Las Cruces: Schooled on Chile Peppers

Chile peppers decorate Girasol gift shop in Mesilla, N.M.; photos by Nicole Pensiero

It took only one meal in Las Cruces, New Mexico, for me to realize the local cuisine is all about the chile pepper. Despite my mild-mannered palate, I vowed to eat like a local and sample the many variations of chile peppers.  Good thing, too, as these colorful veggies work their way into meals morning, noon and night.

I enjoyed countless chile-laden treats in New Mexico’s second-biggest city, from the four-alarm green chile at the famous Nellie’s Café to cheese-stuffed hatch green chiles at De La Vega’s Pecan Grill & Brewery to a chile-laced macaroni and cheese at the elegant Double Eagle restaurant in neighboring Mesilla.

Eager to learn more about one of the state’s official vegetables, I headed to the New Mexico State University’s Chile Pepper Institute. From its creation of the world’s hottest chile pepper (called Bhut Jolokia) to the development of a chile pepper wheel –– used much like a flavor and aroma wheel designed for wine –– the Chile Pepper Institute is the authority on all things capsicum.

Now in its 20th year, CPI is where more varieties of peppers have been grown, researched, and developed than anywhere else in the world. In addition to breeding all kinds of new varieties, the Institute strives to be the authoritative source on all matters relating to the chile pepper. To that end, CPI also houses a library with more than 600 volumes, displays on current research, chile art, seeds, cookbooks and fun, chile-related gifts, like the aforementioned chile pepper wheel.

The CPI also maintains a teaching and demonstration garden with over 150 different varieties of chile peppers, as well as information on the different diseases, disorders, pests, and problems encountered by growers. The garden has a colorful array of peppers on display, from the mildest bell to the hottest habanero, all with clever names that tie in with their color, a season or whatever else the researcher think might make them memorable.

With the assistance of a college researcher, I was able to get several burning –– pun intended –– questions answered. I learned, for instance, that taking a big gulp of water is not the correct way stop the “burn” from a too-hot chile. Rather, one needs to drink milk or eat a dairy product.

And the “heat” found in chile peppers does serve a purpose beyond adding some spice to our lives. Chile peppers evolved into heat-generating vegetables to protect themselves from being eaten by mammals. (Interestingly, birds cannot feel the heat from chiles and pass the seeds intact through their digestive systems.)

I also discovered why there are so many strings of dried red chiles hanging from doorways all over Las Cruces. These “ristas” are meant to bring good luck.

I hope the same holds true for the string of spicy peppers I consumed during my visit.