It’s a gray day here in the Southeast, and I have a head cold to match the weather. Why should I choose to write about a sense largely denied me, then? I think that the muting of my sensory world allows me to focus on the ideas that lie at the core of this basic physiological realm, to see the cultural shadings of it more clearly. Memory itself is an imperfect mechanism, which changes slightly each time we access a particular neural cluster. As well, nostalgia creeps in over time, working its magic and altering memory recall in another way. We come to long for events, people, or places that we would objectively categorize as negative or less preferable, simply because they are associated with other, positive memories. Taste, it would seem, is less simple than we might guess, bound up in the same network of plastic neural responses and nostalgic rephrasing.
Green Chile, the Ubiquitous Condiment
New Mexico is famed for its green chili peppers. They can be mild, with just a hint of piquancy, or they can be quite hot. The outcome is uncertain and differs from pepper to pepper. That they are often roasted, peeled, and chopped into an unappetizing slop of mucus colored chunks acts as an equalizing factor. Before you make a face of disgust, I should remind you that Green Chili in New Mexico is a bit like the Spice on Arrakis–it works a certain magic on your palate, rendering other peppers less satisfying.
If you are away from the Southwest for long, you’ll find yourself dreaming of freshly roasted green chili. And there’s not really any substitute. I’m sure you could try growing them in other parts of the country, but the terroir would be different. This is the magic of the desert. Certain plants that belong to the Solanacaea family seem to thrive there as they do not elsewhere–peppers, tomatoes, datura. Don’t ever eat the last one. It will kill you, but the other two are just fine. In fact, green chili is so fine, you can find it at Subway or McDonald’s as a condiment.
In early autumn, the air is filled with a faint aroma of burning. That’s not the smoke from a nearby wild fire, which will fill the bowl of the valley with a noxious haze during the driest times and is a topic all its own. It’s the smell of good things to eat. Everywhere, enormous barrel roasters are unveiled and wheeled out in front of stores. Bring your own green chilies, and have them batch roasted. Sure, you could do it yourself, but it’s labor and energy intensive, and the batch roasters make quick work of the process.
Then, you get to take them home, pay friends and family in beer and promises of a share of the end product, and sit around a table heaped with the char-skinned peppers. It’s important to wear gloves, since even a large batch of mild chilies contains enough capsaicin to irritate skin, nasal passages, and eyes. A bag of peeled, seeded, and chopped chilies makes a popular host gift or housewarming present, because it can be made into a number of delicious dishes or used as a condiment for many future meals. It’s an expression of appreciation that’s valued because many in the region know how much labor went into making it.
Invest in Glass Storage Containers
Plastic storage is fine and good, as far as it goes, but there’s something it can’t do–hold ground red chili. This isn’t your Mom’s chili powder, unless you happen to leave in Northern New Mexico and your Mom gets her chili from an old woman selling it in a Pueblo. You can’t necessarily find it in a shop. It must be stored in glass and, if at all possible, kept extremely dry and stable. There’s something a little magical about it, although it has many of the same flavor characteristics as chili powder from a jar or tin. The color is deeper and it contains volatile oils that, if you intend to stretch what you’ve got, you need to parcel it up and freeze it.
There’s a richness to its scent that the desiccated spice in a tin almost certainly never knew. If you’re lucky enough to know someone who will make you Red Chili, as a meal, be prepared to not watch too closely. This dish is high in fat, and would horrify most people I know here. You cook meat and mix red chili powder with the pan drippings. The best way I’ve found to eat this is to put it on everything. But if you are similarly lucky to know someone who makes fresh tortillas, put them together, and eat as many as you can without passing out. 10 out of 10 cardiologists may frown in disapproval, since good tortillas–corn or wheat–are made with lard. But I promise you, it’s worth it as nothing else in your life ever has been.
I never could decide which I liked better–red or green. For me, they each have qualities that recommend them, and quite a few people seem to feel similarly. When you eat at a New Mexican restaurant, the question of “Red or Green”is a common part of the ordering process. People who enjoy both can order “Christmas,” which is simply an in-house joke in the Southwest. It means “both,” but those in the know identify themselves as card-carrying chili addicts.
That’s Not My Alphabet
Albuquerque, for all it’s a relatively small city and has been the butt of some unkind jokes for several decades about its backward nature, is a place teeming with diverse expressions of food culture. Growing up in Georgia, there was, of course, the area near Chamblee, where you could buy fresh tripe and whole spices. It’s a place of profound syncretism–Hispanic and Asian shops existing side by side. But it’s far removed from suburbia, and you must go looking for it if you don’t already live there.
Knowing Chamblee at least a little prepared me for the sight of signs written entirely in characters from various Asian alphabets situated cheek-by-jowl with a Taqueria or a Lavandaria. What it did not prepare me to understand was the depth of taste offered to me, often at ridiculously cheap prices. The waiters at the Thai Kitchen II (a total hole in the wall restaurant) only laughed a little when I told them I wanted my dish Thai Hot. When they sought to correct me with “American Hot,” I shook my head. No, I wanted to cry blood. And I’m pretty sure I did.
If you’re in Albuquerque, you can also easily find excellent, inexpensive Vietnamese restaurants, sushi joints, Indian restaurants, and even Ethiopian cuisine. These are not oddities, as they can sometimes appear in other cities. They’re where you go for lunch. And while each brings its own set of flavor principals to the table, they draw largely on the local ingredients available. That means tons of fresh produce, local garden veggies, bread made with an astounding array of grains and techniques, and sweets you never thought could exist. The Asian types of cuisine are bolstered by the emporium of Talin market, although it’s officially a Chinese shop. This is a place where, if you require a product not available in Western grocery stores, chances are it’s on the shelves at Talin.
Shifts in the Palate
I walked everywhere in Albuquerque, as long as it was less than four miles away. In fact, while there was a Whole Foods Market less than a block away from my apartment, I preferred to walk the two miles to Sunflower Market (Now Sprout’s) and do my farmer’s market shopping. If I wanted something fresher and even more local, there were two weekly markets I often visited by bus that boasted crafts, garden produce, and homemade foods of all kinds.
Perhaps the biggest way my time in Albuquerque changed me was the way I was willing to cook, and what I was eager to eat. I grew up in the Land of Bland–not to say that the South doesn’t have a widely varied array of flavors. My home life was marked by cuisine where the chief spice was salt, where yellow squash was never steamed, sauteed, or baked, but boiled to death with onion and then pulverized with a masher. The sulfurous, snot-like mass that resulted put me off the entire idea of squash until I moved out west.
I understand the crucial nature of salt in my food, living in a climate where even a profuse sweat evaporated in moments. But I also felt free to play with different spices. And, I’ll own that, for a while, I went a little mad with the chilies. My cooking flowered. I developed recipes, baked cakes and sweets, began baking bread again, and expanded my appreciation of fresh vegetables and fruits. During the hot months of summer, I lived almost entirely on light, spicy soups and raw fruit and vegetables. Seeds and nuts, available in bulk, rounded things out nicely.
I believe that we are what we eat, in a rather literal way. The food we consume is used to build new tissues, power thought, and run the autonomous systems of the body. But I think we are what we make to an even greater extent. For many, the concept of cooking “for one” is daunting. They fall into bad habits with the convenience food and freezer case sections of the grocery store. For me, I used it as an excuse to cook more than ever, because for the first time in my life, I didn’t have to consider the delicate palate of anyone else. I miss that, and that freedom stands out most clearly in memory. I like living alone. Unlike others, who may feel living alone dooms them to loneliness, I found incredible flexibility, delight, and expansion marked my time on my own most clearly.