Free Trade

Friday Food Link: Chili Peppers


"Smithsonian researchers and colleagues report that across the Americas, chili peppers (Capsicum species) were cultivated and traded as early as 6,000 years ago—predating the invention of pottery in some areas of the Americas." Archaeologists could use the spread of chilis to retrace trade routes, migration paths, and chart the growth of commerce in Sounth America. They will strive to answer the question, "Is the best way to civilization though men's stomachs?"

"Whether this is migration of people or early trade is one of the fascinating questions," said [co-author Deborah Pearsall, an anthropology professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia], who calls these early farmers pretty sophisticated. "They were not at the edge of starvation. … People were growing all kinds of things and not just focusing on staples."

Learn more here and here.

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  1. As a former resident of New Mexico, I can vouch that chiles are indeed a staple — whatever this chick from Missouri might think.

  2. KMW,

    You might want to edit this:

    …Sounth America. 🙂

    Anyway, given the importance of chili peppers in getting all the amino acids that we need it isn’t surprising that they were of great importance early on.

  3. There’s this guy who hangs out at my neighborhood tavern. He can be kind of annoying. (He likes ELO – need I say more?) One time he ran home and came back with these tiny little chiles that he grew at home. He found them growing wild in Ecuador or Peru or somewhere down there. They were about the size of peas and they were packed with seeds. Hot stuff. I’ve wondered if they were indeed the wild ancestors of the chiles we cultivate now, or if they were feral chiles.
    (Can plants be feral? If not, what’s the word I’m looking for?)

    Anyhow, fix the damn typo already!

  4. I learned two things from Alton Brown on this:

    1) The fruit is spelled chile, although modern usage uses the spelling chili

    2) More importantly, chilis are not peppers, but the article insists on calling them “chili peppers”. I blame Columbus.

  5. jf,
    In the USA, I think we call the sweet ones peppers and the hot ones chiles. They are all members of the capsicum family. No relation to peppercorns.

  6. > They were not at the edge of starvation. … People were growing all kinds of things and not just focusing on staples…

    So…there must have been a rather large government subsidy program back then; I mean, how could all the farmers produce so much without a good farm bill?

  7. the article insists on calling them “chili peppers”. I blame Columbus.

    I blame Kiedis. Now, to wash the awful taste of that band out of my head, I’ll go back to humming some ELO (thanks, highnumber!).

  8. highnumber,

    I think you are correct. I still blame Columbus, because peppercorns are piper nigrum, and when Columbus brought back his “peppers”, they were classified piper capsicum, which led to the whole mess that probably nobody but I care about.

  9. Hey, Rhywun,

    Don’t bring me down.

  10. Highnumber,
    He was probably correct in that they are wild(not feral) chiles. It is presumed that the wild plant’s distribution method was via bird droppings and capsaicin was a protective measure as birds do not have ‘heat’ receptors like mammals do.

    Read more here.

  11. EDIT: I should have mentioned that linked site has pictures of wild chiles.

  12. Don’t bring me down.

    Oh you evil bastard. I’ll never get that song out of my head now.

  13. All together now:


  14. But the Iranians got those chili peppers from Austria, Jim.

  15. Kwix,

    Thanks for finding the photos.
    The chiles the ELO fan had looked exactly like Capsicum cardenasii (ulupica), which grows in Peru and Bolivia. The description is spot on, too:
    This variety is very hot; its heat develops rapidly in the mouth, and also vanishes quite quickly, similar to Tabasco heat. Moreover, the ulupica has an interesting, fruity, unique flavour akin to the flavour of unripe tomatoes…
    I’d leave out the part about Tabasco, however. While the heat did seem to dissipate quickly (the tequila helped with that, I imagine) they were significantly hotter than Tabasco.

    That bit me in the ass. Damn song is in my head too.
    (That’s what it sounds like to me at least)

  16. Ee-eevil woman …

  17. thoreau,

    Don’t remind me about the Austrian duplicity, or I’ll launch a boycott of Vienna Sausages.


    Feel the Good Eats flowing through you, my son.

