Kurt Michael Friese and two other chile lovers went on a year-long adventure to experience some of America's most interesting pepper varieties - from datil peppers only found in St. Augustine, Florida to the wild chiltepin peppers of Sorona, Mexico. They tasted local cuisine and experienced various pepper cultures firsthand.
But Chasing Chiles: Hot Spots Along the Pepper Trail gives the reader insight into more than just tasting and cooking these fiery foods. Friese and his colleagues spoke with farmers who are struggling to stay afloat (sometimes literally) as climate change wreaks havoc on weather patterns and, therefore, their yields.
Earth Eats spoke with Friese from his home in Iowa. Along with co-authoring Chasing Chiles, he is the owner and Chef Emeritus of Devotay in Iowa City and the publisher of Edible Iowa River Valley magazine.
Spice Dream Team
Annie Corrigan: The other two authors have very fancy titles: Kraig Kraft is an agroecologist and Gary Paul Nabhan is an ethnobotanist.
Kurt Michael Friese: Science geeks!
AC: As the chef, what did you bring to the pepper hunting team?
KMF: I brought a passion for chiles of course, but all three of us have that. I also brought a certain amount of culinary expertise and knowing what to do with these things once they come off the plant. My co-authors know a lot about the plants: how they grow, why and where. My job was to deal with them once they were harvested.
Native Pepper Dishes
AC: There are recipes in the book as well. It's nice a way for folks to actually experience the chiles they're reading about. I'd love for you to talk us through the pilau (pronounced PER-low).
KMF: Good for you, you pronounced it properly. I was roundly chastised and identified as a Yankee when I got to St. Augustine (Florida) and pronounced it pee-LAO.
It's a rice dish. It's a relative of the more familiar jambalaya or paella. It's a real staple in Northeast Florida, part of the so-called Cracker cuisine there. There is no church basement supper that goes without pilau. It can be made with just about any meat, and in fact one of the popular meats to use is turtle meat. More commonly, though, it's chicken, shrimp or some types of pork.
The highlight of it is the native pepper of that area called the datil, which is a wonderful chile pepper native to St. Augustine. Just about everyone has a five gallon bucket in their backyard with one or two plants growing out of it. But, you don't seem to be able to find that chile any place else, which is one of the things that attracted us to it. It's pretty hot, but it's got a sweet aspect to it as well. A unique flavor. I really enjoyed it. We've also got a recipe in that book for a datil pepper sauce that is my wife's favorite. I now end up having to make it every summer.
AC: If you can't get these datil peppers anywhere but in Florida, had you experienced them before this adventure?
KMF: I had experience a bottled sauce that is fairly popular among the folks who search for this sort of stuff called Dat'l Do-It. It's the one way that people around the rest of the country might be able to easily find this chile pepper.
AC: One other dish caught my eye, but it only received a two-sentence mention. It was the tabasco ice cream you tried at Robin's in Henderson, Louisiana. How was that?
KMF: It does strike some as odd, but I wasn't too surprised by it after an experience I had 20-something years ago in Santa Fe, New Mexico where I found a jalapeno Blizzard at the local Dairy Queen. So, it wasn't quite that weird to me.
It is what it sounds like it is: a vanilla ice cream base with Tabasco sauce in it. It's very simple to make for anybody who makes ice cream. It's fascinating because it's cold and hot at the same time. I think that's the cool thing about it.
Drawn To The Fire
AC: One of the first sentences attributed to you in the book is, “It's never too hot for me.” Surely you came across a pepper on your travels that challenged your spicy tolerance.
KMF: Oh yes! There are several, and that is a bit of braggadocio I suppose. There are some peppers out there that aren't even meant to be eaten. There's the now very famous Bhut Jolokia (or Naga Jolokia) from India. It is currently the reigning hottest pepper ever. The measurement called the Scoville Unit measures it as five to ten times hottest than a habanero. It was developed not so much as a food but as a weapon, to be used as pepper spray and that kind of thing. If you look around on You Tube, you'll find some rather foolish people eating this pepper and trying to be all macho about it and it never ends well.
AC: So you haven't tried it?
