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A Rollicking Quest for Chiles ‘Along The Pepper Trail’

Authors trace history of chile on ‘spice odyssey’ starting in Mexico

Jill Koenigsdorf | For The New Mexican
Posted: Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Everyone loves a book that has a good quest at its center, be it a great white whale, a holy grail or, in the case of ethnobotanist Gary Nabhan, chef Kurt Friese, and agro-ecologist Kraig Kraft, rare and heirloom chiles.

Their new book, Chasing Chiles: Hot Spots Along The Pepper Trail (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2011), is a rollicking ride, a “spice odyssey” that begins in Mexico and continues through several places in America where chile peppers are an integral part of the culture. The trio is passionate about its pursuit and, in the grand old tradition of a road-trip story, the book is chock-full of recipes, humorous adventures, chile lore and, most importantly, sobering statistics on the effects of climate change on food and agriculture.

In all the lofty discussions of global warming, or “global weirding” as The New York Times journalist Thomas Friedman astutely suggested we call it, there was very little input from the farmers — those people truly affected by the shifts on a daily basis. Kraft, Nabhan and Friese wanted to give a voice to these growers. Since all three of them were chile junkies, they hoped that narrowing their focus down to this one particular crop “would ignite the fires in the bellies and imaginations of our readers,” they wrote. All three men were already involved in grassroots organizations whose aims were “to promote and preserve rare and place-based foods,” so their approach — to go to the source, to listen to those in the trenches — seemed fitting.

Consider the chile. “Spice, vegetable, condiment, colorant, medicine, pest repellent, preservative, weapon. … Globally, more than twenty-five million metric tons of chile peppers are harvested each year with China, Mexico, Turkey, Spain, and The United States currently leading the world in both production and consumption,” the book states.

Where to begin their quest? Mexico, the “motherland” of wild and domesticated chiles. In their van christened “The Spice Ship,” these Musketeers of the sustainable-foods movement hit the road.

If there is a villain in Chasing Chiles, it is certainly climate change. In chapter after chapter, we meet remarkable growers who have lost everything to drought, freak frosts, floods and hurricanes, only to roll up their sleeves, clear out the debris, and figure out how to lose less to the ferocities of nature in the next round. The authors cover thousands of miles, gathering these stories, their yen for a region-specific chile acting as their compass. In the Mexican borderlands, it was the wild chiltepin chile, but the pickings were slim. That year’s crops had been hit with both drought and, in a neighboring region, 36 straight hours of rain. One farmer wept as he told them of climbing a palo verde tree and hanging on for dear life as the flood carried away his farm — chickens, dog, orange trees and all.

“The Three Gastronauts” arrived next in Northern Florida in search of the Datil chile, “the first chile of the first coast.” In that neck of the woods, folks “hunt, fish, garden, propagate, and forage native plants with a certain gusto.” This pepper is a special part of the local lore, having been brought with the settlers in the 1700s. Said one friend they met there, “Boys, if you can’t remember my cooking when you get home, let me give you something that will burn it into your memories for good,” The authors walked away with a vinegar absolutely aflame with Datil peppers, plus a time-honored recipe for a delicious local dish, Pilau (Pronounced pur-loo), that they share in the book.

They tasted habaneros of the Yucatán, followed the Tabasco trail of Louisiana, indulging in a three-hour Cajun feast. They searched for the lovely Fish Pepper in Maryland and the Beaver Dam pepper in Michigan.

Wenks. Yellow Hot. Rooster Pepper. Hinkelhatz. These rarities will only be kept alive by devoted seed savers who proudly remain their guardians. The book is a huge champion of biodiversity. And while they heard tales of loss, they also experienced a continual generosity and culinary pride.

Eventually, their spice odyssey brought them back to Kraft’s home turf of New Mexico, where the most often heard local question is “Red, green or Christmas?”

When I asked him about the greatest adventure he had during the writing of this book, Kraft told me, “During the course of my research, my wife and I covered over 30,000 miles in my pick-up, driving the infamous Devil’s Spine, camping on beaches, and eating anything you could put into a tortilla. But most memorable for me will be the conversations I shared with the farmers. They were so eager to talk about what they did, and how and why they did it.”

The authors’ goal was to get these stories out into the world, and surely they have succeeded. Part cautionary tale, part cookbook, part adventure story, Chasing Chiles is an engaging and educational gumbo of a book.

 

 

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