The Fiery Appeal of Hot Chile Peppers

Enthusiasts are drawn to their colorful culinary potential—or simply the thrill of the challenge

Grab a glistening, hot chile pepper—one jewel-toned beauty with a volcanic pedigree—and take the dare. Just know that once you pop that capsicum into your mouth, there is no turning back. No amount of water, beer, milk, or bread can fully put out the flame. 

Chiles growing in Mesilla Valley, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Of course, for every coughing and gasping amateur daredevil, there are dozens of die-hard chile-heads for whom the pain of eating hot peppers is all pleasure. The seared taste buds, watery eyes, and sinus-clearing fumes are part of the attraction, along with the hunt for evermore pungent pepper thrills. 

Red chiles © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bringing the Heat

Humans have been eating peppers for at least 9,000 years. While archaeologists pinpoint the eastern coast of Mexico as the cradle of cultivation, there’s evidence that around the same time, indigenous peoples were harvesting and eating wild peppers from what is now the southwestern United States through Mexico and south to Peru. 

Pecans, pistachios, and chiles at McGinn’s Pistachio Tree Ranch, Almagardo, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nobody knows exactly why humans crave the culinary drama of hot peppers, but scientists have come up with a few theories. The word addiction has been bandied about, in part because capsaicin, the substance that gives chiles their signature punch, causes pain followed by an immediate release of endorphins. Endorphins floating around the brain trigger a sense of euphoria. In addition, capsaicin releases chemicals that reduce the sensation of pain (which is why it is a popular ingredient in topical pain relievers). 

Related: Chile Peppers 101

Red chiles at Farmers and Craft Market, Las Cruces, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How Hot Is Hot?

In 1912, Parke-Davis Co. pharmacist Wilbur Scoville began exploring the capsaicin kick of different types of peppers. He wasn’t aiming for chile-head immortality but for a more efficient way to produce a capsaicin-laced liniment. He crushed chiles combined them with sugar water and had a panel of taste-testers take sips. Over time, Scoville diluted the chiles with more and more water until the tasters could no longer detect any heat in their cups. The pharmacist rated different chiles based on how much water was required to negate the capsaicin. 

Chiles growing in Mesilla Valley, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Scoville called his process the Scoville Organoleptic Test. Today, in his honor, pepper punch is measured in Scoville Heat Units (SHU) arranged on the Scoville Scale. No taste-tester tongues were harmed in the ranking process. Now, SHUs are measured using high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC), a process that measures the heat-generating chemicals in chiles.

Hot sauces at Billy’s Boudin, Scott, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For context, pure capsaicin ranks at 15 to 16 million SHUs, and sweet bell peppers come in at 0. In between is the Carolina Reaper at 2.2 million, orange habaneros at 150,000 to 325,000, cayenne peppers at 30,000 to 50,000, and jalapeños at 2,500 to 8,000.

Related: Feel the Burn

Pepper growers continue to try to out-spice each other with new tongue-searing cultivars. At any given time, a new hybrid could explode to the top of the scale.

Red chiles at Farmers and Crafts Market, Las Cruces, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sensory Perception

What are the mechanisms through which the human body responds to the varying degree of heat in chile peppers? As it turns out we didn’t know until very recently. In fact, in 1997, Dr. David Julius discovered the neural pathway that gets activated by capsaicin, causing spicy foods to feel “hot” when consumed.

Tabasco Factory, Avery Island, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And, on October 4, 2021, David Julius, a physiologist, and Ardem Patapoutian, a molecular biologist and neuroscientist, were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. The men were honored for their research into human sensory perception; each had, independently of the other, discovered mechanisms through which human bodies respond to touch and temperature.

Red chiles © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The importance of the five senses cannot be understated. They are mediums through which we experience and understand the world around us, transforming external stimuli into electrical signals that our brain translate into the sensations of sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. How exactly this transformation works out on a molecular level, however, was long unclear and still remains one of the most elusive questions in modern science.

Tabasco © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dr. Julius currently serves as the chair of the Department of Physiology at the University of California in San Francisco. In 1997, his team of researchers compiled a library of neural pathways that are activated by capsaicin, a compound that gives spicy foods like chile peppers their burning sensation when consumed. Along the way, Dr. Julius discovered TRPV1, the ion channel that acts as our primary capsaicin receptor.

Chiles growing in Mesilla Valley, New Mexico

In order to truly appreciate Dr. Julius’ discovery, a bit of context may be in order. Unless you build up a tolerance, eating spicy foods is painful. Peppers (and wasabi) give off a strange sensation that your mouth is on fire and for the longest time researchers simply couldn’t figure out why this was the case.

Tabasco Factory, Avery Island, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dr. Julius answered this question by showing us that TRPV1 is responsible for keeping our bodies safe from high temperatures. The channel responds not only to capsaicin but also to temperatures that are greater than 110 degrees Fahrenheit. TRPV1 also acts up when we are injured or sunburned, causing damaged tissue to feel hot to the touch. In all cases, the channel transmits a signal that our brains turn into the sensation of heat.

Tabasco Factory, Avery Island, Louisiana© Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A Matter of Taste

Chile aficionados know their way around the Scoville Scale but they also insist that chile varieties like grape varieties and wines have terroir. Put simply, terroir is a subtle turn of flavor based on the location where a pepper is grown. By this measure, a Hatch green chile from New Mexico will taste distinctly different from the same variety grown in California. 

