Albuquerque is situated in a shallow bowl of scorched brown earth. To the east, the scraggly Sandia Mountains stretch out like a spinal cord, turning whiter the closer they get to Mexico. To the west are dead volcanoes, The Three Sisters, squat and alien. And to the north, the layered mesas, red and brown, the ever-present sun glinting off the dirt. The mesas pile on top each other, strangling the neck of Interstate 25 to its summit in Sante Fe. The Rio Grande is a slit from Colorado to the bottom of the continent. It looks like a black vein on the spine of a shrimp.
The Hatch green chile is harvested in Hatch, New Mexico, a desert hamlet three hours south of Albuquerque. The chile is purported to carry spiritual powers, said to open up one’s heart and mind to possibility and chance (to be crudely honest, it also opens up your asshole). If you spend any time in Albuquerque you will be brought into a home for green chile stew. After two to six beers you will be offered a large bowl, waving your hand, “No, I couldn’t. It’s too much.” You eat it anyway. At first it doesn’t seem to affect you, but then your face swells, your nose tickles, your eyes roll back. You think, “Is this an orgasm?” You continue, quickly, to beat the burn, through the bowl. If you are lucky it will go to your head and your visions will be enriched, more pure than any trip you’ve taken before—you may want to sing or dance, you will most certainly talk louder and longer, and drink much more. The first time I ingested a bowl of green chile stew, I laughed so hard that I doubled over. I breathed deep from the fire and my circulatory system developed dimples.
There are cities all around the world that have local culinary specialties: Minneapolis has cheese curds, Rome has grappa, Vilnius has krunpikas, and Kansas City has its barbeque. In the autumn, Albuquerque reeks of roasted green chiles. If you drive through the city with your windows rolled down, the scent is overwhelming. There are vendors in parking lots, at markets along the road, outside churches. The city asserts itself in smell. In the fall, you will be invited into the homes of friends and acquaintances to make and eat green chile stew. At these events, there will be beer, some 24-packs, and whiskey, lots of whiskey. Perhaps some weed too. And nothing will be expected of you.
I moved to New Mexico for nine months because I wanted to live in a place where I didn’t know anyone. It felt like living on Mars or southern Italy. The New Mexico spirit is both indifferent and cordial. The personality of the place draws you in and then, once there, proceeds to siphon you from the world. This is why you rarely hear from friends who choose to live in New Mexico.
Before Albuquerque I spent the majority of my life in the long-stare state of Kansas, where every taste was a bland mash of nothingness. Food was not talked about. It was just ingested and shat out. In high school, I began to appreciate the pleasures of food, mostly from wanting to impress girls with my culinary knowledge. I distinctly recall the first time I tasted Pad Thai. I hiccuped the noodles and peanuts into a napkin, and discreetly discarded them on the restaurant floor. Any air of pretension I’ve gained arrived only for the sake of not wanting to eat alone. I knew I had to become a man of culture with tastes. Jean Baudrillard says there’s nothing sadder than a grown man eating alone, and I am want to agree.
The great cosmopolitan American cities (New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco) could learn a lot from places like Albuquerque. Utopia means taking care of those closest to you without reserve. This is why we create extended families of friends and lovers and invite them into our homes, without expectation, without motive, and share our abundance with them. If we’re lucky, we also get to share our music, our stories and our food.