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Pace Puts Out the Jalapeno's Fire with Introduction of New Pepper

By Jay Jorden
Associated Press

In a state where the fiery jalapeno is an official product and some Texans even put chiles in their beer, a picante sauce maker's new heatless pepper has become a burning issue.

But, jumpin' jalapenos! This cool concoction comes from the folks at Pace, whose advertisements once jokingly proposed a lynch mob for anyone daring to serve picante sauce "from New York City."

The San Antonio-based company is proud of its creation, but kept it a secret as long as possible.
The clandestine plant-breeding program was dubbed "Operation Big Chill." They were so hush-hush about it that the seeds were grown in Hawaii and at a secluded South Texas greenhouse.

The result is a jalapeno without capsaicin, the chemical that heats up everything from curry powder to salsa.

Pace says it is targeting a market made of those who like their Mexican food on the mild side.
"A lot of people like peppers ... but a lot of consumers don't like them too spicy. So producing a heatless pepper is a very worthwhile goal," said Richard Fery, a research geneticist at the U.S. Vegetable Lab of the federal Department of Agriculture in Charleston, S.C.

Lou Rasplicka, Pace vice president for technology with a Ph.D. in food science, said the wraps only came off Big Chill after the company secured a plant variety protection number from the USDA that gives Pace proprietary rights to the seeds produced near Honolulu and in Quihi, near Hondo.

Rasplicka said Pace already has used heatless jalapenos to replace bell peppers in its new line of extra mild picante sauce because they retain the flavor profile found in Pace's mild and hot salsas.
"We had already produced a sweet jalapeno in the 1970s," said Ben Villalon, a plant breeder at Texas A&M Agricultural Experiment Station in Weslaco who provided some breeding stock for the Pace effort. "For the last 15 years, we have been trying to add the flavor."

Informal taste tests of the new jalapeno, which is almost twice as big as its 2-1/2-inch-long cousins, have had mixed results.

"Here in San Antonio, a lot of people want it hot," said chef Arturo Guerrero, who whipped up several batches of picante using the no-heat peppers at Mi Tierra restaurant.

"These (mild) jalapenos are good, though, for soft tacos or omelets. But Mexican food fans are looking for serranos or hot jalapenos. We use bell peppers in some omelets and wanted to try these new jalapenos, but they don't have much taste."

Tom Laurenzo, marketing director for the popular Houston-based Ninfa's restaurant chain, said he's willing to give the new stuff a try.

"It is a terrific idea because, in my experience in the restaurant business, there are all kinds of tastes out there," Laurenzo said. "You'd still get the flavor without the heat."

While the summer Texas heat sizzles like a cast-iron skillet, with record-breaking temperatures, many residents judge a jalapeno by its bite - not by how it looks.

Why, what if contestants at jalapeno-eating contests substitute heatless peppers for the real thing?
"I'll just use Pace's own words: 'Get a rope!' " said Mike Cagle, a Fort Worth chemist and self-avowed "chile-phile" who makes his own chipotle and habanero sauces.

All content copyright 1996, Jay Jorden, The Associated Press


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