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Hot on the trail of climate change

Ethnobotanist looks at extreme weather’s effect on chili peppers

By Aaron Kagan

Gary Paul Nabhan, known for his books on preserving agricultural traditions, lives with his wife, Laurie Monti, on six acres in Patagonia, Ariz., where they grow chilies, herbs, olives, pomegranates, almonds, and other heirloom crops. (Chris Hinkle for The New York Times)


PATAGONIA, Ariz. — Some of the best known symbols of climate change are belching smokestacks and polar bears adrift on ice floes. A lesser known symbol is the chili pepper. Gary Paul Nabhan set out to change that.

In the new book “Chasing Chiles: Hot Spots Along the Pepper Trail,’’ Nabhan teams up with agroecologist Kurt Michael Friese and chef Kraig Kraft to examine the relationship between food production and global warming through the chili pepper. The authors pile into a van they call the Spice Ship, and eat their way through chili-producing regions in the United States and Mexico. They encounter mouthwatering dishes such as poblanos rellenos with grilled shrimp, ceviche, and xnipek, a Yucatan condiment made from bitter oranges and habañeros. Between culinary pleasures, Nabhan and company get an earful about meager harvests linked to extreme weather.

This town, about an hour from Tucson, is a mecca for bird-watchers. Nabhan, 59, lives on six acres with his wife, Laurie Monti, an anthropologist and nurse practitioner. He has frosty blue eyes that gaze from beneath a tumble of dark curls not unlike those of the Navajo-Churro sheep he raises. Trained in ethnobotany, the study of traditional plant uses, he identifies himself as a conservation biologist, sustainable agriculture activist, wild forager, and Ecumenical Franciscan brother. He is also the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant.’’ He works as a research scientist at the Southwest Center at the University of Arizona, where he teaches courses and helps run Sabores Sin Fronteras (Flavors Without Borders), a program that celebrates food traditions of the United States and Mexican borderlands.

Nabhan is perhaps best known among environmentalists for his books on preserving agricultural traditions. “Coming Home to Eat’’ is a seminal text of the local foods movement, and in “Songbirds, Truffles, and Wolves,’’ he describes the experience of walking from Florence to Assisi.


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