New Mexico’s famous chiles are not only a huge part of state culture and its economy, but they are renowned around the globe.
Even the official state question in New Mexico is about one’s choice of chile sauce at most any meal…”Red or Green?”
No one is more proud of those achievements than the folks at the Chile Pepper Institute in Las Cruces.
They love to tell anyone about one of New Mexico’s two official state vegetables. (The other is frijoles…pinto beans).
“Our mission is to educate people about the wonder of chiles,” said institute director Paul Bosland.
2017 is the 25th anniversary of the institute, housed on the campus of New Mexico State University.
That’s where Bosland also serves as professor and the top chile horticulturist.
He has big shoes to fill.
Bosland says more than a century ago, the very first horticulturist at NMSU, Fabian Garcia, was responsible for the establishment of today’s world-famous New Mexico chile industry.
“At that time, only Hispanics ate them, they were only in the back yard,” said Bosland.
Bosland said Garcia knew the small garden chiles widely varied in heat, flavor and plant structure, but he saw them as a possible new cash crop for rural farmers.
He knew the market would also have to be expanded. More people needed to be enticed into eating chile.
“He (Garcia) said I wonder if I made them milder, more uniform, I could get non-Hispanics to eat chile peppers.”
After a decade of hybridizing more than a dozen types of chiles, in 1913 Garcia created the first variety that could be commercially grown on a large scale. ‘New Mexico Number 9’ was released to farmers in the southern part of the state.
The industry blossomed and over the decades that followed, chile became not only a state cultural icon, but also generated thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenue.
“It became the basis for all the Mexican food in the United States,” said Bosland.
“So, Fabian Garcia is really the father of the Mexican food industry in the United States.”
Bosland said New Mexico chile, like all chile on earth, has its origins millennia ago in South America.
“When humans immigrated to the Western Hemisphere about 25,000 years ago, they came in contact with wild chili pepper plants,” he said.
Many researchers say the earliest chile cultivation appears to have taken place in the Amazon basin about 11,000 years ago.
“As the civilizations begin to to be formed in the Western Hemisphere people begin to grow it, and domesticate it, and select for different shapes, colors and flavors,” said Bosland.
“When Columbus arrives in 1492 the Aztecs, the Incas, the Mayans have already Incorporated chile’s into their cuisine and they have different chile’s for different uses just like we do today. So, that is a very sophisticated relationship with chili peppers.”
While cultivation in Old Mexico began about 9,000 years ago, Bosland says no one knows for sure when the first chile was cultivated in what is now New Mexico.
Although there is no physical evidence yet, he suspects ancient pueblo peoples may have nurtured some chile plants, perhaps for mostly medicinal purposes, amongst their corn and squash.
The first documented chile cultivation in New Mexico occurred with the arrival of Spanish settlers moving north from Mexico in the late 1500’s.
Chile remained a small scale, mostly family garden crop in New Mexico for three centuries, until the work of NMSU’s Fabian Garcia in the early 1900’s.
Today, NMSU researchers continue to develop new varieties.
“No chile variety is good forever,” said Bosland.
“We continue to have the disease issues. Organic farming is becoming more popular, so we are trying to get varieties that do well under organics,” he added.
The Chile Pepper Institute continues to foster the fame and dispersion of New Mexico chile by promoting the spicy plant and selling New Mexico chile seed and products to enthusiasts around the world.