Hundreds and thousands of people pack the streets of downtown Pueblo. Colorful tents and booths line the sidewalk, selling everything from jackets and trinkets to pizza and popcorn. Food trucks sell meals to hungry pedestrians, and sometimes struggle to keep up with lines that stretch down the block. The smell of roasting food permeates the air as smoke spirals high into the clear late-summer sky. Meat of all kind, of course- hot dogs and briskets and ribs and burgers- but what really dominates the scene is something that is wholly and uniquely Pueblo. Iron cages spin over open flames, and inside thousands upon thousands of pounds of fresh, green Pueblo chiles are roasting.
The Pueblo Chile Fest is an icon of southern Colorado, and one of the most important events in every Puebloan’s calendar. Each year it gets bigger and bigger as more and more people flock to the town from as far afield as New Mexico and even California to buy bushels of Pueblo’s famous chiles.
It’s easy to see why the chiles are so popular. They’re not just some of the highest quality peppers on the market, roasted to perfection. They’re also extremely versatile, and can be mixed in with almost every dish. Tacos, quesadillas, and enchiladas, of course- but also sloppy joes, burgers, macaroni and cheese, spaghetti, sausages, scrambled eggs, and sandwiches of all kind. You can even just chop them up and slather them over your bread of choice- no additional ingredients required.
Pueblo has long been a hot spot for chile growers. The climate is almost perfect for them. The long, warm summers and low rainfall are ideal for growing peppers of all kind, and farmers have been doing just that since at least the late 1800s but most likely much earlier than that. Nobody knows when the first chiles were grown in the Arkansas River valley, but they may have been brought north by Mexican traders and settlers as early as the 1840s, when the region was first being settled by colonists of European descent.
After generations and generations of cultivation in the Pueblo area, a uniquely local variety began to develop, most likely through a combination of natural selection and basic horticulture by the farmers. This was the birth of the very first Pueblo green chiles.
The most common and popular strain is a more recent development. The majority of the peppers you see in Puebloan cuisine are Mosco chiles, a specific variety that has been on the market for just over two decades.
The Mosco chile was a labor of love by Dr. Mike Bartolo and his team at the Arkansas Valley Research Center. Dr. Bartolo is a vegetable crop specialist with Colorado State University, and his family has been in the Pueblo area for generations. His uncle Harry Mosco (for whom the chile is named) was a farmer who like most in the area grew, among other things, Pueblo green chiles. When he passed away in 1988, he left his family the seed stock.
Dr. Bartolo began growing a new crop of chile from this stock, and quickly noticed one very unique plant. “It was a little bit bigger and a little bit different from the rest of them,” he said. “I began making selections out of that original plant, and after several years of selection we developed what became known as the Mosco.”
The Mosco chile is unique for several reasons. It tends to grow larger that other strains of the same type, and has a significantly thicker outer wall. This makes it ideal for roasting, which is the traditional way that Pueblo chiles are prepared. A thick wall allows the chile to be cooked to perfection without risking the fruit splitting open, or the juices seeping out and evaporating in the heat. Because of this, it maintains the rich flavor of the chile- so it’s little wonder that the Mosco chile has become so popular.
It also grows extremely well in the local Pueblo environment. Dr. Bartolo explained that this was part of the purpose of the project.
“It was a matter of selective breeding,” explained Dr. Bartolo. “We grew it in the Arkansas Valley, so we selected it under natural conditions for this particular environment. You also look for size, you look for a heavier pod. A thin-walled chile won’t hold up to roasting [so] we were always looking for a thick-walled chile that has some body, some substance to it.”
This thick outer skin makes the Mosco perfect for roasting, which in turn makes it perfect for the Pueblo Chile Fest. The two of them- the chile and the festival- have become cultural landmarks not just for Pueblo but for Southern Colorado as a whole.
“It’s one of those crops that became incorporated into the cultures of a lot of people,” said Dr. Bartolo. “It’s interesting that chile is kind of a metaphor for Pueblo itself. It was an immigrant to Pueblo county from Mexico, or somewhere else, and it became ingrained in the culture. Like the people of Pueblo county, who came from all over but fused their cultures together. Even though you don’t think of [chile peppers] as part of Italian diet or culture, it soon became incorporated. I remember eating spaghetti with green chile and roasted red chile. All this fusion of different cultures has become our own identity.”
This year’s chile fest promises to be one of the largest yet. It will be held on the weekend of September 20th, and will include not just chile but also local artisans and performances by a variety of groups.