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The Nine Circles of Hatch

By Michael Henningsen and Blake de Pastino

OCTOBER 6, 1997:  We began our journey to Hatch, N.M., like most people begin day trips: at the Frontier Restaurant over breakfast burritos and huevos rancheros. And what better way, really, to begin a quest for the mysteries and myths of New Mexico's favorite and most respected fruit than by eating the stuff, savoring the heat and feeding our long-seasoned addictions? Sated, some 45 minutes later, we hit the road--I-25 south, toward Los Lunas, Belen, Soccoro, Truth or Consequences and, finally, Hatch. We didn't know exactly what we were looking for or why, really, we'd decided to make the trip. It just seemed like a good idea at the time. But there we were, positioned comfortably in the confines of the company microbus, anticipating the green chile cheeseburgers that awaited us at the Owl Bar in San Antonio, N.M., and, ultimately, the green chile fields--stretching as far as the eye can see--that awaited us in Hatch, a southern New Mexico town none of the three of us had ever visited.

Hunched piggishly over Owl burgers and Budweisers, Managing Editor Blake de Pastino, Staff Photographer Jen Scott and I attempted and failed to justify our trip. "We're going to write a story about chile," I said, rather stupidly, "where it comes from, how it's grown--all that stuff with a real local angle. Besides, I've lived here my whole life and haven't ever seen a chile field." It was shortly thereafter that we very nearly decided to bag the whole Hatch idea and spend the day instead on my father's boat at Elephant Butte. But, as Jen pointed out, there would be tan lines to explain. So Hatch was to be our final destination. And we took our damn sweet time getting there, what with Blake and his peanut-sized bladder and all.

Cruising down I-25, the town of Hatch creeps up on the horizon, drawing you in before you even know you're there. Then out of the clear blue sky and dark green fields, the stark yellow New Mexico license plate the size of a picture window tells you exactly where you are: "Hatch--Chile Capital; Welcome." So we did what most people do when they see an oddly placed billboard; we got out and took a picture. And Blake, for the first of many times that day, wandered off by himself, ever the investigator. Jen and I spotted what we believed to be a chile field (also the first of many that day), and this is where our story truly begins. In the travelogue that follows, you'll recognize my scattered prose by its not being in italics. Blake de Pastino's smooth, flowing prose is therefore recognizable by being in italics. Jen Scott was too busy taking pictures and listening to us beer belch polysyllabic phrases to write anything. And here we go.


A CHILE RECEPTION

There's something about being squirreled up in a car for three hours that makes bolting down a small town street seem like the right thing to do. That, and the fact that every rural town has its vital, unpaved arteries, and I was anxious to find them.

If you've never been in that saddle of land between Deming and I-25, the first thing that you should know is that it's country. And I mean brown-neck, Clint Black, beer cans in the truck-bed kind of country. The kind of place where everything is obvious to the folks who live there, and hometown pride is as valuable and as bitter as backyard well water. Especially in the presence of city slickers, I've found, country folk are very finicky about being "country."

This all became clear quickly enough, when I walked into the Flores Chile storefront, the second or third ramshackle building you come to as you enter Hatch from the east. It had a strangely antiseptic feel about it--kind of like an airport lounge--all saltillo tile and buzzing fluorescent lights. But despite all that, the rural aura was still hard to miss. Tucked away in a corner, a woman was sitting behind a counter, curling red ribbon around a ring of steel, the inner circle of what would eventually be a ristra wreath. It was hard to tell if she was watching the store or being held prisoner by it, but she was visibly sandbagged behind a dozen burlap sacks full of chile. The chile, it turns out, was the barrier between us. It was what I was after and what she wanted to protect; the woman guarded her knowledge with a jealousy that I had to admire.

I began my interrogation with the same line of questioning that all tourists do: questions that establish authenticity--in this case, to verify the very "Hatchness" of Hatch.

"So all these are Hatch chile?" I asked.

She nodded, in a weird way that made her hair seem still while the rest of her head moved.

"Like, they're all from here?"

With her eyes half-closed, she leaned forward from her stool and swept her hand across the line of sacks like a needle across a record. All in one breath she said, "These over here are Big Jim, they're medium hot; these are NuMex 6 --they're hotter, and these are the Sandias, extra-hot."

I repeated the names like a schoolkid learning rote, staring at the cinched-up sacks as if I could tell the difference between chiles by the bulges they made in the burlap. Then I pushed on in my investigation. "You grow all these?"

