There is a science to the fiery fruit at the core of New Mexico’s green chile cheeseburger.
In the May/June Best of the West issue, C&I’s editors and contributors share their selection for a western bucket list. My piece was on The Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail, a network of restaurants, truck stops, drive-ins, and other eateries serving New Mexico’s iconic dish. I wrote about how integral the New Mexico green chile is to the state’s identity and highlighted several businesses and burgers along the imaginary roadways, including what is widely considered the birthplace of the green chile cheeseburger, the Owl Bar & Cafe in San Antonio. The restaurant’s version was born in 1948 when it was served to scientists working in labs at White Sands.
That’s not the green chile’s only link to white coats. The New Mexico green chile as we know it was born in a laboratory.
Chiles were first brought to New Mexico by Spanish expeditions in the 17th century, but it wasn’t until 1888 that the lauded New Mexico chile pod was developed by horticulturalist Fabian Garcia at Las Cruces College and the New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts (now New Mexico State University). That first cultivar, designated New Mexico No. 9 and released in 1913, has since been joined by several other cultivars that go by such names as NuMex Big Jim, Sandia, NuMex Conquistador, and NuMex Sunrise, ranging in intensity from 1,500 units (NuMex Heritage 6-4) to 15,000 units (Barker’s Hot) on the Scoville scale.
Although the New Mexico chile industry grew steadily after Garcia’s standardization, it wasn’t until the 1970s that New Mexico green chiles became big business for the Land of Enchantment, says Paul Bosland, cofounder and director of the Chile Pepper Institute. “Increased consumption of what the U.S. called Mexican food in this country led to a boon for the industry,” Bosland says. “Mexico has hundreds of different types of chiles. We had one, the New Mexico chile, that became the foundation of that cuisine.” From there, New Mexico chile popularity exploded. This is especially true of the chile varieties grown in and around Hatch. (This year’s Hatch Chile Festival will be held September 3 – 4.)
That kind of culinary tourism has made the green chile a hot commodity not only in New Mexico but also across the nation. “The more people visit New Mexico, the more people have firsthand experience with the extraordinary food,” says longtime New Mexico resident and James Beard Award-winning food writer Cheryl Alters Jamison. They become transfixed and want more. They can get it at grocers like Kroger, which hosts roasting events from Charleston, West Virginia, to Savannah, Georgia. In jalapeño-loving Texas, Central Market stores hold the Hatch Chile Fest in late summer, when the aroma of around 200,000 pounds of green chiles wafts across parking lots, mesmerizing customers from their cars to the roasters. Municipal farmers markets across the American Southwest get in on the spirited action, too. I have personally waited more than an hour in line to order a 10-pound bag of chiles roasted on the spot. And it was worth it. My extended family and I split the bag and froze our takes for use in everything from salsas to eggs and, of course, burgers.
To get a better sense of why the chile is so hot, let’s take a look at some of the facts and figures behind its popularity and influence — what I call the chile scoop.
- While New Mexico green chiles get the bulk of the press, red chiles are as popular in the Land of Enchantment. So much so that the New Mexico’s official state question is “Red or green?”, referring to the chile ordered with a food. But there isn’t a reason to decide when one can order a dish “Christmas-style,” with half green chile sauce and half red chile sauce.
- Of the 9,150 acres dedicated to planted chiles in 2010, 95 percent — or 8,700 acres — were harvested, weighing in at 66,600 tons, according to the New Mexico Department of Agriculture.
- Twelve restaurants from across the state compete in the annual Governor’s Green Chile Cheeseburger Challenge at the New Mexico State Fair. The winner earns a place on The Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail, a map showing where to find the greatest burgers across the Land of Enchantment.
- The Anaheim chile is a California-grown clone of the first New Mexico chile, the No. 9. Its seeds were taken from New Mexico to Southern California in 1894 by Emilio Ortega, founder of Americanized Mexican food company Ortega.
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