ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Outside a Virginia supermarket, 2,000 miles from the chile pepper fields in Hatch, New Mexico, the smell of roasting peppers wafts through the air as New Mexico state employees run the propane-fired roasters.
Larry Wilbanks, a Virginia transplant from New Mexico, waved the pungent smell toward his nose and grinned at New Mexico Agriculture Secretary Jeff Witte, who was personally supervising the August roast.
“We love it. We put it in everything — eggs for breakfast, enchiladas and a dish we make called Navajo Tacos with beans and everything,” Wilbanks said. His wife, Kelly Wilbanks, said, “We introduced it to our neighbors — they help us peel them and then we serve them enchiladas.”
The hot fresh peppers, the crackling sound and the smell of roasting — necessary to blister the tough outer membrane so it can be peeled way — are a late summer tradition in New Mexico. But the chiles are spreading across the country as former New Mexicans spread the word and others take notice.
New Mexico’s southern Rio Grande Valley has produced chile peppers for 400 years, since Spanish explorers brought the seeds from South America. The industry ramped up in the early 20th century after Fabian Garcia, a horticulturist at New Mexico State University, spent decades cross-breeding peppers to find a tasty and disease-resistant strain.
It became a signature crop, especially in southern New Mexico where irrigation water from the Rio Grande was plentiful. Now it defines New Mexico’s agriculture like potatoes in Idaho, peaches in Georgia and apples in Washington state.
New Mexico produced more than 71,000 tons of chile peppers last year, up about 21% from the roughly 59,000 tons it produced in 2014, when drought, labor shortages and shrinking farmland dragged chile production to a 43-year low.
Locals call it “chile” — singular — whether the peppers are fresh, roasted, dried, chopped or made into sauce.
New Mexico officials don’t track the number of chiles shipped to other states, but wholesalers agree that interest in the fresh green peppers for local roasting has grown in recent years. Stores in 40 states are hosting green chile roasts this year, according to store announcements and resident comments at IHatchChile.com.
Thor Erickson, a culinary instructor at Cascade Culinary Institute in Bend, Oregon, said friends had ordered fresh peppers and roasted them on backyard grills in the past, but this was the first year he saw the peppers fresh-roasted at a local market in Bend. He’s planning to make pork stew, enchiladas, grilled steak and queso sauce with green chiles he bought in August.
“I did not have any knowledge of New Mexican chiles until I started working in professional kitchens in California with chefs who had worked in New Mexico,” Erickson said. “They knew about the seasonal roasting of Hatch chiles and how unmatched the flavor is. The sharing of these traditions is incredibly important.”
In New Mexico, some chile peppers get roasted fresh in their green, unripened state, while others are left to ripen into red chiles, which are usually dried and then also made into sauce.
In New Mexico restaurants, diners are used to being asked whether they want “red or green” — in other words, which chile sauce would they like with their meal? One option is a combination of the two, known as “Christmas.” Even chain fast-food restaurants offer green chiles on hamburgers in New Mexico.
New Mexico’s dry air, warmth and long growing season are important for growing green chiles, and the desert Hatch Valley area near the Texas and Mexico borders has long dominated production. But Colorado also grows green chiles — fueling a war between the neighbors over whose chiles are best.
Gary Maricle, manager of wholesaler New Mexico Chili in Albuquerque, said he started noticing nationwide mail-order demand for fresh chiles from individual buyers in the mid-2000s, and more recently stores and restaurants started ordering, too. He’s sold roasters to stores in Washington state, Oregon and Pennsylvania.
“The popularity has grown tremendously,” Maricle said. “It’s not just displaced New Mexicans, but they are the ones calling attention to New Mexico chile, more often than not.”
Residents of other states have taken their quirky foods with them — you can find a Cincinnati chili parlor in South Florida, and Alabama fruit-flavored pickles in Los Angeles. But because fresh chile peppers wilt when left out in the heat for a few days, green chiles are a high-stakes gambit. Stores are skeptical about buying large quantities until they learn customers expect to buy, roast and freeze a year’s supply in the fall, Witte said.
New Mexico’s agriculture department has always promoted its signature green chile peppers, but in recent years it has been sending agency employees to out-of-state stores to teach roasting techniques. This year stores in Florida and North Carolina were among those requesting the demonstrations.
“We have an intensive program on how to roast it, which is key. You roast it too long and you turn it into mush, not enough and it doesn’t peel,” Witte said. Like many New Mexicans, he’s skeptical when he sees New Mexico chiles mentioned on the East Coast.
“I was in Washington, D.C., and this place had a Hatch green chile cheeseburger on the menu,” Witte said. “I said, ‘Bring me that chile. Let me see it.’ As soon as I saw it, I could tell it was real. Oh, and that smell. Then a guy walks up and says, ‘Is that the Hatch green chile? Somebody just posted it on Yelp and I came down to try it.’”
For New Mexicans outside the state, nothing will do but the real thing from home.
Mike Richardson moved in 2000 from Albuquerque to California, where he found the local Anaheim chile peppers were no substitute for New Mexico chiles. “I scoffed and made arrangements to get real ones sent to us and made pilgrimages to Albuquerque,” said Richardson, who later moved to southern Maryland and feared his “access to the green goodness” was gone until he found a green chile roast nearby for University of New Mexico alumni.
“The challenge now is to budget our usage over the course of a year until the next roast,” Richardson said. “It’s like that ‘Seinfeld’ episode about the sponges. Is this meal chile-worthy?”