"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.