Here in New Mexico, we usually take chile for granted until a poor crop like the one in 1999 sends prices skyrocketing. Then we pay attention and realize how fortunate we are to live in the state that grows more chile than all the other states combined, even during a bad year. But how did it happen that chile, grown in this state for about 400 years, is our No. 1 food crop? And as we begin a new millennium, what is the legacy of these pungent pods?
Christopher Columbus was searching for a western spice route to India when he came across chiles in the Bahamas, so it was only natural he should call them pimienta, the Spanish word for black pepper. After all, pepper was just pepper in those days, no matter what it looked like.
Columbus brought chile seeds back to Spain, where the word spread quickly that this new pepper was much hotter than black pepper and much cheaper. In fact, you could grow your own. This meant that the Spanish and Portuguese were growing chiles more than a hundred years before New Mexicans. They saw to it that chile circumnavigated the globe in less than 100 years, forever spicing up the cuisines of India, Africa, Asia and parts of Europe and the Middle East.
Today, India is the world's largest producer of peppers. The United States is in eighth place, but that includes bell pepper production as well.
For a while, there was quite a debate in the media and academic circles about how chiles came to New Mexico. Some writers theorized that Toltec traders, wandering up from Mexico, introduced them to the Anasazi and that centuries later the Pueblo people were growing them when the Spanish arrived.
It's a nice theory, but there was this little problem of the distinct lack of chile pepper seeds in pre-Spanish archeological sites in New Mexico. Then Susan Hazen-Hammond, the author of Chile Pepper Fever, happened across a quote from Baltasar Obregon, a member of the Antonio Espejo expedition of 1582-83: They have no chile, but the natives were given some seed to plant.
In 1601, chiles were not on the list of Native American crops, according to colonist Francisco de Velarde, who also complained that mice were eating chile pods off the plants in the field. Clearly, the Spanish settlers introduced chiles into what is now New Mexico.
Over the centuries, New Mexico farmers have assisted in transforming the plants from unpredictable producers of pods of all shapes, sizes and heat levels to the more standardized, dependable varieties we know today.
The major breakthrough came when NMSU was the College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts. In 1888, Fabian Garcia, a horticulturist at the college, began his experiments to breed more standardized chile varieties. In the early 1900s, he released New Mexico 9, the first variety with a dependable pod size and heat level.
Other breakthroughs included Roy Harper's release of New Mexico 6 in 1950, Roy Nakayama's development of New Mexico 6-4 in the late 1950s and the breeding of Nu-Mex R-Naky, a mild variety, in the 1980s.
When we think of New Mexican chile, we usually consider only the green pods that turn red, regardless of their variety. But the state's farmers also grow considerable quantities of jalapeños, cayennes and paprika. The jalapeños are processed as nacho slices or pickled in cans, while the cayennes are crushed with salt to make a mash that is shipped in tanker trucks to Louisiana, where it is turned into Cajun-style hot sauces.
Other chiles, such as habaneros and African peri-peris, also are ground into mash to make powerful sauces. The paprika, which essentially is any nonpungent red chile, is ground and pelletized. Its red color is extracted to make a natural food coloring that makes pepperoni pretty, changing its color from a gloomy gray to a pleasing reddish brown.
Capsaicin, the chemical that makes chiles hot, is extracted from the hotter pods in the form of concentrated oleoresin and is used in defense sprays. The less powerful sprays are used by law enforcement officers to subdue unruly human suspects, while the more intense sprays are carried by hunters and outdoor enthusiasts to fend off grizzly bears. In several instances, the sprays have saved the lives of people attacked by bears.
The oleoresins are further refined into pure capsaicin. This intensely powerful crystalline alkaloid is the principal ingredient in topical creams and ointments used to relieve arthritis pain. The chemical, when applied to the skin over the painful area, interrupts the transmission of pain signals to the brain.
Sure, you can buy an expensive commercial cream from the drugstore. Or you can cut open hot chiles and boil them in vegetable oil for an hour or so. Add some beeswax and you have your pain cream at a very low cost.
New Mexicans love chile peppers so much that they have become the de facto state symbol. Houses are adorned with ristras made from all kinds of chiles. Images of the pods are emblazoned on signs, T-shirts, coffee mugs, posters, wind socks and even underwear.
In the late summer and early fall, the aroma of roasting chile fills the air all over New Mexico and produces a state of bliss for chileheads.
State legislators have made chile the co-official state vegetable, along with pinto beans. It doesn't seem to matter that neither is a vegetable the pinto bean being a legume and chile technically a fruit. What really counts is our collective obsession with the pungent pods.
Now that Red or green? is the official state question, I wonder how far we can take this trend. The official state food? Chiles rellenos, of course. The official state tool? A chile roaster. The official state symbol? A ristra. I guess the official state cool-down would be dairy products from Roswell.
The legacy of chile has caused even more craziness. Where else but New Mexico would you see gallon after gallon of red chile sauce being spread over 8-foot tortillas at The Whole Enchilada Festival in Las Cruces? Or 10,000 obsessed chileheads feasting on a thousand different chile products at the National Fiery Foods Show in Albuquerque? And why do seemingly normal adults dress up in strange costumes and compete against others in contests to see who can cook the best chili con carne?
From the Peppermobile, a customized red Honda that looks like a chile pod cruising down Duval Street in Key West, to the huge, ristra-shaped hot air balloon flying at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, chile is everywhere.
As I write this, I'm dressed in a Global Warming T-shirt of a chile pod in orbit around the earth and brilliant if not garish chile pepper pants from Gourmet Gear. I sip a cup of coffee from a chile-emblazoned mug and my toast with jalapeño jam is resting on a dish with a ristra painted on it.
On my kitchen wall is R.C. Gorman's infamous nude chile poster from the 1981 Great Taos Chile Contest. On the shelf is the beautiful wooden chile sculpture by Federico Armijo, one of New Mexico's finest sculptors. Next to it is what I believe to be the world's largest bottle of hot sauce from the Round Top Café in Round Top, Texas. It is 20 inches tall and holds 6.6 quarts. I will never open it, because it is now a shrine.
Friends say I'm completely obsessed with chiles. I deny the allegation because I never, ever wear chile pepper boxer shorts.
Dave DeWitt is the author or coauthor of 25 books on the subjects of chiles and spicy foods. His latest book is The Chile Pepper Encyclopedia. DeWitt produces the National Fiery Foods and Barbecue Show and serves on the boards of directors of NMSU's Chile Pepper Institute and the New Mexico Farm and Ranch Heritage Museum. He wrote, hosted and coproduced the three-part video documentary on chiles, Heat Up Your Life!, a production of NMSU's agricultural communications department.