OUTSIDE THE PEPPER POT RESTAURANT, Hatch resident Rodrigo Varela is chatting with friends and family when a fire engine’s siren interrupts them. As the vehicle turns onto West Hall Street, Varela waves to the driver, who is followed by a stream of other Hatch Valley residents in tractors and cars decorated with the indelible symbols of southern New Mexico: Hatch chile, green and red.
One of those residents, sitting in the flatbed of a 1950s-era Chevrolet pickup, is the Hatch Chile Festival’s grand marshal, 98-year-old June Rutherford. “Hey, June, we love you,” Varela says. She smiles and returns the wave.
Rutherford, the matriarch of a chile growing dynasty, was one of the early organizers of the Hatch Chile Festival, which first took place at Hatch Municipal Airport in 1972. At one time, she and other volunteers cooked thousands of pounds of food—most of it chile-fortified—for guests. Some visitors partook in events like tractor pulls and shooting, fiddling, and horseshoe-pitching contests. “People were everywhere,” she says.
The harvest-season event has happened for every year but one, 2020, when the pandemic hit. For a while it was unknown whether there would be a festival in 2021. That was when business owners and residents came to Lisa Neal, president of the Hatch Chamber of Commerce, and told her that, just like a chile addict awaiting another fix of enchiladas, they couldn’t go another year without it.
Hatch chile, after all, enjoys worldwide fame. Grocery stores throughout the nation promote roasting events, chefs proclaim their use in a variety of cuisines, and residents love their small town’s biggest annual celebration.
The festival committee decided to revive the chile festival and move it into town that year, in part to provide better economic opportunities for businesses. “People could walk around in Hatch and see what it has to offer,” Neal says.
The change of venue proved so popular that last year’s version followed the same template. So, I’m following Neal’s recommendation to wander the town of roughly 1,500 residents. I see people surrounded by ristras as they stand outside stores, admiring the steady turning of green chile roasters as if they’re watching a sideshow at a county fair. Down Franklin and Hall streets, people like Hatch native Senaida Mora set up lawn chairs along the parade route. Mora has invited family and friends who grew up in Hatch to attend the festival, which, she says, is “growing bigger and bigger.”
THESE DAYS, HATCH MEANS CHILE AS MUCH as chile means Hatch. The hot fruit lures people to southern New Mexico from all over the world, including recent Illinois transplants Cymber and Jeff Jorgensen. The Jorgensens stopped by Three Brothers Chile during last year’s festival to get their fix. Jeff admits to eating at least one Hatch pepper a day because, he says, it gives him “more vitamin C than an orange.” (And he’s right.)
The Jorgensens were among the estimated 40,000 people to attend the 2022 event, the 50th anniversary, which drew about 10,000 more attendees than usual. “Everybody was ready to do something fun after not being able to go anywhere for so long,” Neal says.
In addition to buying chile, the event invites people to go to a carnival and catch a magic show, or to walk East Hall Street and listen to local performers like the 575 Band, named for the region’s area code. Adventurous folks hit the Village Market parking lot to enter the chile-eating contest, including reigning champ and Phoenix resident Chris Hyun. He admits he came better prepared than he did for the 2021 event, when he thought he was entering a chili contest. (He tied for first place in 2022 by eating 10 whole chiles.)
But the festival is not the only time people visit the valley, which stretches from the Sierra de las Uvas, to the west, to Caballo, Hatch, and Rincon, to the east, and touching parts of Doña Ana, Sierra, and Luna counties.
Tucson, Arizona, resident Levi Shrader says he has made multiple trips to Hatch to pick up green chile because, he says, “It’s one of those things you just can’t get anywhere else.”
People come all times of year, including in June, when they think they will load up on the early crop, only to learn it’s not ready, says Chile Festival Queen coordinator Bernadette Acosta. The chile season typically starts in mid-July (though this year’s started in early July) and ends when the first freeze hits in late October or early November. “Chile has become the lifeline of the Hatch Valley,” Acosta says.
IS HATCH CHILE REALLY THAT DIFFERENT FROM other kinds of chile? Various kinds are grown throughout the state, including the San Felipe Pueblo landrace chile pepper. But to the folks in Hatch, there is no comparison, thanks to their environment, the soil composition and structure, and the weather. “All those things contribute to the unique taste of our world-famous crop,” says La Reina Chile Company broker Andrea Alvarez.
