Above: A Jemez Pueblo family with a chile ristra, ca. 1905. Courtesy of Simeon Schwemberger collection at the Center for Southwest Research, UNM Libraries.
LOOKING AT HIS FIELD in early July, Jemez Pueblo Governor David Toledo can’t believe this is the view from his house. Vibrant green leaves, cornstalks, vines, and bushes dot the earth. As the sun sets, a soft yellow light weaves through the vegetation, casting long shadows. Surrounding this quarter-acre garden are the homes and gardens of his fellow tribal members in the heart of the pueblo.
“It’s a sight to see,” he says on the phone, abiding by his tribe’s social-distancing protocols. “Every time I come out here, I’m so thankful to the Creator for giving us this blessing.”
A ping! notifies me of an incoming text message. It’s photos from Toledo of that warm sunlight, those vibrant leaves, and the tiny white flowers just starting to bloom on the chile plants. A good portion of his field, which he manages with his three sons, is chile. The seeds came from Toledo’s elders and their ancestors. The farmland, too, is passed down from generation to generation.
“Chile and corn are our main traditional crops,” he says. “We got them by interacting with other tribes. We traded seeds.”
Chile holds a hallowed role among tribal people in the Southwest. Its pathway north from South America and Mexico to arrive here is the stuff of legend. Thousands of years ago, “chile was cultivated in Mexico. We know that much,” says Charles Havlik, senior research assistant at the Agricultural Science Center at Los Lunas, a part of New Mexico State University. “When did it land here? I like to leave that as an open question.”
Certainly birds ate chiles and dispersed the seeds. Through Indigenous trade routes, many South and Central American foods like corn, beans, squash, potatoes, and tomatoes made their way, where tribes wholly adopted them into their diets, cultures, and identities. In Chaco Canyon, scientists have found remnants of chocolate and chile from the time of its occupation, 850–1250, Havlik says.
But if you want to go by written record, the earliest mention of chile in New Mexico comes from the journals of Spanish colonists and conquistadors. Juan de Oñate, for example, mentioned bringing seeds with him from Mexico in 1598, Havlik says.
“Regardless of when it showed up,” he says, “chile was well integrated into Native American cuisine.”
At Pueblo Harvest, the restaurant at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, in Albuquerque, Executive Chef Ray Naranjo (Santa Clara Pueblo) uses chile in nearly every dish on the menu. He sees his contemporary interpretations as a bridge that brings people and their cultures together on one plate.
“It’s a fusion medium—everything that’s known in fine dining,” he says. “I like to make green and red varieties of gastrique sauce.”
In New Mexico, some of the oldest chile varieties are considered landraces, meaning they adapted to the land and the environment. Many pueblos and northern New Mexico communities have traditional varieties. The flavors are distinct, Naranjo says, with less bitter notes and a pronounced heat. He personally likes the chile from small-batch farmers in Chimayó.
“There are some little places on the side of the road [around Española] that carry it,” he says.
At Jemez Pueblo, Governor Toledo says chiles from his handed-down seeds are usually mature and ready to pick, roast, peel, and eat by early August. “For me, that’s always Christmastime,” he says. As for the purity of the seed they started out as, he says that there’s likely no 100 percent “pure traditional” Pueblo chile anymore. Chile cross-pollinates, people select and swap seeds for personal taste, and environments change.
“We’re far past having any kind of control of it,” Toledo says. “To me, it’s the product that counts in the end.” For that, Jemez enchiladas can do the persuading.
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