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For years, the New Mexico green chile has been under siege. The chile is a huge part of the state’s cultural identity and it grows the most chile peppers of any state in the country, contributing about $50 million to the state’s economy.
But the New Mexico chile industry is in decline — suffering from drought and competition from China and other countries.
New Mexico green chile peppers were first grown in the 1800s and scientists say the secret to recapturing the industry is to recreate chiles from the old seeds and bring back the original flavor that has been lost.
Paul Bosland professor and head of the Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University, joins Here & Now‘s Jeremy Hobson to talk about chile peppers in New Mexico.
On the inception of the New Mexico green chile
“Back in the late 1800s, we had a professor here, Fabian Garcia, who decided to make chiles more of a commercial crop. Up until that time, Hispanics grew them in their backyard gardens and we had no commercial crop of chiles in New Mexico. And he said ‘I’m going to make a chile more uniform, milder and better yielding to get non-Hispanics to eat chile peppers. So he intercrossed three different types of chiles one called pasilla, one called chile negro, and another one called chile colorado. It was red, black and a long green to brown chile. He intercrossed those, began selecting and in the early 1900s he came out with a variety called ‘New Mexico no. 9’ and this was the first time this pod type called New Mexican was ever seen.
“He started to grow it in the area and it became very popular. And really it became the standard for what we would call ‘Mexican food’ in the United States. Anyone that knows Mexican cuisine realizes there are very different types of dishes in Mexico. In the United States at that time, anything that had any spiciness or any heat to it was called Mexican. So, instead of using jalapenos to make salsa or the ancho to make chile relleno or guajillo to make red sauce, we now had one chile pepper that did it all. So we like to say that he was the father of the Mexican food industry in the United States.”
On chile flavors
“There’s a unique flavor to the New Mexico green chile. We’ve been trying to educate people that chiles have subtle flavor differences. Here I like to use the analogy with wine. When you first drink wine, you notice alcohol. When you first eat a chile pepper, you notice heat. After a while, a person can taste the difference between red and white wine and then they can tell the difference between a merlot or zinfandel. And same thing with chile peppers, you can begin to taste these flavor differences and green chile, New Mexico green chile, has a very unique flavor.”
On reviving the original green chile
“We asked the national seed storage lab in Colorado if they wouldn’t mind going into their repository and pulling them out of liquid nitrogen and we said we would grow them and send them back a seed sample of pure seed increase to put back under liquid nitrogen, so we went back to the original seeds and that’s how we got it.”