Chile Ristras, A String Story

ChilesIn the American Southwest, chile peppers flourish between September and October. In New Mexico, they are sold by the bushel, not the pound. Sacks of green, and then red chiles appear in the markets–and for around $20.00 you can take that bushel home.

The chiles being so abundant need to be preserved. Only the most mature plant, the Red Chile (New Mexico, Cayenne),  is suitable for preserving. Green chiles are an immature fruit, and carry too much moisture to go through the sun drying process.

The best way to dry chiles is on screens. In the past they were dried on the flat rooftops of adobe houses. After two or so days in the sun, the pods are strung together by the stems, and hung in doorways. This is the Chile Ristra. The chiles need to continue drying in a well-ventilated area. Then they can be used year round to make sauces,  added into soups and stews, and ground into chile powder. Dried in this manner, the chiles can last up to two years.

Usually when I research a specific food, I’ll come across some kind of legend or myth about their beginnings. I found only two interesting stories about Chile Ristras. When the Ristra is hung in a doorway, it is an invitation to visitors. Another is that they help provide an abundant harvest for the coming year. There seems to be an older legend that the Indigenous folks of New Mexico hung them on their canoes to ward off evil. I have not confirmed this legend springs from a reliable source.

“Ristra” means “string” in Spanish. Chile Ristra then translates into “a string of chiles.” These days, the Chile Ristra is primarily decorative and is available in just about every kind of ceramic, fabric, plastic, or plaster mold. It is engraved, cast in silver and bronze, and seen in paintings and graffiti. The Chile Ristra, along with cowboy boots and the Saguaro Cactus, has come to symbolize the American Southwest. It is this image of hanging chiles that is largely responsible for the Cult of the Chile Motif.

Chili RistrasAs you know, I love chiles in all varieties and in almost every kind of food. The Chile Ristra is one of my favorite images, hanging in the lone doorway of an adobe house on a Mesa in the High Desert, with the sun setting and a few wispy clouds in the background. Of course, there is a mountain, off in the distance somewhere, and a shadow figure in the doorway, smoking.

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