Related: The Ultimate Guide to Hatch Chile Peppers

Tabasco Country Store, Avery Island, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Likewise, different peppers carry different signature taste prints. Habaneros are known for their fruity, floral flavors; jalapeños tend to be herbaceous; Thai chiles have an earthy flavor; Tabasco peppers have a slightly smoky taste. 

Experimenting with chiles of different pedigrees and forms—fresh, dried, crushed, powdered—could become a lifelong obsession. At what point does the chile overpower the food? What blends work together? What chile paste perfectly accentuates a stew, a kebab, barbecued ribs, or a block of tofu?

La Posta Restaurant, Mesilla, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Of course, while you’re pondering, shopping, and cooking remember one thing: capsaicin, the thing that brings the truth-or-dare pleasure and pain to hot peppers has exactly no flavor. None! So if you’re expecting to add a sweet, tart, or vegetal aura to your food, start with a pepper you can actually taste before moving up the scale. 

Red chile flavored pistachios at Eagle Ranch, Almadargo, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On Hot Pepper Sauces

Chile-heads love to sample and collect hot sauces for the flavor and potency of the specific elixirs as well as for the opportunity to grab a portable pepper fix. For most, the hot sauce hobby has the makings of a lifelong obsession simply because there are so, so many different commercially produced sauces to try.

Related: 4 Things to Know Before Visiting New Mexico

Tabasco Factory, Avery Island, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Market researchers quantify the U.S. hot pepper sauce market at around $1.2 billion as of 2018 with the spicy condiment snaring more than $2.3 globally. At any given time, more than 100 major brands are vying for a share of that pie.

Red chiles at Farmers and Crafts Market, Las Cruces, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The invention of hot sauce is credited to the ancient Aztecs who cultivated chili peppers to add some flavor and nutritional value to their limited food choices. By the time the conquistadors arrived, the Aztecs were already mixing peppers, herbs, and water into sauces and serving them on ancient versions of the corn tortilla.

Fast forward several hundred years and hot sauces have spread from their birthplace in Central America to North America, Europe, Asia, and outer space. Walk into your average grocery store and you’ll be confronted with a dazzling array of hot sauce bottles filled with liquids in red, green, yellow, and orange. Different brands come with different types of peppers, ingredients, spice levels, and suggested food pairings—and not all are created equal.

Tabasco Factory, Avery Island, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Edmund McIlhenny, a banker from Avery Island, Louisiana, founded Tabasco in 1868. The recipe evolved over time. A soldier returning from Mexico in 1840 gave McIlhenny, a known gardener, seeds from wild peppers he had collected. McIlhenny planted the seeds and the peppers that grew became the basis for Tabasco sauce. McIlhenny named the unique Mexican pepper strain for the sauce which he had already named for a region in Mexico. 

Tabasco Country Store, Avery Island, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To this day, Tabasco is made from the McIlhenny family’s original recipe: Tabasco peppers, vinegar, and salt aged in oak barrels for up to three years. Tabasco peppers are handpicked when they turn a deep red, which apparently signifies optimal flavor and heat.

Related: Avery Island: Touring Tabasco & Jungle Gardens

Tabasco © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tabasco has many competitors including regional hot sauces, sauces with international pedigrees, and sauces created for different cooking techniques. I’ve tried many of them including:

  • Louisiana Brand Hot Sauce which was engineered in New Iberia
  • Tapatío, a popular Mexico hot sauce with a guy with a sombrero on it that’s not actually a Mexican hot sauce but made in California
  • Cholula (Choe-loo-la), named for a 2,500-year-old city in Mexico but actually manufactured in Chapala in the Mexican state of Jalisco—not Cholula—and instantly identifiable by its signature wooden bottle cap
  • Crystal Hot Sauce, the best-selling Louisiana hot sauce that has been in New Orleans since 1923 and popular around the world
  • Frank’s Hot Sauce, a Louisiana-born sauce made from Cayenne red peppers, distilled vinegar, water, salt, and garlic powder

Worth Pondering…

Delectable chile-con-carne… composed of delicate meats minced with aromatic herbs and the poignant chile—a compound full of singular saver and a fiery zest.

—O. Henry, The Enchanted Kiss

The Ultimate Guide to Hatch Chile Peppers

Green chile season is heating up in New Mexico where the fiery peppers are an indispensable part of the local cuisine—and daily life

Hatch chiles grown today (in fact all New Mexican chile peppers) owe their genetic base from cultivars (cultivated variety) first developed by horticulturist Fabián Garcia at the New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts, now known as the New Mexico State University (NMSU). Starting in 1894, Fabián Garcia crossed several local pod types with the goal of improving them for the region. He sought larger, smoother peppers that were better for canning.

Following many years of crossing and growing, he released a variety called New Mexico No. 9 in 1913. All New Mexican chile peppers owe their genetic base to these peppers. Today, chile pepper studies continue at the Chile Pepper Institute in New Mexico, founded by Paul Bosland in order to study New Mexican peppers and others from around the world.

Red chile peppers © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hatch Chile Fever

To pay homage to the grandmother of all New Mexican chile peppers, consider a visit to Hatch, a small agricultural village in southern New Mexico known as the “Chile Capital of the World.” The oh-so-flavorful Hatch pepper is named after Hatch Valley where the bulk of Hatch peppers are grown. This is thanks to the river valley’s combination of nutrient-rich soil, intense sunlight, and cool desert nights.

Unlike other peppers, Hatch comes in different seed varieties that cover the full spectrum of heat levels. Typically, the mild to medium-hot varieties are more readily available. Then, there is red vs. green peppers. For those that didn’t know, red peppers are the same but have simply been left on the plant longer to ripen.

