Air soaked with the grassy hot smell of green chiles roasting goes straight to my head.
I was in New Mexico – Albuquerque to be specific – for a few days last week. It’s still chile roasting season there. Piles of green chiles – and the drums that roast them – were everywhere: predictably at the farmers market and less predictably for one not from there, at Walmart.
People buy their chiles, get the roasted in holey drums that are turned by hand or machine over flames, flames often generated by propane tanks (some purists demand wood-fire roasted chiles, of course). This method is far more efficient than how I roast chiles at my house, where my four burners limit me to about a dozen chiles at a time.
When the chiles are fully charred and cooked, the roaster empties the drum into a plastic bag-lined bucket.
The customer then takes a steaming bag of chiles home, where he or she will – hopefully with some help – stem and peel the chiles, pack them into portions large and small, and freeze them to last until the harvest starts up again in August.
I saw one man with a toddler that looked like a Mini-Me of him and three 20-pound bags of chiles sitting in his cart waiting in line at Wagner Farm on Saturday. I could picture the whole scene: That morning his wife (the mother of Mini-Me) reminded him that he had not yet gotten the chiles. Would he do so today and would he take Mini-Me with him? I imagined she asked quite rhetorically because he knew and she knew that she wasn’t really asking, she was telling. When I asked him about the amount of chiles he was waiting to have roasted he confirmed that yes, his wife had been itching for him to get the chiles for the year and, yes, she had thought the errand would make a nice father-son outing.
Why don’t they just all buy frozen roasted chiles as they need them during the year? Some do, of course. Those that don’t have a few motivations tied into a pretty little bundle. Most people agree that roasted and hand-peeled chiles are vastly preferable to those peeled with chemicals, and hand-peeled chiles are way more expensive – $3 per chile has been seen by yours truly – than fresh raw chiles, which can be had for a dollar a pound plus a nominal roasting fee (and a tip for the roaster). The 20-pound bag-at-a-time route starts to make a lot of sense.
What I love about all this – besides the delicious chile that results and the spice-saturated air – is the idea that a large portion of a population is putting up a seasonal produce item as a staple. It would be like if most Californians canned their own heirloom tomatoes every year.
It warms the cockles of my heart, not to mention the tip of my tongue, just thinking about it.