KMF: No, and I won't try that one. I can do a habanero, but even that is sort of pushing the limits for me. There are some hot sauces out there that are capsaicin extract (capsaicin is the chemical in a chile that produces that hot sensation). Those sauces are just foolish, and it's not wise to damage your palate that way.
AC: Why do you suppose so many of us enjoy being in pain while we eat, or challenging ourselves with these super hot peppers?
KMF: There are some scientists who think it's very much like a drug addiction. There's no doubt that chile peppers do create an endorphin rush, and I think that's what draws people back to it more and more.
The Weirding Of The Planet
AC: This book is really an exploration of global climate change with the main characters being the many varieties of chile peppers. It talks about droughts and floods in Sorona, Mexico; cold temperatures and floods in Florida; hurricane aftermath in Louisiana. Basically the gist is that we have unpredictable weather patterns that only seem to be getting weirder. What are the farmers doing to continue to grow food in spite of these horrible conditions?
KMF: If there's a real underlying theme to the book I think it would have to be resilience. We wanted to talk to the farmers and the chefs in these various regions to find out how they're reacting to these things, because they're on the front lines.
We see in the news that global climate change is coming, but the fact is it's already here. People are experiencing it everyday. It's not like how you see it in the movies where suddenly the oceans rise twelve feet. It doesn't work like that.
So, farmers are reacting by changing what they grow in many instances, or no longer growing these peppers at all, or finding them in other places. In the case of Sonora and the chiltepin peppers, it's not domesticated. People wander out into the desert and harvest this by hand in the wild. Weather patterns are changing and decreasing its numbers and making it quite valuable in fact.
AC: An interesting part of this is when you were speaking to some farmers who were saying, “I can grow avocados, I can grow all these other things here. If only my grandfather could see what I can grow now!”
KMF: That is a great example of what's going on. St. Augustine, where we saw those datil peppers, used to be the headquarters of citrus growing in Florida, but oranges can't grow anywhere near there anymore because the climate has changed and citrus has moved south.
Farmers need to be able to adapt, not only to the new climate, but to the new pests. There are economic impacts as well. They find themselves growing different stuff, competing with different farmers, and trying to sell to different markets than they did when they started out or when their father did this.
The Reality Of Field To Plate
AC: The tone of the book is part joy when you eat the food, experience the pepper culture, and meet the people, and part anger, fear and frustration, when you talk to the farmers. It's a good reminder of just what it takes to get good food to our plates. If you could speak for the farmers, what do you think they would want consumers to know about what they're experiencing these days?
KMF: Consumers need to be prepared to be resilient, too. The sorts of changes that I and other food advocates around the country and around world have been talking about – about a more localized and sustainable food system with much higher biodiversity – are going to happen, I guarantee it. The question is, is it going to happen the easy way or the hard way. The easy way is by no means easy, but the hard way is desperately, dustbowl hard. Nature insists on biodiversity, and if it's not there, nature will thrust it upon us, and it won't be pretty.
Keeping Food Dollars Local
AC: In the final chapter of the book, you present five principles that you think will help combat climate change. But you also acknowledge what some people might feel about the immense and complex issue of climate change: “…we feel like our personal efforts are mere drops in the bucket, and the bucket is not only large but leaking badly.” Talk to those folks.
KMF: There are a lot of people who think this is way beyond them, but it really does start with very simple decisions about where you get your food and trusting your food.
Most people, if you ask them their doctor's name, they can tell you their doctor's name. If you ask them their dentist's name, they can tell you that. They might even be able to tell you their banker's name or their lawyer's name. But, ask them their farmer's name, and they say, “What?” That's really strange to me. It's so important what we put into our bodies – it literally becomes us – it seems like we should put more attention and thought into that than we do into who our lawyer is.
So, knowing your farmer and obtaining your food locally is probably the simplest thing you can do right off the bat to help with these issues. Plus, it tastes better and it's better for you.
There are economic impacts as well. I live in Johnson County, Iowa. We've got about 50,000 households here, and if each of those households redirected just $10 of its existing grocery budget every week for buying something local – the farmers market, a CSA, eggs from the farmer down the road – it would keep nearly $26 million in our local economy every year. Translate that to bigger cities – Indianapolis, Chicago, New York – and think of the impact of $10, $20, or $30 that you keep right there, rather than sending it off to China by way of Fayetteville, Arkansas.