It may have been the natives of what is now Brazil who found culinary pleasure in the chile pepper and the indigenous population near the Guitarrero Cave region of Peru who, around the 11th century, first enjoyed beans, but it was the city of Pueblo who decided these two staples of American Southwest cuisine deserved their own celebration.
For 26 years, the city had hosted its annual ‘Chile & Frijoles’ Festival, an early Fall celebration that drew more than 150,000 locals and visitors to Pueblo’s historic Union Street for the three-day event. But COVID-19 reduced last year’s event to a skeleton of itself, limiting “only 175 people in any one area,” said Donielle Kitzman. But on September 24th through the 26th, it’s back on---bigger and better than ever, said Kitzman, Vice President of the Greater Pueblo Chamber of Commerce.
“I am 99.5 percent confident that the festival’s name and the power of Pueblo chile will persevere,” she said. “We will return back to record attendance.” If that happens, Kitzman predicts, the city can look forward the economic shot in the arm that pre-Covid events delivered. “It sells out nearly every hotel room in the county,” she said. Local business, especially restaurants, benefit from the outdoor soiree.
The city touts Pueblo chile---not New Mexico’s Hatch variety---as not only the best in the West but best in the country. Though it should be noted that Hatch chile along with its growers beat Pueblo to the punch with its marketing touting its many varieties as very nearly mythical.
But Pueblo’s Chile Growers Association debunks that. It says Pueblo chile is superior because it has the best climate and richest soil for this breakfast, lunch and dinner meal complement. The growers also brag about having a pepper for any taste, mild to hell-fire and brimstone hot. More technically speaking, chiles ranging from 5,000 to 20,000 Scoville Heat, the measurement of pepper pungency, can be found in Pueblo. Pueblo also takes great pains to elevate its Mirasol chile---so named because it grows upward facing the sun---as the crown jewel of all chile peppers.
Interestingly, one of the nation’s premier boutique grocery chains, Whole Foods, committed to the Pueblo chile a few years ago. It now sells only Pueblo chile in its stores in Colorado, Idaho, Kansas and Utah.
Chile aficionados, including Dr. Michael Bartolo, often credited with developing the Pueblo chile, regularly breaks down the reasons for the superiority of the Pueblo pepper. Hatch chile, he said, are milder and less flavorful. Pueblo’s have a thicker membrane, making them better for roasting. Pueblo’s are also hotter.
Besides featuring the staples of festivals-past, face painting for children, a petting zoo, and farmers market, organizers are “working on new components” for this year’s version, said Kitzman. In conjunction with the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs Grain School, the festival will be hosting a number of educational classes on how to make tortillas, cornbread and sourdough bread. The UCCS Grain School is a collection of experts in grain growing, including educators, millers, maltsters, brewers and chefs.
The festival, promises Kitzman, will be a blend of something old and something new. One thing that hasn’t been part of past festivals and is still a possibility for the festival is “a hot air balloon glow,” that would end the evening on either Friday or Saturday night.
While Kitzman and the Greater Pueblo Chamber of Commerce are planning what they hope will be the best ever of any previous festivals, there will be one glaring absence. One of the biggest boosters of Pueblo as well as one of the founding brain trusts of the festival will not be there. Former Chamber President Rod Slyhoff passed away earlier following a prolonged illness.
But Slyhoff will be remembered, said Kitzman. “We have a wonderful surprise in store for the Pueblo community…to honor his dedication for being a founding father” of the event. The Slyhoff recognition is set for Sunday, September 26th.