I had been in New Mexico for three days, 19 hours and 27 minutes and had yet to eat a chile relleno. But on day four, destiny called. My aunt and I were off to Taos, and our first stop was the town of Chimayó. This tiny village in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains on the high road to Taos is known for two things—the best chiles in the country and an old sanctuary purported to have healing powers. In fact, so many pilgrims walk to El Santuario de Chimayó each year, it’s referred to as the Lourdes of America. If you ask me, you’d have a better chance of being healed by the chiles, with all their vitamin C. But that’s not as romantic as a chapel full of holy dirt and crutches that were supposedly left behind by those who were miraculously cured. Call me a spiritual killjoy, but I’m standing by my chile theory.
The Chimayó chile was nearly extinct a few years ago since only a handful of farmers were still growing it. Then a consortium of farmers and activists started the Chimayó Chile Project to protect the native crop and the farmers’ intellectual property. They started with seed preservation and then began working with the local farmers. In 2006, the Native Hispanic Institute helped provide the farmers with legal and technical assistance so they could incorporate and apply for the trade name Chimayó. Today it’s a registered mark owned by Chimayó Chile Farmers, Inc.
As the first bite of relleno kissed my lips, I heard a ringing in my ears: Hal-uh-loo-ya. As it gracefully slid off the fork and onto my tongue, my mouth heard it too: Hal-uh-loo-ya. Hal-uh-loooooo-ya. Hal-uh-loooooo-oooooo-ya! That green chile was so fresh, it was practically still on the vine. I was convinced that whoever had the divine vision in 16th- century Mexico to take a fresh green chile and roast it, stuff it with cheese, dredge it in an egg batter, fry it to golden-hued perfection and top it with fresh, chopped tomatoes should have a sanctuary built in his or her honor. And whoever had the vision in 21st-century New Mexico to serve it with Spanish rice, white posole and fresh sopapillas for $7.25 deserved some kind of shrine. I was cured. I was a believer. And it was well worth the pilgrimage.