U.S.
8:21 am
Sun July 31, 2011

Chile Pepper Capital Seeks To Preserve Roots

The heart of chile pepper country in southern New Mexico is the tiny village of Hatch, which bills itself the "Chile Capital of the World." A new state law aims to protect this food heritage by preventing foreign peppers from being labeled as New Mexico-grown.

At the heart of the "Chile Capital" is the Pepper Pot restaurant, which exclusively serves New Mexico-grown chiles. In the kitchen of the Pepper Pot, owner Melva Aguirre churns out hundreds of plates a day of chile rellenos.

"A lot of people use Spam. A lot of people don't eat meat, so they put cheese in them," she says. "When it's time for me to make it for the chile festival, I have to make up to 3,000 to use on the weekend."

Tens of thousands of hot-pepper fans converge on Hatch each fall for the annual chile pepper festival, all devotees of the smoky, rich flavor distinct to the New Mexico variety.

Aguirre grew up picking chiles, and her brother still works the harvest each year.

Chile farmers eat at her restaurant so often they unlock the doors and let themselves in for breakfast. Everything on her menu has chile.

What Makes The New Mexico Chiles Special?

Stephanie Walker is an "extension vegetable specialist" at the Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University. She's like the Encyclopedia Brown of facts on hot peppers.

Here are a few of her facts on chiles:

  • If you just bite into the tip of a very hot chile pepper and not into the placenta or vein, you won't get any heat.
  • Chile peppers and bell peppers are the exact same genus and species.
  • The heat in chile peppers is not detected by birds.
  • Chile pepper is used to feed flamingos in zoos to keep them pink.
  • Chemicals from the peppers are put in paints to put on boats to keep barnacles from attaching to the sides.

Walker's job is to study and grow chiles. She says New Mexico peppers get their special flavor from the environment here: high altitude, long seasons of heat and sunlight, hot days and chilly nights.

But chiles are also a tough crop for farmers because they're sensitive to drought and parasites, and they have to be harvested by hand. That's one reason the number of acres devoted to New Mexico's heritage crop has dropped more than 70 percent over the last two decades. It's also why Walker is supporting the new state law.

"As with other crops in other parts of the country — we all know about the Vidalia onion, we know about other crops that really have their brand identity in place. New Mexico has that, but it's never been protected the way other crops and other parts of the country have," Walker says.

Competing With Foreign Peppers

Walker sees part of her job as protecting farmers like Shane Franzoy.

Franzoy's been walking pepper fields ever since he was old enough to walk. His family has farmed in Hatch Valley for four generations. But these days, it's onions and alfalfa that are the money-makers for the farm.

The price of red chiles has dropped to the point where he's only growing them for seed. The market for the green chile, which is just a fresh version of the dried red, is a little bit better. Shane says buyers are looking to cheaper chiles from China, India or just south of border.

Franzoy says the extra expense for his chiles comes mainly from the cost of labor and the regulations necessary for growing the chile.

"We're paying $7.25 an hour, and we're competing with $7.25 per day in other countries or even less," he says.

Even though his chiles are more expensive, Franzoy can still rely on food processors like Gene Bacca at Bueno Foods.

Bacca is head of the New Mexico Chile Association. His family's company has been selling green chile salsa and roasts for decades. His morning oatmeal is the only part of the day that doesn't include a dose of chile sauce.

Since local chiles are not yet in season, the room where he processes green chile is empty. Bacca is one of many producers who have pledged to sell only New Mexico-grown peppers for his company's sauces and roasts.

"[If] you did it strictly based on economics, we would probably be sourcing it from China or India," he says, "but that is not what we feel. We feel like we want to provide a very high-quality product, and so we concentrate our efforts on New Mexico, so that is where we put all our effort into it."

State lawmakers decided not to go for a federal certification or trademark for the New Mexico chile pepper. It would have cost a lot more to enforce, but it would have allowed the state to sue in federal court when outside growers label their peppers as New Mexico-grown. It also put U.S. Customs on the lookout for foreign imposters. Products from Idaho potatoes to Florida oranges benefit from this system.

For now at least, anywhere else in the country, a leather shoe could be called a New Mexico chile.

Bacca would like for state agricultural officials to inspect and verify that his processing room isn't operating with chiles other than the ones he's promised out front.

"But I also think though that just getting it on the books really helps ... and really publicizing it helps," he says.

'What About Your Pride?'

Back at the Pepper Pot, Aguirre has a little sticker on her door from the "Keep New Mexico Green" chile campaign. She packs and freezes bushels of green chile each season just so she can say truthfully that she serves up New Mexico-grown chiles year round.

Aguirre says using other chiles might be cheaper, "but what about your pride? What about being proud of what you do? If I buy chile from Mexico or another country, I'll be just like everybody else. It's just the pride of you owning something. This is mine."

She turns back to the kitchen to finish serving the lunch crowd. At the end of the day, Aguirre will be hustling home to make her husband dinner, which undoubtedly will include chile.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.