In Search of the Ancient Chiletepin…Part II
As I left the Barrio where I had lived as a child, I drove into the small downtown area. It was around 3 pm and definitely time for a taco and cup of coffee. Not many customers at 3 pm, only two older gentlemen who were just sitting, sipping coffee and passing the time of day. I began conversation with the person who took my order, a nice young man in his mid-forties. He told me he was the owner. I directed the conversation to the topic of peppers in the area and specifically asking about the wild chiletepin plants. He did not know anything about the wild chiletepin peppers and mentioned that he bought the peppers for his restaurant at the local HEB grocery store. I managed a smile, thinking to myself that his younger generation has already forgotten about some of the major treasures of their history.
One of the older gentlemen in the room, must have overheard us talking and spoke out “estás hablando del chile del monte”, (you are talking about the pepper that grows out in the wild).
“Exactly”, I replied. “At my family home, we had two large, heavy producing Tepin plants and as a child I took care of them”, I said.
“You are one of the Jimenez boys, you have a brother named Lolo who was a marine and he just recently died”.
“That is right”, I said. “I still have family that lives in the area”.
“You wouldn’t find many of the “chile del monte” in this area anymore”, both of the older gentlemen agreed. “The town continues to build more houses and the farmers continue to grow cotton, so many of the plants have been destroyed. But I have heard that down towards Alice and on the back roads to Mexico, they sometimes can be found.”
We spent sometime talking about the chiletepin plant, remembering like we remember a long time friend.
“Young people don’t eat the chile del monte anymore. If you can’t find it at the HEB,then it doesn’t exist” one of the older gentlemen said.
We all agreed that the chiletepin is best when used fresh and you can go out your kitchen door and pick what you need to make a fresh salsa for supper. I stayed and visited for two more cups of coffee and then I thanked the men, wished them well and excused myself. Back inside my car I was thinking of what the older gents had said: “down around Alice and on the back roads to Mexico”, that is where my chiletepin plants had gone.
I was staying with my sister and brother in law at their home in Rockport, Texas. I told them of my experience and visit with the older gentlemen at the restaurant in Taft. I mentioned that I was now on a mission to find the wild Chiletepin plant.
Her husband Cresencio’s face lit up as he said, “I know where you can find them. I go deer hunting in that area and in the summer you can easily see them growing wild. But they are hard to get to for they are out in the wild surrounded by thick, thorny brush and full of rattlesnakes”.
OK said Cresencio, we leave in the morning and we will stop by my brother’s place. He knows that area well and can take you to all the chile del monte in the area. I felt good and I remembered my mother saying, “in a large family help is just one family member away”.
Early the next morning we drove for some two and a half hours. I had forgotten how big and desert-like south Texas can be. Miles and miles of flat land, nothing to see but cattle, brush and mesquite. Leaving the blacktop for a gravel road, we soon arrived at his brother’s place. They were ready and waiting. Smiling they said to me, so you want to find the Tepin? “Jump in the truck and I’ll take you to them”.
As his truck made a path down the dry dirt roads, alomost a deer path really, he told me that at this time of the year we could still find the wild Tepin but we wouldn’t find very many. The best time to find the wild pepper is during August-September, when they are brightly colored and more visible.
Suddenly some one shouted, “over there”! The truck came to a fast stop and everyone jumped out heading into the wild brush. Smiling I think to myself, “At last, this is where my chiletepin plants have come to live”. “Hey, there you are”, I shouted as if calling out to long lost friend.
It surprised me how I could become emotional at seeing a pepper plant. Mixed feelings of joy and sadness were circulating throughout my body. I felt joy in seeing that they still looked the same, very small round pods, having a strong green and red color. I felt sadness in seeing that there were not that many pods on the bush, the bush did not have many green leaves and the plant was growing long and slender following the tall growth of the brush plants around them.
Without thinking I spoke out, “No one is taking care of you”.
Maria heard me and spoke up in comfort saying, “ In the summer they look like beautiful decorated Christmas trees, full of green leaves and plenty of red and green peppers. Right now these are the last of the Tepins for this season and you are lucky to have gotten to see these.”
Maria’s words filled my spirit; “lucky to have gotten to see them”. To myself I said, “thank you guys”, speaking to the plants. “Thanks for holding on until I could find you”.
We walked around for awhile, making our way through the thorny brush and finding several more plants along the way. Here in the wild, the birds are the original organic farmers’ who plant the tepin plants. The birds will eat the bright red pepper pod, (seeds and all), fly away, and later the seeds work their way through the birds digestive track. The bird will drop the seed all encased in a warm, fertilized pod. From there, the hot sun, the land well fertilized by cattle and wild animals, and average rainfall, will care for the chile del monte.
“I want to pick some”, I shouted.
“Did anyone bring a basket or bucket”?
“Yep”, shouted our guide as he reached into the truck and pulled out several bags. “Out here it is best to cut off the larger branches, get them into bags and then take them to the house where we can get in the shade and pick our peppers away from the snakes”. Maria laughs and says, “you don’t want to be a pin cushion for rattlesnake bites”.
With six of us working, we soon filled three full bags of “chile del monte” plants.We drove back to my sister’s house in Rockport that same evening. The next morning I take my cup of coffee and head out to the garage. “OK let’s start picking chiles”, I said. To my surprise, what I heard was, “you wanted them, you pick them”. No one would volunteer to help. So I learned yet another lesson. The chiletepin is a tedious pepper to pick. It is a small round pod, sometimes as small as an eraser on a small pencil. The chiletepin has very little space and weight so you can pick for hours and only pick a few ounces.
It is not as rewarding as going down a field and picking a five gallon bucket of jalapeńos in a couple of minutes. Chiletepins are not found at the local grocery stores. Some on-line markets will advertise bulk orders of tepin. Since picking the tepin has a very high demand for labor, I would think that most of the tepin would come from places where labor cost would be very low. For the rest of my visit I often spoke about the chiletepin with family members and friends. One thing was certain, among us ‘ole timers’ everyone agreed that the chile del monte or call it Tepin or chiletepin, is the best pepper for flavor and heat, and that nothing warms the heart better that eating fresh salsa made from fresh chile del monte peppers that are grown just outside your kitchen door.
On my return trip to Illinois, I brought back some close old friends. The aroma of fresh tepins filled my car for the 1200 mile trip back home. I was happy, so I took my time, played my Tex-Mex music and smiled all the way home.
Gerardo (Jerry) Jimenez
Darn Hot Peppers LLC
Cobden, Il 62920