Hatch — chile capital of new mexico

Chiles displayed at the Hatch Chile Festival. Photo by Carla DeMarco
Chiles displayed at the Hatch Chile Festival

Some of the 1,136 residents of Hatch might say "Chile Capital of the World." And of course, they are sure to point out that New Mexicans spell their chili with an e on the end instead of an i. According to the Roadside History of New Mexico, in 1988 the New Mexico State Legislature passed a facetious memorial threatening to deport to Texas any New Mexican caught using the word "chili."

Hatch began as a stop on the Santa Fe Railroad between Rincon and Deming, first known as Hatch’s station. It was named for the commander of old Fort Thorne. When settlers arrived in 1800, the station was really three villages:  Colorado, Santa Barbara and Santa Teresa (or Placitas) near present day Hatch. These farming communities depended upon irrigation ditches bringing water from the Rio Grande. Sadly, they were at the mercy of periodic floods, and in 1886, Santa Barbara’s buildings were washed away and the farmlands were covered.

By the end of the First World War, Hatch had become a small town. A cloudburst in the Santa Teresa arroyo caused a flash flood that destroyed the town in 1921. After the Elephant Butte and Caballo dams were built, offering Hatch good protection from further flooding, the town again began to grow. Farming on the rich bottom land enabled it to prosper and it soon became known for the quality of its vegetables, particularly chiles.

Located on State Highway 26, two miles off Interstate 25 at Exit 41, and forty-eight miles northeast of Deming, the town annually celebrates with a Chile Festival during Labor Day weekend. The "Chile Cook-off" is the highlight and draws contestants from all over to vie in producing the tastiest or hottest chile dish. A ristra arrangement competition is another popular event of the celebration. Ristras are strings of red chiles hung up to dry for later use in cooking. They have become very popular as decorations also. If people buy the ristras to ship they are urged to make fine slits in the skins and allow them to dry prior to shipping. Otherwise, they will mold while making their way to a destination.

New Mexico has twelve chile producing counties, with Dona Ana leading. Chiles are the state’s top cash crop and ranks first in the amount produced and acreage planted, double that of its competitor, California. The dictionary describes chile as "a hot dried capsicum pod." The herb books list it as cayenne-capsicum, a wonderful healer and references to it have been found on plaques in Egyptian tombs. Other facts touted but not confirmed:  New Mexicans consume the most chile per capita and there are more retailers of hot chile products per resident than any other state.

For those who like hotter and hotter sauces, the theory is that you like the blast of endorphins your brain releases when the capsicum hits your mouth. A hint:  milk works better than water to douse it quickly.

Whether the plant was a wild chile from South America 6,000 years before Christ or was brought to New Mexico by the Spanish or has always grown in New Mexico, it thrives under the New Mexico sun and Hatch is the place to buy quality, newly harvested chiles in the fall.

About Phyllis Eileen Banks