Once again she nodded in her decapitated way.

"Where at?"

"Fields all to the south a' here. If you go to the intersection and take a left, that's the old Las Cruces Road, the road that you used to take to Las Cruces. All along there, there's chile fields. But just ask the people before you go out there, OK?"

"Is that where your fields are?"

She shook her head no.

"OK," I said. "But you do have a farm, right?"

"Yes," she said. "My father is in Las Cruces."

I was confused. She was visibly irritated. It has become easy for me to tell when an interview is over.


MEANWHILE ...

Never was the romance of the mythic green chile so clear as it was that hot September day, standing in a 10-acre plot of the lush green plants that, during a growing season lasting less than two months a year, produce enough fruit to get most of us, along with some displaced chile addicts (thanks to the miracle of UPS), through the winter. And never have I felt more like a tourist. A small, dilapidated trailer, the kind you see in movies about serial killers, sat rather haphazardly at the south end of the field. As we approached, the middle-aged Hispanic man who had been harvesting chiles straightened his back and gave a friendly nod. He was dressed for Hatch--long-sleeved striped Western shirt, Wrangler jeans, straw hat. His smile, adorned with the gold work of some country dentist, was wide and full of small-town sincerity.

"Mind if we take a picture?" I asked, motioning for Jen to come over.

"¿Qúe?" he replied.

I repeated the question in English for some reason, having already realized that the man to whom I was speaking understood only the language most prevalent in the region. Neither Jen nor myself, unfortunately, were equipped to speak Spanish.

He just shook his head and kept smiling.

"¿Fotografía?" I asked again, hopefully.

"Sí, sí," he thundered back, waving his hands and inviting us into his field. Jen began snapping pictures immediately, almost overwhelmed at the sheer beauty of the scene and the photo opportunities it presented. Jorge (not his real name, at his request) excitedly went to work pulling back the dense leaves of several healthy plants, revealing thick bundles of green and red chiles while Jen snapped away, spooling new rolls of film into her camera at an amazing pace. Then Jorge began passing us samples of his crop faster than we could stack them on each other's outstretched arms.

Minutes later, our most gracious host was back to the business of carefully inspecting and then plucking only the most desirable chiles and dropping them in his white, 5-gallon bucket, probably chuckling to himself about the dumb Gringos from Texas to whom he had been kind and given arms full of chiles. But for a brief, even sentimental moment, I--city-raised Gringo that I am--pondered what it really means to live off the land, to be closer to the earth every day of your life than is possible in the city. Here was a very different kind of freedom, the existence of which is easy to take for granted living in the asphalt maze of the city. Jorge had shared a slice of life with me that was as priceless as any I have experienced. "Grácias," I said, and gave Jorge a nod as we walked out of the field. "De nada," he replied with a smile. "No," I thought to myself as we headed back to the van, "it was something."


THE FACTS OF THE MATTER

It wasn't until the three of us met up in front of another chile stand that we got our facts straight. After our separate encounters--each of us trying to jimmy loose any kind of local wisdom we could find--we were relieved to find that an unassuming place called the Hatch Chile Express was, in fact, the mother lode.

Both rural and airportlike in its own way, the Hatch Chile Express at least made no bones about its chamber of commercy attitude. It was a veritable wunderskammer of regional kitsch, larded from top to bottom with all kinds of chile paraphernalia: books, T-shirts, mugs, postcards and, of course, the genuine article--chiles dumped into bins, arranged from the smallest to the largest. If there were a museum ever dedicated to a fruit, this was it.

And the shop's rather aggressive, pro-chile message was no accident. The proprietor, it turns out, was the standing secretary of the Hatch Chile Growers Association, a cooperative of farmers from up and down the valley that had banded together to set the record straight. A small woman with big hair, Jo Lytle was clearly the right woman for the job. From the moment the bell on her front door jingled, she was more than forthcoming with the chile information.

Standing behind her counter, haloed by her chile-themed merchandise, Jo quickly set down to business. First of all, she said, chiles are not peppers. Whether or not this was a taxonomical fact was obviously not the issue; the point was, they just didn't call them peppers. "They're chiles, plain and simple," she intoned. In the country, after all, idiom is everything.

