Little did I know when my brother's best friend from high school e-mailed me last spring how much spice would be added to my life.
A year later, an engagement ring is on my finger, I've been house hunting in Hawaii and I've made two trips to New Mexico, where my fiance calls a condo in the shadow of Albuquerque's Sandia Mountains home.
The mountains may be an imposing presence in Albuquerque's high desert terrain, but it's the humble green chile that rules over the city. New Mexicans love the hot, little pepper and apply it to any food they can.
Soon after stepping off the plane at the Albuquerque International Sunport in mid-March, I was welcomed to the desert with a spicy taste of green chiles over pinto beans served with saltine crackers at The Owl Cafe. The Owl serves up the unusual sample right after you take a seat in their 50s-style booths to let diners know they offer chiles the authentic way -- muy caliente.
I've eaten green chile chicken alfredo after a tramway ride up Sandia Peak. I had a green chile bagel during my fiance's yard sale. I enjoyed a burger topped with cheese and green chiles from Blake's Lotaburger after visiting the adobe shops in Old Town. My Subway 6-inch was topped with green chiles. I added green chiles to my soft and hard shell tacos at Taco Cabana after a hike up three volcanoes with my soon-to-be nieces and nephews. And those are just some of the green chile-enhanced dishes I've eaten in the city where Bugs Bunny has been known to take a wrong turn. Before I ever visited New Mexico my fiance gave me green chile sauce as part of a birthday gift that also included a hot pad and oven mitt decorated with peppers.
Hatch valley near the Rio Grande is where many of New Mexico's chiles are grown. In November we drove by the chile birthplace on a trip through the southern part of the state. A can of green chiles purchased at Trader Joe's for huevos rancheros let know that its contents were grown in Hatch.
Green chiles come in a variety of heat levels. Some are mild and some feel like flames are shooting from your mouth. A waiter chuckled sympathetically at my "chile" face one time after I took my first bite of a dish. Kleenexes are a good idea when visiting a New Mexican restaurant. It's been said you know the meal is getting good when your nose starts to run.
I don't have the heartiest palate when it comes to spice, but I still wanted to get a proper dose of the regional specialty while in the Land of Enchantment. I was a little more hesitant about tasting green chiles during my first visit to New Mexico. Instead of ordering my dish "smothered" in the sauce, I would get it on the side so I could taste test the heat level before committing my whole meal to the potentially flaming flavor. Medium salsa has been my limit up to this point in my life.
While I don't think I'll become a hot pepper addict any time soon, I was sad to wave goodbye to Duke City and its chile when my plane lifted off early Tuesday morning.
Food is an important part of regional identity. Minnesota has its wild rice. And the state where I will move after I'm married is known for its pineapple.
The juicy contents of Hawaii's signature fruit will have a sweeter bite than the spicy green chile, but there will always be a privileged place on my taste buds for New Mexico's hot little peppers. The journey from wild rice territory to pineapple fields has a special detour by way of the fruits of Hatch valley.