Few edibles are harder to pigeonhole than chile peppers. To start, what's the proper spelling? Is it chili, chilli, or chile? The South American country is Chile; cooks and chili-cook-offs use chili when referring to the dish chili con carne. The British prefer chilli, as do many folks in parts of the Southwest. To establish standard spelling for gardeners, the National Garden Bureau determined that most seed catalogs use chile when referring to the pepper, and when the pepper is an ingredient in an ethnic dish; that is the standard we'll use here.
No other edibles have the cachet of chile peppers. There is no macho connotation to eating carrots or tomatoes - no matter the color or size. Not many vegetables have a magazine and festival solely devoted to it. From the smallest cayenne used sparingly as a seasoning to the largest poblano stuffed for a vegetable, chile peppers are outstanding among vegetables.
What is it about a chile that has captivated humanity for millennia? Certainly, the plants with their ripe fruit in a range of colors from red through orange to yellow, green, purple, brown, and black are beautiful and eye-catching in the garden. Yet, it is in the kitchen that the passion for chiles and their diversity becomes evident. Their flavor - smoky, nutty, or fruity heat - are as varied as their looks, adding subtle to dynamic dimensions to any recipe.
There is the mystique - mostly masculine - about who can eat the hottest peppers without dire consequences. Some experts speculate chile pepper heat (and the subsequent oral pain) stimulates the production of endorphins in the brain, conferring a sense of well being similar to a runner's "high".
Depending on the time of year, many grocery stores stock up to half a dozen different kinds of fresh chile peppers. With such availability, why would anyone want to grow their own? Cooks enjoy having a variety of fresh chiles at hand - for their range of flavors, and for more control of the heat in the dishes she/he makes. A gardener grows chiles because they are so rewarding; extremely productive, less prone to diseases than other vegetables, and beautiful. Don't underestimate the competitive spirit - a chance to grow the hottest pepper on the block.
All peppers, scorching chiles to sweet bells - originated in Central and South America. Archeological evidence in Mexico suggests that native peoples gathered wild chiles as far back as 7,000 BC; by 2,500 BC they were cultivating chile peppers.
In his quest to find a shorter trade route to the East Indies in the late 15th century, Christopher Columbus ended up in the Caribbean where he sampled a vegetable grown by the natives. Its fiery taste was reminiscent of the spice black pepper (Piper nigrum) grown in the East Indies. With the flavor connection in mind, Columbus gave the piquant vegetable the moniker "pepper". He didn't know that black pepper was the berry of the tropical vine in the genus Piper and that the New World peppers are shrubby plants in the genus Capsicum.
Diego Alvarez Chanca, a physician on Columbus' second voyage to the West Indies in 1493, brought the first chiles back to Spain. From there, the Spaniards and Portuguese traded chile peppers throughout Southeast Asia and India, where they were quickly adopted by cultures already immersed in spicy foods. Use of chile peppers soon spread to the Middle East and throughout much of Europe.
Eventually chiles spread to North America - via Europe or the Caribbean; it's not clear. Here, chile peppers weren't an overnight sensation. Records dating to the Colonial days show that both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, at Mount Vernon and Monticello respectively, grew a cayenne pepper of some type. Chiles were occasionally used in some households, but basically as regional delights. They were hard to find outside New Orleans and the Southwest until the middle of the 20th century.