborer who has already sustained three roaster burns.
"I'll charge you eight bucks to roast it all," he tells First Customer.
"Fine," she says. "It's worth it to me not to stand over a hot stove. My mother-in-law, she says women don't want to do nothing anymore. I'll tell you what. I don't want to roast chile on a hot day anymore."
Dino dumps the bushel of chile into what looks like a perforated forty-gallon oil drum on its side. He cranks up the propane tank and begins to spin the chile like a chicken on a spit. Sparks fly. A smell as distinct and perfect as a blooming lilac begans to waft across the Vigil's lot. Several passing trucks honk.
"What I do with it, I just keep it in the freezer," First Customer says. "I make green chile all winter, or cook it with pork. It's just something you have to have."
Andrew--who works here whenever his uncle doesn't because they can't be trusted not to fight with each other--is busy with Second Customer. This man, who approaches the chile stand in mirrored shades, tight jeans and muy macho pointy cowboy boots, has waved away all explanations of just what kind of chile is sold here. As far as he's concerned, there's only one way to tell if it's any good. Reaching deep into a sack, he selects a fresh green pod and takes a big bite. He chews with a quizzical expression on his face and sweat forming on his forehead. "Okay," he decides. "I'll be back after work. Save me four, five bushels."
Good luck on that, caballero. By 1 p.m., this stand--one of over a dozen that have sprung up on Federal in the past week--will be completely pepperless. Charles Gurule, the guy who runs the stand and handles the money, will have jumped into his truck and headed for Pueblo, where he will find a farmer to sell him several hundred more sacks of chile.
Right now, though, there's still some of the hot stuff on hand, and that's not all. Charles has just completed one of the high-level transactions that go on here all day long. A husband and wife from Avondale pulled up with a truckload of hundred-pound sacks of pinto beans. Charles made a deal with them, just as he did with the braided-garlic man, the woman who makes sterling-silver earrings in the shape of chiles and the brokers of big boxes of Mexican cookies. All that, plus some salsa, tortillas, a box of bananas, and some dried herbs in Baggies, is now available for purchase. If you come back in a few hours, you may find something entirely different--a hill of watermelons from Rocky Ford, Broncos pinatas or baskets of blue-corn posole. The only constant, in fact, is chile, and that only until the first frost kills off the crop. This could happen just about any time in October, which explains the feverish pace of the itinerant chile vendors--not to mention the tide of people who can't face a Denver winter without a freezer full of roasted green.
A sack of pintos is something else again. Who could possibly need that?
"People used to," Charles says, in his make-way-for-my-opinion voice. "People used to think about their weekly grocery lists and plan ahead. 7-Elevens have ruined this country. People don't have to think anymore, they just go down to the 7-Eleven and buy whatever."
As if on cue, an ancient married couple steps from a battered road shark and inquires as to the price of pinto beans.
"Are they hard or are they fresh?" they ask Charles, in Spanish.
"Oh, fresh," Charles answers back, switching languages effortlessly, "and this is a very good deal--$30 for a hundred pounds."
"And the chile, you got what? Hot and extra hot?"
"Well," says Charles, stalling a little, "hot and hotter, today. By tomorrow we'll have some Anaheims and maybe Big Jim."
The couple leaves with a sack of fresh tortillas and a promise to return.
"Okay," says Charles, "let's set up this tent, you guys." Setting up the awning that will protect all this largess takes a half hour or so, during which relations between Charles's three seasonal chile vendors begin to deteriorate. By the time they are hauling out three more roasters, Dino is yelling at Andrew.
"Oh, quit being big babies, you guys," Charles says. "You're like the Three Stooges all the time. I'm getting out of this business," he decides, for the third time today. "I'm tired of chile, I'm tired of the driving, I'm tired of everyone being a goddamn expert who knows everything there is to know about chile."
But his retirement plans do not change the fact that tonight he will sleep in the back of a Ryder rental truck in the Vigil's lot, guarding the chile and the beans, which are too heavy to move. That part, he says, is not uninteresting. "From midnight to 2 a.m., it's drunks driving by. From two to four, it's boys out doing graffiti. From four to six, it's these drunk young girls walking home from somewhere."
Someday, preferably soon, Charles intends to cram these details into a novel. The trouble with chile, he says, is its lack of creative stimulation. As a TV news reporter in Albuquerque, and later for Denver's Channel 4, he became used to at least a touch of artistic license. He quit the Channel 4 job in 1979 to work on a sociology degree in Denver, a bureau chief job in Farmington, New Mexico, and a novel--a newsroom potboiler that incorporates international drug smuggling and llorona tales--in between. Since he was driving back and forth anyway, he began thinking of ways to make money in the import business. Chile quickly became the clear choice.
