PUYP!: THE ETHNOBOTANY OF FORAGED FOOD & PECULIAR PRODUCE

Pueblo Green Chile: The History, Origin, and Ethnobotany of a Most Delicious Pepper

Pueblo Green Chile: The History, Origin, and Ethnobotany of a Most Delicious Pepper

Capsicum annuum

With Special Attention Given to the Pueblo Green Chile

Gary Di Tomaso Standing Before a Field of Peppers

Gary Di Tomaso Standing Before a Field of Peppers

In any given bushel of Pueblo green chili peppers, you are bound to find a random pepper that will burn your face off. When publishing an article about Pueblo Green chilies—especially the regionally specific dish made with it, green chili—you can bet your bikinis that somebody is going to be randomly furious about something you’ve said, how you’ve spelled it, or even who the blank you think you are for writing about it. After all, where pride burns hottest, war is inevitable.

The narrator tears off his shirt revealing a heaving castle of research musculature and grunts,

“let’s roll, punks!”

The truth is, this introduction is being written at absolute zero. Right now, we are chile charlatans… pepper pretenders. We may know that the fragrance of roasting Pueblo Green Chilies was probably intended for Heaven alone, and that Green Chili is delicious, but that’s about all we know.

Well, it is time for that to change.

We are on a mission, Traveller! Buildings are exploding behind us. Our clothing is tattered. We are strutting forward in 0.25 times normal speed from ignorance to bliss. That one song by Golden Earring is blasting, and Dwayne Johnson has appeared for some reason. *Where did you come from, Rock?

It’s time for answers, so let us start the interrogation.

What is the history of the Pueblo Green Chile?

Who is responsible for breeding the Pueblo Green Chile?

How Have Chili Peppers Been Used Medicinally?

Who farms Pueblo Green Chilies?

Who is selling Pueblo Green Chilies and derivative products online?

ANSWER US!!!!

*Our high five claps like thunder

Well, be prepared to step into the Twilight Zone, Traveller. Not only are we about to “interrogate” the farmers, hot sauce makers, and other characters involved, we are about to learn from the CREATOR of the Pueblo Green Chile himself: The Don… Dr. Mike Bartolo.

Family — Solanaceae

Family Characteristics —  Solanaceae family members are herbaceous plants with alternate leaves that exude a clear liquid when broken [8]. Solanaceae members have bisexual flowers that usually contain 5 stamina, 5 united petals, 5 united carpels, and a two-chambered ovary [8].

Aliases — Chile, Chili; Sakaipilo {meaning: unknown} (MAGAGASCAR); Polo Papalagi {meaning: White Man’s Polo; Polo means “to cut” and is a term for the pepper} (SAMOA); Bia {Meaning: generic term for the Capsicum pepper} (SIONA).

Binomial EtymologyCaps- is derived from the Greek word, capsa, which refers to a box or chest, and annu- is derived from Latin meaning a year [9].

Binomial Pronunciation: — KAP-sih-kum AN-yoo-um

A Brief History of the Capsicum Pepper

While Capsicum peppers have been cultivated in northern Peru since at least 2,500 B.C.E., there is archeological evidence that humankind has been munching on our beloved fire-fruits for around 6,000 years [10]. At the time of the Spanish Conquest, the Aztecs located in modern Mexico had already been using chilies as a spice, cultivated food, disciplinary aid in child rearing, and even as a method of execution [12]. The image below, sourced from the Codex Medoza (1542), depicts a naked and weeping 11-year-old boy (left) being disciplined by his father as he is subjected to the smoke of flaming chilies, and a mother (right) threatening her weeping daughter with the same punishment [12].

I plan on displaying this picture in my son’s room. When he asks about it, I will tell him that it depicts an Aztec daddy punishing his son for [enter whatever my son most recently did wrong].

Codex Mendoza: Aztec Child Rearing and Chile Smoke. Image retrieved in the Public Domain from this [ link ].

Codex Mendoza: Aztec Child Rearing and Chile Smoke. Image retrieved in the Public Domain from this [link].

Oh yeah! You may have caught a mention of the Capsicum pepper being used to execute people?

One account by the Dominican friar, Diego Durán (1537 – 1588), detailed an uprising by people of the Cuetlaxlan province against the Aztecs with the help of indigenous Tlaxcalan warriors. The story goes that—with sanction from Cuetlaxlan lords— the Tlaxcalans executed a local Aztec Governor. When the Aztecs sent messengers to inquire about the tribute payments they had been expecting, the Tlaxcalan warriors locked the messengers in a bedchamber and suffocated them with the smoke of burning chilies [12}. To say that was “harsh” is both an understatement and descriptively accurate.