La Posta de Mesilla © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In preparing Hatch Valley’s famous peppers, a 40-pound burlap sack of green chiles is dropped into a gas-fired roaster. The flames roar as chiles tumble in the rotating wire cage and the thick, sharp scent permeates throughout the area. First, it’s high heat, then low!

These chiles are the centerpiece of the meal which is itself the pinnacle of New Mexico cuisine, a distinctive craft in which the Land of Enchantment takes such pride. The state has made chiles the “Official State Food” and designated “Red or Green?” the “official state question” referring to which kind of chile diners prefer on their enchiladas.

Chile Ristras © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The harvest begins most years in late July and extends into October. Labor Day weekend heralds the annual Hatch Chile Festival, a celebration of their world-famous crop. Despite the town’s tiny size, Hatch swells to more than 30,000 people during the two-day festival. The event features chile ristra contests, artisan and food booths, and a carnival. This year marks 50 years since the festival’s inception. The pandemic thwarted last year’s celebration making the 2021 gathering extra-special.

For first-time visitors, it’s not a stretch to think the hot chiles the farmers grow in these fertile fields are hazardous (a sentiment first-time chile tasters often feel today). But I quickly grew to love the chiles and can’t imagine daily life without the fiery and tasty peppers.

Red chiles by the sack © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Chiles of the World

Those first chiles were what are called landrace varieties, a term referring to crop types that people develop by saving seeds and adapting them to their specific growing area. Chiles and chile seeds were no doubt traded up and down the Rio Grande Valley for centuries among indigenous peoples, then Hispanic settlers. The distinctive chiles so familiar today date back to the early 20th century.

In the world, there are literally thousands of chile types. They originated in Mesoamerica and spread rapidly across the globe after Christopher Columbus brought New World foods back to Europe. In Africa, southern Europe, Asia, and the Pacific, backyard growers did their own breeding, just as New Mexico growers did.

Chile Ristras © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Of those thousands of chile types, the ones that form the backbone of Hatch pepper production are called—surprise—“New Mexican pod” varieties and the original types have been supplemented often with new cultivars developed at New Mexico State.

Chile farming today is vastly different from a century ago. Most of the fields have buried drip irrigation that feeds steady moisture to the plant roots. A six-year rotation schedule fends off soil-borne diseases; when they aren’t growing chiles, Hatch farmers produce alfalfa, onions, and cotton, among other crops.

Red chile peppers © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hatch Chiles

The Hatch Chile Association has obtained a federal-type certificate and a trademark for chiles grown there. But there’s more than one kind of “Hatch chile” ranging from modern mild types to older, hotter varieties. Charger (hybrid Anaheim) chiles, a medium-hot favorite grown to be used green, can range from 500 to 3500 on the Scoville scale (which extends past 1 million for ghost peppers and such); Big Jims are milder, Anaheim-like; Sandias are hotter and grown for ripening; Lumbres is hotter still, and the list goes on.

And if the list of thousands of chile varieties, all with different shapes, colors, flavors, and levels of heat, isn’t complex enough, consider that all of those chile types produce fruits that vary from plant to plant—sometimes from pod to pod on the same plant.

Get to know the many varieties of Hatch chile peppers. Following are some of the most popular developed for and grown in the Hatch area.

Red chiles by the sack © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

NuMex Big Jim: This giant chili pepper was introduced by NMSU in the 1970s as a cross between a few different types of local chiles and a Peruvian chile. They measure 10-12 inches and mature to red but are usually harvested and used when green. The peppers have actually been listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for being the largest chile ever grown. Big Jim chili peppers are about as hot as a milder jalapeno pepper (Scoville Heat Units: 2,500-3,000 SHU), so you’ll get a bit of heat, but not very much, depending on your heat tolerance and preference.

La Posta de Mesilla © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

NuMex Sandia: Another hybrid chili pepper developed by the NMSU, the Sandia grows to 6-7 inches and is similar to the Anaheim pepper. They start green and ripen to red but are often used while green. Like so many other peppers from this region, the red ones can be dried to make decorative ristras. They are also great for roasting, making chiles Rellenos, or for use in salsas. Slightly hotter than a jalapeno (Scoville Heat Units: 5,000-7,000 SHU), it adds quite a kick to dishes and salsa but not overwhelming heat.

NuMex Joe E. Parker: This New Mexico variety was named after Mr. Joe E. Parker, a graduate of NMSU’s College of Agriculture and Home Economics who helped to evaluate this selection of chile. It originally came from one plant selected from a field of open-pollinated New Mexico 6-4 peppers. The chiles grow to about 8 inches in length and 1.8 inches in width and can be used either in their green or red stage. Although similar to the New Mexico 6-4 in flavor and heat (Scoville Heat Units: 1,500-3,000 SHU), green color, and size, it is generally preferable to the New Mexico 6-4 because of its higher chile yield, its thicker walls, and its ability to continue to produce red chiles after the initial green fruit harvest. The NuMex Joe E. Parker can be a great chile for canning whole and is excellent for chiles Rellenos or for grilling or roasting due to its thicker walls.

Red chile peppers © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

NuMex Heritage 6-4: The New Mexico 6-4 Heritage chile pepper was developed around 1998 from a seed bank of the original New Mexico 6-4. The original NM 6-4 which was released in 1957 had “run out” meaning that after so many years of commercial growing, it had lost much of its flavor and aroma and had increased its variability in heat levels, maturity date, and yield. Dr. Paul Bosland along with NMSU’s Chile Pepper Institute and Biad Chili used seeds from the original NM 6-4 that had been frozen in a storage lab to create the new line of chile. Dr. Bosland grew the peppers for three years perfecting the line by selecting for more flavor and improved yield. The result was a chile (Scoville Heat Units: 3,000-5,000 SHU) with five times more flavor and aroma than the original and the flavor is even stronger and richer when it’s roasted. They grow to 5-8 inches in length.