In the beginning he sold baskets of dried red pods to outlets such as Alfalfa's in Boulder. Then he and his wife, public-school teacher and KCFR announcer Theresa Schiavone, started the Big Chili, a store specializing in a massive variety of dried and ground chile. After five years of operation, the Big Chili does mail-order business in forty states, but the doors of its retail outlet on 9th and Santa Fe haven't been open in weeks. During green-chile season, who has time?
Not that Charles will have any free time after the frost period. Then his quest for fire just expands.
"I drive round-trip to El Paso every other week," he says. Once over the Juarez/El Paso border, he'll sometimes continue a thousand miles or more into Mexico, by train, going wherever chile can be bought. "I've run into a lot of the big guys down there," he says, "guys from companies like Kraft. They want in, but only if they're assured there's a reliable source."
As with chiles' heat, there are degrees of reliability. Last spring Charles went to Delicias, Mexico, in search of mountain-grown oregano and was waiting for a train back to the border when the news hit that presidential hopeful Lus Donaldo Colosio had been assassinated. "Normally, I'd have to be home," he remembers, "but the train was late, and late, and late. I couldn't make a phone call to tell Theresa. I was stuck. There were lines of thirty people waiting to use the phone, and when you got to one, you couldn't get through. You know, now she wants me to wear a beeper, which I will never do."
Why? Make way for his opinion.
"People who wear beepers look like idiots. All the time. Everywhere they go. Don't even get me started on cellular phones."
Charles is about to start on cellular phones when another customer comes in. "Up and down the street, they're saying business is down one third," he says, "but it's just starting. I've already sold a couple hundred sacks from Hatch. This year, that Hatch chile was sold before it was picked. But I got a lot more Pueblo chile. People like both."
In fact, there are those who will consider buying only chile grown in the sandy soils around Pueblo. A larger group will have nothing but New Mexico chile in their freezers--but New Mexico has its subsets, too. Some people, restaurateur Sam Arnold among them, swear by peppers grown north of Santa Fe, in the farming towns of Chimayo and Dixon. (Arnold calls his all-time favorite chile, Dixon Medium Mild, "soul-delighting.") Others care only for the product from the Hatch Valley, a forty-mile-long stretch of high desert between Las Cruces and El Paso. And then there are the myriad distinctions between hot, very hot and vicious.
It is Dr. Heather Hatt Graham's job to study and catalogue chile mutations. As Vegetable Specialist at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, she works with the top chile breeders in the world. Before moving to New Mexico last year from South Carolina, she had no idea how much fervor came with the job.
"I had my master's and Ph.D. in horticulture and plant physiology," she says. "I had done plenty of work with tomatoes and green beans. But nothing has been like this. The first couple weeks on the job, people took me out for so much Mexican food I had major stomach problems. I had to eat cheese sandwiches and yogurt after that initiation. But then I started to crave it."
Not unlike the rest of the American population. The number of acres planted of New Mexico chile has tripled since 1975, she says, and scientists in the NMSU chile lab--who pioneered such classic peppers as Anaheim, 6-4 and Big Jim--are working overtime. Every two years the lab holds an international chile conference. Upon request, Graham will send you a complete trousseau of specialized chile publications--and we're not talking salsa recipes.
Essential chile facts: The heat comes froms an alkaloid called capsaicin, which resides mainly in the placenta that holds the seeds inside each pepper. Degree of heat is measured by something known as the Scoville Scale. A completely heatless pepper--a paprika, say, or a Yolo Wonder Bell--would be a 1 on this scale, while habaneros, the world's hottest peppers, rate a 10. In between are jalapenos (8), Anaheim Milds (2) and New Mexico 6-4s (3). But the varieties are seemingly endless--both because of the chile pepper's tendency to cross-pollinate at the drop of a hat and because many New Mexico farmers prefer nativos to commercial seed.
"All that means is they're saving seed from a particular region and a particular cross-pollination," Graham explains. This, coupled with climatic differences, is how there came to be so many particularly regional pepper varieties. "Now, the Hatch Valley has hot days, cool nights and lots of environmental stress, which does a lot for pungency," Graham says. "The chile capital of the world, it's called."
But that kind of hype has not always helped the Hatch Valley. Last year's green-chile crop was snapped up by merchants all over New Mexico and Colorado, but the red chile--picked from the same type of plant later in the year after the peppers have turned red, and then dried--was disappointing.
"So none of the Hatch farmers could borrow money this year," Charles Gurule says. "They had too much red chile sitting around, and the banks were saying, hey, if you grow something else, maybe, but not chile. But a few of them were smart. Angel Baquera got me to sign a contract with him that I'd buy 350,000 pounds, which was no sweat, because last year I bought at least that from him. He took the contract to the bank and got a loan, and now he's one of the only guys with green Hatch chile to sell."
