Chili Peppers

Where There’s Smoke

peppers are hot, hot, hot

By Gretchen Giles

WHEN CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS first set foot on North America, proclaimed it to be India, plucked a chili from the ground, and pronounced it black pepper, he couldn’t have known that his mistakes would then make him the biggest mass marketer of chili peppers in history.

Bringing chilies back from the New World to the Old, Columbus set tongues afire wanting more–literally. Endorphin exciters, these peppery little puppies are actually addictive, mixing pleasure with pain in an oral mix of tastebud receptors and opiate downloads. Coupled with coffee, tobacco, and chocolate–peppers help indict poor Chris as probably the first pusher. And as with any good high–the more you do, the more you can take–capsaicin, the active heat element, burns out sensitivity with each new rush.

Today, there are more than 200 different varieties of peppers, more than 100 of which are indigenous to Mexico, and the chili craze is just getting hotter. With peppers a $2 billion-a-year industry in the United States, growing them is the easy part; it’s the curing of the peppers after plucking that’s a peck of trouble.

Just ask Lee James. Partnered with her brother Wayne in Healdsburg’s Tierra Farms, James first grew peppers to string in decorative ristras, those long red chains of chilies first hung by Aztecs anxious to ward off bad spirits or burned by them to build a wall of virulent smoke against their enemies. Now considerably domesticated, ristras are more likely to adorn a suburban kitchen’s wall, right next to the cozy die-cut of a calico-clad goose.

Taking her fresh peppers and ristras to farmers’ markets in Sonoma, Marin, and San Francisco counties, James was implored by a customer to begin growing the fiery chipotle variety. “I told her that you don’t grow them,” remembers James, “you make ’em.” So make ’em James did, working with her brother to ingeniously build a smoker out of their grandmother’s abandoned refrigerator, and using the trimmings of their backyard vineyard to stoke the fires. Beginning with the traditional jalapeño variety, the Jameses now apply the chipotle style of preservation to their Serrano, New Mexican, and Wax Hungarian varieties in their new brick smoker. Even their summer’s-end bounty of homegrown tomatoes often get chipotle-ized.

Producing some two tons of fresh chilies a year and one ton of dried, the Jameses have found that peppers are a blazing business. Retailing directly through farmers’ markets this team has found that while their basil, winter squash, corn, and asparagus crops are snapped up, it’s the peppers that people come back for. And grocery store chipotles just simply won’t do.

“They’re probably about two to three years old,” Lee James estimates of these chilies, brought mostly from Mexico. “I’ve never been able to get a seed to germinate from a store-bought chili. They’re always a sort of brownish orange, some of them are black; they get black with age. Our chilies are bright red, the stems are green, and the flavor is just really fresh. We don’t sell anything that is over a year old.”

As for Americans’ growing devotion to anything with the promise of a tongue-sear, well–blame it on the world. After all, next to salt, chili is the second most commonly used spice on the sphere. Those in the know warn that water and beer are the oil-to-fire anti-antidotes to chili heat; they just make it worse. Dairy products chill the chili best, their protein casein interrupting the fiery job of the capsaicin, and a pinch of salt under the tongue or a squeeze of lime helps quell the flames–if that’s what you want.

But why dull the buzz when that’s just what you’re after? Ask any devoted chili-head and she’ll tell you that it’s the heat that gets them into the kitchen. In fact, more than one Web page on the Internet is devoted to nothing but the oral fixations on chilies (try for a mixture of the naughty and nice).

And what’s better, the darn things are good for you. Loaded with vitamin C when they’re fresh and with vitamin A all the time, the capsaicin in chilies–found in the vegetable’s seeds and membranes–is used as an analgesic to soothe aching joints, as a treatment for impotence, psoriasis, poor circulation, parasites that like to party in your intestine, and even, of all things–to ward against ulcers. In the homeopathic concept of like likes like, researchers are discovering that eating plenty of spicy foods actually protects your stomach’s lining. Next they’ll be telling us that cigarettes rejuvenate the lungs.

Whatever the reasons, what a joy to discover a guilty pleasure that one doesn’t need to feel guilty about. As for Lee James, a chili a day seems to have kept all doctors away. Strong, with unlined skin and clear eyes, James smiles when asked if she imbibes daily. “Oh,” she chuckles, looking around her storage barn where chilies are hung, bagged, boxed, and floored all around. “Probably.”

For more information on Tierra Farms, call 433-5666.

From the Dec. 26, 1996 – Jan. 1, 1997 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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© 1996 Metrosa, Inc.

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