Furthermore, only chiles produced by members of the Growers Association can be marketed as authentic "Hatch chiles." Anyone else who uses the term "Hatch," it turns out, is laying themselves open for a big, meaty lawsuit. Case in point: Those canned chiles you get in the supermarket that say "Hatch" across the top are decidedly not Hatch chiles, Jo says. Seems that the fruits are actually grown in Mexico and brought up to Hatch, where they are bagged and dubbed as being "from Hatch" in a clever little bit of semantic gymnastics. A lawsuit, Jo assures us, is in the works.

We each asked: But then how can you tell when you're buying the real, home-grown thing?

The best way, Jo told us, was by the process of elimination. That is, it's safe to assume that most of the places you'd expect to sell Hatch chiles are actually palming off some stuff grown somewhere else. Hatch-brand products, as she already made clear, were not from Hatch. Nor were any products by Bueno, Albuquerque's own Mexican food manufacturer. "They've always, always bought their chile from Mexico," the secretary said. And even the stuff you find on the street corners and grocery store lots are often from south of the border. How can you tell? "Well, it costs us exactly $8.67 to grow one bushel of chile. So if you see it for sale for less than that, you can bet it ain't Hatch."

OK. Maybe the spirit of NAFTA is not exactly thriving in Hatch. But the politics of chile certainly is.


CAPSAICIN (kap-sa¢ i-sin)

"Touch your tongue to this one. Don't bite it! Just touch your tongue to the vein," Jo Lytle instructed as she handed each of us a piece of the suspiciously small and unassuming Sandia variety she had pulled from the bin and broken open with her fingers.

"See that yellow on the vein?" she went on, pointing out the single ridge running up opposite inner walls of the chile: "That's the capsaicin. That's what makes the chile hot, not the seeds like everyone seems to think." It took about 30 seconds for the yellowish chemical to really go to work but when it finally did, it showed no mercy. Red faced with tears streaming down my cheeks, I struggled to listen as Jo carried on about heat myths.

"It doesn't matter how long a chile stays on the plant," she said, "If you plant a hot variety, you're going to get a hot variety." That means you can pretty much count on shedding a tear every time you bite into a Sandia. Same with Big Jims, NuMex 6 and any other variety, although stressed plants--those that don't get enough water or are attacked by insects--generally produce hotter chile as a defense against predators who would dare to snack on the leaves.

"It has nothing to do with the tips, either," Jo said firmly. "Round, pointed, it doesn't matter. It's all in the vein. That's why some people who don't know chile fool themselves. They bite off the tip and think the chile isn't hot. But it's just because they missed the vein." The vein, as it turns out, explodes inside the chili during the roasting process, showering the interior of the fruit with capsaicin, thus heating up the otherwise fairly mild flesh. Roasting also looses the outermost layer of skin, revealing the tender meat.

"The meatiest variety is the Big Jim," explained Jo, "My husband Jimmy developed it (it's named for Jimmy's father, Jim Sr.) because he wanted a flavorful chile that was just as big and meaty as it could get." At the peak of harvest season--mid- to late-August--it isn't uncommon for Big Jims to reach nearly a foot in length, resembling flat, green bananas. Jo Lytle's 13 1/2-inch Big Jim is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest chile ever grown. Being one of, if not the largest variety of green chile, Big Jims are also relatively mild. The length of a chile, in fact, is the only visible "heat meter" the untrained eye can rely on: the shorter the chile, the hotter it is. Any chile shorter than your index finger is likely to send you scurrying for the nearest beer.


EPILOGUE

Capsaicin still working its smoldering voodoo in our mouths, we said goodbye to Jo and headed back to the microbus, clamoring for the cooler, its contents hopefully to afford us relief. We drove east and then south through Hatch until the buildings and houses became more sparse and the fields became more prevalent. Amid cotton and corn fields and pecan tree orchards, the chile fields of Hatch produce more than 50,000 dry tons of chile per year, more than any other single fruit or vegetable produced in the state New Mexico. Locals swear the stuff is addictive. Fast food restaurants throughout the state, like Wendy's and McDonald's, offer green chile as a condiment. Yet, for all its popularity and media coverage--New York Times columnist Amal Naj published an award-winning book about it called Peppers in 1992--green chile, for the most part, remains uniquely New Mexican. Order chili in Texas, and you'll get a brown concoction full of beans, meat and tomatoes. Order the stuff in California, and you'll get Pace picante sauce. Green chile is as much a part of our culture and heritage as it is a part of our diet. And knowing where it comes from and being around the people whose lives depend on it makes its role in our lives abundantly clear. Bring on the hot stuff!


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