Barker Extra Hot: The Barker’s Hot chili pepper is an extra-hot chile (SCOVILLE HEAT UNITS: 15,000-30,000 SHU), the hottest of the Anaheim/New Mexico variety and it has great flavor. They grow to 5-7 inches in length and can be used just as you would use an Anaheim with an extra punch. This variety originally comes from a selection of native New Mexican chiles so it naturally grows well in very hot, dry climates. The peppers ripen from green to red with the red fruits growing hotter than the green ones. The fruits have thin skins making them great for roasting, frying whole, canning, or stuffing. They also make deliciously hot salsa.

La Posta de Mesilla © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How Hot is Hot?

Talk about heat! The 7 Pot Douglah is an extremely hot pepper (SCOVILLE HEAT UNITS: 923,889 – 1,853,986 SHU) from Trinidad. Its skin is notably dark chocolate brown and somewhat pimpled. It starts off green but matures to a rich brown. It is one of the Hottest Peppers in the World. Aside from the color, it looks very much like other superhot chili peppers, roughly habanero shaped, about two inches long. The hottest 7 Pot Douglas is about 232 times hotter than the hottest jalapeno pepper and more than 5 times a very hot habanero pepper.

La Posta de Mesilla © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hooked on the Heat

My introduction to green chile came long ago at a variety of restaurants in Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Las Cruces, and Mesilla. My palate sizzled with capsaicin. Endorphins fizzed in my veins like butter. It was the start of a lifelong love affair and chiles have been a constant in my diet ever since. Once you get hooked, you can’t get unhooked. It’s an addiction, but it’s a good one.

Worth Pondering…

Delectable chile-con-carne… composed of delicate meats minced with aromatic herbs and the poignant chile—a compound full of singular saver and a fiery zest.

—O. Henry, The Enchanted Kiss

The Essential Guide to Eating Texas

Everything a foodie should know about the Lone Star State

Of course, you’re bound to get hungry on any Texas road trip. Since the Lone Star State is populated by predominantly devout carnivores laying claim to about 268,820 square miles of land, there are countless restaurants to discover (or re-discover). So we rounded up a list of the best small-town places to visit when you’re making your way around the Lone Star State.

The best road trips are the ones that involve delicious food, am I right? Texas is just full of so many amazing places to eat and it seems impossible to try all of them in a lifetime—so we’re done the next best thing and tried a few of the very best, most iconic restaurants in Central Texas.

Smitty’s Market © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Smitty’s Market, Lockhart 

The black soot covering Smitty’s foyer and pit room is a good sign—it means the place is alive and kickin’ after all these years. Go for the Texas trinity of brisket, pork ribs, and sausage, fresh from the pit, and throw on a pork chop or shoulder clod if you’re feeling wild. This is the kind of spot where asking for sauce is welcome and it’s a tasty sauce indeed. 

Weikel’s Bakery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Weikel’s Bakery, La Grande

Weikel’s Bakery prides itself in making authentic from-scratch Czech pastries like Kolaches and Klobasnikies (Pigs-in-a-Blanket) and many other baked goods. The bakery has become a traditional stopping point for many travelers on Highway 71 between Austin and Houston. Some say this Czech bakery’s kolaches are the best in the state.

Black’s Barbecue © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Black’s Barbecue, Lockhart

Smoked Texas barbecue puts smiles on faces. Black’s is one of the most iconic barbecue joints in Texas. From brisket so tender it practically melts in your mouth to fall-off-the-bone ribs smoked in the most flavorful marinade you’ll ever taste, I guarantee you’ll be leaving the table more than a little full.

Kloesel’s Steakhouse © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Kloesel’s Steakhouse, Moulton

It was hard to believe the locals when we were told that one of the best restaurants around was Klosel’s. After some hesitation we stopped for lunch en route to the little brewery in Shiner and give it a shot and what a pleasant surprise. The food was truly amazing and good value with great atmosphere and friendly service. We have eaten here over the years numerous times and have always been impressed with their food. Particularly love their chicken fried steak—and desert.

Black’s Barbecue © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Kreuz Market, Lockhart 

Kreuz Market (pronounced ‘Krites’) might be the most unique dining experience you’ve ever had. The beef, sausage, or pork is served on brown butcher paper. No side dishes here. But you can enjoy a slice of cheddar cheese, chunk of onion, tomatoes, avocado and your favorite beverage. Don’t ask for barbecue sauce. They don’t have it and quite honestly are offended if anyone asks. The owners say, ‘good barbecue doesn’t need sauce.’

City Market © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

City Market, Luling

There are few places we love as much as the pit room at City Market. Entering the smoke-filled, glass-enclosed chamber at the back of the dining room is an experience you will remember for decades—a trip into an iconic, sacred space in the world of barbecue.

The City Market serves brisket, ribs, and sausage rings on butcher paper. They’re great as-is but house-made sauce is significant. The brisket is terrific as are pork ribs, but City Market’s great dish is a sausage ring. A swinging door leads into a back-room pit where pit men assemble meats on pink butcher paper. They take your money then gather the edges of the paper together so it becomes a boat-like container you easily can carry back into the pine-paneled dining room.

