A skeptic could be forgiven for having suspicions about La Posta, a popular tourist destination complete with a gift shop and gaudy squawking parrots in the lobby. But believe us when we tell you that this venerable establishment in no way dumbs down the chile's brilliance. Jerean Hutchinson, whose great aunt opened La Posta as a four-table eatery in what once was a stop on a stagecoach postal route, delights in pointing out that chile powder is anathema in her kitchen. Her crimson chile sauce is made from whole red chiles grown and sun-dried at nearby Chavez Farms; they are stemmed by hand and then soaked and puréed, becoming chile essence. How hot is it? Not numbingly so. Carne adobada, cubes of pork marinated in this sauce and slow-cooked to pot roast tenderness, is just hot enough for the earth-and-sun flavor of the chile to boldface the meat.
As we made our way across New Mexico, chile peppers, the Land of Enchantment's official state co-vegetable (with the pinto bean), were everywhere. It was mid-September—harvest time—when days grow short, nights turn cold, and jade green chiles ripen red. By the side of the road, metal roasters filled the air with the late summer smell of freshly picked Big Jims and Anaheims tumbling over flames, the crackle of their hot seeds like manic popcorn. Ristras (wreaths), newly strung with supple dried pods, hung on homes and ranch gates and above convenience store ATMs. Cafés, diners, taverns, and white-tablecloth restaurants all served capsicum in countless forms. No matter what the variety, they're often advertised here as "Hatch Chiles" when they're green, named for the Doña Ana County town where the best of them grow. Hatch's annual Chile Festival, held over Labor Day weekend, attracts tens of thousands of chile lovers and, until recently, crowned both a red and a green chile queen.
Not far from La Posta, at New Mexico State University, Paul Bosland, regents professor of horticulture and founder of the Chile Pepper Institute, is lobbying for chile heat to be recognized as the sixth taste, along with salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami. Bosland is currently known in pop-food circles as the man who cultivated the bhut jolokia chile, also known as "the ghost pepper," which, at a million-plus units on the Scoville scale that measures capsicum ferocity, is officially the world's hottest pepper. (By contrast, jalapeños rate a measly 5,000.) Bosland took us out to a University garden in which all kinds of chiles are grown, from common bell peppers to the incendiary bhut jolokia. After noting that a single drop of the latter's venom will ulcerate human skin, he picked one of the inconspicuous orange pods from its bush and merrily rubbed it all over his eyelids, nose, and lips. "If you enter a hot chile—eating contest, you can beat anyone if you bite only the wall of the pepper," he informed us. "All of chiles' heat is inside, in the membrane."
Two hours north of Las Cruces we stopped at a roadside stand run by Sichler Farms and convinced the man roasting peppers to hand us a hot (temperature-wise) green pod straight from the wire cooking basket that turned like a rotisserie against a flame. The batch, he said, was medium-hot on the Scoville scale, but New Mexicans' medium-hot is everybody else's pretty-damn-hot. So we did like Bosland advised and tried to avoid the membrane (the inner flesh where the seeds are stored), gingerly biting only the al dente wall. It is not so easy. Lips began to tingle, and soon we were glowing with that warm endorphin rush that makes chiles feel dangerously addictive.
What was so wonderful about this unadorned pod—which we ate standing up, holding it by its stem and peeling back scorched skin—was that it perfectly expressed the ambiguity of the chile: It's a berry of the nightshade family (like the tomato) that agronomists know as a fruit but is so intensely green-flavored that it tastes like the ultimate vegetable. Sichler Farms sells more than a dozen varieties fresh, dried, and roasted, and makes chile powder in three degrees of heat that is so aromatic a single, sealed bag of it in our luggage perfumed not only the car's trunk but the passenger compartment as well.