Red or Green? The Chile Pepper and the Makings of New Mexico
New Mexican food is one of this year’s featured cuisines at the Folklife Festival. If there’s one thing to know about New Mexican cuisine, it’s that locally grown chile peppers feature proudly and prominently. The story of the chile pepper and its defining role in New Mexico’s cuisine, culture, and economy reveals tales of ingenuity, migration, and the makings of place.
The Birds and the Berries
From a botanical perspective, the versatility and geographic spread of the chile pepper is impressive. With their enclosed seeds, they are classified as fruits, not vegetables. According to the Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University, the chile pepper originated in present-day Bolivia nearly 17 million years ago as berries. While mammals can taste capsaicin, the compound responsible for the burning spiciness of chile peppers, birds lack to the receptors to do so. So while small mammals kept away, birds spread chiles across the forests of Latin America.
Humans began domesticating chile peppers at least 6,100 years ago. Mesoamerica, which includes present-day Mexico, flourished as an agricultural center of chile peppers, among other crops like corn, squash, beans, tomatoes, avocado, and chocolate. The word chile comes from the Aztec word chil, which means pepper.
Chile peppers are highly adaptive. There are five main domesticated chile pepper species in the world with over 10,000 varieties. They can be found growing in every continent except Antarctica. While they currently exist in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors and can be mild and sweet to pungent and spicy, the environment and conditions in which they are grown shape their character. Generally speaking, hotter places like New Mexico, Thailand, and the Caribbean produce spicier peppers, while colder and more temperate places produce milder peppers.
New Mexico, which produced nearly 80,000 tons of chiles and brought in over $50 million dollars in 2016, has its very own chile. It’s simply called the New Mexico chile (or New Mexican pod type) and was domesticated and crafted by the Land of Enchantment’s heat and soil. It’s erroneously marketed as the Hatch pepper, even though there is no such pepper. Hatch, New Mexico, however, is the state’s main pepper-growing region, driven by a population of migrant farm workers. If you’ve ever had a chile relleno, that is the New Mexico chile.
Red, Green, or Christmas?
This year’s Festival food menu features both red and green chile sauces. This is fitting, as New Mexico’s official state question is “Red or green?” There is a friendly geopolitical divide between the sauces: green is associated with southern New Mexico, red with northern. A possible diplomatic answer is “Christmas,” which is a colorful mix of the two.
Red and green chiles can come from a single plant—red chile peppers are more ripe than the green. From a taste standpoint, some chile peppers are grown for their flavor as green peppers, while others are grown to be fully ripe and red. Huy Fong-brand Sriracha, the Thai hot sauce created by a Vietnamese refugee of Chinese descent living in Southern California and named after the Taiwanese fishing boat that rescued him and others at sea, is made from ripe red jalapeños.
The Makings of Home
The entire history of food can be summed up by the word “migration”: by birds that carried seeds to humans on the move, by force or choice, who brought with them their homeland’s food to large-scale economies built around producing and moving food across borders.
The smell of chile peppers is visceral and conjures up memories of home for Daniel Balkie, a New Mexico native now living in Washington, D.C. “I’m getting nostalgic,” he says. “I remember very well as a kid, my dad coming home from his job at the chile plant. His whole shirt, boots, truck, smelled like chile.”
He recalls the air smelling like chile peppers, especially during harvest season when local grocery stores would roast hundreds of pounds of chile peppers. Since moving to D.C., he laments, “I’m having chile pepper withdrawals. I miss it so much. New Mexicans joke about this, but you have to have your source.” For some, this “source” is other New Mexico expats who congregate in parking lots to host their own chile roastings, just like at home.
For fellow New Mexico-New Jersey transplant Emily Bosland, whose father, Dr. Paul Bosland, is the founder and director of the Chile Pepper Institute, her source comes from the institute’s shop and friends who know her love for green chiles.
“People like me—we take the food with us, wherever we are,” she says. “The chile pepper is a piece of home that we’re trying to recreate.”
In this sense, chile peppers, alongside birds and humans, have been on the move, across continents and generations, finding new places to call home.
Born in Vietnam and raised in California, ThienVinh Nguyen currently divides her time between Washington, D.C., and London, where she is pursuing a PhD in geography at University College London. She grew up with chile pepper plants in her backyard and eats hot sauce every day.
Illustrations by Dayanita Ramesh, who was born in India and raised in sunny Southern California. She currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her partner and their twenty-seven indoor plants. She is no stranger to the green chili. Both Nguyen and Ramesh have served as On the Move program youth advisors.
Chile Peppers 101. The Chile Pepper Institute, 2016.
Perry, Linda, et al. “Starch Fossils and the Domestication and Dispersal of Chili Peppers (Capsicum spp. L.) in the Americas.” Science, Vol. 315, Issue 5814, 16 Feb 2007.
DeWitt, Dave and Paul W. Bosland. The Complete Chile Pepper Book: A Gardener's Guide to Choosing, Growing, Preserving, and Cooking. Portland: Timber Press, 2009.
2016 State Agriculture Overview: New Mexico. USDA - National Agricultural Statistics Service, 2016.
“What Is a Hatch Chile Pepper?” Then and Now. The Chile Pepper Institute, 2016.
Edge, John. “A Chili Sauce to Crow About.” The New York Times, 19 May 2009.