Truth BBQ © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Truth BBQ, Brenham

Walking in we’re offered samples of brisket and a delicious side. The first bite announces the fact that youthful proprietor Leonard Botello IV has been an admirer of the handiwork of other masters of the craft, notably Franklin Barbecue’s Aaron Franklin. The pork ribs are decadently moist and slightly sweetened with a glaze. The brisket possesses an intense meaty flavor, subtle but deep smoke penetration, and a fine black-pepper crust. And the sides—can we talk about the sides? There is creamy mac and cheese with sizzling bacon crumbled on top; slow-cooked collard greens; rapturously buttery corn pudding; and bright, crisp slaw.

Original Kountry Bakery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Original Kountry Bakery, Schulenburg

In 1979, Evelyn Besetsny and her husband Clarence started a bakery in a little house along Highway 77. Evelyn’s recipes came down from the Czech lands through her mother, Caroline Valicek. Those basic recipes for kolaches, strudel, and pigs haven’t changed, either. Clarence and Evelyn retired in 2007 but their daughter Lynn Heller carries on the tradition today. Heller has added a few items over the years like sauerkraut pig-in-the-blankets, jalapeno pigs, bacon and cheese rolls, and boudin pigs. Kountry Bakery’s stew and chilli are also lunchtime favorites. And the best part about eating lunch at Kountry Bakery are all the sweets to pick up for desert.

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

I am not a glutton—I am an explorer of food.

—Erma Bombeck

Texas BBQ: By Meat Alone

Everything you need to know about Texas BBQ

The American barbecue tradition is rooted in numerous ancient practices. Caddo Indians had a method for smoking venison and in the West Indies, natives grilled meats on a frame of green sticks. Indeed the English word barbecue came from the Arawak-Carib word barbracot (via the Spanish word barbacoa).

Black’s Barbecue, Lockhart © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When European colonists arrived in the New World, no doubt tired of all the salt cod from the long Atlantic passage, they found a local population that roasted fish, birds, corn—pretty much anything at hand. The newcomer’s contribution was to introduce a tasty new animal: the hog.

City Market, Luling © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Not only was this beast a marked improvement over the previous fare, but its own habits proved well suited to the Eastern seaboard. In rural areas and colonial towns, pigs would roam freely, indiscriminately eating trash until someone decided to roast them, which was done in the local manner—a hole in the ground, a fire, and a split hog laid directly above it on a wood frame. 

Truth BBQ, Brenham © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The first recorded mention of American barbecue dates back to 1697 and George Washington mentions attending a “barbicue” in Alexandria, Virginia in 1769.

As the country expanded westwards along the Gulf of Mexico and north along the Mississippi River, barbecue went with it.

Barbecue in its current form grew up in the South, where cooks learned to slow-roast tough cuts of meat over fire pits to make them tender. This Caribbean style of slow cooking meat formed the basis of the Southern barbecue tradition that influenced Texas when some of its first American settlers arrived.

Truth BBQ, Brenham © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

European meat smoking traditions were brought by German and Czech settlers in Central Texas during the mid-19th century. The original tradition was that butchers would smoke leftover meat that had not been sold so that it could be stored and saved. As these smoked leftovers became popular, many of these former meat markets evolved to specialize in these smoked meats.

Truth BBQ, Brenham © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The wood-smoking traditions of the Lone Star State’s distinct barbecue styles vary by regions:

  • Central Texas “meat market” style, in which spice-rubbed meat is cooked over indirect heat from pecan or heavy post oak wood, a method that originated in the butcher shops of German and Czech immigrants
  • Hill Country and West Texas “cowboy style,” which involves direct heat cooking over mesquite coals and uses goat and mutton as well as beef and pork
  • East Texas style, essentially the hickory-smoked, sauce-coated barbecue with which most Americans are familiar
  • South Texas barbacoa, in which whole beef heads are traditionally cooked in pits dug into the earth

The barbecue is typically served with plenty of thick sauce (either slathered on the meat or on the side for dipping or both), and then sides of coleslaw, potato salad, pinto beans, and fat slabs of white bread.

Black’s Barbecue, Lockhart © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you want to sink your teeth into excellent brisket then head to Lockhart, the official Barbecue Capital of Texas. The small town is home to four major barbecue restaurants: Black’s Barbecue, which has been owned by the same family since 1932; Chisholm Trail Bar-B-Que; Smitty’s Market; and Kreuz Market (pronounced Krites).

Heavy on the pepper, the snappy beef-and-pork sausage at Kreuz Market is truly one of the best in Barbecueland. The pork spareribs taste fresh, with plenty of juicy, delicious meat on them, and the beef ribs are scrumptious.

Smitty’s Market © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Only the uninitiated use the front door at Smitty’s Market. You’ll enter the boxy brick building from the parking lot passing the waist-high brick pits and peruse the list of post oak–smoked meats—brisket, pork ribs and chops, shoulder clod, sausage, and prime rib. Salivating, you place your order for a pound or so of meat. May this bulwark of tradition never change.

City Market, Luling © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Instead of a mesmerizing encounter with a picturesque fire blazing at the end of an ancient brick pit like you’ll find at Smitty’s, at Black’s you’re funneled through a narrow corridor past a salad bar. When you finally reach the meat counter, you’ll find great brisket, enormous beef short ribs, pork ribs, pork chops, smoked turkey breast, and Black’s signature sausage (90 percent beef, 10 percent pork) with phenomenal flavor.

