Big Jim: Chiltepines

2013-07-30T00:00:00Z 2014-04-03T16:16:22Z Big Jim: ChiltepinesJim Griffith, Special to the Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Chiltepines are tiny, red, fiery-hot chiles. In Sonora, some farmers cultivate them, but they also grow wild in the hills of Arizona and northern Sonora. In fact there's an official wild chiltepin preserve in the mountains west of Tumacacori and Tubac.

They can be picked green and preserved in vinegar or allowed to ripen to a nice red and then dried. Writing in the late 18th century, Father Ignatz Pfefferkorn informs us that people would crumble the fried chiles between their fingers, and add them to soups and stews. That's what I use chiltepines for; I scatter the powder very sparingly on my Saturday morning bowl of menudo. But I don't use my fingers. Those things are hotter than a two-bit pistol in a range war.

One can get chiltepin plants at places such as Desert Survivors in Tucson, and the seeds at Native Seeds/SEARCH. But the seeds are hard to get started. In the wild, they are eaten and then eliminated by birds, which scores their outer skin. In fact, one local botanist, when I asked him how to grow chiltepines from seed, advised me to “run them through a bird first.”

While on that subject, I might add that I have been told that a chiltepin patch is the only place where the birds are known to fly backward into a high wind.

In recent years chiltepin grinders have appeared on the Sonoran crafts scene. These are small mortar-and-pestle sets, carved out of mesquite or ironwood with a hole in the mortar about the thickness of a pencil and grooves on the end of the long pestle. The easiest place to find them is at the curio booths and fruit stands in and near near Magdalena, Sonora. The grinders come in all shapes, always with a hole at the top: saguaros, owls, barrels, what you will.

The most spectacular one I've seen was on the plaza in Magdalena. It was made from ironwood, and was in the shape of a hand grenade. The top of the pestle was carved to resemble a rattlesnake's rattles. I didn't buy it, and have been kicking myself ever since!

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About this blog

Jim Griffith is the former director of the Southwest Folklore Center at the University of Arizona, and co-founder of Tucson Meet Yourself. He’s also the author of seven books on the folklore and folklife of our region, most recently “A Border Runs Through It.” His books can be purchased at tucson.com/wildcatgear.

If you have questions or suggestions for Jim Griffith or this blog, e-mail bigjimgriffith@gmail.com

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