Now that we have outlined a brief prehistory in Peru and use in Mexico, we must start wondering how the Chile that was to become the Pueblo Green Chile made its way to Pueblo, Colorado.

It is possible that the botanical forbears of the Pueblo Green Chile originated from the Oaxaca region of Mexico [6].

Either directly through the Sante Fe Trail (1840s), or indirectly through the breeding work of a New Mexico State University horticulturalist, Dr. Fabián Garciá (early 1900s), the seeds that were to become the Pueblo Green Chile arrived in Pueblo, Colorado, ultimately, via Mexico [6].

Dr Fabián Garciá (pictured above) of New Mexico State University was likely the man responsible for breeding the chile peppers that landed in Pueblo, Colorado in the early 1900s.

Dr Fabián Garciá (pictured above) of New Mexico State University was likely the man responsible for breeding the chile peppers that landed in Pueblo, Colorado in the early 1900s.

Dr. Garciá brought in strains cultivated by the native people of New Mexico to The New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts (today known as New Mexico State University), and developed the peppers that were larger and had less “broad shoulders” for increased ease in peeling [7].

Dr. Fabián Garciá’s Work in Breeding Chiles Laid Bare. Bottom row: four native chilies. Middle row: five undesirable intermediate types. Top row: six improved chilies labeled, No. 9, in one of Garciá’s study.  Garciá, F. (1916). Chile Pepper Culture.  The New Mexico Farm Courier,   4 (3), 638.

Dr. Fabián Garciá’s Work in Breeding Chiles Laid Bare. Bottom row: four native chilies. Middle row: five undesirable intermediate types. Top row: six improved chilies labeled, No. 9, in one of Garciá’s study.

Garciá, F. (1916). Chile Pepper Culture. The New Mexico Farm Courier, 4(3), 638.

Year after year, Pueblo farmers grew these chilies, tied ribbons around the best peppers, and saved seeds from the fruits for the next year’s crop. After decades of this practice, a distinct landrace of Chile emerged in Pueblo: the Mira Sol (Spanish for “looking at the sun”). These chilies pointed upwards like swords toward the sky, as opposed to hanging downward. They were also referred to as the Pueblo Chile, or, less frequently, “New Mexico Improved [6].” The Mira Sol pepper had been grown in Pueblo for almost a century, until a man named Dr. Mike Bartolo fatefully came across an old bag of seeds.

Who is responsible for breeding the Pueblo Green Chile?

Dr. Mike Bartolo Walking Through the Colorado State University Arkansas Valley Research Center.

Dr. Mike Bartolo Walking Through the Colorado State University Arkansas Valley Research Center.

Like many farmers in Pueblo county, Dr. Mike Bartolo grew up on the St. Charles Mesa as a descendant of Italian immigrants whose professional lives were intertwined with the steel mill and farming. Being familiar with the farming world, Mike went north to pursue his undergraduate and master’s studies in agriculture at Colorado State University, and later attended the University of Minnesota for his PhD in Plant Physiology. While hesitant to call himself a “gene jockey,” Dr. Bartolo found himself spending a great deal of time in the lab [6].

So, when Mike emerged from the lab a ghostly white—adjusting his eyes to earthly sunshine with his PhD in 1986—he was eager to return to his family in Pueblo.

As fortune would have it, a position at the Colorado State University Arkansas Valley Research Center in Rocky Ford (a short while away from Pueblo) became available: an opportunity that would bring Dr. Bartolo close to family, not imprison him with lab work, and allow him to exercise his passion for plants.

Thirty years later, Dr. Bartolo [MIKE] agreed to talk with PULLUPYOURPLANTS.COM [PUYP] at the Arkansas Valley Research Center about the circumstances surrounding the development of the Pueblo Green Chile.

Interview with the Creator of the Pueblo Green Chile: Dr. Mike Bartolo

While the fragrance of the roasting Pueblo Green Chilies is prone to light up anyone’s olfactory bulbs with a sense of comfort and seasonal nostalgia, the most widely used Pueblo Green Chile variety is a very recent development born of luck, science, and a legendary bag of seeds.

[PUYP] “I’ve read that the Mosco variety that you had developed [that later became known as the Pueblo Green Chile] came from a bag of seeds… how big was this bag of seeds?”

