KM: Kraig Kraft, welcome to Tijuana.
KK: Thank you for having me.
KM: First, tell me, I’ve always wondered this: what do you look for in chiles when you’re shopping?
KK: [Chuckles] You’re looking to purchase fresh chiles. The skin should be fairly taut. If they’ve been sitting around for a while, they start to lose water, they start to wrinkle. And feel kinda soft.
KM: Shriveled? [Laughs]
KK: Exactly, shriveled. You can see how easily this fits in with all the jokes. You want it to be stiff and rigid. Full of turgor.
KM: And what if you’re buying dried chiles?
KK: You don’t want them to be so dried that they’re brittle to the touch and break easily. Then they’re a pain in the ass to clean and to use in recipes. Except for chile arbol: that will be fairly dry. But the larger chiles you want to be pliable, have a little bit of moisture in there. You want to feel that there’s a lot of carne beneath your fingers when you’re squeezing it.
KM: Even though you’re an old, dried chile. [More ironic snickering]
KK: Exactly. You want it still to have some meat in there. So you know that when you put it in your mole or salsa that there’s a lot of flavor coming out.
KM: What turned you onto chilies?
KK: I spent my formative years in New Mexico. When you go to eat a New Mexico restaurant, the waitress will ask you after you’ve placed your order “red or green?” Meaning what sort of chile sauce do you want on your food.
I’ve always been into spicy food. But it was dumb luck that I got into this project. Basically, my first choice for a dissertation topic only lasted for a couple months. When my advisor and I realized that it was going to be a little polemic and political to try and find funding. Switching to the chile pepper…
KM: Wait, hold up. Were you looking at the cultivation of opium, marijuana, or something?
Lil' nuggets of fire: Chiltepín for sale (Photo by Heather)
KK: No, no. I was looking at the presence of genetically modified foods in centers of origins. Specifically, I was going to try and follow up with some of the Berkeley studies done in 2001 or 2000 where they discovered the presence of genetic material from transgenic corn in maize land-races in Oaxaca. Heritage variety of maize cultivated by farmers with seeds saved from farmers. [The researchers] thought they saw signs of contamination with genetic material from transgenic seeds.
KM: Yeah, that would’ve gotten you on a lot of NPR shows. So, what’s your favorite chile?
KK: Well. It’s funny that you ask that. I’m actually partial to the wild chiltepín of Sonora and Sinaloa. It’s harvested wild, sells for up to 600 pesos a kilo as we saw here in Tijuana’s Mercado Hidalgo.
As my friend Kimberly would call it, it’s very important non-timber forest resource for those living in northern Sonora. There are stories that during harvest season there’s no labor to be found for maquiladoras or for anyone looking for jornaleros. Everyone is out picking chiltepín.
KM: You’ve been telling me that chiles in Mexico are also associated with male genitilia. This is real source of amusement for a lot of Mexicans. Can you share some of your favorite chile jokes?
KK: The chile is definitely wrapped up with Mexican identity and Mexican machismo. Usually if you talk about “el chile” or “chile”… it has a double meaning with “penis.” I don’t know, Mexicans are really into having el doble sentido… it’s one of their favorite jokes. I get all sorts: mostly that when I’m being introduced to someone, they will say that I’ve been over the country “in search for chiles Mexicanas.” Which is a source of a lot of amusement.
Vegetable humor in the market (Photo by Heather)
Additionally, it’s really easy to make these jokes about how spicy or bravo Mexican chiles are. And then of course there’re endless jokes about the different sizes… telling someone they have a chile-quin or chile ancho.
KM: So if I went to the market and wanted to buy some chiles, like in real life, is there a way I can ask the vendors for “x” amount of chile güero without them laughing at me?
KK: It depends. If you start asking them how spicy each pepper was and that you were looking for “el chile mas picoso, mas sabroso de todo Tijuana,” you might become really popular in the market there.
KM: Okay. I’m looking to become popular in Tijuana. I might use that tactic. Speaking of, what were your first impressions of Tijuana?
KK: Tijuana is a fairly large city. We were approaching from the east. As soon as the highway ended in an industrial area, we were stopped for a good 5-10 minutes. There was a huge traffic jam, people honking horns, doing all sorts of things in traffic that only Mexicans can. Like were pulling out to side into the emergency lane and backing up because they decided it wasn’t worth to sit and wait in traffic.
Finally things started moving, we get to see what the hold-up was. Everyone in our lane was rubbernecking at a section police had roped off. It was a balacera: which translates into a shooting. But not just any type of shooting.
KM: An automatic rifle shooting! [Laughter]
KK: Right! Shooting with automatic weapons. We find out the next day it was a city official of Otay who was gunned down in his vehicle. 52-100 rounds into his van. It was like, “Welcome to Tijuana.” No, seriously, it was not even 500 meters from the “Welcome to Tijuana” banner.
KM: You’ve been in Tijuana for a couple days now. What are your favorite parts?
KK: I definitely love the revelry on the beach right up until the fence. People selling churros, cocos, right under the gaze of the border patrol on the other side. I can’t really quite describe it or put it into words –what is wrong and yet all okay with that image. But there’s definitely more to Tijuana than balaceras and the zebra-donkeys.
Want more Kraig? Check out his blog, Chasing Chiles.