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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...
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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."

For instance, Penny says, some vendors treat all chile alike. They'll call it Hatch when it's Pueblo and Pueblo when it's something else. Worst of all--and this makes her really mad--some vendors claim to sell customers full bushel baskets of chile when they're actually selling plastic laundry baskets that hold less.

Penny and her helpers load a plastic laundry basket full of chile, dump it into a real bushel basket and shake their heads sadly as the load comes up several pounds short.

"What they're doing is cheating the people," she says. "It's not fair. Especially to old people on Social Security. Senior citizens are just like everyone else. They should be treated like people."

"Did you tell him this?" Buffalo adds. "Some of them get a whole truckload of chile and let it sit out there until it gets all wrinkled."

"Yes," Penny concurs. "They carry chile that's been sitting out there for weeks and weeks and weeks. We sell chile, chile, chile. Fresh, fresh, fresh. From Pueblo."

But Penny and Buffalo don't want to speak badly of their competition. Not too badly, anyway. A while back, one vendor--they won't say who--called the fire department on them for not properly securing their propane tanks, a cheap shot in the chile business. Another lady kicked out a longtime vendor and stole his spot. And a third pretended to offer three types of chile but picked them from the same sack.

"Everyone is against everyone else," Penny says. "But I love people. See my little tent? We're poor. The others have money and big operations and make a lot of money. But we run an honest business."

"Tell him about the call from Massachusetts," Buffalo says. "About that lady who said how good we are."

"Oh, they love us, honey," Penny says. "We get calls from all over. Not a person doesn't leave that doesn't hug Penny. We got a lady in Nebraska who loves us so much she bought us airplane tickets to visit her on Thanksgiving. And that's because we take time for our customers."

Like taking time to enter the age-old debate: Which is better, Pueblo chile or its famous cousin from Hatch?

"Ours is better," she says.
"Hatch is a town and not a chile."
A town?
"Yes," Penny says. "And ours is better."
Pueblo is a better town than Hatch?

"I think it's something in the dirt," Buffalo offers. "You know. In the soil."

"And ours is better."
"Ask John," Buffalo says. "He knows."
John is one of the owners of ChileMasters. He's been involved in the chile business off and on for seventeen years now. He's the supplier, Penny's boyfriend and the referee in disputes such as this. His last name is Sanut. "That's tunas spelled backwards," he says.

John arrives at the scene wearing a ChileMasters baseball cap, a T-shirt featuring a rainbow trout leaping from a stream, and a knife on his belt.

"Did they tell you about the Web site?" he asks. (He designed the Web site.) "It has everything you wanted to know about chile but no one will tell you. We're the first chile vendors to have one. I searched, too."

Penny is correct, John says. Hatch is a town, not a chile. Although different types of chile--such as Big Jim, Sandia and Barker--are grown in Hatch, New Mexico, there is no specific type of chile called Hatch. Same goes for Pueblo. The difference is in the climate, the water and, yes, the soil.

Although some vendors might claim to use Hatch chile seeds--Hatch chile is supposed to be bigger and hotter--the pods will not taste the same if they're grown elsewhere. It's like taking seeds from Napa Valley grapes and trying to produce California wine in Colorado. "Some of these guys take the Hatch name and use it like it was nothing," John says, scowling.

Vendors will also try to fool customers by producing a bill of lading listing Hatch as the point of origin. But that's not proof-positive, either, John says. Unscrupulous vendors, especially with the NAFTA treaty, can grow chile in Las Cruces, New Mexico, or even Mexico, ship it through Hatch, receive a Hatch bill of lading and advertise an inferior product with the renowned moniker.

"You might think you're getting this well-known flavor, but that's not the case," John says. "Most of the time it's not really 100 percent Hatch chile. New Mexico chile, yes. Pure Hatch, no."

"Basically, what you need to say is this," Penny says. "They're jiving the customers."

"It is, shall we call it, taxation without representation," John concludes.
And another thing. Some vendors equip their steel mesh roasting drums with several individual torches. Nonsense, John says. That roasts chile irregularly and produces half-cooked peppers. His machines, on the other hand, are custom-made to provide an even flame distribution that roasts pods evenly.

"And roasting don't mean burning, either," John scoffs. "Roasting is a cooking process. A natural cooking process. A lot of these guys hire someone off the street and just burn the hell out of it."

Not only that, but some roasters spin the roasting cylinder so fast on a high flame that centrifugal force keeps the chiles pinned to the sides. But if only one side of the chile is exposed to the flame, what do you get? John asks, then answers himself. Half-cooked chile.

"Roasting requires experience," he says. "Roasting is an art. And I consider our roasters to be master roasters."

Master roasters?
Oh, John could talk forever. There's the type of plastic bags used to carry roasted pods from the chile shack to the kitchen ("Use the clear commercial bags. Don't trust the kind you use at home"), the best way to tell if the chile is hot ("Cut it open and look for the yellow vein running from the seed ball to the tip. The deeper yellow the vein, the hotter the pod") and the dangers of price-gouging ("Between $16 and $18 a bushel is a fair price").

As for the difference between Hatch and Pueblo chile, well, it's a chicken-and-the-egg-type deal. Hatch is the trademarked, patented Chile Capital of the World. The Hatch area (notice John does not say "Hatch chile") produces a fine pod. But for John's money, chile from the Pueblo area is the best he's tasted. In the end, it all comes down to personal opinion.

"I guess you can say it's like beer," he says. "Which is better? Bud or Bud Lite?"

"Bud," Buffalo concludes.

It used to be so simple.
You drive back from Federal Boulevard with your sack of Pueblo XXX-Hot, careful to use the proper name ("Barker chile, not Pueblo chile"). You poke a hole in the clear commercial plastic chile bag, as you were instructed, and let the evenly roasted pods breathe a little.

At home, you drop your bushel ("That's exactly four pecks") onto the kitchen counter and begin the process of bagging and storing, remembering to never rinse the pods under cold water ("Honey, you wash away all the flavor"). You freeze most of it ("Leave the skins on") and simmer the rest with a little garlic and tomato.

Then you brew a pot of Starbucks Gold Coast, reach in the fridge for a pack of store-bought tortillas, lean on the counter with your chile sandwich and prepare for next season.

Hatch is just a town...

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