No, it’s not wet leaves or pumpkin spice. It’s chile peppers.
For many residents of Western states, when it is first detected in the air each August or September, the scent that signifies the true start of the fall season is the distinct blend of vegetal spiciness and smoky sweetness that only comes from roasted chile peppers. Whether Hatch or Pueblo, the smell is always a welcome sign of autumn.
But to whom do we owe our gratitude, those of us who line up eagerly for a steaming hot bag of blistered and blackened vegetables—well, technically fruits? Certainly the person turning the roaster over the flaming row of propane jets, if it’s one of the manually operated machines. And, of course, the field workers, farmers, and everyone else in the supply line whose efforts ensure such delicious foods remain available this year.
2020 has brought increased attention to the tremendous networks and collaboration necessary for putting food on grocery shelves and ultimately kitchen tables, but one person’s historic contributions to the prevalence of chile peppers in our cuisine are not as widely known as they deserve to be.
Have you ever heard of Fabián García (1872 – 1948), whose 1921 hybrid became the foundation for the modern chile pepper industry in the American West? With the help of one CU Denver professor, soon you can learn more about the man who made Hatch happen.
History Professor’s Hope
Peter Kopp, PhD, is a CU Denver history professor using his at-home time to write a book on the remarkable life and legacy of Fabián García.
Said Kopp, “I found out about García because I have a deep interest in plants, agriculture, and food, and slowly did some research over the years. The more I learned, the more I couldn’t believe that his biography hadn’t been written.”
But, with the award of a National Endowment for the Humanities faculty grant, Kopp’s research should rectify that.
“I see this as an important project as an American historian, but I also see this an homage to the people and culture of New Mexico and the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. It’s my hope to write García into history as the Southwest’s most celebrated agricultural scientist, much like George Washington Carver is celebrated for his contributions to the South.”
Fabián García—Immigrant, Horticulturalist, American Innovator
Fabián García was born in Chihuahua, Mexico in 1871, a transformational time in which the United States and Mexico each struggled to rebuild as unified republics after years of respective civil wars. Orphaned at age 2, he moved with his grandmother to the United States and resettled in an agricultural village along the Rio Grande corridor in the Territory of New Mexico. There, García gained practical experience working with orchard crops that could thrive in the desert environment.
Such resilience despite challenging conditions would prove to be a vital trait both for the region’s plants and its people.
Politics and Prejudice
For García and many other Hispanic residents of the territory, it was an era of intense racism. Per Kopp, “After the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the Mexican-American War in 1848, many white Americans continued to debate for decades if the Hispanic majorities living in the Southwest territories were ‘civilized’ enough to become American. Indeed, for this reason, Congress denied New Mexico statehood until 1912.”
With the opportunity of formal education, García became part of the first graduating class of what was then known as “New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts” (now New Mexico State University). He went on to conduct graduate studies at Cornell and later returned to become a professor at his alma mater. When he became the director of the university’s agricultural experiment station in 1913, he was the first Hispanic person in the U.S. to lead a land-grant agricultural research station. But, “he was the sole professor of color for much of his career, and he was often denied service in restaurants and hotels,” Kopp notes.
Yet today, restaurants around the world offer dishes with García’s most famous creation as the star ingredient.
New Mexico No. 9, the Chile Hybrid that Became Hatch
Before García began his agricultural research, growers had no way to predict or control the size or heat of their chile pods. García also saw an opportunity to develop a chile that would be easier to peel after roasting and to can. He predicted, too, that a milder chile pepper would appeal more to non-Hispanic whites, thus increasing consumption and helping bring prosperity to the 47th state, still proving its worth to the nation.
To accomplish his goal of a more perfect pepper, García needed the best chile plants to hybridize over and over again, eliminating any cultivars that lacked the desirable characteristics. As Kopp describes, “His Mexican heritage and familiarity with Hispanic culture allowed him to interact with farmers on both sides of the border. The farmers in turn helped García … They brought him specimens to cross-breed and offered land for testing.”
In 1921, after nine years of painstaking tests in the desert soil, only one subject, “New Mexico No. 9,” remained. And from that single cultivar all New Mexican-type chile peppers, most notably Hatch, are descended.
Hatch or Pueblo?
For Denverites, it might be seen as a minor act of intrastate treason to side against Pueblo in the escalating battle between Colorado’s and New Mexico’s most famous chile peppers. To the historically minded, however, the choice is clear.
Describing Hatch chile’s path to global preeminence, Kopp notes, “By the 1960s there was already a huge marketing campaign that has only intensified over the years, and now you can find Hatch chile anywhere in the world. In contrast, Pueblo chile is a commercial variety developed and released for the public only in the 1990s.”
“Many people claim that Hatch chile is spicier, but this largely has to do with the volume and intensity of sunshine a plant received—and it’s simply hotter in New Mexico. The hotter the climate, the hotter the chile.” As a warning to enthusiasts of more mild peppers, Kopp adds, “As the world warms, both New Mexico and Colorado will produce hotter chiles.”
When asked his own preference, Kopp chose to remain neutral. “Personally, I think they’re both great.”
Fabián García’s Legacy
On García’s later life, Kopp concludes, “García’s deep knowledge of the Chihuahuan Desert and Rio Grande corridor allowed him to understand similar environments and climates from Texas to Baja California, where he helped to modernize agricultural practices. Eventually, García went on to become a global expert of desert farming and traveled Latin America and Europe acting as an ambassador of this knowledge.”
But García’s enormous contributions to agriculture and his commitment to mentoring students from both sides of the border cannot adequately be summarized in one article. His overlooked legacy is one of caring and generosity, with compassion for his fellow immigrants and respect for the hard-won wisdom of the Southwest’s ordinary farmers and laborers. His life’s work merits much greater recognition, and, through his own research, Kopp is still working to bring García the respect he deserves.
“Ultimately, my hope is that in a time of fear, anxiety, and growing intolerance, this book on García’s research—his efforts that shaped the history of agriculture, food, and education—will offer powerful insights into the benefits of tolerance.”
Pepper and a Century of Progress
Whether fried as a relleno, spread on a burger, or baked in a bagel, the popularity of Hatch chile serves as a tangible reminder of changing tastes and the ever-present process of cultural exchange in American society. It’s a remarkable symbol of the delicious fruits—literal and figurative—that spring from communities who willingly embrace their differences to create something better for everyone.
As history teaches us time and time again, cooperation toward such common goals is what enables Americans to persist even amid the most difficult circumstances. Perhaps in time for the 100th anniversary of García’s most influential chile pepper the benefits of such tolerance will be more widely understood, and García’s name and legacy will be more familiar to us all.
(Like the start of fall, one day you simply notice a welcome change in the air.)
To learn more about Fabián García, look for Professor Kopp’s biography, Fabián García: Father of the New Mexico Chile Pepper, coming from the University of California Press. This post will be updated once preorders become available.