September In New Mexico

Reader Contribution by Virginia Hawthorn
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Every state has its State Bird, State Flower, and so on, and if New Mexico had a State Month surely it would be September. The summer heat has tapered off and the sky is as blue as any sky can ever be. If we are fortunate to have a good monsoon season (I’ll say more about this below), as we do this year, the rains will have brought out acres of wild flowers, particularly along the roadsides where water collects. Yellow seems to be the primary color of this early fall season, mainly native sunflowers and chamisa (rabbitbrush), intermixed with asters, and smaller white and orange spots of color from any number of blossoming plants, all accented with the soft plumes of various grasses.

Chamisa, sedums and grasses near the front gate.

Globe Mallow blossoms

Last spring when the native sunflowers started appearing everywhere, I was amazed that they were even able to find enough moisture to sprout at all. Between January 1 and July 31 this year, we had less than an inch of rain here at the farm, and yet hundreds of tiny plants popped up and grew rapidly. Since our rainy season started in early August, they have really flourished, some growing to more than 10 feet tall and covered with buds that are now starting to bloom.

We treat these native sunflowers both as weeds and as welcome friends – when they threaten to overwhelm our gardens and walkways, we turn them into compost, and when they are growing where we want them, we let them grow as large as they wish. Since sunflowers provide a great winter food source for birds, we let them stand after the frosts arrive, and enjoy watching the finches and other songbirds all through the cold months. Birds not only enjoy the seeds, they scatter them as well, so next spring there will be sunflowers all over the place again.

Water in the Desert

The general weather pattern in the Southwest is a very dry spring – no April showers to bring May flowers – with rainy weather starting around July 4, just in time to wash out local fireworks displays. This year the rains were about a month late, so everyone was quite anxious and very thankful when the weather finally changed. The monsoon pattern brings moisture up from the Gulf of California and Gulf of Mexico, typically resulting in bright, sunny mornings with huge, dark clouds piling up in the afternoon, as they are as I write this, and I can hear thunder rumbling. The resulting rainstorms are usually spotty, popping up here and there particularly in the mountain areas, sometimes producing violent lightning and thunder with heavy rains falling in a very short period of time.

Obviously this type of storm can be dangerous, but it is something we have to deal with sensibly. The rules are to get out of open fields quickly when lightning starts drawing close; stay out of dry washes (“arroyos” they are called here) that can suddenly turn to raging torrents that can easily carry even a large vehicle tumbling downstream; and never drive into water covering a road during or after one of these downpours – there may be no road left under there!

A thunderstorm approaches.

Another source of summer rain here is more infrequent and unpredictable. If a hurricane happens to stray into the Gulf of Mexico, swirling around the Corpus Christi, Texas, area especially, or even more rarely into the Gulf of California, the remnants can move north over our part of the country, dumping huge amounts of rain as the air is forced to rise and cool. That is what happened just a few days ago when most of southern Arizona was deluged with record-breaking rainstorms brought on by Hurricane Norbert. Norbert missed us, but a few years ago the remains of another hurricane made its way inland up the Rio Grande, catching El Paso and the southern New Mexico mountains the same way. Usually around the end of September, it mostly clears up, dries out, and we are on track for gorgeous fall weather.

The State Fair

Rain and fall and farming bring me to the topic of the New Mexico State Fair in Albuquerque, which this year started September 10 and runs through September 21. It’s a big one, with all the usual fair attractions: livestock and farm produce judging, horse racing, midway rides, incredible food, concerts, and a nightly rodeo followed by a fireworks display! Over the years, planners have moved the Fair dates around from early to late September and back again, trying to come up with a way to avoid the rainy season – all to no avail. No matter what, several days of rain, and sometimes a real washout, arrive with the Fair. I think they have finally given up on the idea and everyone has just learned to live with it, although the midway is often forced to close down as a precaution against lightning danger.

