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.

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Robin Chotzinoff
Contact: Robin Chotzinoff