There’s a special day toward the end of summer— that time of year when the rain has either finally come or we spend the evenings watching wildfires glow just over the Sangres. One morning, you wake up and walk out of the house and the air is thick like the greasy exhaust from a fast-food kitchen. It burns ever so faintly in the back of your throat, and within moments, your mouth is flushed by your suddenly crazed salivary glands. By the time you get to your car, your left leg is twitching like a feral rabbit in heat, because someone within a mile of your house (regardless of where you live in town) is roasting green chile.
My own addiction to the local green was slow to develop. Growing up, the smell was less of an olfactory Pavlov reaction but a dark and foreboding messenger of the looming school year to come.
Years later, when I was living in the Northwest, I would bring back sacks of the green in my carry-on bags. It’s one of those things I could never explain to people up there. There is something about (especially Northern) New Mexico that changes you after a while, and certain seemingly innocuous details begin to hold a weighty significance in your subconscious. The food is one of the aspects that most quickly and effectively pinpoints the ways in which this place is unlike anywhere else in the world—all without ever getting us any closer to an understanding of why it’s so damn special.
Take Tony’s Peaches for example. The local grower is practically considered a sainted figure for a few weeks a year, when his precious seasonal cargo hits fruit stands. “I always know it’s summer when the green chile and the Tony’s peaches show up,” a lady told me, as she greedily filled bags of the produce for canning. “The man walks on water. It’s amazing.” It’s a familial relationship.
My buddy Leo once hit it on the head. A native of the Pojoaque Valley, he drew a fascinating analogy regarding New Mexican communities, “Pojoaque is like your family. Your neighbors are all just aunties and uncles and people you’ve known your whole life. Albuquerque is like a jungle, or high school, where everyone’s got their cliques and groups, but it’s mostly the people you chose to hang out with. Santa Fe’s like this weird in-between, where you have that small-town feeling of family, but then there’s all these very non-traditional influences, too. It’s big enough to give you a certain anonymity, but small enough to still be personal.”
He continued, “And it’s not that the tourists aren’t welcome, they’re just never gonna get it. The river parties, tailgate parties, going to Auntie’s house on the weekend, getting drunk and passing out…They have their own versions of that stuff elsewhere, but you can’t compare it. Santa Fe is an oasis, and it has a specific vibe.”
I still can’t explain it to people who have never been here. I can’t really explain it to you who are here reading this. But the more I dig, the more I realize that Santa Fe is only the way it is because of all the different perspectives that love it for their different reasons. It’s the stupid combinations, like green chile and peaches, that, until you’ve had green chile-peach salsa, sound like improbable bedfellows.
And then you wake up that morning and you smell that smell. And your leg starts twitching. God, I’m glad I didn’t have to go back to school this week.
Miljen Aljinovic grew up in the shadow of these hills and now makes things from words and sound. Reach him at email@example.com