Which Food Is Colorado’s Most Iconic? Your Chosen Winner Is… Green Chile!

December 23, 2019
Green chile served up at Tom's Diner. Dec. 21, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)Green chile served up at Tom's Diner. Dec. 21, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Green chile served up at Tom's Diner. Dec. 21, 2019.

Philadelphia has the cheesesteak. New York can claim bagels and a pizza-style. They have barbeque in Kansas City. But, which food represents Colorado? It was a delicious competition that touched off more than a few fun arguments.

There were too many choices and zero agreement, so we turned to you.

Out of eight tasty choices, and three rounds of voting, you chose green chile and the wearer of the Colorado food crown. In fact, you did more than choose — you anointed. Nearly 70 percent of all votes cast for the state's most iconic food were cast for green chile.

Rocky Mountain Oysters? Nope. Cheeseburgers? Sorry, 'fraid not. Denver omelet? Get outta here. Beer!? Well... it was a good run, but no. Mean green is the one.

Now, we also heard that green chile is a New Mexico thing, not a Colorado thing. Perhaps you've heard about the green chile feud between the two states?

"I feel like New Mexico has owned green chile for decades. I mean, it's on their license plates," said Bryan Bechtold of Denver. "They even have an official state question: Do you want red or green chile on your food? So, I never really associated that with Colorado."

And yet, here we are. The voters love green chile — in fact, they chose it over beer of all things! Denverite Layla Gallardo can trace her ancestry back five generations in Colorado and 14 generations in New Mexico — and to green chile.

"It's a part of our DNA because my ancestry is Mexican and Spanish and Tewa Pueblo, and with that, we have this whole culture of cultural foods," Gallardo said. "We just have specific foods here in Colorado that you'll only find here in Southern Colorado, Northern New Mexico."

Michael Bartolo, a vegetable crop specialist at Colorado State University's Rocky Ford Station, has spent most of his life improving on the Pueblo chile varietal. He's credited with breeding today's Mosco Chile. The difference with the venerable Hatch is in the spiciness of the pepper and its thicker walls.

"I've grown up around the Pueblo chile, and what I say is, it's kind of like apples and oranges," Bartolo said. "Some people prefer one type, some prefer the other. Everybody's got a way of making things. So, it's really hard to compare. And I grew up with the Pueblo chile and so, you know, maybe I prefer that, but I don't think it's necessarily better."

Gallardo said it doesn't really matter if it's New Mexico or Colorado.

"If you're originally from this area," she said, "if you're a Chicano, if you're a Mexican… What I would say is that we're all the same people, and it's the same cultural foods."

Today, people from all over Colorado and New Mexico with different backgrounds love green chile, including current Gov. Jared Polis and former Gov. John Hickenlooper.

Gallardo is proud to share the food that means so much to her.

"I think that it's great that other people like our food, and that we're able to share that with them," she said. "Because if you look at the history of Southern Colorado, Hispanos, Chicanos, Mexicans, indigenous people, we are very much apart of this state. Like we didn't cross the border, it crossed us here."

With border crossings and the mixing of cultures, green chile has changed over time and taken on influences from other cooking traditions.

“Italian migrants came to Pueblo in the early 20th century to mine coal. And there they encountered the chile. Their Hispanic neighbors were eating chilies and they would take the ingredients, all of the flavors and all these cultures and kind of smash them together,” said Sam Bock, a historian at History Colorado.

One thing's for sure, you'd be hardpressed to find green chile stew anywhere else in the country.

Are you curious about something in the Centennial State? Ask us a question via Colorado Wonders and we’ll try to find the answer.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to describe in greater detail the lineage that Layla Gallardo can trace back in the region.

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