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South Texas Living


No chile is a match for Henry ... yet




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Julia Castro
Apple Pie and Salsa
August 29, 2012 | 1,838 views | Post a comment

Every two or three days while I am fixing lunch, Henry mixes up his “habanero salsa” -- if you can call it salsa. It is pure habanero peppers ground up in his little chopper, mixed with a very small amount of water. He puts it in a little small jar that originally contained pimentos. He mixes a small amount at a time so it will stay fresh in the refrigerator. At mealtime, he puts a generous amount of the sauce on the food, regardless of what is on his plate. It doesn’t burn his mouth at all. He has been eating chile all his life.

I have never acquired a taste for it. When we were going together, we would eat in restaurants sometimes, usually before or after a football game. He would eat the hot sauce that they served there. Then on our trip to Laredo for our one-day honeymoon, when we crossed over to Nuevo Laredo for breakfast, he ordered huevos rancheros. So I said I would have the same. Even when I saw the eggs covered with tomato sauce, I didn’t know it had chile in it until I took the first bite. It was too hot for me. After I soothed my mouth with some cold water, I scraped the hot sauce from the eggs.

Henry’s favorite hot pepper in our early years of marriage and for many more years was the chilipitin. That’s what I heard it called when I was growing up. Now some people call it chili pequin. Regardless of what you call it, it’s those little round green chiles that grow on bushes in the wild, especially along the river bottom. Henry would go and cut the branches and bring them home, where he would pick each chile. Some turn red when they get overripe. Then he would wash them and cook them in a big cast-iron deep skillet. He would add some tomato sauce, a little bit of cooking oil, and a little vinegar. He would cook it until it turned to mush. Henry usually did this in the evenings. The kids and I would have to go outside because our eyes and nostrils would be burning. He would let it cool, even though he would have to heat it up again when he got ready to jar it. So it sat on the stove until the next morning.

Once, I covered the pot with foil paper before I went to bed. I got up sometime during the night and saw that the foil paper was full of little holes, just as if you had poked it with an ice pick. I couldn’t figure out what had caused it. I replaced it with a new piece of foil. When I got up the next morning, the same thing had happened to the other cover. We concluded that the combination of vinegar and the acid in the chilipitins, or whatever else it contains, ate away at the foil. Can you imagine what it does to a person’s stomach? However, one thing Henry does not suffer from is stomach ulcers.

Henry would then proceed to can this hot sauce in glass jars of different sizes, using the same procedure as someone canning tomatoes or other vegetables. He would make this hot sauce for a certain Mr. Hunter Bundrick. Mr. Bundrick would bring him a gallon jar full of the chilipitins and jars of different sizes. I don’t remember this, but Henry says that eventually he showed Mr. Bundrick’s wife how to cook and can the chile. After that they did their own.

And eventually Henry moved on to the jalapeño peppers. He says that at first the hot variety was pretty hot, but then they developed a mild variety and the hot ones were never the same again. The jalapeños he would just take a bite of with every mouthful of food. Often he would say, “Here, try this one. It’s not that hot at all.” I believed him one too many times. Then he tried the serrano peppers. Those didn’t cut it with him. When he heard that the habanero was the hottest pepper there was, he had to try it. They come in yellow, orange, and red. Henry says the red ones are the hottest ones, but they are hard to find. He has been growing some and they produced quite a bit. He picks them, bags them, and stores them in the freezer. The plants have quit producing now, so he has to buy them in San Antonio. He takes advantage of when he has a doctor’s appointment to stop and pick up some.

Anytime there’s a family gathering or some other event where a meal is served, Henry has me tuck his little jar in my purse. And he doesn’t mind sharing it with those brave enough to eat it. Our good friend, the late Barbara Johnson, at our high school reunions would put a helping of Henry’s hot sauce on her plate. She didn’t bat an eye. She would just say, “This is good stuff, Henry.” Several nieces and one of our comadres also seek Henry out for his hot sauce. Seems that the women are tougher than the men.

These days, Henry is nurturing what is called a ghost plant, a chile that is supposed to be 10 times hotter than the habanero. It hasn’t bloomed yet -- don’t know if it will produce at all. If it does, will it be the one to make Henry’s mouth smart and his eyes water? Only time will tell.

Julia Castro, a retired Head Start teacher and mother of 10, lives in Floresville with her husband, Henry. Her email is juliamcastro1@gmail.com.
 

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