Luling Bar-B-Q, Luling © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Heading south on Highway 183, the City Market in Luling is just 15 miles away. Admired as one of the best barbecue places in Texas, City Market offers brisket, sausage links, and pork ribs. They also offer pinto beans and a homemade mustard-based sauce which is out-of-this-world.

Truth BBQ, Brenham © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While in Brenham (think, Blue Bell ice cream) I decided to check out a rising star, Truth BBQ on the west side of town. Truth looks too cute to be serving serious barbecue. The carefully curated interior—with its hand-lettered signs, Texas license plates, and Instagram-ready desserts—is a far cry from a no-frills meat market or a rusty roadside pit. Walking in we’re offered samples of brisket and a delicious side. The first bite announces the fact that youthful proprietor Leonard Botello IV has been an admirer of the handiwork of other masters of the craft, notably Franklin Barbecue’s Aaron Franklin.

Truth BBQ, Brenham © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The pork ribs are decadently moist and slightly sweetened with a glaze. The brisket possesses an intense meaty flavor, subtle but deep smoke penetration and a fine black-pepper crust. With every bite I liked my visit more. And the sides—can we talk about the sides? There is creamy mac and cheese with sizzling bacon crumbled on top; slow-cooked collard greens; rapturously buttery corn pudding; and bright, crisp slaw.

Truth BBQ, Brenham © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Somehow you must leave room for one of Truth’s five or so different monster cakes, which Botello’s mother, Janel, makes from scratch. And on the way out the “Love Texas” sign makes a perfect background for selfies. Truth BBQ is the real deal, get out there the next chance you can. If you don’t believe me, they have a 5 star rating on Yelp and Trip Advisor.

Truth BBQ, Brenham © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On a trip to the Coastal Bend we checked out Mumphord’s Place BBQ in Victoria and it did not disappoint. The minute we parked, I was drawn to the action out back where the pit master tends the glowing fireboxes and pits in the screened-in shed. This is “cowboy-style” barbecue, where the wood is burned to coals, then transferred to large metal pits in which the meat is placed on grates set about four feet directly above the heat.

Truth BBQ, Brenham © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The flavor is good, and in a part of the state where quality ’cue of any kind is scarce, Mumphord’s does a better than decent job. Part of the fun is being there, in the room with its red-checked tablecloths, sports photos, trophies, cow skulls, an ancient icebox, a sword, old firearms and cameras, beer cans, and heaven knows what else. 

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

You don’t need no teeth to eat my beef.

—from Legends of Texas BBQ

Find Your Passion: What Type of Road Trip Is Right For You?

The open road is calling

After an unpredictable first half of 2020, we can all agree that we’re itching to travel. Road trips have been a huge summer trend in the current climate mainly because it’s safer than flying. You’re in complete control of your adventure—there’s no waiting in airport security lines, sitting in crowded spaces, or fees for missing your departure. There’s a sense of adventure that’s so satisfying, discovering all that America has to offer…right in your backyard.

Gettysburg National Military Park, Pennsylvania © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A recent survey conducted by Ford Motor Company found that people are really looking to reconnect with friends, family, and the great outdoors in their travels this summer. More than a third of the respondents ranked wanting to visit family or friends who live within driving distance as their top reason for taking a road trip. Considering the impact of social distancing and restrictions on being able to travel this makes sense. The survey also found that people are looking to slow down and make the most of their time away from home. More than 20 percent wanted to take a road trip just so they could explore and see the sights along the way to their destination.

Greenville, South Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Planning an RV road trip has endless opportunities from camping beside a lake or river, visiting national parks, roadside attractions, tasting the local cuisine, or even taking some time for well-deserved relaxation. You’re not restricted to flying on a schedule, renting a car, and booking a hotel like other vacations. And it’s okay if it doesn’t go as planned—it might actually be more fun. Veering off on the road less traveled also makes for a great adventure. Not sure what type of road trip to take? Here are three different themes around which to plan your summer road trip.

El Moro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

National Park Road Trip

Yes, we all know the Grand Canyon (it’s breathtaking) and Joshua Tree (it’s amazing) but did you know that there are 419 National Park Service sites in America? Of these, 62 have a national park designation. Planning a road trip to visit national parks is for the history buff and outdoorsy type who enjoys hiking and camping.

Mount St. Helens National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Discover hidden gems like El Moro in New Mexico, Mount St. Helens in Washington, and Cumberland Island in Georgia. Explore the Mighty Five in Utah planning a camping adventure along the way. Chances are there are lesser-known national parks within a few hours of your home that you’ve never visited, possibly Cedar Breaks in Utah, Gettysburg in Pennsylvania, or Montezuma Castle in Arizona.

Texas BBQ © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Taste America Road Trip

As much as tourists want to see the sights, they also want to taste the local food. For the foodies out there, that’s what road trips revolve around. They’re known for finding the best restaurants, seeking out underground spots, and trying cuisine that they can’t get back home.

Kolaches at Weikel’s Bakery in La Grande, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Creating a road trip around food can literally go anywhere. Definitely make some stops down south for some true southern hospitality. Texas barbecue pitmasters provide an excuse for a road trip to just about any far-flung corner of Texas.

Cracklins © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Louisiana’s food is legendary. Rôder (pronounced row-day) in Cajun French means to roam, or run the roads and Lafayette is the perfect destination, Southern Living’s Tastiest Town in the South. Where else can you tour a rice plantation, a crawfish farm, and a pepper growing facility before enjoying a dish that combines them all? Avery Island’s Tabasco Experience is perhaps the most well-known foodie attraction. And the area also has its own Boudin Trail. Don’t miss the opportunity to chow down on dishes like crawfish etouffee, cracklins, and gumbo.

