Why Colorado and New Mexico are Fighting a Hot War Over Green Chile

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Last September, hungry to know more, I aimed my car at Colorado’s biggest, boldest celebration of the crop: the Pueblo Chile and Frijoles Festival, held annually around harvest time. I drove up on a blue-sky Saturday, and I was psyched, partly because the day’s agenda would involve me eating four times in a six-hour period. But I also have a soft spot for Pueblo, an industrial-looking city that tends to get snubbed by people angling for pristine Colorado beauty.

Pueblo earned its gritty vibe the hard way. It was home to a major steel mill (one of its nicknames is Steel City) owned by John D. Rockefeller’s Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, which was founded in the 1880s and exists today—much changed, and now run by a Russian company called Evraz. Rockefeller’s ruthless management style helped spur a grim event in U.S. labor history. Approaching Pueblo from the south on I-25, near Trinidad, you pass a monument to the Ludlow Massacre, a notorious 1914 outbreak of violence in which National Guardsmen hired by the company killed an estimated 25 miners, women, and children during a strikebreaking conflict called the Colorado Coalfield War. Guerrilla retaliation by the strikers, it’s believed, led to dozens of additional deaths.

On a more positive note, Pueblo has a rich heritage of diversity, which began in the mid-1800s when a mining boom attracted job seekers from many European countries, including Italy, Greece, and Croatia. Pueblo’s Italian-American heritage shows up in the Pueblo Chile Growers Association, a group that’s featured in the festival. Look at the current membership, and you’ll see many Italian names, including Musso, Mauro, DiTomaso, DiSanti, and Genova.

On my big day last September, I caught the opening minutes of a college football game (the CSU Pueblo ThunderWolves versus the Colorado School of Mines Orediggers!) as I hit Pueblo’s city limits, got off the interstate, and zigzagged west into town, where I parked and walked a few blocks to the event site. The festival happened inside a large rectangle, plus a long section of Union Avenue, set up in the heart of downtown, near a scenic, historic river walk on the banks of the Arkansas River.

I spent about a half-hour legging it around to get a sense of the offerings, which combined a few chile-roasting operations, various food and drink venues, three spaces for live music—awesomest band name I saw: Mixxed Nutz—along with 180 booths showcasing local businesses.

After my walkabout, I stopped in at a tent belonging to one of the more prominent roasting companies in Pueblo: Milberger Farms, a 400-acre produce operation located in what’s called the St. Charles Mesa, an agricultural area east of the city fed by irrigation water brought by ditch from the Arkansas. To the left of a large tent, several roasters were flaming chiles to order—prices can vary, but a typical tab for Pueblo’s finest was $50 a bushel—and it was a hot day, so stoking those beasts must have felt like outdoor blacksmithing. In front of the tent, there was a cutout for shooting photos: a tall, comical green chile with a crown, holding a scepter, with an oval for your face.

Inside this tent and another like it, I noticed that the growers around here don’t just raise Moscos, a.k.a. Pueblos. I also saw Big Jims for sale, along with chiles carrying labels that included poblano, Fresno, Santa Fe Grande, Anaheim, and Dynomite (described as “extra, extra hot”). I bought a few bags of Milberger Pueblos and went off to find some food I could eat now rather than later.

Nearby, at a stand called Paulicious, I ordered a green chile wrap—a yummy snack similar to what Bartolo had described, consisting of one green chile and a splotch of melted cheese with garlic salt inside a slightly toasted, folded tortilla. Dang it was good. Score one for Steel City.

Then, at a different stand, came the long-awaited moment: my first helping of Pueblo-style green chile, the stew/sauce, served in a white foam cup. Carefully walking my treasure to a patch of street-corner sidewalk, I set up shop for analysis. Step one was to mount my camera on a tripod and use a timer to shoot high-resolution pictures, a process apparently amusing to people sitting nearby, since they looked at me funny. (Too bad, I thought. I’m doing science over here.) As I clicked, I found myself wondering about its color.

It was a light reddish-brown, not the rich, gravy-like look I was expecting. I tried a spoonful and wasn’t exactly wowed. It was viscous and shiny—the result, I guessed, of using either flour or cornstarch as a thickener—and the primary flavor coming through was chicken broth, with a wee bit of heat underneath. There was visible green chile in there, but it was speck-size. Peering closely, I surmised that the sauce also contained oil, onion, and tomato, which is what gave it that color.

All in all, not a triumph for Pueblo, but no big deal. Maybe this was just a festival-food lapse. I had more promising stops on my list.