Chile is not going to come and go, like kiwi fruit. It’s going to stay, like rock’n'roll.
— Paul Bosland, "Mr. Chileman," New Mexico State University
Chile is surely not going to go away in tiny Hatch, New Mexico. As a matter of fact, there’s a bit of a frenzy this time of year. It’s just the annual Chile Festival in Hatch, a forty-minute drive along the Rio Grande from Las Cruces. The madness happens on Labor Day weekend, with folks driving in from as far away as Tucson, Albuquerque and Fort Worth to load up their trunks with genuine Hatch chiles (that’s the New Mexico spelling as decreed by the state legislature).
To paraphrase Dallas guru Frank X. Tolbert, a chile festival is a kind of Brigadoon to aficionados. Upwards of 30,000 of them will take home this precious cargo - enough for enchiladas, chiles rellenos, caldillo and salsa for the next year.
To join the multitude of chile fans, take Highway 185, a winding two-lane road that parallels the Rio Grande from Las Cruces through Radium Springs right into The Chile Capital of the World. You’ll see wisps of smoke alongside the road; roll down your windows and breathe in the heavenly scent of roasting chiles. Most of the houses will be festooned with ristras, strings of dried red chiles. Many of these are for sale, usually for less than those at the festival. Bring them home to hang on your porch, and when you’re through with them, you can grind them into chile powder. Note: If you’re in a hurry, just take I-25 north from Las Cruces and take the Hatch exit (about 30 miles).
After you get there
When you get to Hatch, be sure to check out the Hatch Chile Express at 622 Franklin, about three blocks off Hall Street, the main drag. Jim and Jo Lytle run this nifty little shop which features almost any variety of chile you could want, including habaneros, which are reputed to be the world’s hottest. Dried red chiles cover the roof - this is a good camera shot. You might even see Ted Turner and Jane Fonda, who own a nearby ranch. Fonda’s friends came for a housewarming a few years ago and cleaned out the Lytle’s stock of ristras. Prices run from $5 to$25.
|Where to eat
For delicious restaurant chile, try Las Palmas at 104 Franklin Street. Here you can request the degree of hotness of your chile. Also, try B&E Burritos at 300 Franklin, just down from Chile Express. Their red and green burritos are a feast for chile lovers. Both restaurants are very moderately priced.
Arriving at the festival
The festival occurs at the Hatch Airport, just west of town on Highway 26. Just follow the signs or the bumper-to-bumper traffic. Admission is free, but there is a $3 per car parking fee.
Kids will find plenty to do inside the grounds. Carnival rides, pony rides, games of chance - all offer energy outlets for the little ones. Furthermore, there’s plenty of room for them to romp without getting lost.
Temperatures are usually in the high 80s or low 90s, so be sure to wear a hat and put on sun screen. This applies to kids, too.
The festival starts with a parade at 10 a.m. Saturday morning, and an old-time fiddling contest is tentatively scheduled for Saturday afternoon. There will be a big barn dance Saturday night at the airport from 9-1.
You can buy chile in sack, roasted or unroasted. Mind you, roasting doesn’t impart any special flavor to the chiles; it just makes them easy to peel. If you really want a delicious smokey flavor, bring them home and throw them in your smoker for 15 minutes. Use hardwood such as pecan, oak or mesquite. Peel and freeze the chiles in plastic bags to satisfy you craving all year. Caveat: Wear rubber gloves or coat your hands with oil before handling chiles. Keep your hands away from your eyes or you’ll be sorry.
Remember this: Corn tassels signal harvest time, which peaks about Labor Day. So, if you can’t wait for the festival, just head to Hatch in mid-August. You’ll still find chiles, but not the hoopla.