I’ve just returned from New Mexico; my fourth visit in the last couple of years. I find the people friendly, the art and architecture marvelous, and the broad sweep of landscape appealing. I can certainly appreciate the state nickname, "Land of Enchantment."
I have a bit more trouble, however, with the official state vegetable. Vegetables, actually—frijoles and chile. (To us northerners, that translates as pinto beans and peppers. Hot peppers. Leave-your-lips-numb peppers. Take-the-surface-off-your-tongue peppers.)
New Mexican cuisine is wonderful, I’m sure, for those who are accustomed to it. Not being one of those people, I find it uncomfortable. This is especially true when the chiles show up in places where I’m not expecting them, like innocent-appearing salads.
I’ve learned there is no point in asking, “Is this spicy?” This foolish question is invariably met with one of two responses. The first is, “Oh, no, it’s very mild.” The second is, “It isn’t hot, it’s just flavorful.”
Either reply means that one bite is going to take out half my taste buds. I’ve finally figured out that they really don’t intend to mislead me. It’s just that the definition of “mild” is in the taste buds of the partaker—and New Mexican taste buds are apparently inured to chile with their mother’s milk. Grocery stores probably carry three types of baby food: mild, medium, and hot.
I’ve also learned that servers aren’t going to ask "Do you want chile with that?" The only question—the unofficial state question, I have been told—is "Red or green?"
What I really have a problem with is not the hot food. I don’t even mind people assuming that eventually I could get used to the spiciness. That, I suppose, is true enough. What I object to is the assumption that I want to get used to it—or at least that I should want to. The air of superiority, served up like a side dish of green chile, is annoying. I personally find a tolerance for spicy food to be an indication of a strong stomach more than a strong character.
My Northern European immigrant ancestors certainly were people of strong character. This is despite the fact that they bequeathed a culinary heritage of three basic seasonings: salt, pepper, and onion. The more adventurous can add ketchup and mustard. If you want a little tang with your food, why, that’s what dill pickles are for.
Oh, we do indulge in hot food here, especially in the wintertime. We just define it differently. “Hot” means a bite of casserole still steaming from the oven, soup that’s only a few seconds out of the simmering pot, or coffee sipped at a temperature just one or two degrees below boiling.
In South Dakota, by the way, we don’t have an official state vegetable as they do in New Mexico. We do have a state dessert. It’s a fruit-filled pastry of German/Scandinavian ancestry called kuchen. What does that say about the difference in eating habits between the two states? I leave you to draw your own conclusions.