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Yo Soy un Chiltepinero: Part 1, A Fiery Flashback

by Dave Dewitt on March 20, 2010 · 0 comments

Sierra Madre

<The Sierra Madre, Land of the Chiltepíns

My amigo Antonio swears that the motto of the Sonoran bus lines is “Better Dead Than Late,” and I believe him.  The smoke-belching buses were flying by us on curves marked by shrines commemorating the unfortunate drivers whose journeys through life had abruptly ended on this mountain road.  We waved the buses on and cruised along at a safer speed to enjoy the spectacular vistas on the way to the valley of the chiltepíneros.

It was November, 1990, the time of the Sonoran chiltepin harvest, yet the temperature was in the upper 80s.  My wife, Mary Jane, and I had accepted the invitation of Antonio Heras to visit the home of his mother, Josefina, the “chile queen,” who lives in the town of Cumpas.  From there, we journeyed through the spectacular scenery of the foothills of the Sierra Madre range–chiltepín country.  Our destination was the Rio Sonora valley and the villages of La Aurora and Mazocahui.

As we drove along, Antonio and I reminisced about our fascination with the wild chile pepper.

During the early days of the Chile Pepper magazine, both of us had attended a symposium on wild chiles that was held in October, 1988, at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix.  The leader of the conference was the ecologist Dr. Gary Nabhan, author of Gathering the Desert, director of Native Seeds/SEARCH, and an expert on chiltepíns.  Other chile experts attending included Dr. W. Hardy Eshbaugh, a botanist from Miami University of Ohio; Dr. Jean Andrews, author of Peppers: The Domesticated Capsicums; and Cindy Baker of the Chicago Botanical Garden.

As the conference progressed, I was amazed by the amount of information presented on chiltepíns.  Botanists believe that these wild chiles are the closest surviving species to the earliest forms of chiles which developed in Bolivia and southern Brazil long before mankind arrived in the New World.  The small size of their fruits were perfect for dissemination by birds, and the wild chiles spread all over South and Central America and up to what is now the United States border millennia before the domesticated varieties arrived.  In fact, Dr. Eshbaugh believes they have the widest distribution of any chile variety; they range from Peru north to the Caribbean, Florida, and Louisiana and west to Arizona.

There is a wide variation in pod shapes, from tiny ones the size and shape of BBs to elongated pods a half inch long.  By contrast, domesticated piquins have much longer pods, up to three inches.  The chiltepíns most prized in Mexico are spherical and measure five to eight millimeters in diameter.  They are among the hottest chiles on earth, measuring up to 100,000 Scoville Heat Units.

The word “chiltepín” is believed to be derived from the Aztec language (Nahuatl) combination word “chilli” + “tecpintl,” meaning “flea chile,” an allusion its sharp bite.  That word was altered to “chiltecpin,” then to the Spanish “chiltepín,” and finally Anglicized to “chilipiquin,” as the plant is known in Texas.  We have settled on a non-accented “chiltepín” as the English term for the plant and fruit.  Its botanical name is Capsicum annuum var. gabrisculum.

In Sonora and southern Arizona, chiltepíns grow in microhabitats in the transition zone between mountain and desert, which receives as little as ten inches of rain per year.  They grow beneath “nurse” trees such as mesquite, oak, and palmetto, which provide shelter from direct sunlight, heat, and frost.  In the summer, there is higher humidity beneath the nurse trees, and legumes such as mesquite fix nitrogen in the soil–a perfect fertilizer for the chiltepíns.  They also protect the plant from grazing by cattle, sheep, goats, and deer.  Chiltepíns planted in the open, without nurse trees, usually die from the effects of direct solar radiation.

Chiltepin PodsAlthough the chiltepín plant’s average height is about four feet, there are reports of individual bushes growing ten feet tall, living twenty-five to thirty years, and having stems as big around as a man’s wrist.  chiltepíns are resistant to frost but lose their leaves in cold winter weather.  New growth will sprout from the base of the plant if it is frozen back.

There is quite a bit of legend and lore associated with the fiery little pods.  In earlier times, the Papago Indians of Arizona traditionally made annual pilgrimages into the Sierra Madre range of Mexico to gather chiltepíns.  Dr. Nabhan discovered that the Tarahumara Indians of Chihuahua value the chiltepíns so much that they build stone walls around the bushes to protect them from goats.  Besides spicing up food, Indians use chiltepíns for antilactation, the technique where nursing mothers put chiltepín powder on their nipples to wean babies.  chiltepíns are also an aid in childbirth because when powdered and inhaled they cause sneezing.  And, of course, the hot chiles induce gustatory sweating, which cools off the body during hot weather.

In 1794, Padre Ignaz Pfeffercorn, a German Jesuit living in Sonora, described the wild chile pepper:  “A kind of wild pepper which the inhabitants call chiltipin is found on many hills.  It is placed unpulverized on the table in a salt cellar and each fancier takes as much of it as he believes he can eat.  He pulverizes it with his fingers and mixes it with his food.  The chiltipin is the best spice for soup, boiled peas, lentils, beans and the like.  The Americans swear that it is exceedingly healthful and very good as an aid to the digestion.”  In fact, even today, chiltepíns are used–amazingly enough–as a treatment for acid indigestion.

Padre Pfeffercorn realized that chiltepíns are one of the few crops in the world that are harvested in the wild rather than cultivated.  (Others are piñon nuts, Brazil nuts, and some wild rice.)  This fact has led to concern for the preservation of the chiltepín bushes because the harvesters often pull up entire plants or break off branches.  Dr. Nabhan believes that the chiltepín population is diminishing because of overharvesting and overgrazing. In Arizona, plans are underway to establish a chiltepín reserve near Tumacacori at Rock Corral Canyon in the Coronado National Forest.  Native Seeds/SEARCH has been granted a special use permit from the National Forest Service to initiate permanent marking and mapping of plants, ecological studies, and a management plan proposal.

The symposium on wild chiles was fascinating, and we even got to taste some chiltepín ice cream.  But, it was even more interesting to see the chiltepíneros in action two years later.

Stay tuned for Part 2, coming soon.

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