What happened one winter at a ski area in northern New Mexico could well be interpreted as a macro-scale version of the story of Schrödinger’s Cat, which physicist Erwin Schrödinger used to illustrate some of the sheer lunacy at work at the quantum level of things.
We’ll get to weirdness at the ski area in a minute, but first the poor cat (if you’re familiar with this, skip ahead…).
Briefly, Schrödinger presented a thought experiment about a cat in a sealed box in which a vial of poison would shatter (thereby killing the cat) from the impact of a hammer that, in turn, would be activated by the decay of a radioactive substance. The trick of it is, no one can predict exactly when the substance will emit an atom activating the hammer device that will release the poison, but it is known that over an hour’s time the substance has an exactly equal probability of releasing an atom and not releasing an atom.
The question is, after an hour’s time, what is the condition of the cat (which of course can’t be seen or heard inside its box)? The prevailing interpretation of physics at that time, in the 1930s, is that the cat is both dead and alive at the same time – until the box is opened and the cat can be observed, at which time, of course, it is either dead or alive, but not both.
Schrödinger knew that simultaneous deadness and aliveness for the cat was absurd on the face of it, but his thought experiment does illustrate quantum craziness at the subatomic scale – a craziness that is still widely accepted by physicists as bedrock truth. Until a quantum state is observed, it is in a limbo of what they call superposition – being many things at once, or in many places at once. It’s totally counterintuitive, but it’s the only truth that makes any sense at that tiny level.
There was a time when I thought I had a rudimentary grasp of many of these concepts, being a physics addict for several years, but since Nobelist Richard Feynman said “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics,” I take some comfort in enjoying some of the bizarre concepts without attempting to “know” them.
To reiterate, until a system is observed, subatomic bits and pieces aren’t really much of anything; they’re just a broad smear of probabilities. A given electron can be anywhere in the universe; a photon may exist or may not. When we observe these things, their “probability wave” collapses and they become real and measurable in time and space.
But can the same uncertainty and sketchy existence apply to two people skiing on the slopes of Ski Rio, in Costilla, New Mexico? Specifically, a mother and ten-year old son from Texas?
It happened that my future wife was snowboarding at Ski Rio*, way up near the Colorado border, and safely got to the bottom of the slope when she took note of the woman and boy on skis both arriving at the same time. Hearing them briefly converse, she recognized the drawly twang of a Texas accent – Texas sent many thousands of skiers to New Mexico ski slopes at that time – and then she turned away to step out of her snowboard bindings. It was then she heard behind her –
“Mama, take mah skis off.”
“Yer skis are off.”
My wife did not turn back to see who of them, if either, was right. She just started laughing: is it possible she just heard that?
And is it remotely possible a ten year old boy can’t know if his skis are on or off? The bindings should be a big clue, right? — that the skis are completely free of his feet, or still firmly attached? Is it possible his mother was dead wrong, even looking at his skis? Is it conceivable that skis being on or off is an ambiguous and unknowable state?
My wife didn’t hear their voices again, or look at them, so to her their “probability wave” never collapsed. We’ll never know if the boy’s skis were actually on or off, (or both on and off) and it won’t matter, not even to them, because that was twenty years ago and they have moved on deeper into their lives away from this moment of existential calamity and presumably in the direction of more certainty.
To be fair, moments of pure black-and-white clarity are scarce and fleeting. New Mexico was like that.
What is absolutely certain, however, is how your tastebuds will get up and dance to this classic and enduring New Mexico favorite, Green Chile Stew. I had it during a feast day at Santa Clara Pueblo some years ago, and came close to embarrassing myself with my mutterings of gastronomic ecstasy. I thought, this can’t be the last time I eat this!
It wasn’t. I hope you have the same response.
This recipe uses canned green chiles and canned hot jalapenos**. It also relies on pork butt that has some fat in it – that’s what gives the stew its appealing glossiness and plenty of flavor. (The recipe below is a jpeg – you can drag and drop it to your desktop if you want).
* Ski Rio closed in 2000, but reopened in 2010 as Endless Blue Resort, where snocats take skiers to the summit for back-country downhill skiing.
**I need to add this note: I’m not on Facebook or other social media site, so I’m not able to reply to comments, unless you write through the Contact feature. But a little about chiles…
This recipe uses canned chiles, which I think are perfectly good for this dish, but not ideal. In New Mexico, they’ll invariably use Hatch chiles (from the town of Hatch, NM), but they’re not available here in the Midcoast area, as far as I know – though I’ve been told Whole Foods has them in Portland. And there are a variety of Hatch chiles on different levels of the Scoville heat scale, so it’s good to know which kind you’re buying.
If I were making this stew with fresh chiles available here in Maine, I’d choose 3-4 Anaheims, which are mildly hot, and 1 Serrano chile, which is several times hotter. But (and it’s a big but), they take a lot of preparation. They need to be slit open, have their seeds removed, then roasted on top of a grille on top of an open flame, then cooled and peeled. It’s best to wear disposable gloves when handling the Serrano. In the end, I’m not sure anyone would notice the difference, but yes, for authenticity’s sake, fresh chiles are best.