The Hatch green chile pepper is something spiritual, making the "chile man" that sells them outside supermarkets in Southwestern communities a preacher figure of sorts. His fervent worshipers flock around him for weekly worships of the legendary Hatch chile. But as with a sweaty preacher's traveling tent, congregations are here today, gone tomorrow.
In my case, I find him in front of a southeast-side grocery store called Fiesta Foods. Walking to his corner pulpit on a September afternoon is an experience unto itself. The closer I get, the more I feel the heat radiating from the propane burners fueling the fire for his cylindrical chile roasters. Spicy, smoky, and sweet smells come over me, each fading into the other so seamlessly I'm not exactly sure which is which. Blistered black flakes of scorched pepper skin float and swirl on hot breezes while people gather around, asking questions. Chile Man doles out answers to the tunes of classic rock cassettes.
He's a guru, evangelist, and sage of the blue flame-kissed pepper. His parking lot swells each September when a community of heat-seekers comes in search of the short-lived pepper. Soon, once the last box is roasted, the chile man goes back to simply being called David (not even the grocery store owner knows his last name), working his regular nine-to-five as a window washer.
The deliciousness of Hatch green chiles—which take their name from Hatch, New Mexico—brings seasonal fame and notoriety. Each August, the New Mexico economy swells by about $50 million, and the majority of that infusion comes by way of the Mesilla Valley chile fields. At the end of the season, people make the pilgrimage from all over to Hatch, which normally has a population of under 2,000. On Labor Day weekend, that number swells to include an additional 30,000 people in search of a capsaicin-fueled bliss at the annual Hatch Valley Chile Festival. For one weekend a year, the town is bursting at its seams.
Likewise, the corner of one Amarillo, Texas, grocery store parking lot sees a spike in its attendance. That's where green chiles, fresh from the valley, go to meet the crackling flames of the chile man's roasting drums. From August until they're gone—which is right about now—a normally empty swath of blacktop is occupied by a kindred kind, gathered around to see the prophet of the pepper.
One man was about to take his two cases—50 pounds—home and freeze them in eight-ounce portions, because his wife cooks with them all year.
Every half hour or so, a new crowd engages his sermon. He explains, "Too little heat and you'll shred 'em, but too much heat and you'll dry 'em out." He pulls a chile from every batch he roasts; he peels it; and he shows it off to each person, finally handing it to the purchaser for a taste before they commit. Once they see how easily it peels, they nod in approval.
You can get the roasted peppers everywhere in Amarillo—which is about a seven-hour drive from their fields of origin—during Hatch season, but, according to the chile man's believers, only his place is worth it.
When I walk up, I hear him assuring a couple of sisters curious about the limitations in cooking a 12-pound bag. He says, "You know, some of my regulars that come, they say they eat 'em with everything—ice cream, even. We ate 'em with watermelon this morning and they were terrific." He tells them there's a great green chile apple pie recipe online, too. They seem relieved and take a leap of faith.
One man was about to take his two cases—50 pounds—home and freeze them in eight-ounce portions, because his wife cooks with them all year. He won't buy them anywhere else and has recommendations for expanding my own pepper palate. He tells me about a green chile from Chimayo, New Mexico, that costs twice as much as a Hatch, and he says it tastes twice as good, too. He smiles a toothy grin, his white teeth blackened by flakes of roasted chile skin.
He says, "The chile man is the only one that knows what the hell he's doing. All the other roasters around either cook them too long or not long enough." A few minutes later, he's gone, and two more people come over to fill the space he's left.
A Mexican woman tells me about how her dad used to go to Hatch every year to bring boxes back for their whole family, but now they all just come to the chile man because, "there's no need to go all the way there—this is the same." He must be roasting them right if familial traditions can go by the wayside in the name of convenience.
'She walked right up and into my life, the chile peppers brought her, then she turned around and walked out—just like that.' Everyone laughs and someone says, 'Chile peppers will bring her back, too!'
A more recent convert to the cult of the chile man says he and his wife have sworn allegiance to him alone: "My wife's whole family even comes here now." He says he was first drawn to the corner after seeing "some dude out here with a guitar, roasting chiles, and a bunch of people standing around." The multitude grows daily.
People say that no one knows more about peppers, but I'm not convinced that's the only draw. Not to discredit him, you can learn a lot by standing at his roasting station. Styx blares from a boombox as he loads a little over a half-ton of "Mild", "Medium Hot", "Hot", and "X-Hot" varieties into the steel drums. He roasts a lot of peppers, so he knows things like how growers influence heat levels by watering more or less. He knows that brighter, bigger ones aren't as hot, and he knows by looking at two peppers which one will be more spicy. He knows Hatch chile peppers, sure, but he also knows how to draw people in. The chile man knows what he's doing.
Even people driving by want to participate in his Hatch homilies. They honk while they wait at the stop light or shout out windows when they cruise by. He'll tell you himself, "I'm really an entertainer, a musician, everyone knows me." And they do. You'll hear "Hey, chile man!" from people as they walk by in to the store. He remembers his audience from year to year and they remember him. They remember his recounted war stories, his playful jabs, and his rhapsodies on love lost.
During a lull, he proclaims, "She walked right up and into my life, the chile peppers brought her, then she turned around and walked out—just like that." Everyone laughs and someone says, "Chile peppers will bring her back, too!" The chile man won't allow a dull moment.
Until next year, chile man.