by Amanda Mather
One of the most ubiquitous sights in our gorgeous state, the ristra, is one of New Mexico’s great visual icons. But other than being awesome looking, it did, and to some, still does, serve a very practical purpose: not running out of chile during the long winter months, which, as any New Mexican would tell you, would be a real tragedy.
In other parts of the world, people came up with lots of clever ways to preserve food. You could smoke it, or salt it. But here in the desert, we did the thing deserts do best: we dried it. Pueblo, Plains, and Athabaskan people had long since known that drying was the way to keep yourself fed around here, and when the Spanish came, they took quick notice.
New Mexicans dried everything! Meat, veggies, fruit, corn, beans, all of it. If you could cut it into strips or manageable pieces and lay it on a rooftop, we dried it. In fact, some of our most beloved foods began their lives not as treats, but as necessities: carne adovada, carne seca, and chicos were all means by which to dry and preserve food. And, as luck would have it, they are all just delicious!
The same goes for the iconic ristra, which not only looks great, but also keeps our chile close at hand for lean months. The term “ristra” does not just apply to chile. It applies to anything drying on a string around these parts. Apple ristra, squash ristra, pear ristra: yes, those are actual things! That’s why you will sometimes see “chile ristra” instead of just plan “ristra.”
So here’s to the ristra: keeping New Mexicans looking good and chilied up all throughout the year!