Read Part 1, here.
In the Village of the Dawn
The only way to drive to the village of the dawn (La Aurora) is to ford the Rio Sonora, which was no problem for Antonio’s Jeep. The first thing we noticed about the village was that nearly every house had thousands of brilliant red chiltepíns drying on white linen cloths in their front yards. We stopped at the modest house of veteran chilepínero Pedro Osuna and were immediately greeted warmly and offered liquid refreshment. As Pedro measured out the chiltepíns he had collected for Antonio and Josefina, we asked him about the methods of the chiltepíneros.
He said that the Durans advanced him money so he could hire pickers and pay for expenses such as gasoline. Then he would drive the pickers to ranches where the bushes were numerous. He dropped the pickers off alongside the road, and they wandered through the rough cattle country handpicking the tiny pods. In a single day, a good picker could collect only six quarts of chiltepíns. At sunset, the pickers returned to the road, where Pedro met them. The ranchers who owned the land would later be compensated with a liter or so of pods.
Usually, the pods would be dried in the sun for about ten days. But because that technique is lengthy and often results in the pods to collecting dust, Antonio had built a solar dryer in back of Pedro’s house. Air heated by a solar collector rose up a chimney through racks, with screens holding the fresh chiltepíns–a much more efficient method. Modern technology, based upon ancient, solar-passive principles, had arrived at the village of the dawn.
I asked Pedro how the harvest was going, and he said it was the best in more than a decade because the better than average rainfall had caused the bushes to set a great many fruits. Antonio added that during the drought of 1988, chiltepíns were so rare that there was no export crop. According to Pedro, factors other than rainfall also had an influence on the harvest–specifically, birds and insects. Mockingbirds, pyrrhuloxia (Mexican cardinals), and other species readily ate the pods as they turned red, but the real damage to the entire plant was caused by grasshoppers.
The total harvest in Sonora is difficult to estimate, but at least twenty tons of dried pods are collected and sold in an average year. Some chiltepíneros have suggested that in a wet year like 1990, fifty tons might be a better estimate. The total export to the United States is estimated at more than six tons a year, and the Durans account for much of that. As I watched Antonio and his mother weigh huge sacks of chiltepíns on the small scale in front of the market, I asked Antonio about prices.
He declined to tell me what he paid the chiltepíneros, but he offered a wealth of information about other pricing information. Between 1968 and 1990, the wholesale price of chiltepíns had multiplied nearly ten fold. Between 1987 and 1990, the price had nearly tripled, mostly because of the 1988 drought. Currently, chiltepíns were being sold in South Tucson in one-quarter ounce packages for $2.00, which equates to a phenomenal $128 per pound. Thus, chiltepíns are the second most expensive spice in the world, after saffron.
Why do people in the United States lust after these tiny pods? Dr. Nabhan suggests that chiltepíns remind immigrants of their northern Mexico homeland and help them reinforce their Sonoran identity. Also, they have traditional uses in Sonoran cusine, as evidenced by the recipes we collected. In addition to spicing up Sonoran foods, they are an anti-oxidant and thus help preserve carne seca, the dried meat we call jerky. No wonder the Chile Queen and her son work hard to import many hundreds of pounds of pods.
After the sacks of chiltepíns were loaded into the Jeep, we were joined by Arizona Republic reporter Keith Rosenblum, who was writing a story on the chiltepíneros. We went for lunch in the nearby village of Mazocahui, passing signs reading “Se Vende Chiltepín,” chiltepíns for sale. At the rustic restaurant, which was really the living room of someone’s house, we sat down for a fiery feast. Bowls of chiltepíns were on the table, and the extremely hot salsa casera was served with carne adovada, carne machaca, beans, and the superb, extremely thin Sonoran flour tortillas.