In Hillerman’s 1980 novel PEOPLE OF DARKNESS, Jim Chee pursues a lead that takes him to Crownpoint Elementary School, the location of the Crownpoint Navajo Rug Auction. Leaving the parking area, which is full of older Plymouths and Fords, to enter the school’s auditorium, Chee is confronted by the familiar smells “of cooking fry bread, floor wax, blackboard chalk, stewing mutton and red chile, of raw wool, of horses, and of humans.”
Having worked for weeks (OK, years) to recreate Hillerman’s research, to contextualize the material, cultural, and geographical references in his novels, and to reveal the secret ingredient that makes his novelistic world what it is in its final combined effect of diligent study and the social, cultural, and political moment in which Hillerman was writing, I paused at the red chile reference. As ubiquitous as beat up trucks, tattoo parlors, and towering cumulus formations here in New Mexico, chile is so omnipresent that it was almost invisible in Hillerman’s text. So what does one do to make chile, which originated here in the Americas after all ("chile" is a derivation of the Nahua word chīlli), visible again, to bring it to the foreground instead of leaving it in the background, to understand how it inserts itself as a subtle cultural subtext in a Navajo detective novel? How does one divine its potency, evoke its significance to the region, or describe its deep roots of indigenous Mexican and American heritage is if it were not a daily ingredient, smell, and flavor we New Mexicans may tend to take for granted?
In the context of PEOPLE OF DARKNESS, red chile is a bitter red sauce that ranges in heat, or spiciness, from mild to scorching, derived from reconstituted dried and ground red chile pods. In New Mexico, chile is a primary mainstay, both as an agricultural crop but also as a vernacular cuisine and a deep cultural expression. Chiles can be harvested when they are green, or left to ripen on their stalks until they are red. These late-season red chiles can be used fresh, but they can also be dried and hung in ristras, or braided strings, of the drying pods. Once dried, red chile can be tossed whole into simmering soups and stews, such as posole, or ground and incorporated into a simple signature sauce similar to red gravy, but with a kick. Red chile, the sauce, not the vegetable, can thus refer to a range of stews and preparations where the chile is the main flavor, meals that are often associated with large family gatherings, traditional meals associated with feasts and saints' days, and meals that benefit from if not demand lots of tortillas and fry bread. From mutton stews, to posole, to carne adovada, to anything and everything that can be drizzled with, or better yet smothered in red chile, chile transcends the mundane to evoke a universal experience, or perhaps it is inclusive of many experiences in and expressions of the Southwest, even the site of criminal revelation and (SPOILER ALERT!) love at first sight, an elementary school lunch room, in PEOPLE OF DARKNESS.