Offbeat Adventure

All Your Favorite Chiles Came From This Institute in New Mexico

Whether you love or hate spicy food or hate it, you've got to admit that chile peppers have an undeniable mystique. With their bright colors and iconic shapes, these fruits (yes, fruits) have become a staple of not just the dinner table, but also fashion and interior design. But the chile pepper as we know wouldn't exist without the Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University.

The Seat of Spiciness

The origins of the domesticated chile pepper lie in central-east Mexico, where people first began cultivating the spicy, bulbous plant about 6,500 years ago. By the time Columbus disastrously swung through in 1492, the chile had propagated across the Americas — remnants of chiles have even been found in ancient cooking pots discovered in high in the Andes mountains. The pepper intrigued everyone it encountered, and Columbus was no exception. Whereas in Spain the chile was kept mainly as an ornamental plant, it swiftly spread to other colonial properties for its culinary value. In fact, within 30 years of Columbus' first journey, at least three different types of chile could be found growing in the Portuguese colony of Goa on India's west coast.

But it wasn't until the late 19th century that a man named Fabian Garcia decided that the true potential of the pepper had yet to be realized. A member of the very first graduating class at New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts (which would later become NMSU) in 1894, Garcia almost immediately seized on the tongue-tingling opportunity. Up until that point, chiles in North America had largely been grown only in garden plots by Latino families and were often bred to have very high levels of heat. But in Garcia's vision, chile peppers wouldn't just be a staple to those who cultivated them. They had the potential to reach a much larger audience than ever before — and to diversify in all sorts of unforeseen ways.

After more than two decades perfecting his pepper, Garcia revealed to the world the New Mexico No. 9 — a flavorful, low-heat chile whose descendants we now know as New Mexican or hatch chiles. The new chile, according to NMSU's current director Paul Bosland, made Garcia "the father of the Mexican food industry."

"Until his early research, chile peppers were a regional kitchen garden plant," Bosland said in a university news release. "His creation of the New Mexican pod type changed the food landscape of the United States forever."

The No. 9 could be shipped across the country, produced en masse, and wasn't too spicy for the unaccustomed tongue. To this day, hatch chiles are ubiquitous in New Mexico (in fact, "Red or green?" is the state question, in reference to the pepper), and pretty common outside of it, too.

The Garden of Chile Delights

Of course, that's just the story of Fabian Garcia — the Chile Pepper Institute didn't come along until several decades after his passing. Still, his fingerprints are all over the facility (which is open to tours, by the way). Like their forerunners, the horticulturalists at the Institute are dedicated to pushing the boundaries of what a chile pepper can be.

As previously mentioned, the first reaction to the plant in Spain was to use it as decoration. At one point, families were known to exchange ornamental pepper plants for Christmas, until the poinsettia took its place. Believe it or not, the CPI has embraced ornamental peppers, finally getting its revenge on that red-and-green plant: "We took all the other holidays," says Bosland. When you visit this one-of-a-kind garden, you'll find purple-and-pastel peppers to celebrate Easter, motley-colored jester peppers for April Fools, black-and-orange ones for Halloween, and a green-and-brown one for Earth Day. Breeding these peppers is often a student project, so there is almost always a new breed for visitors to spot.

But breeding decorative peppers isn't the only thing that the Chile Pepper Institute does. They're also one of the only official ways to have your own breed of pepper analyzed. In 2007, the Institute made headlines when it crowned the bhut jolokia the new spiciest pepper in the world. Today, you probably know it by its Americanized name: the ghost pepper. We're just glad there are professionals like Bosland to test those peppers' Scoville levels — we couldn't stand to eat that much sugar.

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Want to get even deeper into the topic? Pick up "The Chile Pepper Bible" by Judith Finlayson and discover the true range of this remarkable snack. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Related: Why Does Spicy Food Make Your Nose Run?

Written by Reuben Westmaas September 7, 2018