Being a life-long obsessive omnivore with a penchant for unusual tastes, it isn’t often anymore that I come across a new edible. But at the end of last summer one of the Mexicans on the block offered to show me a special chili pepper plant he was growing and it turned out to be unlike anything I’d ever encountered.
José told me he got the seeds from his cousin, who lives in the Mexican state of Michoacán. It was a beautiful plant, over six feet tall with long upright narrow stems and slender leaves, like a Serrano plant on steroids. The fruits were rich green like a Jalapeño but differently shaped; an inch and a half to two inches long, a full inch across the base and tapered to a point, similar in appearance to a small Fresno. Allowed to ripen and dry, they take on a brilliant red with an oily luster that nature generally reserves as a warning of serious danger:
Could be a rare variety but I am thinking they are a new cross of some sort, perhaps between Serrano – because of the architecture of the plant – and Red Habanero.
As I admired the plant, a small crowd of his relatives and friends had quietly gathered. When he offered me a taste and the crowd murmured, it became clear that the idea behind inviting me over was to see if this gringo could deal with the fire. I am loath to back down from a challenge, especially one I think I can win, so I said sure. Damn if they didn’t start to place bets on whether I could swallow it down or would spit it out.
I grew up eating hot chilies of all sorts. Many neighbors were Mexican and raised Jalapeños and Habaneros which we children stole and dared each other to eat. Other neighbors were Portuguese and the old men raised some sort of small slender African pepper they would carefully tend in dry soil and full sun, trying to outdo their relatives and friends as to who could raise the hottest, and I ate those too while the old men laughed. I love Thai food, and am not in the least intimidated by capsaicin.
Still, these little peppers were shockingly impressive, fiercer than even a Habanero. The burn is slow to come on, then intensifies and explodes like a skyrocket and sustains for what, in a fine display of Einsteinian Local Relativity, seems like a very long time. The eyes water, the nose runs, the lips first go numb and then when feeling returns you wish it hadn’t, the throat constricts and your body refuses to breath. I got it all down, with help from several swallows of beer from a bottle that I grabbed out of the hand of the nearest onlooker, earning me laughing backslaps from the winners and grudging handshakes from the losers. When I caught my breath the first thing I did was ask for a cut of the winnings which brought laughter all around, and now instead of just a neighbor I am respected as acceptably macho even if just a gringo. No pain, no gain.
I asked for several ripe pods late last fall and saved them to dry, and a few weeks ago planted some seeds. (Yes, I wore goggles while cutting open the pod. A bit in the eye would be unbearable.) They have sprouted and hopefully will come true, so I can take my turn passing them out to unsuspecting neighbors and friends.
About the title of this post; when I was able to speak in full sentences I again asked my neighbor what kind of chilies these were. He replied in halting English, “My cousin’s chilies.”
“Yes” I said, “But do they have a name?” He looked puzzled, then carefully replied “They are the chilies of my cousin.”
My Spanish is poor, but I managed to get out “¿El nombre de este chile?” – m/l, What is the name of this chili? Again he screwed up his face, then took on the look that adults sometimes use when speaking to child who is failing to comprehend, and very slowly and deliberately said:
“The name I call them is; ‘The. Chilies. Of. My. Cousin.’”
And so then, that is what they are: José’s Cousin’s Chilies.