Story & Photos by Harald & Renate Zoschke
While potatoes are the signature veggie for Idaho, chiles are the official state vegetable in New Mexico (although botanically, the pepper pods are fruits). And of course there's Hatch, the self-proclaimed "Chile Capital of the World". Normally, the little town, just about 30 minutes driving northwest of Las Cruces, or 3 hours south of Albuquerque, has a population of about 1,000. But on a Labor Day weekend, Hatch's population swells to about 12,000 to 15,000 - most of them chileheads. It's the Hatch Chile Festival!
It's not Woodstock - it's Chilestock! On Labor Day weekend, the Hatch "airport" doubles as a fairground for one of the world's most popular chilehead events.
Even from a distance, the smoke from dozens of chile roasters can be seen - and smelled. And what a great smell that is!
Th year 2000 had the 29th annual chile festival, and more than 40 booths sold arts and crafts, food, and of course, lots of fresh green and red chile at this annual celebration of the area's most famous cash crop. Customers who bought at least one bushel (about 40 pounds) of peppers, got their pods roasted right on the spot. This way, the tough skin can be easily removed, and locals then freeze the peppers, so they have a year-round supply. After all, mild and medium hot local chile is a signature ingredient of many local dishes. My wife Renate and I quickly got used to the waitresses' questions, even for breakfast: "red or green?" - Hint: if you're iffy, just order "christmas", and you'll get red chile sauce and fresh green chile stew on your plate. Caution: The smell and flavor of fresh roasted New Mexican chile is highly addictive!
Another favorite way to take chiles home are ristras. New Mexicans have traditionally harvested and strung red chile into these colorful strings. The chiles are allowed to dry in New Mexico's warm sun and low humidity (here in Florida, we need to store ristras indoors in air-conditioned rooms). Although ristras are highly decorative, this method of drying and storing the chiles was originally ment to be a supply for the kitchen.
En vogue this year were also multi colored ristras -- thanks to new chile varieties developed at the New Mexico State University's Chile Pepper Institute (right).
A Hatch Chile Festival Queen reigns over the two-day event. And there's a Green Chile Princess and a Red Chile Princess as well.
The 2000 Millennium Chile Queen was Jennifer Munoz (right), posing with her Red Chile Princess Amanda Esparza (unfortunately, we couldn't locate the Green Chile Princess.)
And every year, there's a vote for the best chile pods as well, with varieties like "Big Jim", "Joe E. Parker" and "New Mex 6-4" competing.
Among the many attractions were country dance performances and concerts, including a fiddlers' contest. Many of the contestants were well beyond retirement age, and their fiddling skills were nothing short of amazing. Not less astonishing were some fiddling kids who had the crowds foot-stomping. The sheer number of enthusiastic hobby musicians here is a hint of an intact community life in this beautiful rural area.
You can feel the good mood at the Hatch Chile Festival, and interestingly, it's a non-alcoholic event, although there are no rules posted anywhere. While common soda beverages are offered, local refreshments like fresh key lime lemonade and water melon punch were the big sellers. With all the chile stuff to sample and temperatures in the upper 90's, the vendors had a hard time to catch up with demand.
Most requested dish was the barbecue brisket with red chile sauce, fresh green chiles and pinto beans, dished out by the Hatch Chamber of Commerce. On Saturday, they already ran out of this popular item around 3:00pm. Fortunately, there was a lot of other chile food around...
Attractions also included a makeshift "art gallery" (left), where local artists displayed paintings and sculptures. There seems to be a lot of talent in the area - must be the chiles!
Most unusual product at the festival this year: Bait for the chilehead fisherman (right).
Young and old stayed up late that weekend, and especially the kids enjoyed the rides.
And those who still didn't get enough chiles at the Hatch Festival, could either shop from dozens of roadside chile roasters, or eat the "Green Chile Hunger Buster" at the local Dairy Queen. Will we be back next year? You bet!
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Photos Copyright (c) by Harald & Renate Zoschke A German version of this article series can be found here.