Dr. Mike Bartolo Holding the Bag of Seeds that Birthed the Pueblo Green Chile.

Dr. Mike Bartolo Holding the Bag of Seeds that Birthed the Pueblo Green Chile.

Mike suddenly presented a white canvass bag with H87 handwritten on the outside and holds it before me.

[MIKE] That’s it!

[PUYP] THAT’S IT?! YOU’RE KIDDING ME?!

My stoic facade vaporized before Dr. Bartolo’s eyes as he coughed from chile dust and, perhaps, a little amusement.

[MIKE] It’s low germ… that’s over 32 years old, that seed. My uncle passed away in 88’, so this is seed he had saved in 87’. My aunt had that hanging in her garage, and her brother— my dad—was helping her. I had just started working here a couple years later, and he said, ‘do you want this seed?’… I said ‘sure!’ So that’s where I took that seed and I had some test plots and I grew four rows of this just to see what it does and that’s where everything started: out of that bag of seed.

[PUYP] Four rows… how many plants?

[MIKE] Well, I mean, it was hundreds, you know. Hundreds. And out of those four rows I just saw one different looking plant… so I decided to save the seed from that one plant and I kept doing that… I kept doing that for several generations doing what is called single plant selections, and after several generations, I said ‘hey, this is something cool.” So that’s when I started increasing… the seed to the point where I could start giving samples to growers. Probably the first sample I gave out was to a guy named Carl Musso… and he was the first person who was willing to take a chance and grow out the Pueblo Chile. He was a year younger than me, he went to school with my brother… it could have been a train wreck, but he was the first that took a chance. We started giving out more samples and pretty soon growers started growing it, growing it, growing it, and it supplanted this variety.

Dr. Bartolo retrieved the Pueblo Green Chile Logo with the Mira Sol pepper pictured in the foreground and pointed to it.

[MIKE] [Mira Sol] is still grown but this had some different horticultural traits. It still retained that Mira Sol characteristic but it was a larger fruit, had thicker walls, and was more amenable to roasting. It had a good unique flavor profile to it. It’s pretty hot, you know, so people that liked to eat the chile liked it, but to be honest, its a little too hot for my own liking.

[PUYP] Can you tell me a little bit more about your Uncle Harry Mosco?

Harry Mosco was Mike Bartolo’s uncle and the man who left behind the bag of seeds that would become the Pueblo Green Chile.

[MIKE] Yeah, he was typical of an Italian American Farmer. He was a veteran of World War II. He was a real honest, hardworking, kind of quiet man farming right adjacent to where I grew up. They lived right next door to my parents and my grandparents. He grew chile all the time. You know, like I said, he was typical of the Italian American Farmer. There were a lot of Mussos, and Moscos, and DiSantis, and DiTomasos and all of those guys.

[PUYP] I can’t believe you pulled that bag out.

Laughing.

[MIKE] I was going to put it away but it is kind of a nice prop now, but that is the bag. All it says on it is H87… Harry 87’. But every time I pick it up it still has got a lot of pungency with it so I sneeze and cough.

[PUYP] Did you plant those with the specific intention of developing a new variety?

[MIKE] No. I just got the seed and said ‘I have some space, let’s throw it out there.’ I had no intentions of being a plant breeder. I just said, ‘let’s see what happens.’ Then I was walking by the plants in the field one day and said, ‘hmm, that’s interesting.’ That’s it… pretty soon, one thing led to another. That was the first of 400 different single plant selections I have done over the last 29 years.

[PUYP] How long was it before you were satisfied that the Mosco variety was growing true to seed and was a distinct variety?

[MIKE] I would say at least eight or nine years.

[PUYP] How long before the Mosco variety was officially crowned the Pueblo Green Chile?

[MIKE] You know, I don’t know how it became that because it just started becoming grown more. A variety of serendipitous or fortuitous things came into place. The Chile Festival started prior to the release of this and so that helped to bring it more into prominence… there was a group of us. Rod Slyhoff, who is the current President of the Pueblo Chamber of Commerce, myself… there was a bunch of us that had convened, and we brainstormed. You know, “what can we do to help promote agriculture?” What came out of it was this Chile Festival. The first one was very modest. It was very small and now…really that whole growth can be attributed to Rod’s leadership… it has grown exponentially. [The Pueblo Chile and Frijole Festival] certainly helped, probably, add to the recognition of the Pueblo Chile… Then growers started getting organized; they got several projects that were helped through the Colorado Department of Agriculture to help promote it. All of these things started building on themselves. Now you have all of this stuff between the governors and the twitters and all of this stuff. It’s kind of fun… but there is a uniqueness to this chile pepper.

