Climate Change and Chasing Chile Peppers
On a pepper-harvesting excursion across North America, a chef and an ethnobotanist find that climate change is altering peppers and affecting the people who pick them. Host Bruce Gellerman talks with the duo, Chef Kurt Michael Friese and Professor Gary Paul Nabhan, about their book Chasing Chiles, and samples a few spicy fruits in the process. (Photo: Kim McWane Friese)
GELLERMAN: To get in the mood for our next story, let's serve up a little music.
[MUSIC: “Feeling Hot, Hot, Hot…”] Arrow “Hot, Hot, Hot (Original Mix)” from Hot Hot Hot (Edits) (red Bulet Records 1995)
GELLERMAN: That’s better! Well some like it hot - then again, sometimes it can get too hot. That’s true of climate change and peppers. The unusual pairing is the subject of the new book “Chasing Chiles: Hot Spots Along the Pepper Trail.” In it, co-authors Gary Paul Nabhan and Kurt Michael Friese go on a pepper-picking journey across our fruited plains and find a changing climate is changing peppers and the people who pick them.
Professor Gary Nabhan is an ethnobotanist. He joins us from his home in Tucson, Arizona. Kurt Michael Friese is a chef and owner of the Iowa City restaurant Devotay and he’s here in the studio.
GELLERMAN: Professor Nabhan, welcome to Living on Earth!
NABHAN: It’s great to be with you here.
GELLERMAN: And Chef Kurt, welcome!
FRIESE: Thanks, great to be here.
GELLERMAN: Now, you guys are chili heads, right?
FRIESE: Oh, absolutely.
NABHAN: I am the wild chili-eating champion of Baja, Arizona - a dubious distinction.
GELLERMAN: (Laughs). In your book, you call yourself ‘gastronauts,’ and you boarded a van, the spice ship, and you took off on quite an adventure across the continent. What were you looking for?
NABHAN: Well we were looking for the real story of climate change and how it’s affecting our food system. So we wanted to talk to the people out in the fields and in the kitchens that are already being affected by climate change and see how they’re adapting to it.
GELLERMAN: You know, when I think of global warming, hot chilies don’t immediately come to mind - what’s the connection here?
FRIESE: They make a great weather vane. They’re a great way for you to see the effects here and now, because this isn’t something that’s off in the distant future - these changes are here now.
GELLERMAN: You went to Florida and you learned about the Datil?
FRIESE: Yeah, that was one of my favorite finds on this voyage.
GELLERMAN: Why’s that?
FRIESE: It’s a fascinating pepper and it’s got a lot of culture behind it that I wasn’t aware of before we went into this whole thing. It’s pretty hot, but it’s got a wonderful citrus-y sweet edge. The people down there - the whole culture seems to be built around it. Everybody’s got a five-gallon bucket in their backyard.
GELLERMAN: What’s the connection to the Datil and climate change?
NABHAN: For one thing, there’s been astonishing introductions of weeds, pests, and diseases with an increased frequency of tropical storms so that pepper farmers there are not just dealing with winds and floods, but they’re dealing with invasive species, including some viruses that never were known from Florida before Hurricane Gilberto. So that was what surprised us - that the farmers are saying that it’s not merely the physical effects of storms that are challenging them, but the aftermath of storms.
GELLERMAN: Well I’ve got a bottle of Minorcan Datil Pepper Hot Sauce from St. Augustine, Florida, and let’s try this out - take her for a little spin, okay?
FRIESE: Sounds good.
GELLERMAN: I’m going to shake this up, okay.
[SOUNDS OF BOTTLE OF HOT SAUCE SHAKING]
GELLERMAN: We got some chips. Dip in there. Now do I have to be brave?
FRIESE: Oh, I think you could probably handle this thing - it’s not the hottest one we have here today.
[CRUNCHING ON CHIPS]
GELLERMAN: Mmmm. That’s good!
FRIESE: Just eat it first, then the heat starts coming on.
