Why Are Grocery Stores So Hot for Hatch Chile Peppers?

Aug 24, 2016

Central Market’s annual Hatch chile festival, Hatch-A-Palooza, is over for the year. But you can still get Hatch chiles pretty much in every Austin grocery store. Did you ever wonder why grocery stores get so excited about Hatch chiles? 

Michael Balagia, who also happens to be my boyfriend, asked this ATXplained question after a particularly frustrating shopping trip at our nearby Central Market on North Lamar.

"It’s the Shark Week of organic grocery stores."

“We wanted to make gazpacho cause it was hot," he said. "And we’re looking for Anaheim peppers. We asked the guy because we couldn’t find them, he said to get Hatch chiles.” 

It got worse when we tried to buy sausage, too. 

"Every single sausage that was made here had Hatch chiles in it. Hatch chile and chicken. Hatch chile and pork. Hatch chile and cheese.”

Central Market’s annual Hatch chile festival was in full swing. And the long, green peppers were everywhere, and in everything – Hatch chile cornbread, Hatch chile beer, Hatch chile coffee.

A book of recipes from a Hatch chile-themed cooking class at Central Market.
Credit Lisseth Lopez for KUT

“It’s the Shark Week of organic grocery stores,” Michael said.

All of it got Michael thinking: Why?

“I just wonder what the reasoning or the motivation is behind it. Whether there’s H-E-B owns some kind of chile futures, do they have land in New Mexico, whether they have some contract, or whether there’s some hatch chile lobby in the background pulling all these strings? You gotta question these things.”

So, why Hatch chiles? 

They hatched a plan

The short answer: because the New Mexico Department of Agriculture has a really good marketing team.

Hatch chiles are grown in the Hatch Valley in New Mexico. They aren’t native to the region—they were introduced there sometime in the early 20th century.

They get their name from the small village of Hatch, a town that’s is already well known for its own Hatch Chile Festival in September. But Dave Lucero, a director of marketing and development at the New Mexico Department of Agriculture, wanted to spread the Hatch chile beyond the borders of the Land of Enchantment.

“Our farmers were looking for new avenues to sell chile,” Lucero said. “We’ve been selling in the southwest and decided to expand our markets.”

A display of Hatch chile peppers at H-E-B on 41st Street in Austin.
Credit Miguel Gutierrez Jr. / KUT

About 15 years ago, Lucero and his team pitched supermarkets in Texas the idea of selling fresh chiles and marketing the entire Hatch chile season. Lucero says Central Market was the first store to jump on the idea.

“We built the program by offering to train their store personnel on how to roast chile, how to merchandise chile,” he recalled. “We went and spent a lot of time working the stores just to get them comfortable with chile.”

Lucero says the department spent time with customers, too, showing them how they could put the peppers in different foods.

“It wasn’t just making green chile stew or enchilada, they could add green chile to their pastas, they could add them to their seafood,” Lucero said. “We got adventurous and created some really neat recipes.”

A few years later, H-E-B started promoting Hatch chiles.  Whole Foods also celebrates the season.

"The Pope of Peppers"

Food historian Dave DeWitt has taught Hatch chile cooking classes at Central Markets across Texas. DeWitt, who lives in New Mexico, has been called the “Pope of Peppers.”

“I was astounded by the crowds at all the Hatch chile events I went to when I did the four-city tour, he said. “Every cooking demonstration I did was sold out.”

DeWitt says he’s especially surprised because of this minor detail:

“There’s no such thing as a Hatch chile.”

Go ahead and read that again: There is no such thing as a Hatch chile.

There are varieties of green chiles – Sandia and Big Jim, for example – but DeWitt says there’s no difference between a Hatch chile and another green chile pepper, like an Anaheim pepper, except for where it’s grown. That hasn’t stopped supermarkets or the New Mexico Department of Agriculture from hyping the Hatch chile as a seasonal pepper.

“I’ve just given up,” DeWitt said. “I’ve tried to fight this battle and say there’s no such thing as a Hatch chile. I’ve given up this campaign, because I’m never going to win.”

Credit Lisseth Lopez for KUT

Last Tuesday night, about 10 people stood around a large kitchen at Central Market on North Lamar. They were there for cooking lessons. The name of the class: Just Add Hatch.

“We’re cooking Hatch crab cakes with remoulade, pork and Hatch tacos, broccoli and Hatch crisp and pineapple and Hatch ice cream,” said instructor April Gutierrez.

Gutierrez started off the class like DeWitt says he did.

Chef April Gutierrez shapes a hatch crab cake in a Hatch chile pepper-themed cooking class at Central Market on August 16, 2016.
Credit Lisseth Lopez for KUT

“A lot of people get all crazy that there’s Hatch season – and Hatch peppers everywhere – that you can get it for small amount of time when they’re available,” DeWitt said. “But, you can get peppers that are really similar, if you look for Anaheim peppers.”

When asked if she could taste a difference between a regular Anaheim pepper and a Hatch pepper, Gutierrez shook her head no.

“I, personally, would love to rather use any other pepper. I’m not as big on the flavor of Hatch,” Gutierrez said. “I don’t find the big deal about it.”

So, here we are.  Eating a pepper pushed by another state’s government. A pepper that tastes no different than any other green chile pepper. I knew it was time to bring in some experts: KUT’s Audrey McGlinchy, Mose Buchele and Jimmy Maas.

I bought two green chile peppers. And asked them to taste each raw pepper and tell me which one they thought was a Hatch. There was little consensus and, after trying a freshly roasted roasted pepper, there was even less consensus. (You can listen to the full exchange below.)

It turns out, the indecision was appropriate: both of the raw chiles were Hatch chiles. 

A valid question

But this doesn’t answer Michael’s original question: whether H-E-B owns some kind of chile futures or whether they have land in New Mexico – whether they have skin in the chile game.

I posed the question to Meredith Beeman, with Central Market’s cooking school.

“You are talking above my pay grade, I have no knowledge of anything like that,” she said.

When I called Central Market’s public relations team for more answers on the motivation of the Hatch festival, they sent this statement:

Certainly a valid question! The Hatch Celebration has become kind of an institution. Everyone loves hatch! It’s popular and Central Market shoppers wait for it every year.

The peppers grown in the Hatch Valley have a short season. But the green chile pepper does not. You can probably find them in the store long after Hatch season is over.

But good luck finding a Hatch chile-flavored beer.

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