Commentary: Back in July, I visited my sister who lives in Vancouver, Washington, just north of Portland, Oregon. She is a chile fanatic, and when we are together, we try to cook both red and green chile dishes. When I visit her, I pack my suitcase with fragrant ground red chile from New Mexico. On this recent visit, we went to the supermarket to pick up some fixings to prepare our recipes. As we are strolling down the salsa aisle, she suddenly stops and lets out a cry, “Look at this!” I caught up with her and followed her gaze to dried red chile pods with “Hatch chile” on the label. Alongside were canned green chiles from Hatch. This was the first time she had seen Hatch chile sold where she lives.
One month later, she calls me ecstatically to tell me that her local organic produce store is holding a Hatch chile roasting demonstration, which featured chile roasted in the classic rotating roaster that we in the Southwest see in the fall months as chile season is upon us. Having hit the jackpot, my sister was in heaven. She ended up buying two 50-pound sacks of roasted chile. Knowing my sister, this might not last her through the winter.
Fresh, canned, or incorporated into recipes, you can now see Hatch chile featured in major fast-food chains throughout the world. Restaurants from Los Angeles to New York are serving dishes with Hatch chile. Globally, Hatch has become the standard for what is considered Southwest-style chile – real chile, not the kind that looks like sloppy joe mix or tomato-based. I won’t even acknowledge that Cincinnati chile can even be called chile. And notice that in New Mexico we spell chile with an “e” at the end of the word, not an “i.” Although I must admit that my favorite chile is the Chimayo strain, having grown up eating this particular flavor in the northern New Mexico town of Española near the village of Chimayo, I love Hatch chile in stews, enchiladas, sandwiches, and just on a plain toasted tortilla. Happiness for me is going to the Village of Hatch during chile season with my windows rolled down to smell fresh chiles being roasted.
Mind you, New Mexico has other places famous to the locals for chile such as Espanola, Lemitar, and Chimayo. But curious as to why Hatch, a village of fewer than 2,000 people, located approximately half an hour north of Las Cruces, could become the epicenter of chile, I started researching the history of Hatch chile. All sources I reviewed state that chile has been grown in the Hatch Valley for centuries. However, the phenomenon of what is Hatch chile has several major components. The first is Joseph and Celestina Franzoy, Austrian immigrants who settled in the Hatch Valley in 1917. They were farmers unfamiliar with chile. One anecdote is that the first time they were served chile, they thought their host was trying to poison them. However, very quickly after this incident they fell in love with chile and saw it as a more financially advantageous crop compared to others such as cotton.
Up until this time, chile was mostly grown for personal use. Being a natural entrepreneur, Joseph began to load his wagon with chile and sell it around the region, thus becoming the first person to commercialize what was to become Hatch chile. Others followed and within a few decades, the concept of Hatch chile began to take shape. In 1971, just about the time that Americans started a love affair with spicy foods, the Hatch Chile Festival was established, growing from a handful of attendees to more than 30,000 today. As word spread about Hatch chile, it declared itself the “Chile Capital of the World.” A lot of places declare themselves the capital of the world for one reason or another, but most do not get past the tipping point where the label sticks.
Finally, and most importantly, Hatch is a fantastic chile that is great tasting. It is grown in a unique portion of the world - the high, dry, New Mexico desert provides the climate and sandy soil conditions just right for Hatch chile to become, well, Hatch chile. Its roasted scent is the fragrance of New Mexico, and one of the first foods I can remember smelling.
Throughout the world, as people have started incorporating chile into their cuisine, the fame of Hatch chile has spread like a wildfire, no pun intended. When I can travel to the Portland, Oregon, metro area, the last place in the U.S. I would expect to find dried Hatch chile pods or to see fresh green chile being roasted New Mexico-style, it makes me proud to see what the tiny village of Hatch and its farmers have accomplished. New Mexican cuisine also has become famous throughout the world in large part due to the success of Hatch chile. Isn't it ironic that Austrian immigrants, who supposedly experienced anti- immigrant hatred after WWI, came to a state dominated by minorities, fell in love with one of the mainstays of New Mexico cuisine, and helped make it world famous? Their experience fits well within the multi-cultural diversity story that is New Mexico.
Writing about the aura of Hatch chile makes me want to thaw some roasted green chile I have in my freezer so that I can make green chile stew tonight. I bet my sister is doing the same thing.