In Chile We Trust

In Chile We TrustI admit that upon moving to New Mexico it took me longer than some to fully embrace the state vegetable. In fact, at the risk of losing my New Mexico residency card, I’ll go so far as to say that I still prefer my pizza and hamburgers to be chile free. Days can go by without a chile appearing on my menu, and my comfort food is more along the lines of risotto or mashed potatoes, sans chile, than it is mac and cheese with chile or a heaping plate of chile cheese fries. Chile has gradually crept into my diet, however, and I certainly don’t stare at the waitress with a blank look on my face and stutter when asked, “Red or green?” Chile rellenos and carne adovada, two dishes unheard of in the East, have become favorites. But I guess I’m kind of vanilla in my chile tastes—I like it on New Mexican food but not crossing over into other cuisines and, beyond the occasional breakfast burrito (usually eaten when there’s a tray of them at an early work meeting), it certainly doesn’t carry over into breakfast.

Yes, I said breakfast. This might be the truest test of whether one is a born and bred New Mexican or a transplant: listen in on a breakfast order. My first few breakfasts out with New Mexican-born friends were eye opening and a little alarming: “I’d like a breakfast burrito with green chile, smothered in cheese and chile, a side of bacon and side of green chile.” “Biscuits and gravy, fried eggs and a side of green chile.” “Steak and eggs with a side of green chile.” Stranger still: “French toast with a side of green chile.” French toast with a side of green chile? Who were these people? What strange universe had I wandered into? My order: scrambled eggs, bacon, wheat toast. “Would you like a side of chile with that?” No! My friends would look at me and shake their heads as if to say, “Poor thing,” and “You’ll learn.”

I was convinced that I would never, no matter how long I lived in Santa Fe, learn to eat chile for breakfast. I’ve never even used Tabasco sauce on my eggs. Breakfast should be unassuming, comforting, a gentle entré into the day. Breakfast is dependable and quiet. Not for a New Mexican, it isn’t! For a New Mexican, breakfast is a fiesta and apparently there is no traditional breakfast food that can’t be enhanced by a little green chile.

Okay, you say, I’ll bite. What should I try? If you’re looking for something on the more traditional New Mexican side, you could try a breakfast enchilada. Joe’s makes a delicious breakfast enchilada—corn tortillas layered with scrambled eggs and cheese and topped with chile and a fried egg. (Personally, I would go red on this dish.) Zia Diner offers up a breakfast quesadilla: scrambled eggs, cheese and chile grilled between two flour tortillas. Cafe Pasqual’s has the exotic huevos motuleños, which consists of two eggs topped with sautéed banana, cheese and peas all piled on a corn tortilla and topped with red or green chile. Tell me, could you walk into a restaurant in Chicago or New York and order such a thing? I think not. Chilaquiles—fried corn tortillas cooked in chile or salsa, topped with eggs, chile and cheese—are another local favorite. There’s a theme developing here: eggs, cheese and chile seem to go together as well as bacon and eggs.

Perhaps you’re willing to try a little chile with breakfast, but you want something more familiar. Omelets are traditional—one knows what to expect from an omelet—yet walk into almost any breakfast place in town and you’ll find at least one omelet with green chile. A breakfast sandwich in Santa Fe would be downright naked without a strip of green chile. Eggs Benedict, one of my breakfast favorites and a dish that is nearly perfect as is, get a New Mexican makeover with the addition of green chile. I shrieked in horror the first time I saw this on a menu. Not my Eggs Benedict! Come on, New Mexico, what have Eggs Benedict ever done to you! Who would consider adding green chile to hollandaise sauce? It’s ridiculous. It’s a travesty. It’s…delicious. It’s on the menu at New York Deli.

New York Deli—that brings me to perhaps the greatest betrayal breakfast food has ever known. There are few things as sacred to a New Yorker as a bagel. Plain bagel, onion bagel, poppy seed bagel, sesame bagel. Everything bagel. Green chile bagel. You must mean green chile cream cheese. Well, there is that, but I actually mean green chile bagel. New York Deli has gone ahead and put the green chile into the bagel. I’m not sure I can accept this. I think the green chile may have overstepped its bounds. Other regions have foods for which they’re known. Philly Cheese Steak, Chicago pizza, Maryland crab, Maine lobster. I was chatting recently about chile for breakfast with two people, one a born and bred New Mexican, the other a recent arrival. “What is it about chile?” the newcomer demanded. “Why do you put it on everything?” The born and bred New Mexican gave us a sad look and shook her head.“Honestly,” the newcomer continued, “I’m from Chicago, but we don’t put pizza on cereal!”

Cereal! The one breakfast food that remains on its own, the one final hold out among breakfast foods against the great chile onslaught. But is it? I sent out an email asking friends if they eat chile for breakfast and if so, how. One reply was green chile and oatmeal. So the cereal barrier has been breached. As for the rest of my friends, most responded that they put chile on eggs or in omelets. How dull, was my initial thought. Then I had to laugh at myself. Perhaps a bit of New Mexico is rubbing off on me after all. Next time I go out for breakfast, I’m ordering scrambled eggs, bacon, wheat toast and a side of green chile.

 

Story by by Caitlin Richards


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