The Pueblo Chile Festival: A Bumper Crop of Peppers and People

The signal to summer’s end in Colorado is The Pueblo Chile and Frijole Festival, which takes place annually on the third weekend in September. The sun is still scorching, the crops are in, and it’s time to celebrate Pueblo’s favorite food: the chile pepper. From the outside it may seem that the festival is just like any other, because it does have some features that other festivals share. Vendor tents, artisan crafts, carnival food, games, demonstrations, live music, and a jalapeno eating contest for the truly brave line the streets, but the Chile Fest is so much more than a simple street fair, and it seems a large part of Colorado’s population has realized that. The Pueblo Chamber of Commerce reported record attendance this year, between 140-150,000 people. Sales of chiles and related products were up past 2014 levels, which is great for the local economy and growers.

The street scene at the 2015 Chile Festival. (Credit: Sherrie Horn)

The street scene at the 2015 Chile Festival. (Credit: Sherrie Horn)

The Chile Fest takes up six blocks right in the heart of downtown Pueblo, where the Riverwalk crosses Main Street. The surrounding blocks of Pueblo’s Historic District are suffused with the familiar smells of cinnamon almonds and carnival food, which blend with the unique smell of the festival, roasting chiles. It’s very hard to describe the smell: the campfire musk of roasting peppers blends with an acidic spice that, depending on the variety being roasted, can cause tears and burning in the nose and throat.

Vendors and chile growers come to the Chile Fest from all over Southern Colorado, bringing a wide variety of chile types and related items from all over Southern Colorado and New Mexico. The daily rains and higher humidity during the early summer, combined with a dry August were the perfect conditions for plump, juicy, hot peppers—a bumper crop this year. The rain made them big; the constant sun raised their heat. Our family buys at least a bushel of peppers every year, and this time some of the peppers were twice as big as usual. Many more crates of peppers were waiting to be roasted, too. The chiles are roasted right on the street in big drums, and are put on sale while they are still warm.

The chile roasting process. (Credit: Sherrie Horn)

The chile roasting process. (Credit: Sherrie Horn)

Chile peppers (not chili, that’s a red Texan soup) come in a wide variety of flavors and heat levels, from sweet and mild bell peppers to the hair-raising tongue torture of Ghost Chiles and Trinidad Scorpions. Only the brave try much higher than a Habanero. Pepper heat is measured in Scoville units, and it’s surprising how mild some of the more popular peppers are compared to others.

A Scoville Scale. (Credit: Chilipeppermadness.com)

A Scoville scale. (Credit: Chilipeppermadness.com)

Peppers have amazing health benefits; they not only raise endorphin levels which give a boost to mood and energy, but they also contain capsaicin, which is what gives peppers their heat. Capsaicin has all sorts of benefits, most notably the clearing of mucous membranes. Eating hot peppers to clear out lungs and nasal passages may seem counter-intuitive, but it helps. Other benefits are coronary health, digestive health, diabetes regulation, and brain health. Regular consumption of capsaicin can cause extended mood elevation, so this may be why everyone’s so nice in Pueblo. It may also account for the longevity of some of the cultures who make peppers a part of their daily diet.

A few things I got to do at the festival this year were to get my picture taken in front of the Channel 5 weather map, taste free ice cream, win a free overnight at the Midnight Rose Hotel and Casino, taste some wine, and see a Native American dance troupe. One of the dancers was only three years old; these indigenous people obviously train for these sacred dances as soon as they can walk. It was so nice to see the audience appreciate what has become a dying art.

Native American and Native Mexican dancers. (Credit: Sherrie Horn)

Native American and Native Mexican dancers. (Credit: Sherrie Horn)

The best thing about the Chile Fest is that it is in Pueblo, which is in my opinion the friendliest city in Colorado. It’s been a while since I attended college there so it was a bit of a shock to have a stranger comment on a t-shirt I was considering. “I like that one, but what about this one?” she said. I looked, and said, “I like the other one better.” The woman considered, and then bought the first choice. These types of random conversations are common in Pueblo. Residents don’t have their guard up so high, and it’s a quality I miss. A warning: visitors should get used to being greeted by a stranger in public, such as in the aisle at the grocery store, without feeling they should know the person from somewhere.

The roasted chile smell pervades the car interior on the way home from the festival and lingers there for several days afterward. Large batches of chiles must be flash-frozen for a few hours, then bagged for use throughout the year in all kinds of locally favorite recipes, most notably the “slopper,” a Gray’s Coors Tavern invention that involves a hamburger patty on a single bun slathered with green chili (the soup, made with the peppers). Side it with some smothered fries and it’s heaven. It’s easy to get used to adding chiles to almost every recipe. Who knows? I may live longer as a result.

If you missed your chance to get peppers, the Chile and Frijole Festival isn’t the only place to do so. If you still want to buy some, you can go directly to the farms, here: Map of Chile Farm Stands

For an overall recap of the festival, check out this video: