Photo by  Heijo Reinl on  Unsplash

Chiles

In my mind, the scene was one of those “rainbows rise as the birds sing” moments: Lucas leaning in, nose pressed delicately against the ristra, eyes closed, perhaps in anticipation, perhaps in pleasure. I’d like to imagine it was both. Lucas leaned in, nose pressed delicately against the ristra, eyes closed in a mix of anticipation and pleasure. Transcendent. Cue the ascending harp glissandi, one or two ethereal major chords, and…scene.

The first time we visited The Chili Guys, a Denver mainstay for green chile that’s housed in a fireworks store, we came for frozen green chile (primarily hatch) and, on a whim, picked up some dried purple corn as well. I’d been making a lot of pozole recently, though it tended to be eaten (by me) long before the kernels arrived in anything resembling broth. Although the package gestured towards a pineapple-laced drink one could make with the corn, my focus at this point was more on the having, rather than the using.

Later that week, we had some chicha morada at a Peruvian restaurant. Later still came seemingly endless chicha morada at a local Peruvian festival. At this point, we praised our unanticipated foresight at having already bought the purple corn and so began to experiment, re-using the corn (doubtlessly a sin) much as one re-steeps tea leaves, while we tweaked proportions of this and that. Lucas has become a chicha morada fanatic, and the delight sparked by his anxious slurping offsets (somewhat) the fact that he both makes and becomes a sticky purple mess at the end of it all.

Cut to the present

After a lunch that included homemade fresh-masa tortillas — the fact that fresh masa is so accessible in Denver is a delight that keeps on delighting — we hopped in the car, intending simply to stock up on more purple corn. Maybe even clean out their supply. Maybe even pick up a few more pounds of frozen chiles to hold us until the start of roasting season, which, having read on formally trusted chile fan websites, I was under the impression started towards the end of August. Imagine my shock upon pulling into the parking lot and seeing an archaic rotisserie roaster contraption thing set out by the door. You can’t. Maybe they were just getting ready, I thought. Imagine my careful joy upon opening the door and seeing prices listed for freshly roasted chiles, sold by the half-bushel and the bushel. You can’t. Imagine the slight tremor in my voice as I asked, jaw adrop, if they were in fact roasting, and was told, yes — go talk to Justin out back. Cue harp glissandi and at least five or even seven ethereal major chords.

The ristra scene happened as we were waiting for Justin to finish up with a customer. Lucas and I, probably with different motivations, paced this giant warehouse of a store, its inner ring of dried beans, chile pods, and chile products encircled by a metric shit-ton of fireworks. Lucas wanted to play with everything, including not only the ristras (good baby), but also the fireworks (less good/room for improvement baby). Fortunately for everyone and everything along that entire block of Federal, Justin saw the squirmy toddler and hastened to fill our basket with chiles. Lucas stopped squirming, absorbed by the heavenly sight (good boy). We went outside as one, and, making sure Lucas and I had stopped a safe distance away, Justin assumed his post at the wire roaster. Chiles cascaded into the basket. Anticipation built.

After a few heart-stopping moments when it appeared that the propane wouldn’t start, Justin crossed the lot and fiddled with the tank. My fears about Lucas blowing up half of Federal seem to have been misplaced, for, as Justin returned and applied the lighter, the built-up gas ignited in an angry explosive fireball of fury, nearly taking off his eyebrows. Fortunately, everything quickly returned to normal, and the roasting began in earnest. I held Lucas’s head level to my own, my nose twitching, rabbit-like, to make sure that the odor of roasting chiles didn’t come too near. I’ve received many, many chile burns from toasting pods and frying sauces, and, enticing as the smell of chiles roasting was (ambrosia), I maintained a safe distance. The things we do as parents. True sacrifices.

Lucas stared at the wire barrel, slowly rotating amidst the conflagration. His nose twitched, baby bunny-like. If I’m not mistaken, he even licked his lips at one point. Best baby. I’m sure there have been instances of parental pride that equal this moment, they’re just not coming to mind right now.

Soon, the roasting concluded, the chiles were swept into a thick plastic bag and passed to my quivering hand. Clutching this small piece of heaven, we returned inside, cleaned the shelf of purple corn, and paid for our treasures. No slaying of dragons or other quest-like requirements necessary. Initially, I put the chiles in the way-back of the car, secured Lucas in his car seat, and started driving homeward. Two blocks later, the world’s best scent filling the confines of the car, I glanced back at Lucas. Paranoia (ah, parenthood) had slowly been creeping over me, so I pulled over. Was his face red? Perhaps it was just from the sun. Was his eye just a little watery from the chile musk currently enveloping us both? Not wanting to overload his tolerance, I moved the bag to the passenger seat, securing it with the seat belt, and started off once again. If I’m not mistaken, Lucas even hummed a happy tune. Approaching the highway, I mustered up every last degree of self control to take the ramp instead of pulling off to visit the next roaster in an adjacent parking lot. Chile season!!!

Note: The Chili Guys are not to be confused with The Chile Guy, who should be your first call for bulk order chile pods.

Addendum: Lucas’s first word in Spanish was chicha. No joke.