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
It’s been a while since we sent the last update so here’s what we have been up to recently. – Jerry
Christmas of 2008, I made time to return to south Texas and enjoy “ la Navidad” (Christmas time) and “pasar el Año Nuevo” ( spending the New Year) with family and friends. It had been 1985, the last time I had spent Christmas and New Years in my hometown of Taft, Texas. That was also the year my wonderful mother had died, my father had died almost one year earlier. As I drove into the small south Texas town of Taft, I felt my spirit smile. Some changes in the small town could be seen but really too small to make a difference.
From the main highway coming into Taft, I turned right onto Davis Road, crossed the railroad tracks, traveled one mile, turned left onto Ash Street, went down half a block and our family home would be on the right side of the road. A small four room white house that had been home to nine kids, grandmother and mom and dad.
As I turned left on Ash Street, I could feel myself smiling, my whole being was happy; I felt as light as air, I was in familiar and friendly territory. I slowed down my car, being careful not to miss the small driveway to the house. As I reached the middle of the block, I remembered. Time had changed everything, for instead of my childhood four room white house, now there was a nice newer trailer home. I waited in the car, noticing that there was not a car, truck nor dog around the house. If someone was inside the trailer they should soon be looking out the door or window, but no one did.
I sat in the car, a little disillusioned for I knew the house and property had been sold, and I heard that a nice young couple had started their first home. I felt good again, for mother would have been very happy to know that the small “pedacito de tierra”, (her little piece of land as mom called her house) that once was her home was now bringing love and joy to a young family.
Photo: Gerardo Jimenez, age 6, at family home in Taft, Texas
I had waited around five minutes in the car and decided to get out, hoping the owners would not object if I took a fast “quick see”. In the back yard, I could easily remember where several of the outhouses had been. I could show you where each of the chicken coups had been set-up, where the turkeys ran free, where dad’s fig trees had been, but most of all I remember the two wild chiletepin plants.
Taking care of these two chiletepin plants, making sure that the turkeys did not eat the peppers had been my responsibility and I accepted my assignment much like a true small Indian warrior. At that time I was six years old and with my home made bow and arrow, I would shoot down those mean turkeys should they come close to the chiletepin plants. ‘Wake up, Gerardo’ I told myself. At age 66, it is still good to dream but many things have changed. All my images were erased. Still I felt a sad loss for the chiletepin plants. Why had the chiletepin plant not survived, I wondered?
Surely, people would have recognized the value of having such a treasure just outside their kitchen door. Now my winter vacation in south Texas had taken on a new purpose. I was determined to find the survivors of my chiletepin plant.
To be continued…
We had a group friends (former DVR employees……now known as “the Winter Texans”) who were up and visiting Beverly the other day. They came first to visit the Pepper Farm and then went on their merry way to start a round of the wineries. One part of the group had just come back down from their tour last month from Alaska (in the motor home!!!)