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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    The desert’s hottest treat

    Tim McDonnell / Arizona Daily Wildcat A vendor unloads chiles from a truck behind a display of chile wreaths, known as ristras at the Hatch Chile Festival in Hatch, New Mexico on Saturday, Sept. 5.

    Wade Worrell is a farming man and he knows his crop.

    “”Eat chiles in the morning,”” he says, “”and in the evening you’ll be deeply moved.””

    Former chile farmer Worrell, 70, repeated his mantra last weekend as master of ceremonies at the 37th annual Hatch Chile Festival in Hatch, N.M. In this Mecca for lovers of the great green fruit, tens of thousands of farmers, “”chile addicts”” and curious foodies from as far away as Germany are brought together for two days of taste bud-searing fun.

    Worrell may have a wary attitude, but don’t get him wrong. This man, who looks like an off-duty New Mexican Santa Claus complete with beard and belly, loves these chiles.

    “”The quality of chile grown here is higher than anywhere else,”” he says. He should know.

    Worrell, who has lived most of his life in nearby Deming, N.M., has been the announcer for the annual festival for the last 36 years.

    For further proof of his claim, one need only look at the long line of cars backed up on the tiny road into the festival. Hatch, a village of only 1,700, explodes to more than 30,000 over the chile festival weekend each year. Exact attendance numbers for the festival are hard to come by since admission — a nominal $5 — is charged by the carload rather than per person.

    Inside the fairgrounds, vendors hawk everything from Mexican food to cookbooks to chile wreaths known as ristras, a teenage chile queen is crowned while country music bands play, and chile-eating contests separate the strong from the weak.

    But the festival was not always so massive. There are some people here, like Worrell, who remember when it was a simple locals-only event with just a few booths. Vendor June Rutherford, 85, is among them.

    Like many here, Rutherford looks weathered from a lifetime of chile farming. Her booth looks no different from those of other vendors, and she isn’t wearing the official festival tee-shirt, a name badge, or any anything else to indicate that, as a young woman, she was among a handful of local farmers who put the first chile festival together.

    Rutherford’s father came to the U.S. from Austria in 1905 as a manual laborer; working his way to the mines of Arizona and then out to the chile fields of western New Mexico. In 1971 he and a few friends started the chile festival as a way to kick back after the hard work of the harvest season. He and his family continued to run the annual event for the next 15 years. Back when it began, Rutherford says, things were different.

    The festival then was a community affair, she says, held by neighbors for neighbors, without the corporate sponsors and crowded parking lots of today. Husbands roasted chiles while wives used the school cafeteria to cook up to 2,000 pounds of chile stew to serve family members and guests. Guys and gals linked arms for a “”cowboy dance,”” which Rutherford says has been phased out because the young people of today “”like this jazz stuff.””

    Although the festival still includes many homespun touches (like the giant handmade construction paper chiles that adorn several walls), Rutherford says some of the original spirit of the festival has been lost amidst the crowds. Thom Paca, who has worked for Rutherford as a chile processor since 1974, says that after all these years he’s even started to hate the festival.

    “”Every year I try to get out,”” he says, casting a glance at Rutherford’s slight frame, “”but if I don’t come she’ll kick the shit out me.””

    The sentiment, though hard to believe, is understandable: Rutherford needs all the help she can get. People eager to get their hands on seasoning made from the ubiquitous local chile variety known as Big Jim, swarm the barn where Rutherford’s booth sits. Outside, a string of chile roasters does equally brisk business.

    If the growth of the festival has taken a toll on its community spirit, it has been a boon for local farmers like Erica Soto, who offers bulk chiles in burlap sacks. $20 will get you a forty-pound bag with nearly 500 chiles; an extra $5, and they’ll come roasted.

    During the one weekend, Soto says, her business, Chile Fanatic, will sell more chiles than during the rest of the year combined. During the festival, she says, she brings in “”a couple thousand”” dollars of revenue each day. Several other vendors say the same. Indeed, Hatch Mayor Judd Nordyke, 68, says, the festival embodies the economic lifeblood of the village.

    Outside Hatch, fields of alfalfa and corn sprout up to feed cows on nearby dairy farms. These crops, along with onions and, of course, chiles, manage to keep the Hatch economy afloat. Agriculture-based economies tend to be insulated from economic downturn, Nordyke says, so his village has fared relatively well in recent years. If anything, he adds, the festival has made Hatch almost too popular.

    “”We’re looking forward to 30 hours from now,”” Nordyke says of himself and his wife, festival head coordinator Marica Nordyke, 61, “”when we can go home and relax.””

    After lunch, crowds gather for the day’s biggest event, the chile-eating contest.

    Contestants, separated by gender, must eat six roasted green chiles — each of which is up to six inches long — leaving behind only stems. The crowd around the tables is so dense and loud that Worrell has to strain to be heard over the loudspeaker. A woman shoves her way through the crowd, shouting that she has come all the way from North Carolina, damn it, just to see her husband in the contest. Forty seconds later contestants stand with weak smiles and tearful eyes, grasping empty plates and burning stomachs.

    For Worrell, the excitement of the eating contest is evidence that the original spirit of the festival has not been lost. “”I love these people,”” he says. “”We’ve still got the camaraderie and the love. You can feel it.”” Nearby, chile farmer and longtime festival veteran Nick Carson, 55, nods in agreement.

    “”(The festival) put us on the map,”” he says. In response to the thousands of tourists, he adds, “”that’s what’s kept this thing alive.””

    The crowd thins as night falls. The mostly older population is replaced by local teenagers headed for the carnival next door, nursing treats like green chile ice cream and chile-spiced mango-on-a-stick. Many are probably ignorant of the festival’s complex past, but who can blame them? The Hatch Chile Festival is, after all, a celebration of the present.

    Right now, the chile festival is in an identity crisis. On the one hand, it has gone from a quiet family party to a highly publicized and profitable event. More than one festival official has mentioned that locals are now the exception rather than the rule.

    On the other hand, the festival’s tremendous popularity has brought acclaim for the region and put dollars in the pockets of hard-working farmers. Even Rutherford has to admit that it is a wonderful thing to see so many to turn out in support of a simple fruit and the people who grow it.

    “”We got the best chile,”” she says, “”so we decided to start a festival, and look what it’s become.””

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