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Get it while it’s hot: ‘Pope of Peppers’ takes readers on a grand tour of the wide world of chiles

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — If you live in New Mexico, it’s easy to be proud of the chile peppers farmers grow around the state.

Dave DeWitt, author of “Chile Peppers: A Global History, Travels with the Fiery Plant that Changed the World”

That pride appears on some automotive license plates proclaiming New Mexico the “Chile Capital of the World.”

In his delicious new book, veteran Albuquerque author/food historian Dave DeWitt takes readers on journeys around the world to explore and meet the multitude of chile varieties that exist.

“It’s really a universal food,” he said.

DeWitt’s book is “Chile Peppers: A Global History, Travels with the Fiery Plant that Changed the World.” It’s a culinary history, a travelogue and a collection of recipes abetted by more than 150 color photos.

As with corn, squash, potatoes and beans, the chile pepper is a plant (a fruit, not a vegetable) native to the Americas. Scientists are uncertain of the time frame or how chiles spread from their ancient origins in the Brazil-Bolivia-Paraguay-Argentina area, DeWitt writes, but they suspect birds were primarily responsible for the spread of pepper seeds far beyond the four-nation intersection.

DeWitt’s explorations have led him, with his wife, Mary Jane, to write about tasty encounters with chile peppers, including those in Mexico (chiltepín, jalapeño, habanero, poblano/ancho); Andean South America (ají, rocotillo); Central America (chile de Cobán in Guatemala); the Caribbean (Scotch bonnet in Jamaica, superhot Congo pepper in Trinidad); Europe (Piment d’Espelette in France, paprika in Hungary), Africa; (Ugandan and Malawi bird’s eye); India (cayenne); Thailand (Thai bird pepper); and China (Facing Heaven, Sichuan Seven-Star).

As you might expect, New Mexico is a stop on the book’s international tour.

DeWitt states that in New Mexico, Arizona, California and parts of Texas, the New Mexican varieties are the principal chile peppers used in the American versions of Mexican cooking. Though the names of the chile-spiced dishes may be similar, the cooking styles and flavors vary.

Of the 12 varieties of the Capsicum annuum (genus/species) developed at New Mexico State University, the NuMex Heritage 6-4 is the most common chile pepper grown around the state, DeWitt writes.

Successful marketing has made chile from Hatch, in southern New Mexico’s Rincon Valley, more than a geographical designation. These peppers have become a popular label beyond the region, though Hatch’s chiles are not a horticultural variety, he said.

However, there are heirloom chile varieties that have been grown in Española and Chimayó for hundreds of years. “The village of Chimayó trademark registered its heirloom variety developed by the farmers themselves, not by crossbreeding,” DeWitt said.

DeWitt is also the author of “The Chile Pepper Encyclopedia,” and “Precious Cargo: How Foods from the Americas Changed the World.” He’s co-authored other books and written numerous articles on related chile pepper topics. No wonder he’s been nicknamed the “Pope of Peppers.”

“This is probably going to be my last chile pepper book,” DeWitt declared. “I’ve been working on this project for 36 years and it’s yielded 40 books. I don’t have a lot more to say about that (subject).”

Throughout the new book, he’s demonstrated how chiles have conquered nations; therefore they’re certainly not a fad. If some people still believe they’re a passing fancy, tell them that chile peppers have been around for about 10,000 years, he said.

DeWitt is also the main organizer of the National Fiery Foods and Barbecue Show. The 33rd edition of the show is planned for the first weekend of March 2021 at Sandia Resort and Casino.

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