It seems that over the past few years, there have been a number of books that make us think about food, where it comes from, and how it impacts our health. I’m thinking of Michael Pollan’s many top-selling titles, Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, or Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle… the titles are numerous and I’ve been impressed with nearly all of the “food books” that I’ve read over the past few years (in fact it’s become one of my genres of choice). Author’s Kurt Friese, Kraig Kraft, and Gray Nabhan make their own offering to the field with their recent title Chasing Chiles: Hot Spots Along the Pepper Trail with a new take on the food book.
Rather than focusing solely on the experience of food or its origins, Chasing Chiles takes a broader glance at the infamous chile pepper and its future in a world challenged by “global weirding” (a more robust term referencing the weather patterns created by global warming used by the authors). The authors follow the story of six different types of chile peppers within their indigenous locations in North America. During each of their pepper “hunts” the roving gastronauts (as they refer to themselves) explore the chile-laced cuisine of each region while taking the time to learn the history behind each species of pepper as well as to glance into its future.
Friese, Kraft, and Nabhan perform spectacularly in weaving together a narrative that is entertaining and easy to follow while at the same time capturing the uncertainty and raw emotion brought on by impending climate change. They certainly put in the work to get their research visiting several farms just days after they have been ravaged by new breeds of hurricanes and floods that visit much more frequently than they have in years gone by. What impressed me was their ability to wade through a variety of complex (and somewhat tedious subjects) in a way that was easy to understand. They truly framed the situation of each pepper and showing the linkages between each pepper and its home culture.
Chasing Chiles provides a new level of insight into how global climate change threatens to impact our food. Even if you remain skeptical about the human role in climate change, the authors provide a rather neutral assessment looking at the current state of chile production throughout the United States and letting the farmers feeling the brunt of the impact do the rest of the talking. As I mention earlier, the authors speak specifically of “global warming” explaining how shifting climate patterns (as opposed to just temperature increase) are changing how peppers are grown in North America and how the years ahead may hold some drastic shifts in not only cultivation techniques but also the geography of peppers.
Filled with a variety of knowledge on the horticulture and the evolution of chile peppers, Chasing Chiles makes a unique contribution to the food book genre. Each chapter ends with a handful of recipes that bring home the specific qualities of each of the peppers examined. Readers will enjoy following the authors in their journeys in the “Spice Ship” and will walk away with a much more nuanced knowledge of the incredible and diverse chile pepper.
Josh O’Conner is a Planner/Zoning Administrator in Asheville, North Carolina. You can find him on the web at triggerhippie.com, localplan.org, or twitter.com/joshoconner. Contact Josh via e-mail (josh -at-localplan.org). He was provided a copy of the book by Amazon for review.