The Yin/Yang of Chile
By Lesley S. King
At the market, the chile stars. In this land wrought by extremes of moistness and dryness, hot and cold, the fiery nightshade thrives. The vendor most known for growing this hot pepper is Matt Romero. Today, he turns a crank on a big metal bin full of green chile roasting over a flame, the air crackling, the scent pungent and singed. He pauses to hand a customer a sample. “That’s the best chile you can get. If you buy a bag for four dollars, and don’t like it, I’ll give your four dollars back,” he says.
The woman tastes the morsel, blinking from the heat and then hands him the money, which Matt accepts with a smile. Of all the farmers here, he conjures images of markets of long ago—bartering and cajoling, teasing his customers. He sets the price of many vegetables, simply because he’s bold enough to ask more than his neighbors at their booths. His produce is so good, people pay. “Customers won’t buy from you just because you’re there. If they don’t trust you, they won’t trust you with their food,” he says. “Part of it is representing yourself well, talking about yourself well, enjoying what you’re doing.”
Matt’s booth is a showcase of garlic, baby bok choy, salad greens,
and in fall, eleven varieties of chile peppers. When he’s not swamped with customers, he’s wandering the market, telling jokes, and chatting with other vendors, his large presence imposing until you recognize his gentle heart.
He has not always approached the market with such bravado. Though he grew up in the farming country of the Rio Grande Valley (“You had to grow your food or shoot it or steal it,” he likes to say), he left for many years to become an executive chef in Colorado. One day, worn out from city life and weighing 300 pounds, he made his way to his home country, where he met Emily, his wife-to-be and then laid out money for farmland overgrown with weeds and grape vines. He learned from other farmers, but also from trial and error. Then it was time to sell. “I was intimidated,” he says. “I didn’t want to go to Santa Fe. That was where the big boys were.” So he sold in nearby Los Alamos and Taos until he built up the courage to go to the city.
Since those early days, his life has changed in many ways. He has lost 82 pounds, and rather than racing around a kitchen full of people, he spends much of every day alone working in his fields, which sit below a chameleon-shaped hill in the village of Dixon. With large fingers, he picks chiles, holding three or four in his hand before placing them in a plastic bucket. He looks for those that are smooth, shiny, and solid. “Chile is finicky, not easy to grow,” he says. Last year he lost 20,000 plants to the wilt—a disease caused by too much water. “I raised my price on what chiles I did have and the people supported me.”
Back at the market, he catalogues the chile types: “Yellow hats—I make salsa out of those; Hungarian hot wax—those are frying peppers; poblanos—perfect for stuffing with cheese”; and, of course, New Mexico green in many varieties, the chile this land is known for, the one that defines this place with its vital, passionate temperament.