The Height of the Hatch Green Chilie Season
ALEX CHADWICK, host:
Here's something else good. A lot of states have a state bird or a state flower or a song. Only New Mexico has a state question: Red or green? Meaning, `What color chili sauce do you want on your burritos?' New Mexicans are very serious about chili, and the world capital for green chili peppers, as far as they are concerned, is the fields surrounding the southern New Mexican town of Hatch. That's where reporter Doug Fine was recently, searching for the Hatch green chili secret at the peak of the season. The season is concluded now, but Doug, like thousands of other New Mexicans, got his hands on a winter supply while the harvest was on.
(Soundbite of flames roaring)
DOUG FINE reporting:
That's the sound of green chilis roasting at a roadside farm stand in Hatch. You can find Hatch by the smell of roasting chilis at this time of year. Hatch has no strip malls, no chain stores, but the green chilis for which the quiet hamlet is becoming world famous are big business. Jo Lidle(ph) has run a Hatch family farm stand called Hatch Chili Express(ph) for 20 years. She gets orders from as far away as England and South Africa. She says her biggest worry these days is knock-off chilis being billed as Hatch chilis.
Mrs. JO LIDLE (Hatch Chili Express): The Hatch chili is trademarked. We're having a problem with people bringing them in from Mexico.
FINE: She says no matter which of the 185 varieties of chili pepper you're talking about, it tastes best when grown in Hatch. Indeed, Michael Lehman has driven here from Denver because he suspects too many chilis back home are not really from Hatch.
Mr. MICHAEL LEHMAN: This time of year, just about every corner on the West Side has a stand, and they all purport to be selling Hatch chilis. But you never really know what you're going to get.
FINE: Grated circular chili roasters run non-stop outside many Southwestern supermarkets this time of year, and the stores frequently advertise their chilis as Hatch produce. But what makes the Hatch chili so good? Why must the chilis come from Hatch as opposed to, say, nearby Deming or the vast plantations of Mexico, only 80 miles away? Just ask third-generation Hatch chili farmer Jim Lidle, Jo's husband. We strolled some of his 250 acres, which were bursting with a sea of kelly green chili bushes.
Mr. JIM LIDLE (Chili Farmer): The elevation, the soil, the water, climate, everything, come together at this area to make the best chili in the world right here.
FINE: If it was a blind test, do you think you could tell the Hatch chili?
Mr. LIDLE: Oh, yeah. You can tell it right away.
(Soundbite of roasting peppers; people coughing)
FINE: Back at the family farm stand, visitors were choking on the smells emanating from a batch of constantly roasting chilis. Those fumes come from capsaicin, a chemical, Jo Lidle explained, that gives the chilis their bite, their oomph.
(Soundbite of background chatter)
FINE: What would happen if I took a bite out of one of these really hot, hot ones right now? Would I regret it?
Mrs. LIDLE: Oh, no. You'd be thrilled to death.
(Soundbite of laughter)
FINE: To death?
Mrs. LIDLE: Yeah. Maybe to death.
FINE: Let me touch my tongue to this...
Mrs. LIDLE: Sure.
FINE: ...little one here. Oh, boy. Oh, my God!
My tongue melting, I staggered back outside into the hundred-degree afternoon. I grabbed onto a hanging ristra, a decorative cluster of chilis, for support. Behind me, a flatbed truck held no less than 50 burlap sacks, each containing 40 pounds of just-harvested green chilis. They're off to stores around the country to satisfy cravings for that Hatch green chili enchilada sauce everywhere.
(Soundbite of slicing)
FINE: Back home, I peeled and froze my own 40-pound haul of chilis. According to native New Mexicans, the Hatch green chilis are a health food. That spicy bite is worth the pain. It's full of vitamins. For NPR News, I'm Doug Fine.
CHADWICK: And there's more to come on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.