LOS ANGELES — At Ventura's Arroyo Verde Park on Sunday, if you squinted really, really hard, you could almost believe you were in the mountains of New Mexico — the steep, brush-covered hillsides, the pine trees and, most important, the smell of roasting green chilies hanging in the air.
Of course, once you opened your eyes, you couldn't help but notice the palms and eucalyptus, and then there were the booming sounds of Armenian pop coming from the wedding at the next clearing.
Once relatively unknown outside of its home area, the Hatch green chili has become a cult item in Southern California. But what exactly is a Hatch chili?
There is no chili variety called Hatch. Hatch chilies include a whole family of long green peppers from the species Capsicum annuum (the same peppers when fully mature turn red and are dried). They range tremendously in spiciness and flavor. You may have seen Anaheim chilies in the supermarket that look just the same, but they are an exceedingly bland member of the clan.
Instead, the name "Hatch" refers to where these chilies are grown: the area around a tiny town in the Mesilla Valley in southwestern New Mexico, just outside of Las Cruces. Similar green chilies are grown all over the state, and each area has its own passionate supporters, but Hatch has become the most recognized.
That popularity has led to claims of widespread copycatting. While there are a lot of chilies grown in Hatch, there almost certainly aren't enough to account for everything that is sold under that name these days.
New Mexico growers say peppers from all over the Southwest and even Mexico are being sold as Hatch now. As a result, they are finding it harder and harder to compete. According to the New Mexico Chile Task Force, between 1992 and 2011 chili plantings in the state plummeted from 34,500 acres to 9,500 acres.
Indeed, last year the state legislature passed a law making it illegal to sell any chili as New Mexican that wasn't actually grown there. Though legally that law can be enforced only within the state, anyone selling what are claimed to be New Mexico chilies should have supporting paperwork.
But that momentary illusion was enough for the more than 100 Los Angeles area alumni of the University of New Mexico who were gathered for the group's 20th annual chili-roasting fundraiser.
The roasting of fiery green chilies is a ritual in New Mexico, as much a part of the transition to fall as back-to-school sales, afternoon thunderstorms and the state fair. All over the Land of Enchantment, the pungent smell of fire-blackened peppers hangs in the air.
And now it has come to Southern California. Over the last few years, Hatch green chili roasts have become a big deal. Not just a big deal, a huge deal. Area foodies start sharing rumors about them in early summer. And information on where they are being held is collected on websites such as Chowhound.
Pictures on Facebook over the weekend showed what appeared to be several hundred people standing in line at a supermarket in La Habra, waiting patiently for their peppers.
The University of New Mexico event is far from the biggest in Southern California, but it may well be the oldest. And it almost certainly draws the most passionate consumers.
What may taste to an outsider like edible napalm is mother's milk to New Mexicans.
"Anyone who tries it gets addicted to green chilies," says Reuben Valles, a member of UNM's class of 1993 and now a doctor in Encino, Calif. "It doesn't matter who you are or where you're from. Once you get the taste, you can't lose it."
Valles says he and his wife, Rebecca, usually buy a sack at the roast — that's about 35 pounds, an amount that is respectable but hardly notable, at least among this crowd.
Jim Corriere, class of 1992, who drives in from Brawley every year for the event, went home with 80 pounds. And one extended family accounted for 100 pounds among them.
That's a far cry from the group's first chili roast, says Gary Bednorz, class of 1987 and a student recruiter for the university. It was Bednorz who organized that event, and he has been at all 20 of them.
The first year, a supplier "sent me up a banana box of green chilies, like 25 pounds," he says. "I told them, 'That's fine for me, but what about everyone else?' I can go through 25 pounds in a month, no problem."
These days the group goes through about 1,500 pounds of chilies in an afternoon, limited only by the amount Bednorz can fit in the back of his truck. At the event they're roasted in a big rotary bin over butane flames, sorted and packed into zip-lock bags to take home and be frozen until needed.
What do people do with all of that chili? You name it. For a New Mexican, there's no dish that can't be improved by its addition. Traditionally it's simmered into a sauce for enchiladas, stewed with lamb, beef or pork, or stuffed for chili rellenos. It is mashed together with tomatoes and onions for chili caribe. Sometimes posole is made with green chili instead of red.
But that's just the classics. In modern New Mexico, green chili is just as popular as a topping for cheeseburgers and pizzas and for adding a bit of spice to omelets, quesadillas and grilled cheese sandwiches, among countless other things.
When Studio City, Calif., attorney J.D. Lopez, class of 2000, is asked his favorite way to use peppers, he takes a long pause to think about it, and his wife, Rana, rolls her eyes: "You want him to name just one?"
It almost seems like it would be more difficult to name a dish that Pepe Ugarte, class of 1984, doesn't put green chili in. "I put it in my turkey gravy for Thanksgiving, and it's in the stuffing too," he says. "And when I make a big rib roast for Christmas? There's green chili in the gravy for that, too.
"Green chili is a reminder of life's simple pleasures."