Austin American-Statesman - - SPORTS - MIKE LEGGETT

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.

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