"But we cut way back," Angel says. "Last year we had 150 acres planted, this year half that. But we sold close to 400,000 pounds already, and all of it in New Mexico."
Which makes Charles's contract somewhat void--he's had trouble getting Angel to part with more than a few truckloads. "And we'll be done by the end of this month," Angel guesses. "It's a smaller year, but not too bad, still."
Indeed, this year Angel, his wife, Yvette, and their three children were finally able to move out of the adobe warren of a house they shared with Angel Sr. into a home of their own. But they are still close by. It's hard to be in the town of Arrey, New Mexico, without being within spitting distance of a Baquera.
Angel's not sure exactly which year his father settled here--only that he was born in Julimas, Chihuahua, in 1935, and made his living as a sharecropper most of his life. Angel's mother, also from Chihuahua, came over to work as a maid. The Ba-quera parents became citizens in the Fifties and started a family that eventually numbered three boys and three girls. Angel, now 31, is the oldest--he began working in the fields when he was five and has scarcely stopped since then. At eighteen he went away to Phoenix to study auto mechanics at the United Technical Institute--but chile followed him.
"My dad sent me away with a pickup load of powdered chile," Angel says. "He told me I could sell it to restaurants. I stayed eight months and lived off that chile the whole time. I'm lucky we're famous here, I guess. If you were to bring in chile from Mexico and try to pass it off as Hatch chile, it wouldn't fool anyone."
Angel didn't last long as a mechanic. Soon he was back in Arrey, where two of his sisters run a general store and one has a restaurant. His two brothers were working chile with Angel Sr., and Angel was drawn back in. Gradually, not wanting to offend his father, he began to take over, attending NMSU chile conferences and implementing changes--such as the often ignored but highly necessary concept of crop rotation. Until last year he managed to run his father's empire, routinely working sixteen-hour days and supporting a family while maintaining a drinking problem of grand proportions.
"I remember crying when my brother was killed in a drunk-driving accident," he says. "I remember crying at his funeral and then going back out to get wasted that same night." Yvette, now 26, tried to pass on some of her fervent Christianity. It didn't take. "Yeah, one time she brought over her preacher, and I laughed in his face," Angel recalls. "I stayed drunk. And then one day about six months ago, I saw that God is a big God. I asked him, please, I don't want no more cravings. Just show me. And he did."
Since his conversion, Angel has kept the chile business going in fine style, but he's not sure how long it will last. "The Lord is calling me to do something different," he says. "And my sons, well, they like tractors, but I hope they don't decide to do this."
"I'm praying about it, trying to decide what to do next," he says. "I'll let you know. And meanwhile, I'll pray for you."
With more than twenty chile stands now lining Federal, the start of the New Mexico/Denver chile trail would seem lost in obscurity. But the roots are actually easy to trace.
"I'm the source," claims Willy Martinez, a large, handsome man in his fifties who is sitting out this year's chile season to pursue the importation of Penafiel and other supersweet Mexican soft drinks. "I mean it," he says. "Twenty years ago no one up here knew the New Mexico chile. It started with me. I been messing around with chile forever. The first year I brought it up and sold it from a walk-in cooler behind my house on Wyandot. I don't know how they found out about it, but a lot of people came to the cooler and bought chile. I was messing with Sandia and the 6-4 chiles, and lately, people are just buying and buying."
Last year Willy and Charles Gurule joined forces--operating five chile stands in addition to the one at Vigil's. This year, though, Charles is on his own, with just one stand. "Yeah, I quit having a whole bunch of stands," he says, "because it's a pain in the ass. People get absolutely rude. I tell them my price is twelve bucks a bushel. They tell me it's ten bucks down the street. I say, no it isn't, I'm the guy down the street, and I'm not selling any chile for ten bucks."
In fact, at the moment he's not selling any chile at all--he's run out. Once again, it's time to head for a chile farm. "I don't care if I have to get a farmer out of bed at one in the morning and say `I want a couple hundred pounds of chile, load me up.' They're used to it," Charles says.
Maybe. "Charles is the only person I know who would do a thing like that," laughs Angel Baquera.
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While he's gone, Charles's crew--barring fights to the death--will hold down the fort. There's not a lot to it, really--you let the customer taste the chile, you keep the roaster spinning and you don't bargain.
"Right," Charles says. "Do you bargain at King Soopers? A lot of these guys think nothing of spending fifty bucks a night getting drunk, but then they bitch about twelve bucks.
"And that," he reminds you, "is for enough chile to last a year.