The History of Green Chile
As all fans of New Mexican cuisine know, the green chile is an indispensable ingredient. But did you know that green chile has a fascinating past? The pepper that we eat today had to jump through a lot of hoops on it’s way to your plate. The legacy of the green chile pepper is part history lesson (I’ll keep it short) and part human ingenuity. There’s a healthy dose of luck in the mix too!
What exactly makes the Green Chile so special? Let’s do a little exploring.
A Pepper by any Other Name
New Mexico Green Chile is a spicy member of genus Capsicum which is part of the nightshade family of flowering plants. It is related to the tomato and the potato and oddly goes well with both (finally a family that gets along).
Cool Fact: Most people think that green and red chiles are different types of peppers. They are in fact a fruit of the same plant; they are simply picked at different times. The red chile is the ripened version of the green chile. Tea shares the same confusion: green, white, black, they are all from the same plant.
To Hatch a Green Chile
New Mexico is synonymous with Green Chile. The chile industry is a large contributor to the state’s economy. It is likely that if you have consumed a green chile, it may very well have been grown in New Mexico. In 2012, New Mexico harvested more acres of chile than any other state in the U.S. New Mexico is the Chile Capital of the World, but how did they end up with that honor?
That my friend, is a nifty story.
As with so many tales of discovery it all starts with a man on a ship. You may have heard of him; his name was Christopher Columbus. While he was out sailing, Columbus happened to come across a string of islands that we refer to as the Caribbean, he called them the West Indies, but he was lost at the time, so we renamed them as a courtesy.
While exploring the island chain, he was introduced (perhaps as a prank by the natives) to the fruit of the chile plant. We envision an unsuspecting Columbus fanning his mouth, while desperately seeking water. Being European, Columbus would have never encountered such a peculiar fruit nor been prepared for it's flamethrower-in-your-mouth quality. Columbus called them red peppers as their spicy punch was reminiscent of the black and white pepper (corns) from India and because the pods were red. It took some time before they were finally accepted as a food item.
From the Caribbean, the chile plant made its way back to Spain via the ships doctor who wrote briefly about its possible medicinal uses. The plant then slipped in to obscurity and was cultivated as a curiosity by Spanish monks. The monks eventually discovered that when dried and pulverized chile peppers made an excellent substitute for peppercorns. That may sound like a no brainer from our modern perspective, but at the time no one had any idea what to do with these spicy little beasts. Replacing peppercorns proved to be invaluable to Europe. Peppercorns were so expensive by this point and were so valuable that some localities used peppercorns as money.
Once the Chile was cultivated in Spain it quickly spread through Europe and across the globe. Around 1598 the chile pepper plant ended up in the hands of Don Juan de Onate as he was dispatched to colonize the northern border of New Spain. The green chile was on its way to becoming a star. I don’t know if I would say this because green chile had not even been developed yet?
Over the next three hundred years, chile peppers fall of the radar almost entirely. They did manage to work themselves into the foundation of the regions agriculture, but they were not a sensation just yet.
Cool Fact: Chile plants are not native to the southwestern United States. The plants require massive amounts of water, something not readily available in most of New Mexico. Despite this, the pepper thrived due to its versatile and unique uses as a food, spice and medicine.
Chiles (Chile Colorado, at the time) popped up on the radar briefly in 1863 when the U.S congress apportions $50,000 to build quality roads for the express purpose of bringing the Colorado chile to market. This is where the story gets really interesting. Up until now we have been talking about green chile, but it is not the pepper we know and love yet. The Colorado chile was unevenly hot, unreliable, and prone to disease. It would take half a century to diversify and perfect the peppers. And it would require a doctor with a serious thing for chiles.
The Chile Goes to School
I bet you didn’t know that green chile was smart enough to complete almost fifty years of study at New Mexico State University. They had some help from a horticulturist named Fabian Garcia. In 1907 Dr. Garcia selected 14 strains from three varieties of pepper (the Colorado, the negro, and the pasilla) and set up test plots to begin the search for a smoother, meatier, tastier, and milder pepper, that would resist the wilting disease the plagued the unrefined breeds.
Cool Fact: This process is called hybridization. The plants that do the best are crossed and hopefully you end up with a sturdier offspring in the next generation.
Unfortunately, Garcia’s search did not go as planned. In 1912, wilt claimed 95% of the plants. After ten years of trial and error a pepper known colloquially as College #9 bubbled to the top. It was crowned the winner of the race and requests from all over New Mexico poured in.
Once the College #9 pepper was being grown on a large scale, it was discovered that further selections could be made. Several new strains of chile came out of the research and planning, but none would be more popular than the Rio Grande, named for the river that supplied its irrigation. This chile thrived, and was adopted by farmers around the town of Hatch, New Mexico.
Finally, the mother of all Chiles had been born!
After all these ups and downs the green chile finally hits clear sailing (Columbus would be proud) The pepper eventually gained a massive, almost cult following. New Mexico adopted its chile image and gradually became the place to get the best chiles in the world. The town of Hatch hosts an annual Chile festival, which attracts nearly 30,000 visitors annually and is a gathering of true chile fanatics. The chile pepper remains one of the cornerstones of the New Mexico economy to this day.
Cool Fact: New Mexico’s State Question is “Red or Green?”, This refers to how you like to eat your chile of course!
Green Chile Today
Unfortunately, U.S. producers are facing heavy pressure from foreign competitors. Planted acreage of chiles has been declining steadily in New Mexico and even Hatch’s reputation is being eaten away by other states trying to capitalize on the name recognition.
The industry in New Mexico is in steep decline, due to stiff competition from other states and countries.
In New Mexico 34,500 Acres were harvested in 1992, only 9,600 were harvested in 2012
Foreign companies are taking advantage of their reduced regulation and cheap, plentiful labor to drive prices down. This is a problem for all U.S growers.
Imports account for about 82% of chile consumed in the U.S. China and India lead the list of those that have entered the market in the last 10 years.
Sometimes chile is sold labeled as “Hatch Green Chile” or “New Mexico Grown” when it comes from outside NM or even the U.S. Recently state legislation was passed to enforce the branding of New Mexico Chile. The new law makes it illegal for companies to label green chile as “New Mexico Green Chile” if it was grown outside of the state.
*Stats Excerpted from The New Mexico Chile Association.
Why is Green Chile so Good?
Chile peppers are an amazing source of vitamin A, B, and C. They are high in fiber, phytonutrients and even the Capsaicin, the chemical that puts the hoot in your holler, is good for you. Capsaicin is being researched for its preventive effects on cancer at several major universities. If you’re not eating one right now, you may want to go get one!
These peppers also pack a punch for your metabolism. Capsaicin has an effect that is similar to green tea (ECCG) and caffeine and has been shown to stimulate weight loss when eaten as part of a healthy diet. Seriously, you should just eat peppers all the time!
Cool Fact: Capsaicin is a safe and effective topical analgesic agent and is used in the treatment of arthritis, shingles (herpes zoster), nerve damage, and even migraines. Oh, it is also used in pepper spray, so don’t rub your eyes with peppers. The chile’s delicious reputation offers it a longevity and love that most other “good for you” foods would kill for.
Green chiles are known for being easy to cook with too. If you have a knife and a pan, you can whip up great authentic green chile dishes. New Mexico is known for it’s green chile enchiladas, rellenos, chile con carne, green chile cheeseburgers and other authentic dishes. Also foodies have begun to use green chile in creative new dishes. We like to think green chile goes well with anything!
The New Mexico Green Chile isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. So fire up the stove and make a delicious meal!