Ohhh my!!!!! That salsa is hot! My mouth's on fire! Waiter? Do you have another salsa that's milder than this?
What the waiter, or owner, of that fictional restaurant, in some generic town in the Midwest many years ago should have done, was bring them out a bottle of ketchup.
But he didn't. He was too polite.
As for the commercial food processors...politeness had nothing to do with it. They simply go for the lowest common denominator, and if people want chiles, or food products based upon chiles, but can't take the heat...then goddammit, we'll just make chiles that aren't hot, That way, nobody gets left out. You can all go out for Mexican food, or make some pico de gallo at home, and nobody has the embarassing, ostracizing experience of being the only one in the crowd whose (can we all say "Wahhhhhhhhh?) mouth burns.
So....after years of genetic selection, the jalapeno has been made safe for Aunt Martha. And for those of us who do like it hot? Too bad. Use a serrano or habanero. At least until they breed the heat out of those, too. (Does anyone doubt that they're working on it?)
Because in America, everyone has to be included. And that means everything must be geared to the lowest common denominator. Anything else would be exclusive.
Wouldn't want Uncle Jim to have to ask for a hamburger while everyone else is eating enchiladas and chiles rellenos, would you? He might not feel like he's part of the crowd.
Let's just dumb everything down so that he can eat it without mopping his forehead with his napkin and furiously gesturing to the waiter for some more ice water.
Yes, as you can tell by now...this is a rant. But I'll also do my best to shed some light on what's happening here.
What in the Sam Hill has happened to the jalapeno pepper????
You don't have to take my word for it that jalapenos are a lot more bland these days. No less an authority than Rick Bayless, chef/owner of Chicago restaurants Frontera Grill and Topolobampo, and Mexican cookbook author, has noticed it for some time now. At a seminar he conducted on the cuisine of Mexico's Yucatan Region, he commented:
They’re breeding the heat out of jalapeños, and it’s all because of poppersActually, it isn't all because of poppers, but that ubiquitous appetizer, once found mainly in Tex-Mex restaurants in the Southwest, but now available at the Applebees in Wenatchee, WI or the Red Robin in Charleston, WV, is responsible for a lot of the changes that plant breeders have wrought on the Late, Great Jalapeno. Commercial Salsa producers share much of the blame as well, though.
Besides being much milder than they were just 30 years ago, you might also have noticed that the jalapeno is also much bigger. I mean, some of the jalapenos I see in the grocery store these days look like sex toys they are so huge. You can blame that on demands from the restaurant trade for jalapenos that can "hold more cheese" inside. Cause, you know, in America "more" is always "better."
Meet "Dr Pepper"
You know...I could almost understand it if this research were conducted at one of the Cow Colleges in the Upper Midwest...Purdue, Ohio State University, or Michigan State. But nooooooooooo, as Steve Martin would say. You know who is spearheading the research into neutering the great chiles? Researchers from Texas and New Mexico.
Case in point: Dr. Benigno “Ben” Villalon, aka "Dr Pepper." He's now retired. But the demise of the jalapeno pepper can largely be laid at his feet. He was a faculty member at Texas A&M who, back inn the mid 70's, was approached by the "Food Industry" based in San Antonio, TX, and asked to breed a toothless jalapeno.
"No problema", was his response. By 1981 he had achieved their ends. The TAM Mild Jalapeño-1. The magazine Texas Monthly conferred upon him their "Bum Steer Award" for his endeavors, but commercial seed growers flooded him with orders. Because, in America, nothing succeeds like catering to the lowest common denominator.
By the mid-90's, salsa surpassed ketchup as America's favorite condiment, fueled largely by sales into regions where people weren't used to hot sauces or real salsa, and didn't like anything "too spicy", but wanted to go along for the ride of America's love affair with Mexican and Tex-Mex food. Today, virtually all commercially produced salsa starts with neutered jalapenos...that makes the "Mild Salsa." The "Medium" or "Hot" salsa is made by adding not chiles, but pure capsaicin, which has been rendered to an ingredient like salt or sugar.
When Dr Pepper succeeded in producing a toothless jalapeno, he incurred the wrath of a small segment of Southwestern Culture who thought he was bastardizing a good and noble chile, but the economics of his research more than made up for the hate mail. He's not alone in this endeavor, by any means...but he got the ball rolling. Another researcher, in neighboring New Mexico's New Mexico State University has grasped the baton, and has been actively breeding not just for a mild jalapeno, but an absolutely "spiceless" jalapeno.
After Villalon retired from Texas A&M, his work was taken up by one Dr Kevin Cosby, at the same institution. I kid you not...I wrote the intro for this diary before I started digging into the background history, because I knew I had a rant, and I knew I had a story...and this is what I learned:
He has also developed a Serrano Chile with 25% less heat, so that people can make Pico de Gallo without the "pico."
His successor, Dr Crosby, has been working on the TAM Mild Habanero. Look, people...if we wanted a mild habanero, we wouldn't buy a habanero. We'd cook with something else. But once these seed varieties are developed, they become ubiquitous.
No grower wants to produce a crop that some segment of the consumer spectrum turns it's back upon, so they all go for the most inoffensive variety extant.
Virtually all commercial pepper growers plant some variance upon the TAM Mild Jalapeno-1. They grow them for the mass food market....Salsa makers and restaurateurs who want to concoct bland, inoffensive jalapeno poppers for Aunt Martha and Uncle Jim.
No offense to Martha or Jim, but people like you are why God created breaded cheese sticks and onion rings. Maybe we could sell more clam chowder in Omaha if we could just engineer clams that weren't so....I don't know...clammy.
Maybe we could sell more sourdough bread in Birmingham if we could just make it less...tangy. Oh wait...they've already done that.
The researcher at New Mexico State University who is working on the absolutely spiceless jalapeno? He has received lots of hate mail from people accusing him of "selling his soul to the Devil." But he has also gotten lots of orders from seed purveyors. Maybe we should engineer Hatch peppers so that they appeal to people in Sioux Falls, instead of people in Roswell or...well, Hatch, NM.
All I know is...I made a huge batch of what I intended to be some spicy potato salad two days ago, and I minced up about 4 of those dildo sized jalapenos into it...and I might as well have used bell peppers. I had to add cayenne pepper to the final product to get the desired "kick."
So thanks, Aunt Martha. And thanks "Dr Pepper." And thanks Pace Picante Sauce and all your brethren, for making a complete and total eunuch of the modern jalapeno.
I breathlessly await your achievements with the rest of the peppers out there.