Vintage HandPicked: Chimayo Chile: A Communal Act

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Editor’s Note: Each year when the air becomes crisp, the sky darkens earlier and summer is clearly over, my favorite season, autumn, brings memories of my travels in New Mexico. One year when we were shopping the farmers’ market in Santa Fe, we met a woman who introduced us to the Martinez family, the true holders of the coveted Chimayo Chile seed. We thought it was apropos to the dawn of the Day of the Dead to share the story of the Chimayo Chile once again.

In Chimayó, New Mexico, the chile represents deep, fundamental family values. Here, Chimayó chiles are grown exactly like they have been for approximately four hundred years. They’re planted (usually with seeds passed down through the family), weeded and harvested by hand–on small plots, where more than likely the ditch irrigation system was dug by the farmers’ grandparents or great-grand-parents. This means there are profound connections to the past and to the earth. Rituals and niceties surround the culture of this special chile.

Writing about the deep connections between Chimayó chiles and the folks who have kept their traditions alive, HandPicked Nation contributor Deborah Madison wrote in Saveur (Jan 2007):

Chiles are bought and sold with a sense of ritual–over a conversation or a meal, or during a visit to the family. When seeds or their fruit change hands, it is not simply a financial transaction; it is a communal act.

Working with local farmers, The Native Hispanic Institute in Santa Fe, New Mexico is helping to preserve local family traditions by replenishing native seed stock. In recent years, the number of farmers growing the Chimayó had dwindled, so Institute founder, Marie Campos, took up the challenge and with a generous donation of seed from Victoria and Jose Martinez, she has worked tirelessly to enlist more farmers to grow the legendary chile.

And her efforts have paid off. Local food culture is alive and well in Chimayó thanks to the hard work of a dedicated group of farmers growing the Chimayó chile.

Quoting from Ms. Madison’s article once again:

They’re not just a spice; they’re part of an old culture, an ancient way of life.

We wish to express our most sincere thanks to Victoria and Jose from Chimayó for sharing their family’s story with us and to Juan Lucero and Los Primos from Santa Fe for their música fabulosa.

Muchas gracias to all.

Have you ever tasted a Chimayó chile? Is there an ingredient or dish in your community that maintains a cultural identity?

Photo Credit: Slow Films