Red or Green? Colorful Essence of New Mexico

New Mexican Cuisine Offers so Many Delicious Options

Photo credit: Anthony Beal

“So, red or green?”

I’d been living in Albuquerque, New Mexico for about three months the first time I received the question.

When it came, I found myself momentarily staggered with regard to what reply was correct or sought. Despite having been previously prepped by my wife, despite having had explained to me the meaning of this sufficiently vague color-focused question so frequently presented free of any context from which to infer, I found myself drawing a blank.

Not helping matters was that it was Christmastime, the question nestled amidst various introductory amenities I stood exchanging with a co-worker’s husband at an office holiday party. Red and green being colors not uncommonly associated with the season, understandable would have been an assumption on my part that his question somehow related to Christmas. Considering that the conversation immediately preceding the colorful question had referenced food not at all, my momentary confusion became even less damning. At the time though, standing before the smiling gentleman who I felt certain could read clearly the mental logjam behind my eyes, these rationales offered no comfort. What did was feeling my mouth come open, seeming an entity independent of my guidance, and hearing the word “green” leave it.

I’d remembered then that when a New Mexico native inquires “Red or green?” they’re asking what color chile peppers you prefer in your meals. Whether enjoyed in the form of salsa, diced, chopped, or simply grilled over coals, chiles are an integral part of traditional cuisine in this region of the United States. Typically, the pepper in question will bear names like Sandia or Anaheim as these are the most widely cultivated peppers throughout New Mexico.

Interesting is that the question has less to do with choosing between two distinct varieties of pepper than between stages in the development of the same pepper. Red chiles are merely green chiles fully ripened, which is to say that red chiles start out as green chiles. Hotter climates tend to yield hotter peppers than cooler, more temperate ones.

Some could argue that during an office holiday party was an odd time for the question. None, however, would dispute that New Mexico was definitely the place. The town of Hatch in Doña Ana County has long borne the distinction of being named “Home of the World’s Best Chile Pepper,” and is in fact, the self-proclaimed “Chile Capital of the World.” Fresh chile season begins late August/Early Sept. and lasts into mid-October.

“He knew exactly what I meant,” my new friend told his wife with a wide grin before saying to me, “That means you’re a real New Mexican now.” Years later, this remains one of the best things ever said to me by a stranger.

One last note on “red or green” that serves me only to further justify my initial reflexive correlation between the holiday season and the question at hand: When dining out in New Mexico, an undecided or intrepid eater can request “Christmas” year-round when ordering meals. In this context, the word refers to red and green chiles served side-by-side. Depending on one’s appetite for heat in the foods they enjoy, perhaps therein lies a true holiday.

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