Mike Leggett: Dolph Briscoe’s legacy stretches far beyond the statehouse
Pretty much anybody who’s ever hunted in South Texas has done it on land leased from Dolph Briscoe.
The former governor, who died Sunday at age 87, was the head of a private lands empire that once approached a million acres, most of it scattered around the deer-rich Brush Country south of Interstate 10. You could almost always tell Briscoe Country because it had been root-plowed to clear the brush and help grass grow for cattle.
I never met Dolph Jr. on any of those ranches down there. Our paths never crossed. But I did meet his son Chip (Dolph III) who always took off his hat when greeting someone. It was one of those polite, genteel things that I’ve always thought we’ve gotten too far away from in today’s world.
One of the things I always heard about Dolph Briscoe was his affinity for the tiny, fiery wild peppers known as chile pequins. One of the very first things I learned about Briscoe was that he carried a pocketful of the little peppers and was fond of offering them to unsuspecting hunters during his travels around to ranches that he leased.
Later, I learned that little personal stashes of chile pequins are a sign of South Texas-ness, that old-timers carried them in silver snuff boxes and that eating them with your meals was really good for your health. I tried a few of them with steaks and grilled quail and breakfast eggs and, after the initial shock, realized that I liked them a lot, especially green, when they’re sweeter.
Chile pequins can be used for salsa once they’ve turned red and either red or green they make wonderful pepper sauce. All you need to do is soak a bunch of them in white wine vinegar and poke a few whole cloves of garlic down in there. The sauce gets sweeter and hotter as it matures and all you have to do to keep it going is add more vinegar. You can grind the red peppers to make pepper that can be sprinkled over anything and always make it better.
I’ve acquired some fourth-generation plants that are growing outside right now and the birds have eaten the peppers and spread them around so that now I have dozens of live plants and each summer and fall, tens of thousands of the little peppers to eat and give away. The pepper sauce has become one of my best Christmas gift items for friends.
Once years ago, I tried to track down the origins of the South Texas pepper-in-your-pocket tradition, and I think I got pretty close. Katharine Armstrong, when she was chairman of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission, said her father Tobin, who has since passed away, knew something about it. I drove down to the family’s ranch south of Kingsville and met with the patriarch in the shade of the giant live oaks that shelter the main ranch house.
Tobin Armstrong said that, during World War I, his uncle had shipped out to Europe but hadn’t been able to shake his addiction to chile pequins. He had family members and ranch employees send him peppers in envelopes so that he’d have something to spice up his food. Later, he began giving them to buddies who got hooked.
Later, and Katharine confirmed this to me, visitors to the Armstrong Ranch, be they kings or commoners, were given gifts of snuff boxes with chile pequins.
So maybe that’s how it started. Somebody’s sure to have a different story, but there’s no doubt the tradition continues. Pepper people know other pepper people, and they know how to augment a stash that’s running low. Here are a couple of hints for eating chile pequins:
1) Eat the whole pepper. Never try to bite a piece off one, just pop it into your mouth and chomp down. If you try to bite into one, your lips are going to be numb in just a couple of minutes.
2) Never eat chile pequins without other food. Some people can but even real men use a bite of steak or seafood to cut the burn.
3) Try your pepper sauce over beans. Pinto beans like you’d get in a cowboy camp are perfect. They’ll never taste better.