When chile peppers are mentioned in Texas, the jalapeño comes first to mind. But this overrated member of the pepper family isn’t a native, despite its popularity and the fanatical loyalty it commands. The true Texas chile, the only one that grows wild in the state, is the fiery chilipiquin. Bristling with hundreds of oval pods smaller than the nail on a woman’s little finger, the knee-high bushes of the chilipiquin grow abundantly in open country and back yards from South Texas to South America. Green or red, fresh or dried, the incendiary pepper is stewed with meat or beans, ground to make salsas, and pickled for pepper vinegar. It is a seasoning universally used by Mexican and Anglo families alike. Salt and black pepper may be more common, but they have no cachet.
What sets the chilipiquin apart from—and above—other chiles is its legendary heat. Anyone who has endured the eye-watering, nose-running, water-gulping experience of eating a whole chilipiquin would probably just as soon have a cigarette stubbed out on his tongue. It inspires awe and admiration. An undeclared cult of the chile has grown up over the years, but it differs from jalapeño mania in the way cane-pole cat-fishing differs from fly-fishing. Any fool can eat fifty jalapeños or catch a lummox of a fish, but it takes a connoisseur to quarter a chilipiquin before consuming the pepper on a perfectly fried egg or to land a trout on line as delicate as a spider web.
The genus Capsicum, to which the chilipiquin and all chile peppers belong, has been cultivated by man for some four thousand years, but the plants were not known outside the Americas until Christopher Columbus discovered them, along with the New World, in 1492. When the Spanish arrived in Mexico in 1519 to begin dismantling that country’s native culture, they found chiles being used for cooking, magic, medicine, and torture. One of the things the conquistadores took from the Aztecs was the Nahuatl word for pepper, “chil,” which referred to the plant and also meant “red.” “Chiltecpin” in Nahuatl signified a chile with a bite like a flea—sharp and quick. Today the customs and good name of the chilipiquin survive, with only minor changes.
In South Texas it is rare to find a family without easy access to a chilipiquin bush. When the supply runs low, someone steps out for a quick harvest. Texans who live farther north, where the winters are harsh, have to buy dried chilipiquines in stores or Mexican spice shops. But that is actually a good excuse to savor the fragrances of fresh cumin and masa and to finger the braided garlic ristras and brown-sugar mountains called piloncillos.
Although chilipiquines are consumed and admired democratically by members of both sexes, their aggressive heat has given them a reputation as a macho food. As a hot-weather joke, cowboys and ranch hands will convince greenhorns and outlanders that eating a whole chilipiquin—or better yet, a handful—will make them feel cooler. About the only truth to this is that the peppers make the victim perspire, a phenomenon known as gustatory sweating. And many an aficionado, Texan or Mexican, wouldn’t think of traveling far from home without an emergency pepper ration, frequently carried in a silver snuffbox or pillbox. Major Tom Armstrong, who owns a ranch adjacent to the King Ranch and who married Bob Kleberg’s sister Henrietta, was renowned in his youth for his fondness for the peppers, which he carried at all times and pressed incessantly on his friends. His most lasting contribution to the chilipiquin cult was to plant the peppers on the King Ranch’s property in Australia.
Enough experience with chilipiquines eventually causes one to wonder what makes them hot. The answer is a devilish alkaloid called capsaicin, which is structurally related to vanilla and is concentrated in the veins of the chile pod. Its supposed purpose is to keep the chiles from being eaten by rabbits and other animals whose digestive systems destroy the seeds. In the case of man, though, the tactic has backfired. What was intended as a warning has turned into a challenge.
Today, while other chiles are farmed like turnips, chilipiquines are still gathered mostly by hand in the mountain ranges of Sonora, Chihuahua, and Sinaloa in Mexico. Some growers are experimenting with planting the chiles, but by and large the harvest is wild. The chilipiquin remains as it always has, a chile for the few rather than the many, a pepper that can be domesticated but never completely tamed.