Chile Crazy in New Mexico

Article excerpt

CHILE PEPPERS POSSESS A MAGICAL spell that captivates hotheads all over the world. Nowhere in the West is this more evident than in Hatch, New Mexico, where, for the last 21 years, chile fanatics have flocked to a small dust-swept airport to eat, smell, and buy chiles at a two-day Labor Day weekend festival.

Festivities start Saturday morning as the parade rolls through downtown. Banners proclaiming "Chile! Gotta have it!" decorate a flatbed float; on board stands a robber caught stealing chiles from the First National Bank. The Ben Archer Health Center entry offers a prescription for the Hatch community, "Rx: Chile. Eat three times daily in generous amounts." The Green and Red Chile Queens, dressed in red and green satin formals, sit upon polished low-riders blowing kisses to the crowd. As the parade ends, spectators pile into cars and follow in a bumper-to-bumper crawl to the airport, where food and more entertainment await.

Like many small county fairs, this is a far cry from Disneyland. In a hot dusty field, carnival rides, game booths, food stalls, and vendors vie for attention. Pungent smells of green chiles roasting in big mesh drums over propane burners draw a crowd. A sign reads: "Chile $10 a sack, $5 roasting." A cowboy-hatted grower empties a gunnysack of shiny long green Sandias into a drum; he turns on the fire, and jets of flame lick the chiles as he spins his wares. In 5 minutes, he opens the door and black blistered roasted peppers tumble out.

Across the path, a blazing display of 3-foot-long ropes of red chiles hangs from the Flores Farms truck. Other vendors peddle wreaths of slender hot chiles, bags of fresh jalapenos, dried chile and flower arrangements--even pastel silk chile ristras. And at one of the most popular stalls, people wait in line for Hatch chile relleno burritos (chiles rellenos wrapped in warm flour tortillas). For others, the choices are cheeseburgers topped with roasted green chiles, or gorditas (sort of a fried bread with a pocket) filled with green chile beef stew.

The sun gets hotter, and some daring souls cool off with a green chile sundae under the big tent shading the main stage. At one table, a trio of chile cooking judges scoop into more traditional fare, more than 50 entries of salsa, enchiladas, tacos, entrees, and relishes. This year's trophy goes to Eloisa Mendez with her Green and Red Salsa Jalapeno.

Across the stage, several reporters stalk a tall blond man looking at plates of peppers. This is the famous Mr. Chileman, Paul Bosland. His reputation among chile experts and New Mexicans precedes him. And for good reason: as the latest in a long line of chile gurus at New Mexico State University, Bosland in the last seven years has seen chile growing become big business. Last year New Mexico farmers received $59 million for their chile crops, making it the most valuable agricultural commodity in the state.

BREEDING COUNTS

This day, the Chileman's job is to judge the chile-growing contest. The criterion for judging is how well the chiles (the preferred spelling in New Mexico) meet standards for commercial production. He points to a pair of sleek, smooth green chiles on a flimsy white paper plate. The New Mexico 6-4 has been the industry standard for 40 years. Fabian Garcia developed its forerunner in the early 1900s; he wanted a milder chile that could be canned and dehydrated. The pod has nice smooth shoulders and a smooth taper; no chance for water to sit in cracks. It is 6 to 7 inches long. Processors will cut 4 inches off the bottom to can as whole chiles; they chop the top to use for diced chiles. Consistency, that's what processors want.

All kinds of chiles grow here: jalapeno, cayenne, even the hottest habanero. But the chiles New Mexico is famous for are generally large and long, mild to medium-hot, and can be appreciated in large quantities. They're valued for their distinctive flavor--robust, pungent, and earthy. …