On The Range is a weekly exploration of the history and lore of Texas menu items.
As the song says, deep in December it's nice to remember...
Every Labor Day, the tiny town of Hatch, New Mexico springs to life with the Hatch Valley Chile Festival. Thousands of Chileheads from all across the country converge on this remote corner of Southwestern New Mexico for two days of music, eating contests, tractor pulls, horseshoe tournaments, eating, and more eating.
At the center of all this revelry (and tractor pulls) is a long, green chile pepper that was developed in New Mexico but is named after a town in California.
How can this be?
According to Paul W Bosland and Eric Votava, researchers at The Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University, New Mexican chiles date back to the 1880's when a man named Fabian Garcia developed a program for chile improvement to help the local farmers grow better and more productive pods. In 1913, he released one called New Mexico Number 9, which became the prototype for all chiles grown in that state.
Today Garcia's creation is more familiarly known as long green or Anaheim, so named because although Anaheim seed originated in New Mexico, it "was taken to Anaheim, California, where it was widely cultivated."
In other words, strange as it may seem, there is no such chile as a Hatch Green Chile, at least according to Robb Walsh.
Writing in the Houston Press, he puts down the development of the Hatch chile legend to the miracle of modern marketing:
"Hatch isn't the name of a pepper variety, it's the name of a place. Yes, peppers are grown in Hatch, New Mexico, but they aren't any better than peppers from neighboring towns. And there is no way tiny Hatch produces all the chiles that get sold under that name. Farmers from other parts of New Mexico and other states including Arizona ship green chiles to Hatch to be resold. Some Hatch chile producers are reportedly shipping seeds to Mexico and having the chiles grown south of the border, where labor and water are cheaper."
Not only that, but the original name of Hatch, New Mexico was Santa Barbara.
Most Anaheim chiles are very mild, but some of the New Mexico varieties pack more of a punch. Whereas the typical Anaheim pepper heat is 500 - 2500 Scoville units, or about the same as poblanos, some of the New Mexican chiles can reach as high as 5000 to 8000 units, which is more in line with your basic, garden-variety jalapeno.
Hatch fever reaches into the Metroplex with such establishments as Central Market and Blue Mesa Grill touting the pepper at harvest time. However, if you wish to sample Hatch chiles year-round, look no further than Chuy's, the venerable Austin-based chain well known for its kitschy décor.
Although Hatch green chile chicken enchiladas are a featured special every Friday, you can have the fiery sauce served atop any entrée, including the Elvis Green Chile Fried Chicken. (You see, the Chuy's chain has a thing for the King.) The batter is light and crispy and made from potato chips, and in any case, it's better than journeying all the way to Southwestern New Mexico just to watch a tractor pull.