ESPAÑOLA NATIVE DANISE COON was looking to escape her family’s farming roots when she started an undergrad program in psychology at New Mexico State University in the 1990s. The pull of her heritage proved too strong, and she soon switched majors to horticulture and found her way to a career at the Chile Pepper Institute, where she helps develop new varieties.

NMSU DISCOVERED THAT THE BHUT JOLOKIA, or ghost pepper, was the first chile with over 1 million Scoville heat units. When that news got out, during an Aggie football game, one of the TV correspondents wanted to set up something where he ate a ghost pepper on camera. This guy was not used to eating hot chile. He took a bite and said, “That wasn’t too bad.” There were some students standing around him, and when he took a second bite, there was this unanimous gasp. He immediately said, “That was stupid, wasn’t it?” 

We did this at 10 o’clock in the morning, and the poor guy’s mouth was still burning at 5 o’clock in the afternoon. I’m sure the video is still making its way around the internet.   

I have great job perks. I get dibs on all the new varieties and test stuff out on my family.    

My absolute favorite variety is NuMex Heritage 6-4. It’s got this amazing flavor that transfers over to the red side, so both the green and red are good. They have a wonderful heat level and they’re super easy to peel.  

One of my favorite things to do, especially in the really hot months during the summer, is to get up early and head out to the field. To be out there when the sun’s coming up and know that you’re doing something good for New Mexico and New Mexico growers is a cool part of my job. —As told to Diana Alba Soular

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Read more from our "Ultimate Guide to New Mexico Chile"

The Mystery of Big Jim
A 10-year effort to restore one of New Mexico’s most distinctive chiles underscores how memory thrives in our taste buds. 

José Gonzalez: The Allure of Chile Farming
Although he's tried other jobs, José Gonzalez keeps coming back to the farm where his family grows chiles, corn, beans and more.

The Ultimate New Mexico Chile Tasting Guide
We asked two experts to describe the flavors of New Mexico’s best chile varieties.

More Than Just Salsa
Capsaicin does more than make chile hot, it is used in medicinal creams, bear repellent and in foods to give captive birds and fish a reddish hue. 

The Making of Chile U
One of the only scientific institutions devoted to a so-called condiment flourishes in Las Cruces.

Matt Romero: The Chile Roaster
Rooted in family history, Matt Romero brings that heavenly scent and his special flair to the Santa Fe Farmers' Market.

Rooted in Native Soil
Chile holds a very special place in the traditional foods of Southwest tribes.

Nick Maryol: Feeding the Soul
The owner of Santa Fe's Tia Sophia's, Nick Maryol understands how food creates ties to our families, our history and our culture.

Mix and Hatch
Does chile go with everything? Mmmmmmaybe.

Take Your Pick
At Big Jim Farms, in Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, you can hand pick your chiles right from the field.