Here’s one way to tell if you’re New Mexican, through and through. When Hatch flooded, did you have nightmares about chile dearth? Thought so.
We’re delighted to report the annual Hatch Chile Festival came and went as usual, in all its pungent glory. And the precious peppers survived—most of them, at least. Some farmers did lose crops and, sadly, the town of Hatch didn’t fare well either. But they’re a sturdy bunch down there, and they’re trying to dry out. The neverending monsoon season is making that difficult (seriously, New Mexico looks like Iowa these days).
The harvest down south isn’t over yet. Red chiles, which are green at first but allowed to ripen further, are harvested after the green. The two colors used to come from the same plant, but growers now plant special breeds for each. Red or green, farmers are having a hard time getting their pods out of the mud. And a wet chile is not a happy chile. Chiles thrive in toasty desert country. Farmers are worried the wet will bring “chile wilt,” a fungus that destroys the plants and spreads fast.
Farmers in the valley say their chile’s superiority has to do with the rich soil and dry climate of the area—along with a history of developing and breeding chiles with folks at nearby New Mexico State University.
June Rutherford, who’s been farming chile all of her 82 years, has noticed considerable change since NAFTA took effect. She used to export a large amount of chile to California. Now, none. Most chile is still harvested by hand, and so the cheaper labor in other countries continues to threaten what was once a lucrative endeavor. Researchers have not yet been able to perfect a chile-harvesting machine. This means it’s also cheaper for local roasters and ristra-makers to buy their chile beyond the border.
Local palates wouldn’t think of disputing her. At the festival, June’s booth is thick with customers—and dozens of her family members. She’s a known authority. June’s Special Hot Red Chile powder, packaged in one- to two-pound Ziploc bags, sells well. After all, her father, Joseph Franzoy, was the first chile farmer in Hatch Valley in 1915. She and three of her brothers still farm there. And yes, she still gets out in the fields.
She also helped create one of the four most common chiles in the valley. The Big Jim, a medium-spiced pod, is named after her late husband Jim Lytle. Jim began developing the variety, and June and her son finished it. The hottest chile is the Sandia, which is long and slim. A milder chile is the New Mexico No. 6. The Joe Parker turned out hotter than its breeders wanted, but it makes a great chile powder. All of these are considered New Mexican varieties, and all are the long green pod type. Breeders at NMSU have been working on chiles since the late 1800s.
It’s the plant’s genetics that mostly account for the spice factor, but the environment can also have an effect. Fruits ripening at higher temperatures tend to have more capsaicinoids, a group of alkaloids that make chile hot. Most of the New Mexico varieties are medium to mild. For example, the Orange Habañero pepper is about 40 times hotter than the New Mexico Sandia.
But chiles don’t just get your endorphins (and other things) moving, they’re good for you, too. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend chile as a high source of Vitamin C. Plus, a hefty chile slathering adds flavor without loading up on fat.
Happy gnawing on our state vegetable … uh, fruit ... this fall. Alexandria Berridge, this year’s Hatch Green Chile Queen, put it this way: “Have you tasted that Texas stuff? Yuck!”