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How Hatch Chile Season Became the Pumpkin Spice of the Southwest

How Hatch Chile Season Became the Pumpkin Spice of the Southwest

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To many, August and September are a time to wind down after a busy summer, maybe buy a puffy fall coat, or get ready for a new school term. But in the Southwest, those months are a fleeting Brigadoon-like window for sourcing the area’s most wildly hyped variety of produce. It’s Hatch chile season.

Think of the Hatch chile like the pumpkin spice of the Rio Grande. It’s a flavor people can’t get enough of; it’s a limited season; it can be found at grocery stores and restaurants in everything from ice cream to sushi to beer. And over the past few years, it has gone from prized local pepper to full-on cultural icon.

The Hatch is like no pepper you’ve had before: it’s sweet and smoky, it has a slight funk to it and a grassiness that makes it always taste like it’s freshly picked. Like a jalapeño with more of a character arc.

“Once you have a Hatch chile, you always have to have a Hatch chile,” explains Chris Franzoy, the president of Young Guns Produce, a farm in the Hatch Valley, New Mexico. “I can’t explain it. It just does something to you.”

The small, slightly wrinkled green pepper was developed in New Mexico in the early 1900s by horticulturist Fabián Garciá, according to Stephanie Walker, Ph.D., a plant specialist at New Mexico State University. Garciá found that the local population didn’t take to the earlier varieties of peppers because the crop grew in unpredictable timetables, plus the taste was too spicy. Through crossbreeding he developed a more uniform, mild chile, which kicked off the development of what is known in the area as New Mexico chiles.

Hatch chiles by the barrel-full.

Photo by Matt Taylor-Gross

The name, “Hatch chile,” Walker says, is slightly misleading, as many presume that it’s a species of pepper grown exclusively in Hatch, New Mexico. It’s more of an umbrella term, encompassing a group of green chiles grown across the state. According to Sonja Schroeder, the executive director of the New Mexico Chile Association, a traveler in the 1970s was passing through Hatch, New Mexico, tried a local variety of chile, and started calling it the Hatch chile. The name took off.

“But if you drive into Hatch there is really nothing to it,” she says with a laugh. “It’s just five buildings surrounded by green chiles. I guess it inspires people.”

The Hatch chile long been essential to New Mexican cuisine, where the official state question (yes, this is a thing) is “Red or green?” referring to the red and green chile sauces that adorn many local dishes. But as folks from New Mexico have moved throughout the Southwest, the chile has become a phenomenon across the whole region.

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