Brand & Martínez

Brand & Martínez is a daily, two-hour program that looks at news and culture through the lens of Southern California. Hosted by Madeleine Brand & A Martínez

Hatch chiles heat up California (slideshow)

by Josie Huang | Brand & Martínez

The smoky smell of roasting chilies fills the air at La Puente High School. Given longer to grow, the green chilies turn red like those in the photo. Josie Huang

Listen to audio of KPCC's Josie Huang trying the Double X Hatch chile.

The parking lot at La Puente High School is packed to the seams, but not for a football game, or a school play.

The giveaway is a smoky, sweet smell that thickens the air and tickles the throat.

"I'm already choking here," said Leonor Garza, a bookkeeper from La Habra, as she tried to suppress a cough. She added, "it's delicious."

Garza is among the hundreds of people who showed up at the high school to pick up orders of fresh green chiles and get them roasted in hand-cranked steel drums.

These are no run-of-the-mill chiles. They come from Hatch Valley, New Mexico, the self-proclaimed Chile Capital of the World.

Hatch chiles have developed such a reputation for quality outside of New Mexico, that Hatch Valley farms make a point of selling their crop in other states.

During the chile's short growing season in August and September, Hatch Valley farms truck their chiles to schools and grocery stores on the weekend.

El Rey Farms has been selling their peppers at the high school since the 1970's. El Rey's Jim Fabian said Hatch chiles derive their rich flavor from the region's high altitude — more than 4,000 feet above sea level.

"So it gets hot during the day but then it gets cool at night," Fabian said. "I don't know if it grows better, or matures better. It likes the heat because the outside temperature has something to do with the heat of the chile."

Fabian's father-in-law started trucking Hatch chilies to the high school in the 1970s after friends in California begged for them.

"The stuff you buy at the stores is California chile," Fabian said. "And it just has no taste. It has no heat. Ask anybody who eats chile, it tastes like grass."

Ways to calm the heat of a Hatch chile:
• milk
• slice of cheese
• ice cream
• coffee
• hot cocoa
• packet of sugar

Gary Bednorz of Ventura developed a taste for Hatch chiles as a student at the University of New Mexico. He's now the school's recruiter in California, and organizes an annual chile roast for local alums.

This year, he ordered 38 sacks of peppers. Bednorz said the alums are pretty experienced at eating chiles.

"I've got one friend, that just buys Double-x," Bednorz said. "Hot's not hot enough. Double. Oh, man! That's trauma! Me, since 1974? Medium."

Should an extra-extra hot pepper ever slip in, Bednorz recommends eating a packet of sugar to cut the heat.

Louie Lopez, an aircraft painter from San Pedro, has another trick.

"(My grandmother) would put a hot beverage — like hot cocoa or hot coffee," he said. "And then when the chile got too hot in your mouth, you just take a sip of that and it makes it go away quicker than drinking water or milk."

Garza ended up standing in line for than two hours to get three sacks of chiles roasted.

"I want this particular chile," Garza said. "It has the best flavor ever. And any time I take it to a family event or a party, they love it. They always say, 'Don't forget to bring your salsa!'"

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