Hairy Houdini, our local red squirrel, has been busy lately getting in his larder. Across the street from our house a walnut tree is dripping nuts, and Hairy seems determined that not one of them goes uncached. Back and forth he streaks, his mouth stuffed with a single fat nut, his beady little eyes lit with a crazed gleam. The determination of where to secrete the treasure is known to him alone, but careful observance leads me to believe the decision is based on happenstance and a what-the-hell attitude, so typical of the long-tailed rodents. Which could explain why he so seldom remembers where he buried them, and why so many young walnut trees are springing up in our yard.
A great restlessness pervades the air this time of year as the sun slants harder and the days grow shorter. The skies burn with blue fire. Apple trees and Osage oranges bow under the weight of their fruits. Goldenrod blossoms plume the breeze like yellow smoke, and a close inspection finds the flowers abuzz with activity. Competing for the nectar are bees, beetles and butterflies, an unruly multi-species mob with one thing on their minds: gather as much as possible in the shortest amount of time. For time, as they know it, is winding down.
They are not alone. Every September I check our own larder and calculate how much we have, if we need more, and if so, how much. But unlike the squirrels and the insects, what we store is not so easily gathered. It’s green chiles—preferably New Mexican or, if not, from southern Colorado. And a glance this year assured me that we needed more, much more, to tide us over for the coming year.
Back in Denver this was not a problem. A trip to the chile vendor at 38th and Brighton Boulevard garnered three or four bushels of fire-roasted Hatch chiles, the very best, grown and harvested in the fabled Hatch Valley of southern New Mexico. Big, meaty chiles like Big Jims or Sandias, plus a bushel of fiery jalapeños thrown in for good measure, roasted in mesh barrels over high flame until the skin blistered and peeled, then steamed in plastic sacks—they were heavenly to smell, and better to eat.
After we moved to Kansas, we’d make an annual pilgrimage back to Colorado each September. Ostensibly to see our boys, the real purpose of the trip was to restock the freezer with chiles. On the final morning we’d stop at the vendor, load the back seat and make the run for home, all the while salivating over the exquisite aroma escaping the damp sacks. If we stopped for a burger en route we’d be sure to order take-out so we could peel a thick wedge of chile to place atop the meat.
When we got home we’d place the chiles in freezer bags, a dozen or fifteen to a sack. Each would be dated, and I’d rotate the stock in the freezer. That night we’d cook up a huge pot of green chile stew to celebrate. My usual manner is to triple or quadruple the recipe in order to have some for leftovers and freezing. This is what I did several weeks ago.
And, like Hairy Houdini, I went looking for the extras and could not find them. I rooted and dug through the freezers—we have two, one just for chiles—and came up empty. Where had I buried them? It finally dawned that we’d eaten them, not having the fortitude to wait. I made a mental note to make a dozen batches next time.
After a while the idea of a trip to the city paled. Several Quixotic quests across Kansas after rumors of genuine Hatch chile failed, but in the nick of time we discovered a produce grower south of Manhattan who specialized in chiles. In a late season panic that Hairy would implicitly understand, we ended up buying five bushels of chiles and one-and-a-half bushels of jalapeños. Enough, we figured, to last two years, if not more.
It did. But as August waned and September waxed, and our supply steadily dwindled, I knew we’d have to restock, and soon. The days were getting short. Time was running out.
It’s been said that one can find anything on the Internet. That’s only partly true. One cannot find Hatch chiles in Kansas via the Internet, for I tried, many, many times. There were elusive hints that so-and-so garden center would have a shipment, but when I clicked on the link I found that it was years old. Phone calls went negative. Like Hairy, the look in my eye was becoming edgier each day.
Lori saved the day by convincing a trucker coming through southern Colorado to grab us two bushels of fire roasted chiles. Though I was dubious over this—once roasted, chiles don’t last forever—it worked out as planned, and she arrived home one afternoon with the car smelling sublimely and two large bags of steamed chiles piled on the back seat. Like a starving hyena, I tore into a sack and tasted one—very hot, just as I like.
Still, the freezer looked half-empty, and I wondered if we’d have enough.
The thermometer read 44 degrees this morning when I rose from bed, poured a cup of coffee and fed Sheba a stalk of broccoli. The low numeral didn’t adequately register until I opened the door and stepped into the darkness, at which time it settled on me like a rime of frost. My breath steamed the stars away. Moonrise cast a pallid glow on the beanfields adjoining the river, and in my weariness I imagined they were fields of chiles. For a second it warmed my heart, and then realization set in and the cold air settled in my bones. I cranked the heater on.
Two bushels plus a half-bushel in reserve. I hope we have enough.