Harlingen, Tex. From the plant science that has sized onions for burger buns and made watermelon pits an option, there's a new innovation: mild habaneros.
It's an oxymoron given the spicy nature of the orange peppers, but it's bound to sell big. Salsa makers dream of bringing the aroma and taste of habaneros to middle America.
"Mild. That's always the key word," said Ben Villalon, the veteran pepper researcher who had a mild jalapeno out in the 1970s, long before salsa became a billion-dollar industry.
Villalon's lab at Texas A&M University had been fielding requests from salsa makers who hoped the same could be done with habaneros.
Researcher Kevin Crosby, who inherited the habanero project when Villalon retired, says his plants are only a few generations from perfection. That means the milder pepper could be available to consumers in two years.
And while that's good news to marketers, it's bad news to "chile-heads" who fear the fire is being bred out of peppers.
"I know every time something like this comes out, your hard-core chile-heads get all up in arms," said David Gibson, editor of the Fort Worth-based Chile Pepper magazine.
But Gibson and other aficionados see the logic in trying to tame the spice of a pepper that's six times hotter than a jalapeno so blisteringly hot that a smattering can render a pot of food inedible. Handlers wear gloves to protect them from the sting of the juice.
Charles Davis president of Habagallo Foods in McAllen, a business launched on faith in the habanero said the researchers are on to something big. He envisions big profits in what he calls the "mildaneros." Most people use the pepper for its heat; he thinks they could be used for the flavor that's currently overpowered by that heat.
A milder habanero would help him reach a wider market.
"The further north, the lighter the taste buds are," he said.