The smoky smell of charred poblano flesh permeated the air Saturday at the Oro Valley Farmers Market. My nose led me to the source — a hand-cranked roaster obscured by a crowd of people waiting for bagsful.
We live in chile pepper country. If you ask Gary Nabhan, the nationally acclaimed native food preservationist who divided North America into 13 food nations, we live in Chile Pepper Nation. From the southern parts of the Painted Desert and down through the Sonoran, Chihuahuan and Mohave deserts, our region sports heirloom chilies with as much character in their names as the families that have tended them for generations have — “mira sol” (looking at the sun), “pico de pajaro” (bird’s beak).
So the Oro Valley Farmers Market celebrates the fiery fruit each year with a chile festival. This year’s effort included ancho chile chocolate cake, those ubiquitous bunches of red hanging peppers and a great American chili cook-off.
Now our region has never claimed to be Chili Nation, as in The Nation of Spicy Stews with Jealously Guarded Recipes. It is true that one legend has chili originating with chuck wagon cooks who, it’s said, planted oregano, peppers and onions under mesquite trees on the way to California from Texas and harvested the plants for stews on the way back home.
But that’s an undocumented story, and even if chili originated right smack in the middle of Pima County, most of us are from elsewhere, anyway. So I wondered if this year’s festivities could actually imbue this Chile Pepper Nation newcomer with a stronger sense of place.
Eager to find out, I grabbed a plastic spoon and headed for the string of competitors’ booths that circled the Oro Valley Town Hall courtyard — our own “ring of fire.”
The closest booth to the ticket counter belonged to Rod of Rod’s Kansas City BBQ, a regular vendor at the Oro Valley market. I took one bite of his tasty chili and asked him to reveal the secret ingredient.
“I can’t tell you,” he said, tightening his lips. “It’s a southern pepper, I can tell you that.”
Rod’s recipe came from an old Cajun lady in Mississippi — his grandmother. In the old days, she made it in a cast-iron bucket over coals and got Rod to help by picking garlic from the garden.
Now that he mentioned it, I could taste a bit of Cajun in that chili.
Two booths down from Rod’s was a batch of really fiery stuff. The cook, a recent transplant from Albuquerque, created it so she’d have something spicy to feed her husband and boys when they returned home cold from braving the ski slopes.
The Sandia Hatch green chili accomplished this feat.
“It’s the best chile pepper,” she said. “And that’s from a New Mexico person.” (Hatch, N.M., has been called the chile pepper capital of the world.)
As I traveled farther along the Ring of Fire, I met more competitors with treasured family recipes and some who were obviously winging it. A fire fighter group told me they’d donned self-contained breathing apparatuses while chopping onions for their creation. A group of teenagers claimed their chili was “made of friendship,” which I guessed was as good a secret ingredient as any.
When my belly told me I’d eaten as much fire as was advisable, I tossed my last plastic sample container in the trash and sat down in a shady spot. As I watched the rest of the crowd mill around, I thought about food’s role in rooting people to their regions.
The Oro Valley Farmers Market’s chile festival had indeed given me a deeper sense of place, but not of this place. It gave me a sense of the places where the cooks grew up. And that showed me that as long as we have access to the tastes and scents of our childhood, we’re not so far from home.
Before I left, I took one last whiff of the fumes of charred poblanos — a true Southwest smell.