The history of chile peppers in New Mexico is as colorful and varied as the fruit themselves, peppered with imaginative stories of how the land of Enchantment established its unique chile cuisine. From its traditional dishes like enchiladas, tamales, gorditas and red chile-marinated pork carne adovada, to more recent additions like green chile cheeseburgers, there's a reason why New Mexico honors the chile as a symbol of the state.
Archaeological evidence reveals that chiles have been used domestically in the Americas for 6,000 years, originating around the South American equator. Birds are most likely responsible for bringing them north. Not only do birds lack the receptors that sense the heat of the chile, they do not digest the seeds, making them a perfect transport system for spreading chile around the world. The chile plant plays its own part, too. The heat of the fruit deters any animals but birds from eating them, and the peppers can only be dropped from the plant by birds when the fruit is ripe and the seeds are ready to propagate.
Native peoples in the Caribbean were already using chile in their cooking when Christopher Columbus arrived. The heat of the fruit remindeded Columbus of black pepper, and it was Columbus who added the appendage "pepper" to chile. Columbus was savvy enough to take the fiery fruit back with him to Spain. At the time, black peppercorns were in such high demand that some countries used them as currency.
Exactly how chiles wound up in New Mexico is disputed, but one thing is certain: the Native Pueblo people of New Mexico have a long history of growing the fruit. The state's singular style of cooking with chile evolved from melding native and Spanish populations.
The chile plants themselves are members of the nightshade family, Solanaceae. Many members of the Solanaceae family originated in the Americas, including potatoes, tomatoes and tobacco. The compound that causes the heat of chile peppers is capsaicin, made up of seven alkaloid or capsaicinoids. Three components cause the quick bite at the back of the palate. Two cause the slow burn on the tongue.
The heat of chile is measured in Scoville units, named after Wilbur Scoville, the chemist that devised the test for heat in 1912. The test involves mixtures of water and chile that are dramatically depleted until the tester no longer feels the burn. The Scoville number, given in multiples of 100, represents how many times the mix had to be diluted.
New Mexico State University at Las Cruces has long been a center of scientific studies about chile peppers. In the early 1900s, university horticulturist Dr. Fabian Garcia introduced a new chile cultivar, New Mexico No. 2. 9, that revolutionized the national Chile market. With dependable heat and uniform size, the chile for the most part replaced the traditional landrace variety.
Dr. Garcia went on to breed other popular New Mexico ch Chile varieties, including NuMex Big Jim, recorded in the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest chile ever grown, measuring in at 13.5 inches. The Chile Pepper Institute at the university features an extensive chile garden. The popular tourist attraction in Las Cruces is open to the public year round.
New Mexico leads the nation in hot chile pepper production. Twenty percent of the chiles grown in the state are sold as fresh produce. The state's chile cash crop includes red and green chile peppers and jalapenos, as well as paprika and cayenne. After processing, the annual harvest of chiles in New Mexico is worth $ 240 million.