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The Big Book

Hot Topic: A lesson in climate change and chili peppers

Marketplace Staff Apr 29, 2011
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Kai Ryssdal: Take a moment now to consider the chili pepper. There are more than 10,000 varieties. We eat ’em. We season our food with them. They go into arthritis creams and shampoos, pesticides and, yes, pepper sprays. In 2007 — the last year we have the data for — American farmers grew more than 800,000 tons of chili peppers. Twenty-six million tons worldwide, half of that in China.

So, needless to say, they’re big business. Beyond the commercial, though, chili peppers are important in cuisines and cultures all over the world. Which helps explain why I found myself shopping for chilies in a Mexican market the other day with a chef…

Kurt Friese: I’m Kurt Friese. I’m the chef.

And an agroecologist.

Kraig Kraft: Hi, I’m Kraig Kraft. I’m the agroecologist.

A what? Let me just say he knows more about chilies than you and I would ever want to know.

Kraft: There are five domesticated chili peppers. Tobasco is one, habanero is the other one. And the rest fall under Capsicum annuum. All of these: Your bell peppers, jalapenos…

It’s Habaneros and Bells for us today. Paprika, too. That’s a dried chili. Chef Kurt explains our lunch menu is from St. Augustine, Fla.

Freise: Pilau or most of us who live outside of St. Augustine would probably pronounce it Pee-low. But we got roundly castigated, Kraig and I, when we first arrived and we called it Pee-low and everybody knew we were Yankees.

However you pronouce it, it’s a rice dish a little bit like paella.

Friese: All different sorts of meats are possible, although chicken or shrimp are most common ones in St. Augustine.

St. Augustine was one stop on a North American tour that Kurt and Kraig did — a year on the road that took them as far as Sonora, Mexico and Avery Island, La., home of Tabasco, for their book Chasing Chilis. It’s part food guide, part thesis. What climate change is doing to chili harvest and how that’s going to change the meals we eat. It’s an allegory, Kraig says, for the rest of our food system.

Friese: By picking chili peppers we wanted to pick something that would resonate — and excuse the hoary pun — but something that would kind of light a fire in people’s bellies.

So later that afternoon, back at my house, we lit a match for the old stove in my kitchen. We peeled and deveined some shrimp for a stock. We chopped up a couple of habanero peppers. I took the obligatory taste test.

Ryssdal: It’s a nice crunchy pepper. It’s no so bad. It’s not that hot. Fading already, except when it hits the back of your throat — then its a little hot.

The pain, I should say, fades pretty fast…

Ryssdal: I’m good. I’m all right. I’m all right.

While Kurt sauteed shrimp and peppers in the background, Kraig and I got to talking…

Ryssdal: So what’s happening to peppers as we have this climate uncertainty?

Kraft: The ones we look at are endemic to certain regions. You’ve got the chiltepin in southern Arizona, northern Mexico. Climate change it affects the range in which these chilies can grow. When we were in Sonora, we were looking for the chiltepin in various people’s homes, but there was a scarcity due to drought in the region and no one had chiltepins to sell for this year.

Which means people have to substitute something else for the missing chilies. And that something else might not be as good or at least not quite right.

Kraft: They cannot make the sauces and foods that their mother used to make or their grandmother used to make.

Ryssdal: You guys tell a story. You went down to Louisiana and talked to the McIlvehny family at the Tabasco factory and they are doing — you might call it a little biodiversity — and getting away from those zones where climate change might impact their ability to stay in business.

Kraft: They’ve had some near misses. I believe it was Hurricane Rita, flood waters came to the foot of their factory. And so, for them it’s a business proposition, right? They’ve minimized the risks to their industry and their livelihoods by making sure they don’t have all their peppers in one basket.

Ryssdal: If you will.

Kraft: If you will.

Now, he says, Tabasco grows seeds all over Latin America. Kurt finishes up the sautee. He puts the shrimp and peppers in with the rice, spoons on some broth.

Friese: Excellent. I’m going to bring this up to a good simmer, turn it down and cover it up. In about 20 minutes or so we should have us a rendition of Pilau.

Ryssdal: Awesome.

‘Course there’s a cocktail, too. You whisk up some simple syrup with sliced habanero and fresh ginger. You add rum to taste. I’ll tell you, it was delicious — the drink and the meal. But it wouldn’t have been the same without any of the heat.

If you want to make the cocktail or the Pilau check out our website. We’ve got the recipes and some pictures there as well. And the first chapter of Chasing Chilies is there as well — check it out.

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