We met in a parking lot just off the interstate, texting vehicle makes and models until we made eye contact. Masks fastened, we made the handoff quickly. I slid the box onto my passenger seat and headed home.

My bounty: a dozen carefully portioned samples of authentic New Mexico chile.

For a thousand or so lucky New Mexicans, the experience of scoring an official New Mexico Certified Chile Tasting Kit happened a bit more organically. The kits have been handed out for free this month at farmers markets around the state, from Los Alamos to Las Cruces.

Recipients are encouraged to try all 12 blind samples and vote for their top three favorites at nmchiletasteoff.com. Results will be announced at the end of October, and the winning farm gets the bragging-rights title of “Best Green Chile” and a large New Mexico Certified Chile metal sign to show off at the farm.

“[The farmers] love the idea,” said Joram Robbs, executive director of the New Mexico Chile Association and program coordinator for the New Mexico Certified Chile Program. “They are proud to grow New Mexico’s staple crop and are proud to showcase their unique green chile.”

An inaugural New Mexico Chile Taste-Off took place in Socorro last year, but COVID-19 nixed plans for a repeat event. So the New Mexico Chile Association decided to take the show on the road.

“We thought this would be a great way to still promote New Mexico certified chile farmers and their chile while keeping people safe from COVID,” Robbs said. “Our goal is to promote New Mexico chile and show everywhere it is grown in the state while bringing awareness to the consumer that a lot of chile is imported from Mexico. Also, this is a great way to cover the entire state of New Mexico and reach everyone that maybe couldn’t drive to a big event.”

Coronavirus-prevention rules at the Santa Fe Farmers Market kept the tasting kits from being distributed locally. But for those who missed out, I arranged for a special pickup to document the tasting experience.

The box is cleverly packaged, with the dozen small, plastic cups featuring chile from New Mexico farms — all identically roasted, peeled and processed — labeled with the letter G and a number next to the instructions.

A set of slick “2020 All-Star Grower” cards features photos and details about the farms that participated in the competition: Five Star Chile, Lemitar; Adams Produce, Hatch; Kenneth Bustamante, Polvadera; Chile Connection, Rincon; Chile River Farms, Hatch; Genesis Gardens Homestead, Tucumcari; Gillis Farms, Hatch; Grajeda Farms, Hatch; Navajo Pride, Navajo Nation (Farmington); Rosales Produce, Lemitar; Speir Farms, Deming; and Viramontes Farms, Deming.

Which farm grew which chile sample is a mystery, but the cards are an effective reminder that when we talk about local produce, we’re talking about local families and local livelihoods.

The New Mexico chile industry has been in a steep decline, Robbs said. In 1990, there were about 29,000 acres harvested in New Mexico; today, it’s about 8,000, he said. Competition from Mexico, a labor shortage and increased production costs have driven many New Mexico chile growers out of business, Robbs said.

“It may cost more to buy New Mexico chile, but you are helping families in your backyard that have been growing this crop for generations,” he said. “It’s part of who they are.”

Those passionate about chile — from Chimayó to Hatch — point to the importance of terroir, the specific environmental factors of the location where the fruit is grown that influence the taste, like fine wine.

To be sure, our tasting revealed a surprisingly wide range of nuanced flavors. My partner and I sampled in order, from 1 to 12, tempering the spice with Bueno Grandma’s tortillas provided in the kit and tortilla chips we had on hand. We noted differences in color, texture, brightness and, of course, heat level. We found ourselves leaning toward chile with tangier, almost citrus notes.

And our favorite? One of the spicier options, it had a pronounced roasted flavor that didn’t overwhelm the distinct brightness of the chile.

There are still two opportunities to pick up a tasting kit for those heading south this weekend. The kits will be available on a first come, first served basis from 8 a.m. to noon Saturday at the Downtown Growers’ Market, 810 Copper Ave. NW in Albuquerque and 9 a.m. to noon Sunday at the Corrales Growers’ Market, 500 Jones Road in Corrales.

If you missed out this year, don’t worry: The traveling tasting event has proven so popular that plans are in the works for something similar next year, Robbs said, even when — we all hope — life looks something closer to normal.

GREEN CHILE IN PARADISE

Meanwhile, Santa Feans don’t have to look hard to find New Mexico chile being used for its highest and best purposes. Local restaurants know well how to put chile to work in everything from breakfast burritos to compound butter.

Take Market Steer Steakhouse, where you can swing by for their Johnny C Burger, a glorious rendition of the green chile cheeseburger topped with muenster cheese and pickled red onion, and served with fries (the deal was advertised via social media last week for 20 bucks).

I wrote about this burger, an entry in the much-loved Green Chile Cheeseburger Smackdown, last year, after executive chef and co-owner Kathleen Crook walked me through the ins and outs of executing the perfect burger. Picking up two orders of burgers and fries (and a serving of gob-smacking bourbon bread pudding) curbside this weekend proved to be just as delicious a decision as my in-person experience last fall.

And it served as a great reminder that our local restaurants need our support now if you want them to be there when the pandemic is past. I’ve found most places offer increasingly streamlined takeout and curbside options for those who don’t wish to dine indoors or on patios. Whatever your comfort level, these beloved restaurants and their staff are working hard to get your food to you — and we’re all the richer for it.

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