The Tale of the Tomatillo
The Islas Marias are an archipelago in the Pacific some 60 miles offshore of Nayarit that have served as a Mexican Federal Prison Colony. I’ve never been there, but when we pick tomatillos I’m prompted to think back on Tia Maria “Pistolitas,” because her husband served a life sentence there, having been convicted of growing opium poppies and making black tar heroin back in Jalisco. “Pistolitas” means “little pistols,” and I’m not quite clear on how Maria first earned her name, but I remember her as somewhat of a firecracker by nature; a curandera, or natural healer, a defiant and outspoken lesbian grandma, a farmworker, as well as being a part time “coyote” who brought people across the border deserts ahead of every strawberry season. She was Ramiro’s auntie, or “Tia,” and I lived with Ramiro Campos and his family here for a couple of years back in the early ’90s. Besides Ramiro and his wife, Amparo, and their two children, I shared the house with his big sister, Maria. Ramiro’s uncle Raul and his wife, Maria, were frequent visitors to the ranch, as was Maria Pistolitas, his Tia from the other side of his family. Having one Maria go by the moniker “Pistolitas,” was helpful in keeping all the Marias sorted out.
Ramiro, Raul, Amparo, Maria, Maria, and I, were all sitting around the fire one evening in the yard, warming tortillas on a grill and sharing some beer and tacos. It was summer, so we had plenty of tomatoes, cebolla de rabo verde, or green-tailed onions, jalapeño peppers, and tomatillos. The women were making salsa by grilling the tomatillos, chilis and green onions over an open fire until they were slightly charred and softened by the heat, and then they’d mash it all together with a squeeze of lemon in their stone “molcajete” or mortar, using a stone “mano,” or pestle. With a lemon and limes hanging from the fruit trees growing not more that 20 yards from the fire, the smell of grilling jalapeños in the air, a handful of goats scandalizing just beyond the fence and peering through the woven wire fence at us, and with the Ranchero music playing low on the radio it was a very Mexican scene and a very pleasant evening. Ramiro was moved to philosophize: “You know, Andres,” he said. “This is really a paradise. We’re at the end of the road and the gate is closed, so we have all the privacy a person could want. With squash and garbanzo and corn and cilantro and chilis and corn growing in the garden, we’ve got almost everything we want.”
“What’s missing,” I asked?
“Tomatillo de Milpa,” Ramiro answered.
“These tomatillos are fine,” he said, gesturing to the big green tomatillos that were sizzling and popping on the grill. He and I both worked on Riverside Farms back then, and he’d brought the big, green tomatillos home from work where we had a big patch of them to harvest for our farmers market customers.
“But back home on our ranch in La Barca we’ve got the wild tomatillos growing all over the place. You don’t have to plant them, or water them, or anything; just send the kids out to pick them when they’re ready. They’re small, but they have less juice so they keep better, and the flavor is great, and they grill up well. The salsa is “mas autentica” con tomatillo de milpa.”
“Luckily,” he continued, “Mi Tia Pistolitas is coming up from La Barca next week to visit, and I’ve asked her to bring me a handful from the ranch so we can plant them here.”
That was thirty years ago. Maria Pistolitas came to visit and she brought up a small paper bag with a handful of small, half-purple tomatillos de milpa for Ramiro to plant. The “milperos,” as they’re called, did great. Amparo and Maria harvested some of them, and the squirrels and crows and mice harvested some of them. Milperos don’t need a gardener’s attention to thrive; they just do their thing, and now we have milperos growing everywhere on the farm, whether we want them or not. I have a milpa, or corn patch, and of course the milperos have popped up there. But they’re also growing in the zinnias, they’re growing among the roses and lemons and cacti, and they’re even showing up in the old water troughs I’ve filled with soil and planted out in Hoja Santa.
But the tomatillos in this week’s harvest share box are the milpero’s larger, domesticated cousins called “Toma Verde.” Toma Verde tomatillos are fine, and they are the backbone of the green salsa industry. They pick quick and cook quickly. The variety is reliably disease free and pest resistant for the most part, and the variety is familiar to most consumers. We will have the tomatillo de milpa later in the season when the plants are heavily loaded with their tiny fruits and all we have to do to “pick” them is pull up the plants and shake them.
And what happened to Ramiro? He and Amparo saved up their money when they lived with me and bought a house in San Juan Bautista. When the housing market was going through a periodic peak they sold their California home, moved back to Jalisco and bought a goat ranch. Ramiro started a small goat dairy. It’s a success story of sorts, but it’s not a simple “happily ever after” fairy tale because there are problems with armed gangs there that never was an issue in the past, and cartel violence casts a worry over everything. The last time I spoke with Ramiro he had taken to sleeping in his barn loft with an assault rifle, ready to fend off the rustlers who would steal his quality dairy goats to slaughter and sell for meat on the black market. I wish Ramiro and his family the success they’ve worked so hard to achieve. The Campos family is gone from here, but hardly forgotten, since their tomatillos de milpa have made themselves at home here.
© 2022 Essay and photos by Andy Griffin