New Mexico’s semi-famous green chile harvest came early this year. It’s now. Mass roasting of the smokey-yet-sweet-yet-piquant nightshade will make Albuquerque the best-smelling city in America for the rest of the summer. What this year’s harvest won’t do is make the chilis more of a national treasure. Oddly, New Mexico’s singular crop has never earned the national fame that Maine lobsters, Idaho potatoes or Midwest sweetcorn enjoy, though anyone who tries them tends to find his or her life improved, in a minor but permanent way. Why is the green chile an American culinary footnote?
We’ve put in a call to New Mexico State University’s Chile Pepper Institute (!) to try and unravel the green chile’s underground nature. We’ll update here later. For the moment, let’s speculate: First, we’re not talking about a recipe, but an ingredient, and the chiles don’t necessarily travel well. Quality tied to the high desert environment makes the green chile a tourism board dream, where you need to come to the source. That’s certainly part of the problem. Without a can of proper green chile on a shelf in Boston, who would think to head thousands of miles away to find the real stuff?
A lobster shipped very far suffers too, however, and we still know where they come from. The green chile’s below-radar fame would naturally seem to come down to the New Mexicans not really pressing the issue. The New Mexico tourism board’s Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail is an exception and exactly what it claims to be, a tour of the state organized around 100 or so sloppy diner meals. If there is a better state-level initiative in the past three years, show it to us. Yet, had you heard of it? Would you seriously spend your vacation doing it? (personal response: no, yes).
Failing that, product placements in popular media might help but in New Mexico’s case, the go-to options are limited. The most obvious reference to the chiles in broader American culture right now is probably the fictional White family’s preference for takeout from Blake’s Lotaburger. You won’t find a Lotaburger beyond state lines, though. And Walter White is a sociopath.
They have a tough sale to make. A high-summer hamburger tour of the desert is a more intrepid outing than a fish taco crawl by the beach. The two million or so Americans who live in the Land of Enchantment must know that and seem fine with it. Though harder to prove, a desire to protect the chile seems the more likely cause for its marginal public profile.
Which is not to say the New Mexicans are obligated to sell out their local treasure for the national gastro-tourism buck. Riding the shadowy line between economics and cultural anthropology, an artifact like the New Mexico Green Chile is a kind of ticking bomb, able to turn the green chile harvest into the desert’s version of the Powell Street Cable Car. Would the chile benefit from a Mardi Gras-esque festival? Almost certainly not; the roasting is about patience, not volume. Is there any risk of that happening anyway? Not yet. It would appear the New Mexicans are quietly content keeping their best stuff to themselves. A test: try asking one about sopapillas.