Fabián García is hardly a household name, but it should be. The Mexican-American immigrant was born in Chihuahua in 1871, and, after losing both parents, came to New Mexico to live with his grandmother. García attended the New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts, which was later renamed New Mexico State University, and he eventually became professor of horticulture there. He was the institutition’s first (and for many years only) faculty memeber of Hispanic descent. Although he helped establish New Mexico’s pecan and onion industries, it is for his work with another crop that his impact is most keenly felt, not only in our state but across the US. Fabián García almost single-handedly revolutionized the New Mexico chile.
Without his contributions, the familiar, chile-scented aroma of a New Mexican autumn would be significantly different. In the 1920s, after 9 years of work hybridizing various chile cultivars, he produced a green chile suitable for large scale agriculture: the New Mexico no. 9, the cornerstone of the entire modern chile industry. In honor of his accomplishment, and the height of chile-roasting season, the Alibi presents a quick-and-dirty guide to the capsaicin-laced descendants of García’s no. 9, none of which are named “Hatch.”
New Mexico No. 9
This is the cultivar that started it all. Of García’s initial 14 lines of chiles, only this one survived long enough to be considered a success and almost all varieties of New Mexico chiles are descended from it. García bred this pepper to be hardy, consistent in size and to mature to a lovely crimson (the other option at the time was black). He also made the strategic decision to reduce the chile’s heat in order to appeal to the then less-heat-inclined Anglo population. The no. 9 remained the standard New Mexican chile until the 1950s and survives in the mild Anaheim pepper, grown from seeds transplanted to California.
Without his contributions, the familiar, chile-scented aroma of a New Mexican autumn would be significantly different.
New Mexico 6 (and 6-4)
The New Mexico No. 6 unseated the No. 9 from its throne in 1950, especially in Southern New Mexico. The 6, bred by Dr. Roy Harper, offered a higher yield of dried chile, as well as a more consistent pod shape, size and color. In 1957, the line was tinkered with again in order to produce a less hot chile for export, which became the New Mexico 6-4.
By the late 1990s, the line of 6-4 began to exhibit undesireable characteristics, especially a lack of heat and flavor, that encouraged chile scientists at NMSU to pull out frozen examples of the original seeds and breed from them. This new “retro” line of chiles is known as NuMex 6-4 Heritage, and successfully brought back the characteristics that made 6-4 the reigning king of chiles for decades.
In 1956, Dr. Harper altered the venerable no. 9 and produced a longer, hotter pepper with heat approximately equal to the jalapeño. This variety remains popular to this day and is perfect for kick-in-the-pants huevos rancheros.
Dr. Roy Nakayama, a son of Japanese immigrants and a man who had once been denied entry into NMSU because of his ethnicity, carried on García’s legacy into the late 20th century. One of his most famous contributions to the chile industry is the NuMex Big Jim, the record holder for the world’s largest pepper. This gargantuan fleshy pod is quite mild, which makes it ideal for rellenos and other stuffing needs.
Not every New Mexico chile was standardized in the NMSU laboratories. Chiles have been a part of New Mexican cuisine since time immemorial and almost every region once had its own varieties, known as landraces. One of these landraces is the Española, which Dr. Nakayama and Dr. Frank Matta hybridized with the Sandia to produce the Española Improved. This narrow, sharp-pointed chile has an aesthetically pleasing smooth pod, requires a shorter growing season and yields heat on a par with the Sandia.
Joe E. Parker
This mild chile was named after a graduate of NMSU’s School of Agriculture who assisted with its selection. As a cultivar of the New Mexico 6-4 line, it’s fine for green chile, but really comes into its own when it ripens to red. Not only can the long, thick pods be ground into chile powder, they also make for a lovely ristra.