Austin residents have hots for rare Hatch chile peppers

Layne Lynch

In the oppressive heat of mid August, large, emerald-green peppers ripen to perfection, are plucked with delicate tugs and loaded into worn, wooden crates to be shipped across the country. These are no ordinary peppers, though; they are the rare Hatch variety.

To celebrate this uncommon and uniquely flavored food, Austin restaurants and stores such as Chuy’s and Central Market are selling Hatch chilies and Hatch chile products.

The Hatch chili pepper is not something one can find on just any farm in any state. It is grown in only one place in the United States — the small town of Hatch, N.M. With a population of just fewer than 1,700, Hatch farmers labor to cultivate the Hatch chile pepper to meet the demands of countless stores and hungry mouths.

As if growing in a small town doesn’t make this pepper unique enough, the short growing season makes it an even hotter commodity. According to the Whole Foods website, the peak season of the pepper lasts just a few weeks in August and ends at the beginning of September.

The town of Hatch hosts an annual chili pepper festival during Labor Day Weekend. According to Marcia Nordyke, the chairwoman of the Hatch Chile Festival, an estimated 20,000 people flock to the usually isolated town for the festival every year.

“It’s funny because it started in such a small town, and now when people leave and go back home they tell everyone how delicious and addictive the peppers are,” Nordyke said. “People will roast the peppers and stick them in the freezer, just so they can have them year-round in everything.”

UT students and other Austin residents don’t even have to leave the confines of the city to celebrate this spicy pepper. Central Market has taken to holding its own festival for the popular pepper. This marks the 15th year Central Market has hosted Hatch chile pepper events during the month of August.

Throughout the store, the pepper can be found stuffed into chicken breasts, blended in crab cakes and even baked into desserts such as Hatch and apple cobbler or pie. Since the festival’s beginning in 1995, more events have been added to the calendar such as the Hatch Chile Recipe contest in 2007. The store even published the “Central Market Hatch Chile Recipe” book in 2008.

“We sell over 275,000 pounds to the Central Market stores in Texas,” Nordyke said. “And that number continues to grow every year.”

According to a Central Market employee who preferred to remain anonymous, the store’s profits from the pepper have gone up this year. The employee believes the profits of the pepper will more than double this year and that the contests and assortment of Hatch products are what keep enthusiasm rising.

“It’s funny because I used to think it was the addictive flavor and the numerous uses of the pepper that made people love them,” Nordyke said. “Now, I realize it’s all about the culture and how it ties this small town to so many different places.”

If driving to New Mexico isn’t on the agenda this Labor Day weekend, catch the Hatch Chile Festival at Central Market before it ends today.