Everyone loves a book that has a good quest at its center, be it a great white whale, a holy grail or, in the case of ethnobotanist Gary Nabhan, chef Kurt Friese, and agro-ecologist Kraig Kraft, rare and heirloom chiles.
Their new book, Chasing Chiles: Hot Spots Along The Pepper Trail (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2011), is a rollicking ride, a “spice odyssey” that begins in Mexico and continues through several places in America where chile peppers are an integral part of the culture. The trio is passionate about its pursuit and, in the grand old tradition of a road-trip story, the book is chock-full of recipes, humorous adventures, chile lore and, most importantly, sobering statistics on the effects of climate change on food and agriculture.
In all the lofty discussions of global warming, or “global weirding” as The New York Times journalist Thomas Friedman astutely suggested we call it, there was very little input from the farmers those people truly affected by the shifts on a daily basis. Kraft, Nabhan and Friese wanted to give a voice to these growers. Since all three of them were chile junkies, they hoped that narrowing their focus down to this one particular crop “would ignite the fires in the bellies and imaginations of our readers,” they wrote. All three men were already involved in grassroots organizations whose aims were “to promote and preserve rare and place-based foods,” so their approach to go to the source, to listen to those in the trenches seemed fitting.
Consider the chile. “Spice, vegetable, condiment, colorant, medicine, pest repellent, preservative, weapon. … Globally, more than twenty-five million metric tons of chile peppers are harvested each year with China, Mexico, Turkey, Spain, and The United States currently leading the world in both production and consumption,” the book states.
Where to begin their quest? Mexico, the “motherland” of wild and domesticated chiles. In their van christened “The Spice Ship,” these Musketeers of the sustainable-foods movement hit the road.
If there is a villain in Chasing Chiles, it is certainly climate change. In chapter after chapter, we meet remarkable growers who have lost everything to drought, freak frosts, floods and hurricanes, only to roll up their sleeves, clear out the debris, and figure out how to lose less to the ferocities of nature in the next round. The authors cover thousands of miles, gathering these stories, their yen for a region-specific chile acting as their compass. In the Mexican borderlands, it was the wild chiltepin chile, but the pickings were slim. That year’s crops had been hit with both drought and, in a neighboring region, 36 straight hours of rain. One farmer wept as he told them of climbing a palo verde tree and hanging on for dear life as the flood carried away his farm chickens, dog, orange trees and all.