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Chile Ristras Brighten Border Homes
Article first published in Vol. 11, 1993.
By Doug Perez and Martha A. Sandoval
A close friend gives you a bushel of chile from this patch. You're not a chile lover nor is your family. But you can't let the peppers rot, and it isn't appropriate to give them away. What do you do? Hang it up!
You can easily and inexpensively decorate your home with chile ristras, string of dried red chile. You can hang ristras in your kitchen, porch, patio, front door, wall -- anywhere that they can be seen.
Additionally, legend has it that hanging a ristra brings good luck. In the Southwest, chile ristras grace doorways of many homes throughout the city.
Because chile peppers vary in size, color and texture many different varieties of chile peppers can be chosen to create a ristra. The New Mexico #6 chile, a mild green chile, and the Nu-Mex Big Jim are often used. And very small chiles like the pequin are used for tiny ristras and wreaths.
One of the most common chiles used is the California or Anaheim. Its bright green color turns a glossy medium to dark red when ripe, and the pod measures from 6 to 8 inches in length. For hundreds of years, Anaheim chile lovers have learned to dry and utilize the pepper in many ways. This is the whole purpose of the chile ristra. Farmers either used the peppers while they were still green or would let them ripen until they turned red. They would then cure the chiles by hanging them on stings to dry out.
Ristras are made from chile that is red or ripe; green chile is still mature and will wither and turn orange if used. Three-fourths of a bushel of chile, sturdy or twine, and sisal rope are all that is needed to make this Southwestern favorite.
Hold a cluster of three chiles by the stems and wrap the string three or four times around the stems. Make a loop over the base of the stem and pull tightly together. Continue this process until all chile used, tying each cluster about three inches above the last one.
Now tie the sisal cord to a doorknob or nail so that it hangs down. Beginning with the cluster, braid the chiles around the rope, much like a child's hair is braided. The rope acts as one strand and the stems of two chiles are the other strands. Push the downward and braid the next cluster, making sure no empty spaces occur in the ristra. Continue until all clusters are braided.
A simpler method for making ristras involves threading them, using a needle and string or twine or even heavy fishing line. The stems of the chile are softened by placing them in a burlap bag or other ventilated bag for 24 hours. Then string chiles by passing the needle through the lower portion of the stem. Periodically push the chiles down against each other, leaving no gaps between the stems. The string must be knotted at the beginning and end of ristra and loop made for hanging. Wire can also be used to string ristras.
Ristras can be sprayed with clear lacquer if the pods are not going to be eaten. If the chiles are going to be eaten, they should not be sprayed with anything. However, it will be necessary to wash and rinse pods before they are eaten or processed.
Once the ristra is hung, the chiles dry completely turn dark red become brittle. If kept out of the sunlight, chiles may last year a more. Whether hung inside or outside, the ristra must be in a well-ventilated area or the chiles will rot and attract insects. Thick-skinned chiles are best for drying because they dry faster.
Ristras of red chile begin making their appearance in the Southwest in the fall. In El Paso, vendors in pick-up trucks set up shop at railroad crossings, street lights, parking lights, fruit stands and other convenient locations. Ristras are also found in shops specializing in Mexican and Indian artifacts and in open markets in Juárez.
Border residents take down last year's ristra, if anything is left of it, and replace it with a bright, shiny, perhaps variegated one. Now they can make red chile sauce from the old dried pods -- if they have not been treated with lacquer or other preservatives.
By Thanksgiving, the vendors are usually gone, and doorways and porches in this area are sporting new ristras. At Christmas, the ristra may appear in wreath form, often with cobs of colored corn, corn husk bows or fringe, or even springs of evergreen.
Ristras have become a popular design found on posters, magazine covers, fliers and T-shirts, on pottery and decorative ceramics, on potholders, placemats, napkins and other linens, on jewelry, and many other products.
Decorators and florists are aware of the chile's eye-catching appeal. The pepper's smooth surface, bright shell, and interesting forms are complementary to flowers and greenery.
Interior decorator Elizabeth Candelaria speaks of the chile's uniqueness, the warmth and the tranquility it adds to any living area. "It seems to represent a sign of welcome. That's why you see it mainly on doors and entrances. The chile ristra is so distinctive and so colorful that people have also discovered its use at Christmas time."
The shiny, bright red pepper is a beautiful alternative to the usual holly and poinsettias in most parts of New Mexico and this part of Texas.
No matter what the season, this wonderful red string of chiles brightens up any area where it is used. While real chile is used for most ristras, ceramic, metal, wax, and plastic have also taken up its form.
Who would have thought all those years ago, that the practical method for curing chile would someday also be used for decorative and artistic expression. The chile pepper has come a long way.