Thursday, September 10, 2015

Red or Green?

The Boeing 737 slipped out from towering columns of cumulus clouds revealing an almost verdant desert floor.  Mesas and arroyos both were dotted with a spotty green mat that resembled a 'ChiaPet-landscape.'  Unusually constant rainfall this summer affected a lushness not seen in decades.
'New Mexico?' I thought to myself, 'I got on the right plane, didn't I?'

The only thing I ever recall being really green on a regular, seasonal basis in the Land of Enchantment were the chile pods grown from Santa Fe to Las Cruces with names like Big Jim, Sandia and Anaheim.

It had been 25 years since my last visit and the occasion of a first ever high school reunion had me excited to see old friends.  Truth be told, there was some apprehension, anticipation, nervousness and a dose of good old self-doubt.  Travelling into a time-warp is a little scary and three questions haunted me for months ahead of time:

  • How have I changed?
  • How have they changed?
  • Will we still like to be around each other?  
Granted, some of us are a few pounds heavier and greying certainly, but, what about those other friends: plates of enchiladas and huevos rancheros; have they stood the test of time or have they 'evolved' as well...?

The plane's wheels chirped as we touched down and the engines revved as the brakes were applied.
'Red or Green chile,' I pondered, 'What will be my first meal with New Mexico Chile?...will it taste as good as I remember...?'

Food and meals have this spiritual quality about them; our olfactory, the sense of smell and taste, have this unique ability to bring us to a particular spot, a specific instant in time with just a fleeting taste or wisp of aroma. With one bite, we are at a friends house, grandma's table or with a romantic interest.

New Mexico chile at my first Christmas party after moving from California in high school, is in a pot on a back burner at Jean Brackett's house.  She worked for my uncle in the turquoise jewelry business and had our family over one dark, December night.  Her posole was made with red chile, roast pork and hominy corn.  It was brothy and had a thin layer of fat that came together and receded with every slow bubble popping on a delicate simmer.  A ladle hung in the pot and a stack of bowls resided nearby.  This thin stew possessed a rich, mild heat.  The corn was tender and the chunks of pork fell apart with the slightest pressure.  It was perfect and I was hooked!

In college at NMSU in Las Cruces, weekend mornings started late, but, usually consisted of huevos rancheros or stacked enchiladas at some local diner.  Lightly fried corn tortillas were dipped in red chile sauce and layered flat with rice, beans, cheese and either beef or chicken.  Two over easy eggs crowned this feat.  If this didn't cure what ailed you, nothing could save you.  My buddy Ralph, a local Messkin, would pump his folded arm like a chicken and give out a crow when he finished, indicating he was cured and good to go.

The memories and people associated with chile are as vivid today as they were 25 or 35 years ago. My hope was that both people and New Mexico Chile would welcome me and satisfy me as in the past.

"Red or Green?" the lady asked me, as for the type of chile I wanted with my Huevos Rancheros.

"Green,"  I stated with confidence and finality, snapping my menu shut and handing it to her.
High school football buddies, Clark and Dave, took me to this nondescript breakfast hang-out in one of a ga-jillion strip malls to ward off the effects of another night of 2 a.m. bedtimes.

The waitress had high cheek bones and a round, smiling face; her long cheeks crowded her eyes and mouth; pueblo Indian for sure, I thought.  Her name was 'Jana' which was the clincher, since no local Latino would name their child after a white movie star or film character.  Jana must be either Zia, Cochiti or Santo Domingo pueblo Indian, the closest reservations to this part of town.  Regardless, she was as sweet as honey on a fresh sopaipilla, the airy, fried dough pillows served with every meal in New Mexico.   

"Red or Green?" she asked again

"Green," called my buddy Clark for his Huevos Rancheros, slipping his reading glasses off his nose to hang on the fine cord around his neck and onto his chest.  Clark pushed back from the table, crossed his arms and settled back into his seat, ready for another conversation thread.
Clark and I knocked heads at opposing positions in football for three years, yet, remained best of friends.  We drank beer, chased girls, double-dated, shaved our heads one football season in solidarity and even worked the oil rigs of Oklahoma together.  He filmed our wedding in 1990 and that was the last we saw of each other.  A damned shame that will not be repeated.