That said, Hatch chile is not a variety the way some people think, says Travis Day, the New Mexico Chile Association executive director. “It’s just a chile that’s grown in the Hatch Valley.” Among the popular varieties preferred by Hatch growers are the Big Jim (named after Rutherford’s first husband Jim Lytle) and NuMex R Naky.
Different varieties deliver different heat levels—and people should quit blaming the seeds for that, says Rutherford. “Don’t let anybody tell you the seed has the heat,” she says, urging people to instead look at the veins on the pod’s interior. If they’re red, it’s “hotter than hell.”
The people standing in a line that snakes along the outside of Sparky’s Burgers, BBQ & Espresso aren’t interested in a botanical debate. Besides enjoying the array of comical statues, they want a green chile cheeseburger. After grabbing a delicious lunch, they can scoot around the corner to Sparky’s Trading Post and look at a treasure trove of antiques ranging from neon signs to Ford Model A and Model T cars. “It’s just fun stuff, even if you’re so young you don’t recognize most of it,” says Sparky’s owner and chief scavenger, Teako Nunn.
Among its many accolades, Sparky’s has even been recognized on Food Network’s “50 States of Barbecue” list for its Oinker, a Hatch green chile cheeseburger topped with smoked pulled pork. More important than the personal recognition, Nunn says, is how such honors help build the town’s team spirit. “Hatch is becoming a real tourist destination,” he says.
HATCH’S FUTURE RESTS ON THE SHOULDERS OF people involved in the chile industry itself, like Alvarez, a descendant of generations of local farmers. Her great-grandfather Feliz Alvarez, a cotton and chile farmer in the Hatch Valley in the late 19th century, was the first farmer in her family. “If it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t be here,” she says.
Her grandfather Jimmy Alvarez Sr. taught her about the business side of agriculture. He would take her in his truck and travel all over the area, from Bayard to the Black Range, peddling chile to people at their homes. “That’s how I grew up,” she says. “Grandpa didn’t have grocery store contracts.”
She may not travel door-to-door selling chile anymore or perform the arduous field labor like her loved ones did, but she remains involved with the family farm as a broker at the La Reina Chile Company in nearby Garfield. “The best thing about owning a chile business is being able to serve others,” Alvarez says. “In a world where technology consumes everyone’s life in some way, some shape, some form, we are able to provide a product that continues to preserve a family tradition.”
Hatch chile is a reason people like the Jorgensens have started a new tradition of coming to the valley to buy gunnysacks stuffed with chile and soaking in the hot sun during the annual festival.
As I drove out of the Hatch Valley Middle School parking lot and saw a crop of smiling people carrying bags containing ristras and chile, I couldn’t help but wonder how long the hardy growers of Hatch can hold on to that sunny outlook in an era of climate change and the difficult economics of farming in general. Something that Alvarez said sticks in my mind, and in it, I find hope. She recently gave birth to a daughter, who soon enough will be out in the field learning about the family business and the importance of chile to her community.
“Farming in the Hatch Valley is important because of the tradition that has been passed down from generation to generation,” Alvarez says. “It’s land that has been tilled and worked by the same bloodlines for over 100 years, if not more in some families. It’s a sense of pride. This is the valley where some of the best-tasting chile in the world is grown. How can you not be proud of that and hold on to the profession?”
Come for the chile, stay for the down-home charm.
🌶 Stay. The Historic St. Francis de Sales Inn offers Spanish Colonial–style rooms in the former church’s rectory, along with a casita. Need the church, too? Weddings are welcome.
🌶 Eat and drink. Wash down a breakfast burrito with chocolate milk at the Pepper Pot Restaurant. Enjoy beef enchiladas along with a lemonade at the Valley Cafe. Grab a green chile burger at either of those spots, as well as at Sparky’s Burgers, BBQ & Espresso and Los Abuelos Mexican Restaurant. After a meal, grab a brew at Ice Box Brewing’s Hatch Valley taproom.
🌶 Shop. Daddy’s Farm and Gift Shop off Franklin Street carries ristras to take home or send to a loved one. Continue walking down Franklin and stop at Hatch Chile Market and Hatch Chile Store to buy gunnysacks full of chile. Get some handmade coffee mugs and other items at Grajeda Farms. Pick up salsa and sauces at Gilly’s Chile.
🌶 Get nostalgic. Pose next to Ronald McDonald in front of Sparky’s, then visit the town’s former mercantile around the corner. Sparky’s owner, Teako Nunn, has filled it with antique cars and a variety of old business and neon signs. The small
Village of Hatch Museum lays out the history of the area.