On a high plateau in southeastern Colorado grows something that may have achieved the unthinkable if not the impossible. A fruit, unlike an apple or berry, but one that can either enhance almost any meal or inspire expletives that violate the boundaries of good taste, is now mentioned more often in Pueblo than steel, once the city’s most defining export. It’s chile and, yes, it is a fruit.
“We grow a bunch of different varieties,” said Pueblo chile farmer Carl Musso, describing the crop he grows, a crop that ranges from the ‘tepid side’ of mild to ‘blast furnace-take-me-now-Lord’ misery. And right now, Musso and his fellow chile growers, including neighbor Dalton Milberger, are in their glory. It’s harvest time.
This year’s crop rates either good or great, said a proud Milberger, a second generation chile farmer. The two descriptives, he said, “kind of mean the same thing.” In that vein, he demurs on who’s best. “It’s for the public to decide.” Judging from the billboards, many of which can be found around Denver, Hatch chile---New Mexico’s pride---wins out based on a decades-long and highly successful public relations campaign. But the pride of Pueblo, say chile aficionados, wins hands down.
The two growing regions differ significantly. But Pueblo’s hot days and cool summer nights, the men agree, make the perfect or nearly perfect pepper, whether it’s the Anaheim or the county’s belle of the ball, the Mirasol, so named because it grows up “gazing at the sun.” There are also twenty-some other varieties in the mix. Some are mildly hot, others are strictly for chile ‘veteranos,’ the gray-beard chile connoisseur for whom heat is the prize.
A mild Pueblo pepper can measure anywhere from 5,000 to 20,000 units on the Scoville scale, the gold standard for measuring the heat of a pepper. One of Pueblo’s most heat intensive is the Giadone, named in honor of Petey Giadone, considered the father of the Pueblo chile renaissance. The Giadone clocks in at 20,000 Scoville heat units. Pueblo’s downstream counterpart, the Hatch, measures anywhere from 500 to 3,000 on the Scoville scale. For what it’s worth, the Ghost Chile holds the record for hottest pepper grown. It’s said to be 400 times as hot as tabasco sauce and 200 times hotter than the hottest jalapeño. It measures between 800,000 to a million heat units on Scoville. (It might be wise to avoid it.)
Helping the crop this year, said Musso, was the weather. “Sometimes you get too much rain and at the wrong time.” This year was a goldilocks growing season, not too wet, not too dry. There was ‘just enough moisture’ to ensure a good crop.
When September rolls around and the weather cools, said Musso, “Chile starts maturing.” A mature Pueblo chile “gets meatier,” that is, it has thicker walls. A Hatch chile, he said, “is pretty thin” and will dry down faster, especially the Hatch reds.
The Musso name has been a steady presence on the St. Charles Mesa for more than a century. The first Mussos arrived here from Lucca, a town on the southern tip of Sicily, via Ellis Island. “Rockefeller was getting the (steel) mill up and running and needed labor,” he said. A similar call was heard by tons of immigrants, many of whom also settled southern Colorado also finding work at the steel mill. So many immigrants came here that for the first part of the last century, more than forty different languages were spoken at the mill and in the nearby coal mines that supplied the mill.
Leaving their island home was a giant leap of faith for the Mussos along with countless immigrants. But Pueblo offered work and work provided the money to buy land, including much of the acreage on the St. Charles Mesa where a number of Musso’s relatives still live and farm and where some of the best produce in the state is harvested, including beans, corn, cucumbers, pumpkins and watermelon.
Milberger is a second generation chile grower. “I’ve been in the business since I could walk,” he said. His father, Shane, began the operation in the late eighties, Milberger said, “when he was still in high school.” Since then it has grown to more than 400 acres.
Pueblo’s “Chile & Frijoles” Festival is set for September 24-26. Milberger Farms will once again be on historic Union Avenue roasting and selling to locals as well as visitors, some of whom travels hundreds of miles to stock up on enough chile “to take them through the winter,” said Milberger.
Milberger’s hoping this year’s harvest is at least as big as last year’s when 450,000 pounds of chile was pulled off the vine. The bulk of the crop will go to retailers and restaurants who’ll turn it into every imaginable recipe calling for chile. A lot of Pueblo’s peppers will also find their way to a number of nearby states where it’s sold by Whole Foods. Of course, a bunch of it will find its way to Union and the festival.
While COVID still remains a public health concern, the “Chile & Frijoles” festival is planning on returning to as close to its old self as possible. Last year’s festival was heavy on celebration, but light on attendance. This year’s goal is to equal or top 150,000 visitors for the three-day celebration.