GELLERMAN: And then the kick…right in the middle of my tongue. Oh that’s good. So I got some water, I’m going to take some…
FRIESE: No, d-d-d-d-d-don’t. If the heat’s too much for you, you don’t want to gasp for water.
GELLERMAN: Oh really?
FRIESE: No, no, no. You want something dairy: milk, ice cream, maybe yogurt.
GELLERMAN: Why not water?
FRIESE: Well the capsaicin is what they call hydrophobic - that is to say, all the water will do when it gets on your palate is spread the heat around. It won’t diminish it at all. But the fats in things like milk and yogurt and ice cream and such will help diminish it rather rapidly.
GELLERMAN: And why is it that I cry when I eat them?
NABHAN: Because you’re an emotional guy, I guess.
NABHAN: But it’s also because chilies use capsaicin, this pungent principle, for their defenses against predators and herbivores. It’s something that humans weren’t evolved to deal with - in fact, very few mammals have a tolerance for capsaicinoids, these highly pungent chemicals. And so even though we are attracted to them, our bodies aren’t necessarily fully adapted to them.
GELLERMAN: You met a farmer in Florida who grows Datil and, all of a sudden, he’s got a lot of competition coming from further north.
FRIESE: And that’s a good example of the shifting climate.
GELLERMAN: It’s getting hotter further north.
FRIESE: Right. And so besides the challenges that come with the weather and the pests and the viruses and all that sort of thing, farmers have to be able to adapt to changing markets and having different competitors. I think if there’s a central theme to the story we are trying to tell in this book, it’s resilience. And that’s why it’s important to talk to the farmers - they’re on the frontlines and they know all about resilience. They’ve been doing it for 10,000 years.
GELLERMAN: One of your first stops was Sonora, Mexico, in search of their chiltepin - did I pronounce that right?
NABHAN: Chiltepin, that’s right.
NABHAN: I like to call it the ‘mother chili’ because it’s very similar to the original chili that all the rest of these 10,000 different varieties came from.
GELLERMAN: The original chili came from Mexico?
NABHAN: We think that chilies were domesticated in Puebla and Oaxaca about 5,800 years ago. That’s what linguistic evidence, archaeological evidence, and our co-author Kraig Kraft’s genetic studies demonstrate.
GELLERMAN: In the book, you call the chiltepin the most curious pepper. Curious?
NABHAN: Curious because it is tiny. It’s smaller than your little finger’s fingernail, and yet it packs a wallop and it’s one of the few wild relatives of a crop that remains in commercial trade - about 50 tons of it come into the U.S. economy every year from Mexico, and they go for about 80 dollars a pound!
FRIESE: And people haven’t been able to domesticate them yet. Much like Americans maybe familiar with the morel mushroom and the inability to domesticate that - and the same thing’s true of the chiltepin. I mean, they’ve grown some stuff that’s very similar, but not anything that anyone would say is exactly the same as a chiltepin.
GELLERMAN: So how is climate change affecting the chiltepin?
NABHAN: It’s a classic case of what Thomas Friedman calls ‘global weirding.’ One part of the range of chiltepins has suffered from tremendous drought and crop failure and even larval infestations of the few fruit that are produced. Another part has seen damaging floods - one place had two and a half times the annual rainfall in just one day and eight feet of water where the chiltepins grow.
GELLERMAN: You went to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico and you met with habanero growers. I brought in some habanero.
FRIESE: Yup, that’s a hot pepper. Now you want to be careful with that - we chopped up this habanero, but there’s still pith and such there. You want to keep the pith away because that’s the hottest part of the pepper.
GELLERMAN: The little white stuff?
FRIESE: The white stuff inside that the seeds cling to, yeah.
NABHAN: You don’t want a pith-ed off habanero.
GELLERMAN: (Laughs). Whoa, I definitely think I did! Wow! Ooh, that’s cruel. I’m going to go for the yogurt here.
FRIESE: Now that’s about as hot as the peppers get that are native to North America. But the hottest pepper in the world is roughly ten times hotter than that. It’s called the Bhut Jolokia, or Naga Jolokia - death pepper or ghost pepper - and it’s from India.
