It’s hard to imagine New Mexico without its peppers, which in the region retain the Spanish spelling of chile. The long pods, whether green or red, are a tasty part of local life, where they’re essential ingredients, an artistic motif, and a $500 million annual industry. If farmers or pepper-lovers in the state (and beyond) have any questions about their colorful crop, there’s only one place to go: the Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University, the only research institution in the world solely dedicated to chiles.
It’s been around for a while. Last year, the Chile Pepper Institute celebrated its 25th anniversary. Consisting of a visitor’s center, a shop for chile seeds and products, and a teaching garden bursting with offbeat pepper varieties, the Institute features the work of the 25 NMSU faculty who research and develop new chile varieties. It’s work that goes back to New Mexico State University’s earliest days, says Dr. Paul Bosland, a plant breeder and founder of the Institute. In fact, the center’s roots go back to the school’s first horticulturist, whose influence on spicy, pepper-bearing foods and products was seminal. “There was no New Mexican chile pepper prior to Fabian Garcia,” Bosland says.
Bosland considers Fabian Garcia the father of Mexican-American food for his work with chiles. But the man’s own background was humble. Born in Chihuahua, Mexico, in 1871, he was orphaned soon afterwards. His grandmother took young Garcia across the border, where they settled in New Mexico. When his grandmother became housekeeper to an orchardist, Garcia started his horticultural education. After graduating in the first class of what is today’s New Mexico State University, he became the institution’s first horticulturist, responsible for developing crops for New Mexican farmers.
His influence was wide reaching, Bosland says, and forms the basis of NMSU’s current chile dominance. Seeing the rich but small-scale local chile culture, he embarked on a mission of “chile improvement” to spread the vegetable across the county. He wanted a more uniform, shippable pepper. According to Bosland, Garcia also strove to make New Mexican peppers less spicy for non-Hispanic tastes. His New Mexico No.9 pepper, which he released in 1921, laid the foundation for the canned chile and hot sauce industry, while making delectable dishes such as chiles rellenos widely available. Yet Garcia worked with everything from fruit trees to pecans, and even introduced sweet onions, the basis for today’s Vidalia variety, to America from Spain.
Bosland is his thrice-removed successor. He’s the university’s fourth designated pepper breeder, and he founded the Institute 25 years ago, in part to carry on NMSU’s long chile history. Another goal was to sell NMSU’s chile seeds and products, which, in the days before the internet, required a physical storefront. Starting the Institute wasn’t easy. Originally, it operated out of a closet, Bosland recalls. There weren’t a lot of models, either. “We looked at the Apple Institute in Washington, which promoted apples, and the Tobacco Institute, which in those days promoted safe smoking,” he says with a chortle. Neither was the right model for what Bosland wanted: to become “the center of the universe for chile pepper answers” while supporting the state’s spicy industry.
Click here to read the full article at Atlas Obscura.
Photo credit: Chile Pepper Institute