The “hook” on chile…

“It ain’t worth the cook if it ain’t got that hook!– doo wah, doo wah, doo wah, doo wah
Doo wah, doo wah, doo wah, doo wah

(with apologies to Duke Ellington)

I’ve run across a couple of articles recently on work done at New Mexico State University to bring back the original strain of flavor and heat consistency of the legendary “Big Jim” variety of New Mexico-grown chile.

Originally developed by chile guru Dr. Roy Nakayama at NMSU in 1975, the variety was known for its distinctive flavor, medium heat, size and thick “meat.” Unfortunately, over the years, the variety became diluted with repeated plantings and cross-pollination and lost some of its valued characteristics — flavor being the most important.

Notice the “hook” at the bottom of this Big Jim chile

Luckily, Dr. Paul Bosland of NMSU had assumed research work on chile started by Dr. Nakayama and his efforts have been instrumental in reviving the Big Jim variety, now known as “NuMex Heritage Big Jim.”

In 1975, seeds of the original Big Jim variety were stored at the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation in Ft. Collins. Bosland was able to retrieve some of those seeds and began working at the NMSU Plant Science Research Center to re-create a variety as close as possible to the original Big Jim. By 2013, the new variety was available for commercial production. It still has all of the qualities of the original variety — size, thickness of meat, and taste. However, it is slightly hotter than the original Big Jim — not quite as hot as the Sandia variety, but enough heat to please the palates of the most discriminating chile connoisseurs.

I visited the New Mexico Chile Pepper Institute on the NMSU campus earlier this month to learn a little more about the variety and to also attempt to verify or debunk some “urban legends” about chile.

What was most interesting about Big Jim — both in the original and newer variety — is that they can easily be visually identified by a distinctive hook at the tip of the chile. Most other chile varieties have a sharp, rounded or even double pointsat the bottom of the pod.

I also asked about where in chile pods the “heat” is concentrated. Over the years, I had heard it was in the veins on the inside of the pod or in the seeds themselves. Turns out, it is mostly concentrated in the “placenta” of the chile — the whitish pithy part of the pod in the center of the top and surrounded by seeds. Because seeds are next to the placenta, heat often gets transferred to them, giving rise to the belief that the seeds were the culprit for chile heat.

I also had heard stories that chile grows hotter the long it is left in the freezer. Not so, says the Chile Pepper Institute. Barring freezer burn, chile left in the freezer has a long shelf life and its heat level will remain stable.

If you want more information on New Mexico grown chile, go to the Chile Pepper Institute’s website. There you’ll find lots of information about how each current strain was developed, a store to order chile nick nacks, salsas, books, other items and the seeds of many varieties. You can also become a member of the Institute for just $25, which I have done to stay on top of this fascinating part of New Mexico culture.

I’ll be back with more stories about chile in the future, so stay tuned. And in the meantime, when you get depressed about New Mexico being at the bottom of lists measuring us against other states, remember, we are NO. 1 IN CHILE PRODUCTION in the United States.

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