"Red or Green?" was asked one more time for Huevos Rancheros.

"Red and Green," said Dave

Whoa, whoa, WHOA, I thought to myself.  Has this boy learned something we don't know?  Has Dave entered the cauldron of a volcano and been divined some secret knowledge?  The word is "or" not "and."  Like all great discoverers, he had gone against convention and charted new culinary territory.  Good on ye!

"OK, Christmas for you and Green for you two then?" asked Jana, confirming our order.

"Yep!" in unison.

Our breakfast arrived in little time and I just sat there taking it all in.
"Yes, yes, yes," I thought, "...this is the other reason I came here.  To immerse myself in the healing properties of New Mexico Chile...washing away my sins of ever leaving and entering the domaine of the divine."
I took great care in cutting up my dish, piece by succulent piece, one at a time, arranging it on my cheap, diner fork and consuming every last morsel, every last grain of rice and every diced piece of roasted green chile.

I was cured, sated and at peace with the cosmos.

"Red or Green?"

It's a phrase that can immediately identify you as having spent at least one year living in New Mexico.  Those three words put you in a time and place; "you've been there and know what I'm talkin' about!"  Chile is not just a vegetable or condiment for a forgotten southwestern state, it is a way of life.  It defines who you are and where you come from.  "CHEE-lay" is what the locals have called it for 400 years.  It brings heat to winter pork or chicken stews.  Chile is what you smell on street corners rotating in cylindrical Bingo baskets in September and October with propane burners charring the outer skins.  Dumped into paper grocery bags, it surpasses the best of any car-freshener for the drive home.

"Red or Green?"

The words invite you to join together with friends over a great meal without care for TV shows, phones, social media or the latest anything.
New Mexico Chile puts us in a space: a time and place without a clock, only each other and the love between us.

New Mexico Green Chile Stew: serves 12

3 lbs.    Pork Shoulder, boneless (Butt), 1" cubes
1/2 C.   Cooking oil
2           Onions, cut to fork sized pieces
2 ribs    Celery ribs, diced
2 Tbls   Garlic, diced
1 Tbls   Oregano, Mexican (if available, regular if not)
4 Qts.    Chicken stock, water if stock isn't available
10          Red potatoes, the size of the palm of your hand, cut fork sized
6 pods   Green chiles, roasted, peeled and diced (to your heat liking)
to taste  Salt

In a cast iron skillet (go to a thrift store or yard sale and buy a Wagner or Griswold, it has soul!), saute' the pork cubes in canola oil.  It will render more fat, so, that's a good thing.  Once crispy, place meat in a 8 qt. stock pot as you go.  Once all the meat is seared, saute' the onions and celery in the cast iron.  When the onions are transparent, add the garlic and cook for 3 minutes or so.  Get a little color on the garlic. Then, dump the veggies in the pot. Scrape the cast iron with a whisk and a cup of water to get all the yummy bits and add to the pot. If you don't, an old French chef will arise from his grave and haunt you for all eternity!  Add oregano and stock/water; bring to a boil.  Add potatoes and green chiles, bring back to a boil, cover, and reduce to a simmer.  Give it three hours for the pork to become super tender.  No need to agitate the stew as the potatoes will break down and turn to mush. Not good.  Add salt as you like; start with about 2 Tbls to get going then, tweek it to your taste.
When ready, serve with a chunk of stout bread and a weekend football game with people that you genuinely care for.  Don't waste it on wimps; this is too good for 'boneless, skinless, chicken breast only' people.  Is this better the next day...?  Hay-uhlll yeah!

Lastly, I want to thank the many people who were huge pieces of my life as a teenager in Albuquerque. Their affection, admiration, companionship, humor and friendship are as vivid today as it was 36 years ago.  We have lived entire lives separately, raising families in far off communities, but, there remains a core of friendship that has been re-discovered.  It is a font to which I hope we can return. The Gang is still as solid as ever.

I love you all: Karin, Annie, Kate, Shelly, Pat, Clark, Dave, Scott, Kim, Jeff,
And to all the spouses:  Thanks for the Hall Pass.
Seeing you made my summer, no my year, no, my whatever!

Take care, God bless and remember:
"Food, Faith, Family and Friends
the Best Things in Life Aren't Things!"