New Mexico chile: chatting with the Chile Chica about her new book

Kelly Urig, has been called the “Chile Chica.” It’s an apt name for the twenty-something Emmy Award-winning filmmaker turned author. Her subject: New Mexico chiles. Her 2012 film, The Chile Film (La Sangre Roja y Verde de Nuevo Mexico, made for a graduate school project was picked up by PBS station KMNE, Albuquerque for three years. Her new book, New Mexico Chiles, History Legend and Lore, was released in July.

New Mexico Chiles, History, Legend and Lore, courtesy History Press

New Mexico Chiles, History, Legend and Lore, courtesy History Press

The birth of a book

The History Press wanted a book on New Mexico chile for their American Palate series and discovered Urig online. When she received their email about working with them, she initially thought it was spam. A bit of research convinced her that this was for real; the end result: New Mexico Chiles, History Legend and Lore.

A bit about New Mexico Chile

Beef burrito with red chile at Rancho Chimayo, photo Kelly Urig

Traditional beef burrito smothered in red chile at Rancho de Chimayo, Chimayo, NM, Kelly Urig

Long before eating fresh and local was the buzzword of the moment, New Mexicans were feeding themselves from their gardens and chile was a big part of that. New Mexico hospitality is first and foremost practiced at home. Whether it’s an invitation to a Pueblo feast day or to dine on a fresh plate of posole at the home of an old Spanish family, chile is always present. Recipes are passed down from one generation to the next.

Chile is the official New Mexico State Vegetable. In her book Urig writes “…chile is one of the great unifiers of New Mexico. It unites us by a shared history, a shared enjoyment, giving us all a collective memory and a sense of pride. The greatest aspect of having this sense of pride in our chile is our willingness to share it and embrace those, regardless of background into our New Mexican Family.”

A chile roaster in Hatch, NM, photo Kelly Urig

A chile roaster in Hatch, NM, photo Kelly Urig

According to Urig, New Mexico chile production has drastically declined over the last 20 years from 34,500 acres in 1992 to 8,600 in 2013; a decline of over 75%. Some of the reasons the book cites for this downward trend are: New Mexico’s long drought (which is now over in some places), the labor-intensive harvesting the plants require, labor shortages, pests, and diseases. Also, the younger generations are moving away from farming. In a recent phone interview she said that she’s “extremely concerned” about the decline. “When I started the film I had no idea the decline it was in,” she shared. “If people are educated about the importance it has and how important it is to save it I think people would be as concerned as I am.”

The future of New Mexico Chile

This sign welcomes folks to Hatch, NM, photo Kelly Urig

This sign welcomes folks to Hatch, NM, photo Kelly Urig

Spreading the word about buying New Mexico chile is a priority, Urig shared. “Not because we make money from it”, she said, “but because we can’t imagine NM without chile.” She called spreading the message for people to buy NM chile a “grassroots movement,” and feels that these days when people are more aware of where their food comes from people need to support the chile industry and even involve politicians in the cause.

New Mexico Chiles, History Legend and Lore is a colorful book loaded with photos, most taken by Urig as she traveled the state interviewing people and tasting traditional foods. While she talked to and filmed a lot of folks involved in the New Mexico chile industry for The Chile Film (La Sangre Roja y Verde de Nuevo Mexico, to prepare for the book she went out and talked to everyone again as well as lots of other people. She wanted the information to be freah.

Chile seedlings in Hatch, NM, photo by Kellt Urig from her book New Mexico Chiles, History Legend and Lore

Chile seedlings in Hatch, NM, photo Kelly Urig

Urig writes about farmers, restaurateurs (some of whose families have served New Mexican food for generations), industry people, historical chile people and just plain folks whose lives revolve around chile, including Dave Dewitt “the Pope of Peppers,” the Salsa Twins (brothers Jim and John Thomas) whose family started Albuquerque’s iconic El Pinto in 1962, and beloved Chimayó chile-lady Leona Medina-Tiede who ran the legendary Leona’s Restaurant de Chimayó for many years. She also spoke with Santa Fe author Carmella Padilla, author of the 1992 book The Chile Chronicles: Tales of a New Mexico Harvest. Urig, who followed what she dubbed “the chile trail” around New Mexico, says much of it was in Padilla’s footsteps. The book’s appendix has some New Mexico chile recipes as well as not-to-be-missed annual chile events.

Chicken, spinach and zucchini enchiladas with mole at Cafe Pasqual's, photo Kelly Urig

Chicken, spinach and zucchini enchiladas with mole at Cafe Pasqual’s, photo Kelly Urig

When asked if she considers herself a chile expert, the modest Urig said, “For this industry I’m very young. I don’t think people see me as an authority on this.” But she went on, “I think I’m more invested and more up to date on information than people who would be called on before me.” The Chile Chica and her generation are the future of the chile industry if it’s to survive. Pay attention to them.

The Chile Chica

Kelly Urig,,the Chile Chica, courtesy Arcadia Press

Kelly Urig,,the Chile Chica, photo Jessica Clark, courtesy American Palate; The History Press

Kelly Urig earned the rights to her nickname. While raised in Santa Fe, she comes from the Berridge family who has been growing chile in the Mesilla Valley (home to the famous Hatch Chile) for five generations. She speaks fondly about spending summers at the family farm as well as about the clan’s annual all-day gathering to make enough red chile to get them through the year. Besides being a film maker and author, Urig, who has a MFA in television, film and media production from Santa Diego State University, works in local film and TV production. Her most recent project was as a set decorator for a pilot Amazon recently filmed near Santa Fe.

Want to learn more about New Mexico chile? Grab a copy of New Mexico Chiles, History Legend and Lore. After all, the Chile Chica knows her stuff.

Consistent with her commitment  to supporting local businesses, Urig urges people to buy the book from a local independent bookseller if possible. She even has a link to find the one nearest you on her website. In Santa Fe the book can be found at Collected Works and Garcia Street Books.  the Chile Chica knows her stuff.

Author’s note: The publisher sent us a copy of the book. This generosity did not affect this post in any way. We’ve been big Kelly Urig fans since we interviewed her in 2013 and saw her film. We recently saw it again on a large screen at a Santa Fe church it’s still a treat to watch.



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