  18. Vienna’s a Chicago company, you nut!
    Now eat your Maxwell Polish.

  19. Anyway, given the importance of chili peppers in getting all the amino acids that we need it isn’t surprising that they were of great importance early on.

    I thought it was the vitamin C that made them a staple. There aren’t many other sources of vitamin C in the native diets of the southwest. A combination of corn and beans, though, should give you all the amino acids you need. In either case, chili is not a garnish. It’s a central part of the diet. You can take that from a New Mexican.

  20. highnumber,
    Tequila, a more modernized form of octli (pulque?), was probably the drink of choice to go with chiles. Granted octli may have been more of an alcoholic sauce closer to the thickness of honey, but I choose to believe that both chiles and tequila are clearly two of the most important contributions to the success of mankind. It is clearly more proof, as Ben Franklin said, that god loves us and wants us to be happy. I don’t think it is proof of creation 6,000 years ago but I’m waiting for the next I.D. report.

  21. I put chili peppers in my fruit smoothies to give them more pizzazz.

    Capsicum also has a number of functional benefits such as reducing the spike in blood insulin level after a meal.

  22. …both chiles and tequila are clearly two of the most important contributions to the success of mankind. It is clearly more proof, as Ben Franklin said, that god loves us and wants us to be happy.

    Hear, Hear!

  23. Why do humans like chiles? I can think of no other animal that will voluntarily consume them. You’d think the mutation that makes capsaicin tolerable, or even desirable, wouldn’t be unique to humans.

  24. Abstract This paper deals with the general problem of the acquisition of positive affective responses, by study of the reversal of an innate aversion to the irritant properties of chili pepper. Interviews, observations, and measurements were carried out in both Mexico and the United States. Exposure to gradually increasing levels of chili in food seems to be a sufficient condition for preference development. Chili likers are not insensitive to the irritation that it produces. They come to like the same burning sensation that deters animals and humans that dislike chili; there is a clear hedonic shift. This could be produced by association with positive events, including enhancement of the taste of bland foods, postingestional effects, or social rewards. It is also possible that the initial negative response to chili pepper is essential for the eventual liking. Chili stimulates an innate sensory ldquowarningrdquo system but is not harmful. The enjoyment of the irritation may result from the user’s appreciation that the sensation and the body’s defensive reaction to it are harmless. Eating of chili, riding on roller coasters, taking very hot baths, and many other human activities can be considered instances of thrill seeking or enjoyment of ldquoconstrained risks.rdquo Evidence for and against various explanations of chili ingestion is presented.
    The nature and acquisition of a preference for chili pepper by humans

    GAINESVILLE, Florida – The zing in a chili pepper helps the plant spread its seeds more efficiently, a new study reveals.

    Working with the ancestor of most varieties of chili pepper plants, a University of Florida researcher has shown that the plant relies on its spiciness to ensure the survival of its species.

    In an article in the July 26 issue of the journal “Nature,” Josh Tewksbury, a UF postdoctoral researcher in zoology, and coauthor Gary Nabhan, an ethnobotanist at Northern Arizona University, conclude that mammals, sensitive to the chemical that makes peppers taste hot, avoid the Capsicum annuum pepper.

    Birds, however, are unaffected by the chemical, known as capsaicin, and eat the peppers. This is essential for the plant, since birds release the seeds in their droppings ready to germinate. If mammals ate the seeds, they would crunch them up or render them infertile, the researchers report.

    “The upshot is that it’s very beneficial for the pepper to have mammals avoid its fruit and have birds attracted to them,” Tewksbury said.

    Plants that produce poisonous or undesirable fruits – the edible reproductive body of a seed plant – have long puzzled biologists. Evolutionary theory says the main reason that plants create fruits is to encourage animals to eat them, so that the animals will disperse the plant’s seeds.

    Why, biologists wonder, would plants go to the trouble of making a fruit, only to use chemicals to deter an animal and potential seed distributor?

    Evolutionary biologist Dan Janson proposed in the late 1960s that plants may use chemicals to deter some animals without deterring others, selecting only preferred seed distributors. Known as “directed deterrence,” this theory received very little attention and was never observed in nature, and it gathered dust until Tewksbury and Nabhan decided to see if it might hold true in chili peppers.

