I am being used by a chili pepper.
Michael Pollan, author of The Ominvore's Dilemma, proposes that it is the chili pepper in charge here. By making itself so sweet and deliciously spicy (more on that in a moment), the ancestors of this plant have encouraged me for the last 15 years to carefully cultivate it every summer.
This is a Santo Domingo Chili Pepper. It hails, as the name implies, from Santo Domingo Pueblo in New Mexico. When I first secured seeds of this plant from a man in a small shop in downtown Albuquerque, he told me the people who provided them to him said it had been grown there, and nowhere else, for at least five centuries.
The first time I grew this pepper I learned several things. It is a hearty plant, to be sure. It germinates quickly, can withstand cool nights without stunting (unlike so many chili peppers), and it thrives in intense heat and near drought conditions. It is also a fairly prolific producer.
I also learned that ounce for ounce, it may be the most perfect chili pepper I've ever tasted. It has heat, maybe 6 on a scale of ten, but that is balanced by a bright and robust sweetness. It doesn't torch your mouth, but it lays a light red flame on the tongue that slowly rises in pitch and just as slowly dissipates. It's well known that eating hot chilis releases endorphins in our bodies. That's a chili's way of making you love it, want more of it, keep it for seed, and sweat under the sun to cultivate it. This chili is doing its job exceptionally well.
I love to chop up one of these peppers and add it to just about any savory dish. Instantly, the flavors of the dish are richer. I can use less salt and pepper as seasoning.This pepper makes scrambled eggs into a treat. It puts a treble note into a bland salsa. It rounds out the flavor of tomato soup. Scatter it across a homemade pizza or over a green salad and wonder why you have never done so before. I love this chili pepper. I do.
So each year, as I have done for so long, I wait until I find the perfect pepper growing in my garden. This year I have a dozen of these chili plants growing and have been waiting for them to ripen to the brilliant red you see here. They have been trickling in for a couple of weeks now, but earlier this week I saw this one start to blush and knew I had my choice pepper, the one I'd use to save for seed.
Note the perfect shape—and when I say perfect, I mean a kind of artistry in the convolutions of the fruit. The blunt end is characteristic of these chilis, so that's in place, too. And the even, bright red color tells me this is the right fruit to pick.
As Pollan would note, this chili pepper has got my number. I'll be eating its fellow fruits tonight in a fresh salsa I stirred up, but this one will get tacked to a board in my office and will dry in the cool, shady place. Next March, I'll crack it, tease out a dozen seeds, and get them started.
Seed saving is a basic skill, and anybody can do it. I would argue that our future, or at least the quality of our gustatory and nutritional future, depends in part on our ability to recapture heirloom varieties like this. If more people will put gardens in where they live, whether in their yard or a community space, and plant true heirloom vegetables, we can spread the wealth.
I am being used by a chili pepper. And in truth, I couldn't be happier.