The taming of the jalapeno pepper

The popularity of Mexican food has grown phenomenally across the country during the past few years, but one delicacy from south of the border left more than a trail blazing as it went national.

When such delights as the taco and enchilada trekked northward from the border states, along galloped their fiery sidekick - the hot jalapeno pepper. The culinary gunslinger left the more adventurous new fans of Mexican food with scorched tastebuds and bulging eyes, while the rest of the townsfolk scattered.

But the jalapeno's days of breathing fire - and making those who sample it do the same - may be numbered. A scientist at Texas A&M University's agricultural experiment station in the border town of Weslaco has bred a jalapeno that looks and tastes like its legendary forebear but doesn't burn like it. That may strike some Mexican-food purists on both sides of the border as a breach of frontier tradition, like forcing Pancho Villa to doff his sombrero and serape for a bowler and pin stripes.

But according to Benigno Villalon, the associate professor and plant pathologist who tamed the firebrand, ''The acceptance has been tremendous from California to Maine among food processors and home gardeners.''

He does no marketing of his own product. But since 1981, when he released the new pepper for commercial purposes, more than a dozen companies have been selling the seeds through grocery stores. Small plants ready for the garden are marketed through grocers and discount stores. And recently the Old El Paso line of Mexican foods became the first food processor to can the cooled-down jalapeno , while the competition plans to follow.

This is the first year agribusiness has devoted sizable nationwide acreage to the pepper, Dr. Villalon says. But determining how much is a problem.

''The growers don't want the volume known. They want to keep it a secret. If the buyers know there's an abundance of the crop, they won't give the growers as much for it.''

Based on several seed companies' order volume, he estimates the pepper is being grown on at least 800 acres in Texas, California, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Florida. But up to 10 other suppliers have not reported demand, so the acreage could be higher.

The mild-mannered jalapeno was the byproduct of an experiment Villalon began in 1971. The goal was to breed genetic resistance to shriveling into sweet bell peppers. However, it so happened that the hot Mexican jalapeno put up a stronger fight against the malady than other peppers did, so he picked it as the original breeding partner.

To his surprise, the first crossbreed of peppers looked just like jalapenos, but contained dramatically less capsaicin - the clear, odorless, flavorless compound that makes hot peppers hot. Oddly enough, subsequent hybrids bore far less resemblance to the jalapeno, he says.

So he continued working with the jalapeno look-alike, which he called the TAM Mild, an acronym for Texas A&M. On a scale of 1 to 10, he says, his pepper's heat level ranges from 2 to 5 vs. the Mexican version's range of 6 on up.

Increasing with the popularity of Mexican food is the price of Mexican jalapenos, up from $11.50 to $15 a case in five years, he says. Although US farm production costs are higher than Mexico's, the TAM Mild offers the advantage of prolific plants that yield 20 percent more peppers per acre than their Mexican counterparts, Villalon says.

But the TAM's chief competitive advantage is its engaging disposition, he adds. And that makes restaurants the next target for its marketers. If one measures appeal by sales figures, Mexican restaurants in the United States doubled their sales to $3 billion between 1977 and 1981.

The civilized jalapeno does not signal the last of the breed's wilder side at all. ''For the hot-pepper lover, there's something for him already,'' says Villalon. ''It is for the uninitiated or the one who just likes the flavor with a little bit of spike to it that this would be the ideal situation.''

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