    Using video cameras trained on chili pepper plants in a southern Arizona field, the researchers discovered that birds – in particular, the curve billed thrasher – were the only animals eating the small, red peppers. Pack rats and cactus mice, the dominant fruit or seed eating mammals in the area, avoided the peppers altogether.

    The team then fed an unusual pepper – one that lacks capsaicin – to packrats, mice and birds in labs. Analyzing the droppings of the birds and rodents, the researchers discovered that the birds passed the seeds whole and capable of germinating.

    The rodents, however, chewed up most of the seeds, and any that remained were too damaged to germinate.

    “From the pepper’s perspective, it’s very beneficial to get pooped out as a seed underneath a shrub, particularly a shrub that has fleshy fruits itself, and that’s just where the thrashers deposit the seed,” Tewksbury said.
    Hot Peppers Pack an Evolutionary Punch (.pdf)

  25. I read somewhere that eating hot peppers produces a powerful release of endorphins. Seems the peppers trick our mouths into believing they’ve been really burned, thus triggering the pain release chemicals. We can build up a tolerance for hotter and hotter peppers, in exactly the same way drug addicts need stronger hits. Peppers, however, don’t require dealing with unpleasant men named “Dave” at weird hours of the morning, and at least at the moment don’t carry the risk of getting arrested. Of course, if any drug warriors find out about the endorphin thing, and that the plants were cultivated by Evil Brown People, well . . . . .

  26. highnumber,

    You reminded me of that realy good band from Chicago, but I can’t remember who it was . . .

    BTW, I do like ELO too.

  27. “I learned two things from Alton Brown on this:”

    That was Alton’s worst episode.
    Much misinformation was given.

    Alton’s claim that “New Mexican Chile” was the dried version of “Anahiem” being the most specious.

  28. Anaheim chile
    chile verde, California green chile, Big Jim Chile Pepper (new variety)

    Anaheim chile
    photo by:

    A type of chile pepper that is about a 6″ in length, is green in color, and has a mild to medium-hot flavor. It is sold fresh and is also available roasted, dried, or canned. When the chile is dried, it turns a dark burgundy color. It is sometimes referred to as the New Mexico chile, but the actual New Mexico chiles are a bit hotter. When canned, this chile is typically labeled simply as “green chiles”. Anaheim chiles are a good complement to egg dishes, stews, and vegetable dishes.

    Apparently Mr. Brown was guilty of following a common, if perhaps incorrect, definition of the New Mexico chile.

  29. “Anaheim chiles are a good complement to egg dishes, stews, and vegetable dishes.”

    And they go well in fruit smoothes too. 🙂

  30. “Apparently Mr. Brown was guilty of following a common, if perhaps incorrect, definition of the New Mexico chile.”

    Actually. He doesn’t even follow the inaccurate classification you cite above.

    He said they were NM chiles when dried.

    Equating a NM chile with an Anahiem is like equating a table grape with a vintage wine grape. . .

  31. For the scoop on New Mexican Chiles…

    Brown’s mistake is to confuse a minor variety of the New Mexican Chile as the broader category. It is actually the other way around.

    He then confuses the difference between dried chile and variety.

    New Mexican Chiles come in many varieties…what is typically referred to as an Anaheim has the least flavor, and does not represent the category well.

    In New Mexico, Chile is sold by varietal name and region… the soil and climate impacts the flavor and character much like regional variations in wine grapes.

  32. Neu Mejican,

    After re-reading what I posted, I see and agree with your interpretation. When I read what I posted, I saw the sentence regarding the New Mexican chile following the sentence regarding drying the Anaheim and thought that the paragraph was saying that the dried Anaheim was often referred to as the New Mexican. After looking again, I see I was wrong.

  33. I love the mild to middling hot ones. My sisten in law makes this chile pepper with a sort of mole sauce with eggs for breakfast. My mouth is watering right now just thinking about it.

  34. wayne,

    Recipe please. It sounds awesome.

  35. If chilis predated pottery, I’m curious ..what did they keep them in?

  36. I’m thinking baskets.


  37. Chili peppers burn my gut! Why can’t we have hamburgers?

    MST3k lives,


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