[PUYP] How often would a plant breeder expect to have a variety of their… anything… explode like this has?

[MIKE] I don’t want to downplay it like it’s not that big of a deal, but it’s not grown on that many acres. It’s not like a new variety of wheat that’s grown on hundreds of thousands of acres, you know. It’s pretty modest in size but it’s got a lot of notoriety. I’ve used this line before: I call it “the Kim Kardashian of crops” because it gets a lot more attention than it deserves based on its contribution to society.

Laughing

[PUYP] Its legend is larger than it is…

[MIKE] Yeah! It’s legend is larger than, really, it is! You know, it’s not the perfect horticultural plant by any means. I always look at it like, ugghhh, ‘this is different and that is different,’ but it is what it is and people like it.

[PUYP] Do you have any advice for anybody that would be interested in getting into your realm of work?

[MIKE] Just do what you like. That’s all you’ve got to do. Just do what you like and the rest kinda falls into place. Anybody can be a plant breeder. You can save your own seed and make your own crosses. Chilies are kind of an easy one. They are mostly self pollinating but they will outcross. 99.9% of the time that’s what I’ve done. I’ve grown all of these types of varieties of peppers and I let nature take its chance and I select them. If I was really working for Monsanto or Seminis or some other seed company, I would have probably been fired years ago. I just do it haphazardly and let Mother Nature take its course. There is no real direction to it except I do select under these conditions. If there is a disease problem— which we have this year—or there is some other issue, sometimes, that’s not bad because then you see individuals that really are resistant to that and they look better even under dire conditions. I hate that. It kills me seeing all of these plants going, ugghhh, but sometimes that’s not a bad thing. It helps to look for these unique individuals and helps screen those out. But, like I said, if I worked for a seed company I’d have been fired years ago. 

Dr. Bartolo insisted on me calling him Mike, however, I cannot help but to continue calling him Dr. Bartolo in print. With respect to his life’s work and role in developing, not only a chile, but the character and cultural identity of Colorado itself, how could we not? I’d be hard pressed to find a more patient and pleasant man to be around. We spent some time trying varieties of tomatoes in his test plots, and chatted for quite a while. Thank you for your time, Dr. Bartolo!

Ethnobotany of the Capsicum Pepper

As early as the 16th century, people of SPAIN and INDIA utilized the plant to help with indigestion of meat, mixed the pepper with honey to treat treat inflammation (referred to as quinsy) of the throat and tonsils, malaria, edema, colic, toothache, gout, flatulence, tympanitis, and paralysis (?!?!) [13].

Capsicum annuum was used extensively among a myriad of Native American tribes as a food, spice, and item of trade. Medicinally, the CHEROKEE used Capsicum annuum for fevers, colds, colic, gangrene, and as a stimulant; the NAVAJO used the powdered chile, applied to the nipple, for weaning infants [14].

In ETHIOPIA, C. annuum and a garlic bulb are taken together before breakfast for five days to combat malaria [16].

In BENIN, a country in West Africa, enemas containing C. annuum are administered to infants to combat constipation and to flush out the meconium in newborns [17].

In the Agnalazaha littoral forest in MADAGASCAR, C. annuum is used to treat rheumatism and pain [18].

In addition to drying and roasting, the PIMA would first roast the peppers, pound them with a mortar and pestle, and fashion them into cakes which were dried. Pieces of the dried cake were broken and used as seasoning when needed throughout the winter [15]. Tell me this doesn’t sound like a brilliant idea! Let’s try it!

Pima-Inspired Green Chile Cakes

As mentioned above, it was reported that the Pima would pound roasted/peeled green chilies, fashion them into cakes, and dry them for winter use. I tried this and it worked out brilliantly.

I purchased fresh-roasted green chilies, cut them up with kitchen shears, placed them in a bowl, mashed them with a potato masher, added salt (to draw out moisture), made them into meatball shapes, and dried them overnight in the oven at 150°F (66°C). They retained their shape and fragrance beautifully.

Who Farms Pueblo Green Chilies?

DiTomaso1.JPG

In early August, while visiting Gary Di Tomaso to discuss the history of his 300+ acre operation in Pueblo County, I had asked when Di Tomaso Farms first started. While the DiTomaso Farm structure itself was erected in 1928, his Great Grandfather had been operating a fruit stand consisting of a donkey and a red cart on the site since… well. When I asked Gary for a “hard date,” he called his sister, Nate, Kim, and beckoned “go ask Lenny” until a large enough cohort of the entire family arrived at a consensus in the Di Tomaso office: their Great Grandfather had arrived in Pueblo in 1915 from Civitanova del Sannio, Italy, and started the Di Tomaso farm stand in 1920.