Green Chile

New Mexico has no State Month, but it does have two State Vegetables – doesn’t everyone? These are chile, in both red and green form, and pinto beans. Pinto beans are simply a speckled “painted” variety of dried bean which is commonly grown here and found either in, or as a side offering, with nearly every local New Mexican dish, usually spiced up with garlic, onions, red chile powder, and either with or without meat – usually pork.

But chile, and particularly green chile, is probably the closest to our hearts. It is what we dream about when we are far from home, what we miss, what we demand the moment we get off the plane at the Albuquerque Sunport. Please note the spelling, which is a sore point with New Mexicans: it is chile, not chili, and native Spanish speakers pronounce it something like chee­-lay, with the accent on the first syllable. That isn’t exactly right phonetically, but close.

Anyway, chile is in the pepper family, along with green peppers, jalapenos and the like. When picked in its green stage it is roasted to loosen the tough transparent skin, which is peeled off, and the chile is then ready to be put in salsas, on your hamburgers, stuffed with cheese and then deep fried or baked in a sauce. It can be anything from fairly mild to blistering hot, depending partly on the variety and partly on soil and weather conditions.

Green chile is a major money crop here in New Mexico, and given the extended severe drought, last spring there was serious doubt that there would be enough water to meet the demand for the chile growing season. In fact, there was some talk that farmers should skip the year entirely rather than waste their money and effort on planting the fields when the irrigation water would probably be unavailable. Fortunately, no one seemed to pay any attention to this doomsday talk, and this year’s crop is quite a success.

Nearby chile field ready for harvest.

Our farm is bordered on two sides by large fields of chile. For the past couple of weeks, crews have picked like mad, and huge trucks and trailers loaded with burlap bags of green gold are making their way up the ditch roads and off to markets, just in time for major chile roasting at the State Fair, chile festivals, super market parking lots, and backyard barbecues. We keep hoping that a bag might roll off the back of a truck and land in our yard, but so far no luck!

Workers bringing in the harvest.

Some of the harvest will be kept back and spread out or tied into ristras (like onions) to dry until it turns a beautiful bright red. The flavor of red chile is entirely different from the green. The pod becomes crisp and crumbly, and can be reconstituted by cooking it in a stew or soaking it to make into a sauce. Some of the dry pods are finely ground and become red chile powder, which is sold here in bulk and flavors the red sauce for enchiladas and other Mexican food dishes.

This brings me to my final topic for this chapter:

The New Mexico State Question: Red or Green?

Your state doesn’t have an official question? Every single restaurant server who wants to keep his/her job asks the question many, many times a day, and hears the New Mexico State Answer, which can be Red or Green depending on your taste, or perhaps Christmas, which means both! That’s red or green chile, although you may notice that the word itself is not part of the Official Question. You are just supposed to know. Of course, if you look at your server with a blank stare and say something like “Huh?” you are instantly branded as an outsider, a mere tenderfoot, someone who has not been initiated into the mysteries of New Mexicans’ love of chile, both red and green. That’s usually my preference: cheese enchiladas made with blue corn flour (a topic for another time) with both red and green chile sauce. It doesn’t get any better than that!

A last word here about chile (for now): it can come in salsa, which probably everyone, maybe even in Norway, is familiar with. That’s the stuff you get at any grocery store, or it can be freshly made if you are lucky, for chip dipping. Then there is chile sauce, which is either red or green chile cooked with other ingredients such as garlic and onions and a thickened broth to form sauces for enchiladas, chiles rellenos (green chile stuffed with cheese), and other goodies. 

State Symbols Website

And finally, finally final, if you want something that will keep you awake at night, glued to your computer, try out this site: State Symbols USA. You can click on any state and find an illustrated list of all the State Everythings – birds, flowers, trees, animals, etc. Who knew that New Mexico had an official State Tartan? I thought I must be the only person of Scottish ancestry in the state! Do you have a State Cookie? How about a State Soil (many have this), or Amphibian, or Rock, or Folk Dance? The list is endless, and sometimes quite surprising or quite funny. Enjoy.

Until next time – Happy September!

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