Red or Green?

This was taken in December 2014 during a visit home. Note the complete lack of snow or any sign of winter present.

I was born and raised in Las Cruces, New Mexico. It’s hard to pick out what I miss most about this gorgeous little city nestled in the desert. Perhaps it’s the overwhelming friendliness–the way that people aren’t afraid to joke and laugh with total strangers. Maybe it’s the 350 days of sunshine a year and the blissful ability to perceive the 70’s as brisk weather. Or, it might just be that little green pepper, the one that tastes like pure happiness and instantly transports me back home–Hatch green chile.

I am about to make a claim that will sound utterly ridiculous to most people and completely mundane to any New Mexican: My favorite hobby is tracking down and consuming Hatch green chile.

A picture of me that my roommate took at the Wegmans’ Hatch Chile Festival in Binghamton, NY in 2016.

To understand how it is that I can declare grocery shopping and eating as the hobby that most defines me, one first needs to understand that green chile is not just food to New Mexicans–it’s a central part of our culture. In fact, this weekend tens of thousands of people will descend upon the New Mexico village of Hatch for the annual Hatch Chile Festival. But it doesn’t take a special event like a festival to get New Mexicans excited about green chile, we incorporate it into everything that we eat. We add green chile to burgers, pizza, sandwiches, and breakfast. We have green chile wine, green chile toffee, and green chile custard. Fast food chains like Sonic or McDonalds let you add green chile to any of the menu items for a few quarters. New Mexico is even the only state that has an official question: “Red or green?”

In 2010, I moved to New Paltz, NY to attend grad school for my M.A. in Psychology. In the months prior to my departure, each joyful congratulations about my move from my fellow New Mexicans was quickly followed with their condolences that I would soon be unable to easily get green chile. Indeed, I found one of the hardest adjustments to my new life on the East Coast was the difference in food.

A combination platter smothered in green chile and cheese.

Each time I would return home, my mom would have a combination platter smothered in green chile waiting for me in the car so that the second I was off the plane I could start to get my green chile fix.

However, to my surprise, I wouldn’t have to go completely without green chile while I was in New York. Each time that I would stumble upon a place that had Hatch green chile it would be a day of intense celebration. I would quickly buy 20 pounds or more to store in my freezer to carefully portion out through the next year. Beyond just the joy of having my stash of peppers in the freezer, was the fun of getting to share this treasure with New Yorkers who had never even heard of Hatch, New Mexico.

My first Hatch Chile Festival at Wegmans in Binghamton, NY in 2014. I literally wept tears of joy in the parking lot when I smelled the green chile roasting.

From explaining to the perplexed employees what the hell I was planning on doing with that much green chile, to introducing my friends to the wonders of this food–these were the moments where I got to share New Mexico with New York. I would tell anyone who would listen about our cultural obsession as I channeled Bubba from Forrest Gump with my endless list of everything that green chile can go into. Through following leads and sheer luck, I was able to have a stock of green chile in my freezer for 5 out of the 7 years I was in New York.  

Now, as I begin my life down in the south, I was overjoyed to find in my first week here that a local restaurant was willing to sell me Hatch green chile. The manager was very kind as he gently explained that they could, unfortunately, only sell it to me in 5 pound bags. I did my best to hold in my laughter as I explained that this wouldn’t be a problem as I was hoping to buy 20 pounds to freeze. After confirming with him several times that he did hear me correctly and that I did understand how much that would cost (~$80), he brought out the most beautiful sight that any New Mexican living out of state could possibly see:

20 lbs. of Hatch Green Chile that I acquired during my first week in Alabama.

So, why do I have this obsession and can Tinbergen’s 4 questions help get at the answer?

Proximal: Proximate is always the easy one. At the most basic level, I eat green chile because green chile is delicious. I continue to seek out and consume green chile because it tastes very good to me. The more interesting question, of course, is why?

Functional: Before we ask, why green chile tastes “good” to me, we should  really start by asking, “why do we taste things at all?” In general, it is adaptive to have keen gustatory abilities so that you can detect potential toxins. Thus, when something tastes “bad” we generally develop an aversion to it; and, lo and behold, that thing that tasted “bad” is more often than not something that could be potentially harmful to your health and should be avoided.

In fact, Dr. Gordon Gallup gave a fascinating talk in the SUNY New Paltz Evolutionary Studies seminar series when I was a grad student that argued that one of the major overlooked factors in the mass extinction of dinosaurs was their inability to develop taste aversion to toxic plants

Now, to our main question. There are a couple of reasons for why I have such a positive reaction when I consume this substance. One interesting evolutionary hypothesis proposed by Dr. Jennifer Billing and Dr. Paul Sherman in the late 1990s suggests that spices (many of which are powerful antimicrobial agents) may aid in reproductive success by cleansing foods of pathogens; thus, those individuals who find these flavors enjoyable would have an advantage when it comes to health and survival since the food they consume is less likely to be contaminated. To support this hypothesis, the authors demonstrate that areas with a higher mean temperatures and thus a higher likelihood of food spoilage (i.e. pathogen contamination) also contain more spices in their cuisine. Given the hot climate of the southwest, it was likely adaptive to incorporate chile peppers into the local cuisine.

Another reason for my green chile obsession is likely due to this being an in-group marker for my identity as someone born and raised in Las Cruces, NM. By eating green chile, I feel connected to my group–something that is highly desirable in an incredibly social species like humans. Additionally, it might be that demonstrating my ability to consume spicy foods is a form of costly signalling as it demonstrates pain tolerance.

Phylogeny: We can also make an argument for an evolutionary legacy here. Humans have been adding spices to their food for thousands of years. Additionally, we see this cross-culturally which suggests a shared evolutionary history.  In fact, in Billing and Sherman (1999), 22 out of the 34 countries examined had chile peppers in their traditional recipes.

Ontogeny: Preference for green chile does depend on a number of factors related to age and reproductive state. For instance, as I’ve grown older, I have started to enjoy hotter peppers than I did as a child. Additionally, it might be that this preference for spicy foods would change depending on my current reproductive state. A somewhat controversial theory put forth by Margie Profet in the late 1980s and later expanded upon by Flaxman and Sherman in 2000 suggests that a pregnant woman’s taste aversions and cravings in the first trimester are an adaptive mechanism for protecting a vulnerable fetus as well as a vulnerable mother who is immunosuppressed in the first trimester so that she does not reject the growing embryo. This could mean that preferences for spicy foods like green chile might change during this stage. 

In conclusion, if you ever get the chance to try Hatch green chile–do it! Just be warned that you may end up with a packed freezer and an uncontrollable reaction to suggest that every meal you have “would be better if they added green chile.”

For Additional Reading: 

  • Billing, J., & Sherman, P. W. (1998). Antimicrobial functions of spices: why some like it hot. The Quarterly review of biology73(1), 3-49.
  • Flaxman, S. M., & Sherman, P. W. (2000). Morning sickness: a mechanism for protecting mother and embryo. The Quarterly review of biology75(2), 113-148.
  • Profet, M. (1988). The evolution of pregnancy sickness as protection to the embryo against Pleistocene teratogens. Evolutionary Theory8(3), 177-190.

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