GELLERMAN: Why do we like peppers?
NABHAN: Peppers are not something that everyone likes. Some of us are supertasters that respond negatively to the pungency in peppers like we do to bitterness. But a lot of us find our taste buds and our minds stimulated by them. And, you know, it’s really the flavors that fascinate me with chilies.
FRIESE: Right, right.
NABHAN: It’s not just the pungency - there’s remarkable flavors hidden within the chili family.
GELLERMAN: Well here’s a bottle that everybody’s got in their refrigerators, and it’s Tabasco. I didn’t know this - how do you pronounce the name of that?
FRIESE: McIlhenny and Company.
GELLERMAN: Yeah, Louisiana, right?
FRIESE: That’s right. Avery Island, Lousisana.
GELLERMAN: Now this is hot.
FRIESE: It’s pretty hot. For a lot of people, it’s the upper echelon. For me, I use it like I would salt, so…(Laughs).
GELLERMAN: Oh yeah, well let me salt one of those crackers there.
FRIESE: Load it up.
FRIESE: Very familiar flavor to just about anybody. Vinegar, and heat, and salt.
NABHAN: The McIlhenny Company has a remarkably unique product that’s recognized in just about every country in the world. It’s great because it has such a distinctive flavor that reminds us that terroir is not just the pepper variety, but how it’s prepared - the fermentation of the pepper mash, mixed with local salt, and stored in barrels for over a year.
GELLERMAN: So what’s the climate connection with Tabasco?
FRIESE: I was fascinated down there hearing the stories of when Katrina, and more importantly for them, Rita hit the area. The floodwaters came within just a few feet of devastating their factory and their fields and all of it.
NABHAN: We can’t attribute Hurricane Rita to climate change. We can’t say any hurricane is the result of climate change, but for me, the interesting thing about the Tabasco story is that it’s a harbinger of what climate change will do to many coastal areas around the world if it proceeds the way that some scientists predict.
GELLERMAN: In your book, you use a word I hadn’t come across before: phenologies?
NABHAN: Phenology. That’s the observation of flowering and fruiting times of plants - both wild and cultivated, and the animals that visit them. Some of our most interesting insights about phenological change come from Henry David Thoreau. We know that since his time, in the Boston area, plants are now flowering three to five weeks earlier.
And what that does with chilies is it means that a whole different set of insects may need to pollinate them, that their ripening times may be different from when the peak availability of farm labor is, and that it may put them more in the storm pattern, where the greatest frequency of storms is occurring, than the kinds of challenges they faced previously from storms of that magnitude.
GELLERMAN: Did you guys ever meet a pepper you didn’t like?
FRIESE: That I didn’t like? No. But I don’t like it when the pepper is nothing but heat. There needs to be something else going on - otherwise, it’s just masochism.
NABHAN: I have a pepper that I don’t like, and that’s the bell pepper. It now lacks the distinguishing characteristic of the capsaicin-filled genus that we call Capsicum. It lacks the pungent principle, so I think it should be kicked out of the family!
FRIESE: I still kind of like ‘em.
NABHAN: Yeah, but you’re from Iowa.
FRIESE: I’m from Chicago.
GELLERMAN: Well my lips are numb.
GELLERMAN: Chef Friese and Professor Nabhan, thank you so very much - that was really quite tasty.
FRIESE: Happy to be here. Make it spicy!
NABHAN: Mo’ hotter, mo’ better.
[MUSIC: Feeling hot, hot hot] The Island Caribbean Steel Band “Hot Hot Hot” from Pan Drum band Island Favorites (Panman Records 2010)
GELLERMAN: Ethnobotanist Gary Paul Nabhan grows a mean chili on the
five acres around his house in Tuscon, Arizona. Kurt Michael Friese serves up local foods with worldly flair at his restaurant Devotay in Iowa City. Gastronaut Kraig Kraft was also along for the ride that resulted in the new book, “Chasing Chiles: Hot Spots along the Pepper Trail.”
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