That Good Chile

A vignette on New Mexico's love of chile from 1947

Excerpted from New Mexico Magazine, December 1947

ABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR

Wilfred Stedman (1892–1850) was an English architect, cartographer, painter, and illustrator who spent much of the first half of the 20th century working in New Mexico. Born in Liverpool, Stedman is responsible for numerous freelance contributions to WPA and tourism projects throughout New Mexico.

He is also known for the many publishing collaborations with his wife, Myrtle Stedman, that celebrated adobe homes, Southwestern design, and architecture.

Doña Josefita’s Recipe for Chile (Ranch Style)
1 dozen large chiles
1 clove garlic
1 large tomato
¾ lb. chopped or diced [beef] round
Salt
Pepper

Roast and peel dozen chiles. Remove stems and seeds. Chop chiles into small particles, the smaller the better. Prepare garlic, add to chile. Slice tomato, add to chile. Season with pepper and salt. Fry chopped beef round in skillet. Add 2 ½ cups water to fried meat. Add chile and tomato to meat. Boil for 10 minutes. Makes 4 servings.

The beaten path takes Juan and José to the Spanish Inn. “What’s the menu for today?” asks Juan.

Doña Josefita just winks an eye and hollers to the cook, “Two bowls of chile; one red, one green.”

A strong voice echoes back from the kitchen, “One for Juan and one for José.” Juan and José have been getting their bowls of chile at Doña Josefita’s for over a decade. And the beauty of it all, they say, is that the spiraling prices have not affected the price of the luscious food. Chile goes on selling for 20 cents a bowl, plus a nickel for a cup of steaming coffee. And the chile “artist” would not pay more for chile.

“Who can pay more for a bowl of chile?” says Juan, eating with peculiar pleasure. “No, not me.”

“Why no,” answers José, filling his overalls to the last stitch, “but the café people would sure like to boost the price.”

“No, not Doña Josefita.” He nodded his head and relished another mouthful.

“No? I wouldn’t depend on prayers,” answers the eternal companion. “To tell you the truth, I’d be willing to pay six bits for a dish like this, especially in the fall when the chile is at its best. In the fall, when chile is not green and yet not exactly ripe, it is food at its best.”

“Especially if it contains a little tomatoes and a little beef cut into tiny little pieces, the way she makes it.”

Over a bowl of chile José and Juan discuss many topics. Even the length of women’s skirts comes in in for a shellacking. But the “hotness” of Doña Josefita’s chile draws them back to the old topic: eating green chile, enjoying it, and not letting it get you sick is an art. And when this food of their choice seems to bite the tongue, a sip of cafe con leche, steaming hot coffee, puts them back in the running.

“How’s the chile?” asks Doña Josefita. But the men don’t look up. They simply say, “Like a mass with three padres officiating.” José adds, “I don’t know what we’d do without you, Doña Josefita. Suppose you got rich all of a sudden, and wouldn’t cook for us.” But Jan interrupts and says, “You can always raise the stuff. For raising chile is a small matter. Plant as many pods as you think you might need, and then double that amount to allow for those that’ll dry up. Because some plants will die because they want to die. And don’t forget to plant a little patch for your brother, who will want you to send him some to California.”

“How many plants will that be, then?”

“No matter about that,” says Juan. “Just so you make sure you plant enough because the winter is long. And there is nothing better in a cold winter day than a bowl of good hot chile.” Here in New Mexico every farm raises its share of chile both for home use and for market. Considerable quantities are shipped out of state, and the demand is greater every year.

In the middle of a big laugh, Juan says, “The Nuevo Mexicanos living in California are writing daily: ‘Send us chile, why don’t you send us some of that good New Mexico chile? We are starving.’” José comments, “Why, of course, you would be starving too if you were eating hash all the time. The cafes seem to find much fun in serving hash.”

“And you don’t pay no quarter for it, either,” adds Doña Josefita.

Chile plants grow about two feet high and produce about one string of chile to every five plants. This does not take into consideration the green that has already been consumed. Some villages proudly display a large number of chile strings, and this is a sure sign that the harvest season is nearly over. When the chile is dry, it is ground and the price goes up. But Doña Josefita must not advance her prices. She must use all her ingenuity as a cook; she must turn out a bowl of chile that will be the pride of the valley. She must keep on serving the best dish in the country; the best buy of the century, a food which has been found by scientists to be of high nutritive value.

In his last laugh of his very enjoyable meal, Juan says, “No wonder I’m still alive.”