La Posta in Historic Mesilla, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

No adventure in New Mexico is complete until you have experienced their unique cuisine. Unlike any other, it is a blend of flavors from Spanish and Native American cultures that has been perfected over the course of 400 years. At the center of it all is the New Mexican chile in both red and green varieties which is used in everything from enchiladas to ice cream and wine. Whether you’re looking for a dining experience that’s received a James Beard award or an authentic dive off the beaten path, you will find it here.

Woodford Reserve Distillery tour © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Along with food, add some brewery tour stops to explore local beer and spirits too. Take a trip on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail to discover heritage sites, working distillery tours, tasting rooms, a whiskey museum, and the rolling green pastures of Bluegrass Country.

Giant Peachoid © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Roadside Attractions

All manner of strange and interesting pit stops are found across the country. Road trips wouldn’t be nearly as exciting without these alluring, wacky, and fun landmarks. America plays host to some of the weirdest off-beat roadside attractions found anywhere. Check out these six strange roadside attractions on your next road trip across the country: Paisano Pete (giant roadrunner) in Fort Stockton, Texas; Peachoid in Gaffney, South Carolina; desert sculptors in Borrego Springs, California; World’s Largest Killer Bee in Hidalgo, Texas; World’s Largest Roadrunner in Las Cruces, New Mexico; and World’s Largest Pistachio in Alamogordo, New Mexico.

World’s Largest Pistachio © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Better stock up on boudin and pork cracklins, kolache and doughnuts, and other snack foods—there are going to be many, many detours in your future.

World’s Largest Roadrunner © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

No matter which way you road trip, you’ll get to see America through a lens that perhaps you didn’t experience before. After being kept home for months with previous trips cancelled, it’s a journey of self discovery and learning more about off-beat places in America. It will demonstrate that you don’t need to hop a plane and fly across the ocean to seek adventure. Who knows where the road will take you, but I’m sure it’ll make for a great story. And don’t forget your camera!

Worth Pondering…

Destination is merely a byproduct of the journey.

—Eric Hansen

Czech Please: We Gotcha Kolache!

This tasty Czech pastry is now a Texan tradition

Though COVID-19 has stalled a lot of travel plans, we hope our stories can offer inspiration for your future adventures—and a bit of hope.

Czechoslovakia is probably not the first country that comes to mind when people set out to identify the ethnic influences on Texas food. However, any Central Texan who has ever sunk their teeth into the soft, yeasty cloud of a fruit kolache knows that Czechs bring a delicious contribution to the Texas culinary table.

Czech immigrants began arriving in Texas during the mid-to late nineteenth century entering through the busy port of Galveston and spreading out though the central part of the state. At one point that area had over 200 Czech-dominant communities.

St. Mary’s Catholic Church in High Hill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

They settled in rural areas and became farmers and craftsmen whose society revolved mostly around family life and the Catholic Church. The Czechs rich cuisine was based on roasted meats with noodles and dumplings; homemade sausages, potatoes, and sauerkraut; and baked goods such as fruit strudels and kolaches.

Kolaches at Weikel’s Bakery in La Grande © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Kolaches came to the Lone Star State with 19th-century immigrants from Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia and continued making their native pastries over wood stoves when they settled in Central Texas. The kolache is the most prominent edible symbol of Texas Czech culture.

Kolaches at Weikel’s Bakery in La Grande © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Kolaches are made with sweetened yeast dough formed into rolls and filled with fruit or cheese before baking. Classic Czech fillings are prune, apricot, poppyseed, and cottage cheese though other fruit fillings such as cherry, peach, and apple have become popular as well.

Kolaches at Weikel’s Bakery in La Grande © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Just as the Czech koláč became “ko-lah-chee” on the tongues of Texans, kolache fillings evolved over time. As the pastry grew in popularity bakers developed new flavors from cream cheese and lemon to Philly cheese steak and the distinctly Texan sausage known as Klobasnikies (Pigs-in-a-Blanket) even though no kolache would contain meat in Eastern Europe. It is a taut-skinned, rugged-textured kielbasa sausage fully encased in a tube of tender-crumb bread that is finer than any hot dog bun we’ve ever eaten.

Kolaches at Weikel’s Bakery in La Grande © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

No true Czech wedding feast would be complete without a bountiful supply of kolaches on the dessert table and the homemade varieties are always a fixture at Czech church functions and heritage society gatherings. Now that kolaches are also available in local bakeries, they can be a delightful everyday treat.

Kolaches at Weikel’s Bakery in La Grande © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Just north of Waco the small town of West (known for clarity’s sake as “West Comma Texas”) is the state’s kolache capital where descendants of Czech immigrants make these little square pastries that hold a dollop of fruit rimmed by a puffy pillow of supple dough.

Kolaches at Weikel’s Bakery in Brenham © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“Koláče are sold warm from the oven,” assures the sign above the counter at the Village Bakery, a shop with three small tables and one circular ten-seat table that hosts a community coffee klatch most mornings. Apricot and prune are the flavors favored by old-timers along with poppy seeds and cottage cheese. Tourists tend to like fruitier versions—apple, strawberry, blueberry—as well as those made with cream cheese.

