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Hot Peppers : They're Not Just for Eating
Article first published in Vol. 9, 1991.
By Michelle Stelter
Chile rellenos. Food coloring. Aerosol repellents. Medicine. What do they all have in common? Chile peppers. That's right, chile peppers. Contrary to popular belief, chile peppers aren't only good for eating. In fact, they have a wide range of non-food uses.
The chile peppers belongs to a species of plant called the Capsicum Annum. The food processing industry uses the capsicum for its natural red coloring. The red coloring from the chile is used in many different foods including meat products, cheeses, salad dressing, gelatin desserts and other processed foods.
Chickens are fed red pimento pepper wastes, they lay eggs with a dark yellow-red yolk, which have a higher rate of hatchability. The chicks also appear to be stronger. When processed, such chickens have a yellowish skin, a hue the American public seems to prefer. But the chile pepper's red coloring isn't its only valuable property. The pepper ability to stir up the senses has allowed it to be used in pest control and self-defense.
Chile peppers mixtures can be used to keep some insects and even some animals from destroying a garden. Peppers also can be used as a basis for a homemade insect repellent. Noted chile expert and author Jean Andrews provides the following recipe for insect repellent.
2 tablespoons cayenne pepper 2 cloves garlic 4 onions 1 quart water
Process thoroughly in a blander. Then add two gallons water and two tablespoons Ivory soap flakes. The mixture is now ready to spray on plants.
In some areas of the country, wild animals wreak havoc on gardens and even attack humans when natural food supplies are low. One man in Montana invented a bear repellent, which has a chile base. This repellent actually saved his life when he met a belligerent polar bear in the Arctic.
While border residents do not have to worry about bears, chile mixtures can be used to ward off people as well as garden pest and other unwanted animals. In fact, chile is the main ingredient in some forms of Mace-type products, aerosols than cause temporary blindness when sprayed directly into the eyes. Because of its chile base, the spray causes an extremely painful burning sensation. U.S. mail carriers and bicyclists now carry this chile extract to ward off hostile dogs.
The chile pepper has even found a home in the medical world. As early as the 1930s, doctors described capsicum as a powerful local stimulant that, unlike others, caused no reddening of the skin.
Because of this property, capsicum is used in some medicines. Zostrix is one such medicine. Zostrix contains 0.025% capsaicin, which help ease the pain of herpes zoster, commonly known as "shingles". Zostrix cream cuts off the nerve conductors in the skin, so the pain is numbed.
Axain is another chile-containing drug developed to soothe pain. Patients who have had a limb amputated often experience pain even though that limb is not longer there, a phenomenon known as "phantom-limb.' Axain is used is useful in relieving this pain. Capsaicin is also being touted as relieving pain associated with arthritis, having been shown to be effective for pain in both rheumatoid and osteoarthritis patients.
Experiments on the pepper have shown that jalapeños contain an anticoagulant that helps in preventing blood clots that can eventually lead to heart attacks.
The pepper is an abundant source of vitamins as well. It is rich in vitamin A, B complex, and it contains more vitamin C than citrus fruits.
The chile pepper is one of the most consumed foods on the border, but most people are unaware of its many non-food uses. The pepper has found its way into food processing plants, gardens, purses, hospitals and research laboratories. Who knows where it will show up next?