June 07, 2013

Chili or Chile? Check It Out

Chile-ristraAdventures of a Chilihead is the title I chose ages ago for what I intended to be a story album or themed collection of short stories about my experiences eating hot chili peppers and other blow-your-head-off food. As usual, getting the book pulled together is an adventure itself as it morphed from loose stories to mini-memoir, and part of that adventure includes resolving a quandary about the proper spelling of the main subject.

More years ago than I can remember, my father sorted me out on the proper spelling of chile. “Chile is a country in South America. We eat chili!” He grew up in New Mexico, staying there until he was a grandfather. He’s a reliable trivia consultant and can always back up his opinions, so as far as I was concerned, that settled it. I consistently used the correct spelling in my manuscript.

Or so I thought. I follow a couple of Facebook groups populated with people who grew up in Los Alamos. On a whim, I posted a request for comments testifying to their love of chili. Results were completely unexpected. A few posted short comments about their love of chili, their favorite varieties and so forth, but far more made sure I know the New Mexican way to spell CHILE!

The word was originally adapted by the Spanish explorers from Mexico’s native Nahuatl term, “xilli” o(alternately spelled “chilli”). The Spaniards adapted it as chile, which was subsequently rendered chili in American English. The Brits, whether by design or fluke, stuck to the Nahuatl spelling, chilli. Although most of the United States accepts chili as the proper spelling, many southwesterners assert that the word is of Spanish origin, hence the Spanish spelling should be retained.

New Mexicans are especially assertive about this, and on November 3, 1983, Senator Pete Domenici, R-NM, had a statement read into the Congressional Record 129 (149) entitled “The correct way to spell chile.” However, I know of no resolution introduced or legislation passed, so the question continues to loom.

Not relying strictly on a well-informed, but possibly biased, sample, or grandstanding Congressional hoopla, I turned to my own definitive resource, a decades old publications from the New Mexico State Agricultural Extension Service. The title says it all: CHILE.

You may wonder why I’m taking such pains to detail all this. Why I don’t just quietly make the change? Because of the cover. I’d like to be true to my roots, but I also want an instantly recognizable title. So, I’m asking you to help me decide. Please look at the two images below and leave a comment to tell me if you see any reason to stick with Chilihead rather than changing to Chilehead.

Chilehead

Chilihead

Stay tuned for more of the writing adventure.

Write now: make a list of colloquial terms specific to the area where you live or grew up. Select a couple of related ones to include in a story, and consider how to make them clear to your readers while remaining true to your roots and voice. Do any necessary research to support your usage. Involve others who share those roots.

14 comments :

Samantha White said...

I don't know why, and I don't know whether this will help you AT ALL, but when I see "chile" I think of a chile pepper. When I see "chili", I think of a dish made with chile peppers (and beans, and beef, unless it's a vegetarian chili). So a "chilehead" is someone hooked on chile peppers and if that is what you are I would love to ask you all about the different kinds of chiles. If you're a "chilihead," however, I would like your recipes. Which are you hooked on? Peppers or stew? Maybe your book title needs to include both spellings, "Chiles and Chili - Adventures of a Spicy Epicure."

Sharon said...

Samantha, thanks for the questions. Chiliheads or chileheads (depending on where you're from) are
"a growing segment of the population, enjoying the heat that hot peppers and spices can bring to a meal." None of the formal definitions include the temporary insanity chile lust can induce.

I could not have replied with authority before today, but you are right on track with chili con carne. It is made with chile. That's the only validated use of chili in the authenticallhy New Mexican culinary vocabulary. Don't ask why!

I may include a few recipes, to summarize what I talk about in the stories. But the theme is not as much about the fine points of chile as my involvement with it. Fewer than half the stories involve recipes.

Sue Mitchell said...

To me, a chile is the pepper itself, whereas chili is a type of stew that has chiles as an ingredient. So chilehead looks fine to me. BUT who is your intended audience? Will they think it says chile, which rhymes with while, or will they know what you're referring to? Will there be a picture of a chile pepper on the cover anywhere?

Emilia Jordan said...

I think Samantha is right. And so was your father. You eat chili - as in a bowl of chili with cornbread. But if you are talking about the pepper itself, it's chile. That could cause confusion too, b/c of the country Chile.



I would go with "Chilehead" though. "Chilihead" really sounds like you love eating chili, and it's too confusing because it basically implies a different type of food. And Chilehead is more technically right, so that's my vote!

Sharon said...

Thanks for the reasoning Sue. Yes, of course I have a suitable, explanatory graphic, but you can't tweet a cover! Oh, how I wish I'd never made that Facebook post! But on the other hand, I have a new adventure for the final chapter.

Sharon said...

Thanks for taking the time to chime in Emilia. And for seconding the others. I really appreciate the logic behind these responses!

Sarah said...

I've lived in Los Alamos and currently reside in Albuquerque. Both Hatch and Bueno spell it as chile. But I had to look it up to be sure!

Sherrey Meyer said...

Sharon, looking at your graphics and reading explanations from those who seem to be more in the know than this Southern girl from Tennessee where they never talk about "chiles" but only "chili" whether in a bowl or as a pepper you eat, I vote for the cover using "Chileheads." I do believe it brings clarity to the subject matter at hand. That being said, it is your book and your stories. :)

Sharon said...

Thanks for your thoughts Sherrey. I'm about to post an update...

Sharon said...

Sarah, how funny that a NM resident is still uncertain. Actually, not everyone in the Facebook group agreed among themselves.

Sue Mitchell said...

So funny--I didn't see Samantha's comment when I wrote mine, and we said basically the same thing. And I also wanted to express my enjoyment of the term "blow-your-head-off food." Now that's compelling description! ;-D

Sharon said...

Sue, it's always good to hear a story like this fresh from each source. That validates it. Glad you like the term. As you'll later read, it's accurate!

Herm said...

I wrote a story about my wife cooking me a pot of chilie. :-)
I shared the story with a friend via email. I waited on her comments about the story. Was I ever surprised that her comment was about my incorrect spelling of chili. We ended up in this debate. I had no idea it was such a big deal.

Sharon said...

Herm, your friend must be from New Mexico, in spirit if not in fact. So, you relate more closely than most to my experience with the Facebook group. LOL!

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