07 April 2011
Hot on the Trail of Chili Peppers
THERE was a frost expected here two weeks ago, but Gary Paul Nabhan, a conservation biologist and inveterate seed-saver, was out in his hardscrabble garden anyway, planting his favorite food, hot chilies. Chiltepin, chile de árbol (the one that scrambles up trees), Tabasco, serrano, pasilla, Chimayó. These are only a few of the pungent peppers that Mr. Nabhan and two other chili lovers — Kurt Michael Friese, a chef from Iowa City, and Kraig Kraft, an agro-ecologist studying the origin of hot peppers — collected on a journey that began two years ago, in northern Mexico, and took them across the hot spots of this country.
In a van dubbed the Spice Ship, these three gastronauts set out to talk to farmers dealing with the effects of climate change on their crops, especially chilies, both wild and domesticated. Their collective tale, “Chasing Chiles: Hot Spots Along the Pepper Trail,” spiced up with recipes vetted by Mr. Friese, was published last month by Chelsea Green.
And now Mr. Nabhan was putting in his favorite chilies, all started from seed, beneath heirloom fruit trees like a two-year-old San Michel quince from the San Rafael Valley, a few hills over, and a Texas Mission almond, which has been grown for centuries from here to Southern California. He shares this hilly five-acre spread, ringed by the Patagonia Mountains, with his wife, Laurie Monti, a nurse practitioner turned anthropologist, whose desert herbs surround their adobe house.
“These plants will not go out in the open,” Mr. Nabhan said, planting a habanero seedling. “Most seedlings in the desert get their start under nurse plants, like mesquite, but we’re using fruit trees.”
Taking advantage of precious shade in the high desert is an evolutionary strategy of the chili pepper, which originated in the Sierras of northern Mexico. As summers have become hotter over the years, farmers and gardeners have begun to plant their chilies in the shade of fruit trees, which also offer protection in a sudden freeze.
Mr. Nabhan, a world traveler who has written some 20 books on the culture of food and plants, is rooting himself here with perennial crops that sequester carbon and help reduce greenhouse gases. He has terraced this land, in the manner of his Middle Eastern ancestors, molding low walls out of the heavy clay soil and digging catchment basins, to slow and catch rainwater as it rushes downhill during downpours. And he has put in drip lines, fed by rainwater collected from the roof, as well as an artesian spring, to reach every plant.
He is also improving the soil with organic materials like goat manure and biochar, or charcoal, locally burned, from the deadwood of his mesquite trees, which shed branches in the recent eight-year drought. (His fruit trees, near-indestructible prickly pear and agaves, survived the drought but succumbed to the freeze in February.)
“The worst possible thing we can do with that sense of being overwhelmed by the severity of climate change is to just resign ourselves to being victims,” Mr. Nabhan said, setting a chile de árbol under the canopy of a desert willow. “Planting in the face of all this uncertainty is probably the most important ethical choice that we could make.”
And chilies have a heat and flavor that many of us connect to in the same way we do to music, literature and our first dogs.
“None of us is eating chili peppers for their protein, calories or good or bad carbohydrates,” he said. “They’re giving us pleasure and something vibrant and vital in our lives.”
MR. NABHAN, 59, has worn many hats over the years, but his work, as he says, “isn’t just about conserving things.” It’s about “conserving relationships.”
The grandson of a fruit peddler from Lebanon, near the Syrian border, he grew up in the Indiana sand dunes, with the spicy cooking and fresh fruits and vegetables adored by his family. Mr. Nabhan, a high school dropout, ended up with a doctorate in arid-land resources, as well as a handful of awards, including a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant. Read the entire article over @ New York Times