Weikel’s Bakery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Like any baked pastry the fresher the kolache the better it is. Philip Weikel, of Weikel’s Bakery in La Grange once had a customer pay $80 for overnight air shipping of $5 worth of kolaches. But ground service works too—Weikel’s dough defies the laws of staleness. It stays light, moist, and soft for four or five days something he attributes to the way it is made and handled. “That’s the secret that separates us from bakeries that buy kolache mix in fifty-pound bags: tenderness,” he says. “Tenderness now and tenderness tomorrow.”

Kolaches at the Original Kountry Bakery in Schulenburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Czech-Americans throughout Texas have given Weikel’s kolaches the thumbs-up.

There are no kolaches anywhere more beguiling than Weikel’s little apricot rectangles in which the fruit’s sunny sour taste accentuates the sweetness of the pastry around it.

Original Kountry Bakery in Schulenburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A word of warning: Weikel’s bears little resemblance to the charming old-world kolache shops in West and elsewhere in Texas. You could walk in for a Coke and a beef stick and not notice that there is something extraordinary at the back of the store where the bakery does business. The place looks like a gas station, which is what it is.

Kolaches at Weikel’s Bakery in La Grande © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Weikel’s Bakery prides itself in making authentic, from scratch, Czech pastries. Weikel’s second location in Brenham features a full-scale baking operation, indoor seating for 16, and a menu of an extensive assortment of kolaches, klobasniky (pigs-in-a-blanket), sweet rolls, pies, bread, muffins, cookies, and cakes as well as a coffee, tea, and soft drinks beverage counter.

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering… Eat dessert first. Life is uncertain.

—Ernestine Ulmer

4 Things to Know Before Visiting New Mexico

New Mexico may seem like it’s all about diverse cultures, world-class art, and landscapes fading away to glistening horizons—and it is, but that’s just the tip of the chile

New Mexico is truly an enchanted place. Explore everything the state has to offer—from breathtaking sunsets to fabulous local cuisine, New Mexico has it all.

D. H. Lawrence, writing in 1928, pretty much summed it up: “The moment I saw the brilliant, proud morning shine high up over the deserts of Santa Fe, something stood still in my soul.”

Albuquerque as seen from Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Land of Enchantment, the state motto of New Mexico, is certainly an apt description of a state with diverse landscape and population. This is a state in which the air is crisp, the water fresh, and the people warm and friendly. 

Elephant Butte Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Over the years we have enjoyed several road trips through New Mexico. New Mexico is a truly unique place, with gorgeous landscapes ranging from white sand deserts to snow topped mountains. If you are an outdoorsy person, you will be in heaven. If you are more of a “sit in the air conditioning and drink margaritas” person, you will be in heaven too.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There is really something for everyone in this state. I will go into more detail about things to see and do in future posts, but here are four tips that will help you make the most of your trip!

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. No adventure in New Mexico is complete until you have experienced the cuisine. The food is not like anything else in the country. The closest relative is Tex-Mex which is generally heavier and emphasizes meat, cheese, and cream sauces. New Mexican food relies more on fresh ingredients, chili sauces, and salsas.

Red chiles from Hatch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Right away we noticed the lack of cheese on the dishes. After spending numerous winters in Arizona and Texas, we expected as much shredded cheddar on our plate as anything else. Not the case in NM!

Cotton fields in the Mesilla Valley south of Las Cruces © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Additionally, many ingredients are taken from Native American culture like hominy, blue masa, and lots of fresh vegetables. Of course, I also need to mention New Mexicans love their chiles!

La Posta de Mesilla is a great stop for foodies in the Las Cruces area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Chiles are the soul of New Mexican cooking, which blends Native American and Hispanic influences into a cuisine unto itself. New Mexico’s largest agricultural crop, chiles come in both red and green varieties. Across the state Chile is consumed at every meal, is celebrated in songs and at festivals, and is the subject of the Official New Mexico State Question, Red or Green? estimated to be uttered over 200,000 times a day in the state.

La Plazuela at La Fonda is a favorite of ours for New Mexico cuisine in Santa Fe.

Note: New Mexicans use the spelling chile, not chili, to mean the plant and the green or red sauce they make from it.

El Moro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you don’t like spicy foods, don’t let that deter you from trying new things, just ask for the sauce on the side so you can judge the heat before adding it to your dish. Surprisingly, green chilies are actually hotter than the red ones. Consider ordering a side of guacamole if things got too spicy!

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Elevation can be a major concern. When traveling throughout New Mexico there are significant changes in altitude. Las Cruces is 3,890 feet above sea level while Albuquerque 220 miles north on I-15 is around 5,200 feet sea level. If you are driving north to Santé Fe and Taos, it climbs upwards to 8,000 feet (and higher in the mountains). Altitude sickness can happen to anyone, no matter their fitness level.

Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Some basis tips: Take it slow and drink LOTS of water. More water than you think you need. If you start getting a headache or feel dizzy, stop and sit down. Allow time in your schedule for rest stops, especially when hiking.

Mesilla © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Also important to note: all those refreshing margaritas at the end of the day will hit you much harder than normal! Sip with caution.

Plaza de Santa Fe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. New Mexico’s vibrant native communities and cultures. From northwest to southeast and just about everywhere in between, New Mexico’s Native presence is obvious. It’s a presence that dates back more than two millennia, when early ancestral tribes lived as hunter-gatherers throughout the Southwest.

Spiral staircase in Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

More than 1,000 years ago, some of these groups joined together to establish permanent settlements, commonly known as pueblos. It’s a way of life that continues to this very day among New Mexico’s 23 pueblos, tribes, and nations.

Mesilla Valley Bosque State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

If you ever go to New Mexico, it will itch you for the rest of your life.

—Georgia O’Keeffe