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ROAST OF THE TOWN

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"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.

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Robin Chotzinoff
Contact: Robin Chotzinoff