If you’ve ever eaten a chile relleno in the desert borderlands, it is quite likely that it has some “curry” in it. Ed Curry, that is. Most long green chiles grown in the borderlands today have benefitted from the work of Ed Curry, a plant breeder who deeply cares about the excellence of flavor, fragrance, and texture in the foods he works with and eats.
Because he primarily uses protracted observation and patient riddle solving to guide his on-farm selection of superior vegetable varieties, Curry has become a rarity in the world of modern plant breeding, as he still breeds chiles with both the needs of the small farmer and the consumer in mind. He draws upon his vast knowledge of the diverse flavors, fragrances, textures, colors, and shapes of peppers, and combines these features in his varietal selections.
As such, Curry has gone from being treated as an “old fashioned plant breeder” by the lab scientists that have come to dominate crop improvement to being considered on the cutting edge of selecting seeds for the future of flavor by the likes of award-winning chef Dan Barber, vegetable historian Amy Goldman, and former Organic Seed alliance director Matthew Dillon, now with the Cliff Bar Foundation.
His skills to accomplish such work have evolved naturally over the last five decades, as Ed has long lived right on the farms where chile peppers grow. Now president of the Curry Seed and Chile Company based on the 1,200-acre Curry Farms in Pearce, you might say that Curry sees the world through the lens of a chile pod. Sometimes when I am listening to him talk, I feel as though I am hearing the voice of the chile pepper itself, for he has so profoundly contemplated what peppers have been in the past and so brilliantly envisioned what their potential may be for the future.
Curry was just a little “pepper sprout” when he flew with his father over to Hatch, New Mexico, and saw what a chile seed farm operation looked like for the first time; from that moment on, Curry seemed to sense that chiles would be the focus of his career. By 1957, Curry’s father had planted some chile trials on their own farm. The very next year, the Curry family went into pepper production in a big way, for they realized they were ideally situated in the Southwest’s “Chile Belt,” which stretches from West Texas up the Rio Grande to Hatch, and over the small of the back of the continental backbone to southeastern Arizona. Curry fondly recalls his childhood as a precocious “chile head”:
“By loving chiles all my life and getting this legacy of chile growing through my own family, all this determination welled up in me to make chiles better, you know, more flavorful, prolific, healthier, and easier to process. After almost a half century of daily engagement with them, I’ve come to believe that peppers are one of the most unique vegetables on earth because of the myriad ways we can process, store, and prepare them.”
But Curry is not merely informed by the hidden potential within peppers themselves; he has also been gifted with lifelong relationships with some of the most innovative players in the borderlands chile industry. Because his father was good friends with Gene and Judy England, co-founders of the Santa Cruz Chili & Spice Company, he grew up thinking about how long green and red pepper pods get harvested and processed into pastes, powders, or whole pods suited for canning. To this day, he is fast friends and business partners with the England’s daughter, Jeanie England Neubauer, who has strengthened and diversified her family’s company, based in Tumacacori. He has also worked for decades under the mentorship of the classic chile breeder Phil Villa; together, they released Arizona 20, the long green chile that has dominated the New Mexico chile canning industry for much of the last two decades.
When I mentioned to Curry that the state legislature of New Mexico has mandated that chiles grown within the state boundaries be labeled as distinct from all other chiles, he chuckled and said, “You should hear what Phil Villa had to say about that. After we released Arizona 20 with its stabilized level of heat, we were providing the New Mexican growers with somewhere around 80 percent of the seeds for their green chile crop for awhile. Phil says they couldn’t do without us!”
In essence, the chiles themselves don’t know which side of the Arizona-New Mexico border they are growing on, for the seed stock and soils which offer them their distinctive terroir are much the same on both sides of the line.
Curry and Villa first sought to stabilize the heat levels in chiles into distinctive selections for consumers who prefer either mild, medium, or the fiery hot. But they did not limit their endeavors to merely bracketing the pungency levels of peppers. They were also interested in providing the most compelling flavors and useful textures in chile selections.
“A few of us realized that thin-skinned chiles typically have such great flavor because when you roast them, you get this crispness and aroma expressed that some people just die for,” said Curry. By 1999, he and Phil Villa were exploring a newly recognized peel trait found in peppers that would be helpful to canners of green chiles as well.
“You know, I never wen t to college, but I love to learn,” said Curry. “And I have noticed a thing or two about the features of peppers that have later proven useful to more lab-oriented chile geneticists. That’s why they consulted with me while advancing the worldwide scientific project on the pepper genome that is trying to describe all the diversity found in peppers as well as the locations and linkages among genes.”
At the same time, Curry is painfully aware that not all traits in chiles can be explained by reductionist Mendelian genetics. He admits that he is “more and more fascinated by the field of epigenetics, which documents the outside environmental influences—sometimes multigenerational—on gene expression.”
But before Curry and I could drift off into esoteric science, he brought us back down to earth with an offer of lunch. “I’d like to whip you up some great chile rellenos and show you the world›s heaviest pepper pod that I keep in our deep freeze. On Nov. 6, 2009, it was accepted into the Guinness Book of World Records on account of it weighing 0.29 kilos, which I think comes out to 0.63 pounds,” he said. “You just have to stay to see that whopper! When it’s thawed, it stretches out to ten inches in length. We’ve kept it in our freezer all these years as a show-and-tell for folks like you who come here to fathom all that we could do with these chiles.” ✜
In addition to producing peppers for canning and paste under the Santa Cruz Chili & Spice label, Curry Farms also grows a dozen kinds of heirloom beans and other crops for their crop rotations and sales to the public. Visit SantaCruzChili.com.
Editor’s note: Chile and chili are both technically correct spellings; Ed Curry prefers chile while Jean Neubauer spells it chili.
Gary Paul Nabhan is an internationally celebrated nature writer, food and farming activist, and proponent of conserving the links between biodiversity and cultural diversity.