My wife and I eat chiles daily, and our children do too. For us, chile peppers are a part of who we are—I grew up eating them, as did my parents, their parents, and on and on, back through generations. Chiles are part of our Chicano-Nahuatl heritage (remains of chile peppers have been carbon-dated to 7000 b.c. in southeastern Mexico). This heritage has spread throughout the world, so today many cultures know about chiles.
Our family stays pretty healthy because of our chile habit. Chiles are high in vitamins C, E, and A, and their constituents can make you sweat, which is good for cleansing the body of impurities from viruses, chemicals, bad food choices, alcohol, and drugs. They can also clear your sinuses, help your blood flow smoothly through your body, and, because they contain antioxidants, help your body defend itself against serious disease.
Chiles are known botanically as Capsicum, but they’re commonly called peppers or chiles (chilis). They’re also called by their specific name, such as jalapeño, paprika, and cayenne. In fact, there are more than twenty species of Capsicum, and within these species are many varieties and a wide range of tastes, including the mild bell and the hot habanero—indeed, you have many choices when you wish to grow and/or eat chiles.
Most markets have a limited selection of chiles, so my family has chosen to grow our own to suit our needs and tastes.
Traditionally, people of my heritage begin eating chiles at an early age, and it’s really something—if you can handle it. If you aren’t used to hot peppers, they’ll burn you, so we learn early on not to play with the chile’s fire.
I began gardening as a young boy and the first type of chile I grew was the Hungarian chile (also known as the yellow wax or banana chile). I bought the seedlings at the local nursery. It made me feel good to think that I could grow all the chiles that my mother would ever need. We lived in California, where the climate is mild, so we grew chiles year-round without losing any to freezing temperatures. We harvested three large crops a year, but the first picking provided the hottest peppers.
My mother’s recipe for chile salsa is quite simple. She would either roast or boil the chiles and tomatoes, then smash them up in a molcajete (a sturdy mortar and pestle), and add a dash of salt. She served this salsa with every meal, even with breakfast—we put it on huevos and tortillas.
She also used this salsa to make chili con carne. She cut pork into little pieces and fried it until it was well done, draining off and saving the grease for cooking other foods. Then she added the salsa and some water to the pork and cooked this until the meat was tender and had absorbed all the juices and flavors of the chiles. My dad also made this dish, but, for some reason, his usually wasn’t as hot. An old saying claims that if a woman is angry when she cooks, then the peppers will burn extra hot. I’m not sure if this applies to my mom—I only know she made the hottest salsa around.
My sister also showed me how to make a simple tomato-chile salsa using Japanese chiles, hot chiles that are two to three inches long and ripen to a bright red; dried, crushed Japanese chiles are often available in shakers on the tables of pizzerias. The recipe calls only for Japanese chiles, garlic, and onions, so you have to like your salsa hot. I make this recipe once in a while because it requires no cooking.
About four years ago, my wife, our children, and I moved to a three-acre farm in southern Arizona, hoping to grow good clean food for ourselves and sell the surplus at the local farmers’ market. Our crops were healthy and strong, but each of the salsa ingredients—the tomatoes, chiles, garlic, onions, and cilantro—were ready at different times of the year. So we began drying and canning the ingredients so we can make salsa and other dishes whenever we want. We take a great amount of satisfaction in knowing that we have home-grown ingredients handy, and we like our home-grown chiles better than those sold in the store. We also like knowing that our peppers haven’t been sprayed with pesticides.
When our jalapeños are ripe, we pick them and roast them on the comal (an iron griddle often used for cooking tortillas). When we roast them, we like to use mesquite or pecan wood to add flavor to the salsa. After roasting the peppers, we grind them and store them for later use. Our whole family gets involved—we’re all working together, from harvesting to roasting. And, like my wife and me, our children have come to appreciate the better flavor of our home-grown, natural ingredients.
Growing, tending, and harvesting our own crops makes for a difficult lifestyle, especially when getting started, but each year our farming gets easier, the soil develops, becoming richer each season, and we are content to learn as we go. We use low-input farming techniques that don’t require a lot of money or labor. I may make it sound too easy, but it is working for us—and I still have time for our many children, to see them play football, basketball, and baseball, and to watch their wrestling matches and dance and orchestra performances. I also take part in the community’s ceremonial activities. So chiles have not only kept me healthy, they’ve led me to a nice life.
Ed Mendoza is a consultant for the Native American Farmers Association and farm manager for the O’odham Oidak farm project, where he teaches young people about traditional and sustainable farming.
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