Despite my past musings about memories, I know that mine is pretty darn good. It’s funny what can trigger it too. A lemon blossom on a tree in a pot in the Georgian part of Hampton Court Palace last weekend smelled like my childhood. I was suddenly transported to being 10 years old on our farm in Arizona that was surrounded by citrus trees. If you don’t know what citrus blossom smells like, trust me, it’s amazing, and if you’ve ever had fresh citrus honey, it’s so pale it’s almost colorless and tastes like those blossoms smell. Store-bought citrus honey is good too, but just not quite the same—like an echo of the real thing.
Ah, taste, another transporting sense.
I lived all over the States but spent serious formative years in New Mexico—especially northern NM. There, everything is about the chile (spelled with an “e”) and not to be confused with “chili”–the dish made with beans and meat. Green or red, chile is so ubiquitous that you can get it on a McDonald’s burger or Domino’s pizza. Everywhere has it, everyone eats it.
Grown in NM, it has a very particular taste that you cannot get anywhere else. “Green chile” is roasted pods that are peeled (when you’re ready to eat it, that is—if you’re freezing it down, leave on the skins). The longer you freeze green chile, the hotter it seems to become. My mom, incidentally, talks about frozen chile like some people do wine: “I have an Española 2012, or a 2015 Chimayo that’s really good, or a 2006 Hatch that’ll knock your socks off.” You can chop it up and eat it (with any—every—thing), make it into a sauce, stuff it with cheese then batter and fry it, or just add the essence to candy or jam, or even beer—but that’s mostly for tourists. “Red” is the pod left to ripen and dry, then ground up and made into a sauce, although you can just sprinkle it on whatever. The decorative chile ristras that you may have seen were originally just a convenient way to dry out a bunch of peppers, getting them ready to use in cooking.
Fresh green chile is hard to transport overseas, so I usually end up traveling back with bags of red chile powder. The other day, I made a jar of sauce. I have been on a bit of kick lately. It’s just so good—smoky and spicy and delicious on everything from eggs to burritos. But mainly, when it hits my tongue, it tastes like home. So, as well as getting a nice dose of Vitamins C & A, I am getting a dose of my mom’s cooking. I don’t think my sauce is as good as hers, even if we probably use the same recipe out of a tiny cookbook sold in tourist shops (but, like, everyone has as well).
It isn’t just Mom I think of but that whole time in high school and college (uni) too, and all my trips home. It’s Christmas Eve and theatre parties, after school snacks and hangover cures, road trips and restaurant stops as soon as you hit chile country—a wealth of sensations just in a spoonful. It’s fuel for the body and solace for the soul.
Now I’m hungry.