It is apparent how much the DiTomasos rely upon one another on a daily basis.

Gary was kind enough to drive me through their fields of Anaheim peppers and Pueblo Green Chile that the DiTomasos sow from seed every year. He presented his young peppers for a few pictures and noted that a section “needed a drink.” All of the coordination, hard work, and experience of the Di Tomasos was on obvious display to anyone driving past.

In 2020, let us celebrate DiTomaso Farms’ centenary!

Where can I purchase Pueblo Green Chile stuff?

If you do not have the privilege of walking to a local market as Pueblo Green Chilies are roasting, or if you have not had the divine luck of visiting Pueblo, CO, during the Chile and Frijole Festival, you can certainly do the next best thing: order some Pueblo Green Chile products online.

The following company was kind enough to respond to my email, provide a sample, and chat for a minute about their wares. PEXPEPPERS IS NOT A SPONSOR OF PULLUPYOURPLANTS.COM BUT YOU CAN BE by visiting patreon.com/pullupyourplants .

I’m slick, aren’t I?

PEXPEPPERS Hot Sauces (Pueblo Red and I’m So Chile)

Green Chili Sauce.JPG

I find people who can turn their life around doing unusual things to be highly interesting. Garrett Peck, CEO and owner of PEXPEPPERS, is exactly that kind of interesting. Since starting to make hot sauce in 2012 as a project to keep himself sober, his sobriety and hot sauce game has remained strong for seven years and counting. Originally from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Garrett moved his company to Pueblo, Colorado, in 2016 to work specifically with the Pueblo Green Chile. The result: Pueblo Red and I’m So Chile hot sauces.

Both hot sauces are made from green chilies sourced from Musso Farms. The Pueblo Red uses peppers that have ripened to a lipstick red, and the I’m So Chile uses traditional roasted and unripe green chilies. Both have a heat level hovering around medium and mild. The heat is gentle enough for a hot sauce lover of middling tolerance to consume it like a suckling lamb directly from the bottle. I am doing that right now.

Pueblo Red

The Pueblo Red has an undeniably fruity quality. If I wasn’t reading the ingredients, I’d swear there were cherries in there. There is a level of acidity to it on par with an orange. The texture, unlike something like Tabasco, is “chunky” (possibly the best word to say out loud) and more apt to be piled on to something than dribbled. On a whim, I piled Pueblo Red on a hunk of fresh Rocky Ford cantaloupe and found it to be a delicious combo.

I’m So Chile

Also fortified with chickety-cha-CHONKiness, I’m So Chile hot sauce has both the acid and sweetness level of an almost-ripe kiwi. The smokiness is slightly hidden behind the acidity and onion flavor. I’d assume savory characters like meats and quesadillas would happily welcome I’m So Chile to plop down upon them.

You can order these hot sauces by visiting pexpeppers.com, or by pushing the button below.

Tell em Large Marge and PullUpYourPlants sent yah….

Conclusion

Having penned this article at the early onset of the Pueblo Green Chile Harvest, many subjects have been hard to pin down. They are quite busy at this time of year! Nevertheless, I WANT TO HEAR FROM YOU! PULLUPYOURPLANTS.COM has decided to publish this article as a work in progress. There is still much to learn and share. In the future, we will be expanding this article to include more farmers, recipes, remedies, histories, The Pueblo Chile and Frijole Festival, and personal stories intermittently through the years. The Pueblo Green Chile is quickly growing into an obsession, and I am honored to share it all with you.

PULLUPYOURPLANTS.COM will be covering the Pueblo Chile and Frijoles festival on September 20th in Pueblo Colorado. I hope to see you there! Look for updates.

If you have a product made with Pueblo Green Chile, a recipe, or anything you think may be of interest to this article, please feel to reach out in the comments below! I would love to hear from you.

Thank you to my supporters on Patreon.com. Without you, this website would not be possible. Please visit patreon.com/pullupyourplants to support this work.

Special Thanks to Dr. Mike Bartolo, Gary Di Tomaso, PEXPEPPERS, my wife, Sophie Fernandez-Healey, son, family and friends.

References are available by emailing pullupyourplants @ gmail.com

Thank You!







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