If you’ve ever sat and admired a perfect restaurant relleno before digging in, or sent up a quiet “thank-you” when you found some New Mexico certified green chile on the shelf in a coastal grocery store, you probably know how important the Mexican food industry is to American consumers. In fact, Mexican cuisine is second only to Italian in its familiarity and frequency of eating, according to research from the National Restaurant Association.
But you might not realize that the spicy staple of the most popular northern Mexican dishes – the chile pepper – owes much of its widespread popularity to the early work of one of New Mexico State University’s pioneering researchers, horticulturist Fabian Garcia.
“Really, Fabian Garcia is the father of the Mexican food industry in the United States as we know it,” said Paul Bosland, director of NMSU’s award-winning Chile Pepper Institute and a Regents Professor of horticulture. “Until his early research, chile peppers were a regional kitchen garden plant. His creation of the New Mexican pod type changed the food landscape of the United States forever.”
Born in Mexico in 1871, Garcia attended New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts, which would later become NMSU, and was a member of the university’s first graduating class in 1894. A horticulturist with an interest in many crops, including onions, pecans, fruit trees and others, Garcia began a series of groundbreaking experiments to develop more standardized chile pepper varieties around 1894.
“He looked around the Mesilla Valley and saw that the only people eating chiles were Hispanics, who were growing very spicy peppers in their gardens,” Bosland said. “He saw the potential for this crop, and set out to develop a pepper pod that was milder in heat profile to attract non-Hispanic consumers, as well as more uniform in size and shape and better-yielding, to allow for cost-effective processing.”
Garcia improved the native chile pepper through hybridization and selection, Bosland said. He selected 14 chile accessions growing in the Las Cruces area from three types: pasilla, colorado and negro chiles. After nine years, only one line – “New Mexico No. 9” – remained, and Garcia said it had proven to be the best. He said although it was “not quite as hot as most of the unimproved varieties, it seems to be hot enough.”
Now, instead of needing jalapenos, pasilla, ancho, mulato, de arbol, mirasol and dozens of other true Mexican pod types to make different Mexican dishes, Garcia’s “New Mexico No. 9” pod, released in the early 1900s, provided one pod type that served all those needs, from salsa and sauces to rellenos and other dishes, with a dependable pod size and heat level. All New Mexican-type chile peppers grown today, including popular varieties like the “NuMex Big Jim” cultivar, come from the genetic base of Garcia’s “New Mexico No. 9.”
The uniformity and versatility of this pod allowed commercial chile processors, both for canned green chiles and dried red chiles, to scale up their production, continuing to expand the chile pepper’s reach and popularity.
Among his many significant research contributions, Garcia also developed a raised-bed growing method for chile peppers still in use today to reduce disease and control “chile wilt” root rot.
Garcia’s legacy of research at NMSU continues today, including at the 45-acre horticultural farm named for him. Bosland said the focus of research at NMSU has changed over the years, reaching back to those heritage seeds to develop new lines with better flavors, diverse heat profiles and even colorful ornamental characteristics.
“Our NuMex lines concentrate on good-tasting chile,” Bosland said. “The industry has become much more compartmentalized and specialized.”
He said the Chile Pepper Institute, which was founded in 1992 at NMSU as a resource for education and research related to chile peppers, works closely with growers and processors around the state to develop new cultivars that meet their specific needs, like thicker walls or a milder flavor that can be used to blend down spicier pepper varieties without changing the flavor.
A founder of the American Society for Horticultural Sciences, the first American horticultural researcher to publish research literature in Spanish and English, the first Hispanic to lead a land-grant agricultural research station, and an advocate for Mexican-American students at the university, Garcia was a true pioneer in many areas, Bosland said, although he probably didn’t have a sense at the time of how impactful his chile research would become.
“He was working on so many things,” Bosland said. “When you look at his writings, you see that chile was no more important than other crops.”
While pecans, onions and other crops may make up a larger portion of the state’s agricultural economy, the chile pepper is so integral to New Mexico culture that it was adopted as the official state vegetable in 1965. And thanks to Garcia’s pioneering breeding work, NMSU claims the longest continuous program of chile pepper breeding in the world.
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