For a little while at least New Mexico was in the air with the fragrance of roasting green chiles. It’s not that I particularly needed more—we’d brought back 24 pounds of frozen Hatch chiles already peeled and chopped to supplement what remained from a shopping spree late last year—but a friend had dropped by asking if could use more, and the chiles looked good and the price was right. After selecting what I wanted we drove to 7R’s Bar and Grill on the town square for cheeseburgers and onion rings, where I kicked myself for not sneaking in some of the chiles to create piquant reminders of the Owl Bar burgers I love so dearly. When I returned home I fired up the charcoal grill and once the coals were glowing placed a dozen chiles on the grate.
As the chiles popped and sizzled, our new neighbor walked over to see what I was doing. He’d never heard of anyone roasting chiles, nor of eating them for that matter. It’s a common reaction, one based solely on geographical and cultural dislocation. Back home, as I tend to consider the Southwest, chile stands were ubiquitous beginning in August, and the little town of Hatch rocketed into a market force far exceeding its diminutive footprint on the southern plains of New Mexico. Just as California’s climate and soil are ideal for growing varietal grapes, the river bottoms of Hatch are justly famous for producing the finest chiles on the planet. These weren’t Hatch but they’d do.
The chiles I’d already roasted were steaming in a deep bowl covered with a plate. “Take a whiff,” I said, lifting the plate to allow the aroma to spill out.
He leaned over and sniffed uncertainly. His brow wrinkled.
“What do you do with them?” he asked.
I explained that I use them in stews, soups, sauces and such dishes as chile rellenos, or chiles stuffed with white cheese, fried in egg batter and smothered under a spicy chile and pork sauce. Sort of a double whammy for chileheads.
“I’ve got plenty already,” I said, “but I’m like a squirrel stocking up for the winter.”
For a moment he looked surprised, as if I’d said something totally outrageous. “Squirrel?” he asked. “Do you eat squirrel?”
No no no no, I assured him. I do not eat squirrels nor any other rodent though I’ve always wanted to try rattlesnake.
“The reason I ask is because I found a fresh-killed squirrel out front last week and took it home and skinned it. It made a nice lunch.”
For a moment that cultural dislocation I usually instigate whipsawed in reverse. Not that I find the idea of snacking on squirrel revolting, for my genealogical ladder harkens back to the old South and relatives not known for their wealth. Whatever meat graced their tables was brought down under their own means; nor were they picky. A sudden thought of the stock market’s collapse made me wonder if before the economy rebounds we might not all be eating things new to our palates. But—roadkill?
A van with a woman and a young girl had driven by, he said, and the squirrel had been clipped by the front tire. He saw it flopping around in the street and on inspection found its head crushed but the body untouched. In other words, a perfect specimen and fresh enough to be considered technically alive, if not lethally addled. Like my relations, he had grown up in Arkansas in a poor family that ate whatever it could kill. And like me, though removed from my ancestral haunts, the foods of home were those we turned to with relish and gusto. If by country you mean an originating geographical location with its customs and cuisines, it’s quite true that you can take a person out of the country but you can’t take the country out of a person.
And all the while the chiles snapped and occasionally whistled when steam built up and jetted from a split seam. Because they must be turned frequently so the skin blisters but the flesh itself doesn’t char, roasting chiles requires almost constant attention. But not so much that I couldn’t occasionally gaze at the depthless skies in search of migrating raptors, or scan the low hills burnished with autumn’s subtle hues of rust and growing dormancy, and seeing in them perhaps something more than the physical, some metaphor for the deepening financial crisis and the dawning of a new world, one whose terrain we neither know nor possess maps for. Plus the really big question of which was worse, when the government tells you not to worry or when it admits the economy’s been flushed down the toilet and they have no idea how to retrieve it.
All that was out there, beyond the horizon but perhaps not far, foreclosings, cities filled with abandoned houses, the new frontier of fledgling ghost towns and failed banks, lost jobs and wrecked lives, the stock market imploding and with it people’s life savings, the witch’s cauldron in full export and the world buying it all. And here in a small town in northeast Kansas monarchs still winged past on their southern migration and a breeze laden with the scent of goldenrod and leaf litter stirred the brittle leaves and passed like an unseen hand through the soybeans, and chiles roasting on glowing coals anchored me to one place seemingly untouched and unfazed by the disasters unfolding elsewhere. The contrast was startling.
I’ve done what I could. Sold our stocks and bonds and invested in something safer, snatched accounts from financial institutions whose ratings plummeted to junk bond status, paid off what few bills we owed, stopped spending except where necessary or when the price was right. Stocked the larder, too, and soon enough I’d be removing the window air conditioners and replacing them with storm windows. Getting our house in order, in other words, and the chiles one more way of preparing for a coming winter whose bleakness we can only guess at.