High Stakes Poker For Chilhuacles

Getting a level playing field in order to buy chilhuacle chiles is not easy when you fly thousands of miles and your adversary knows that your trip will be a waste of time if you don’t return with chiles. My relations with Felix had gone fairly well all winter, barring the occasional cat and mouse game of him not wanting to produce his paperwork so I could import directly from him. As it was getting closer to my leaving for Oaxaca, I occasionally would play the trump card in my hand, which was to tell him I’d just buy my chilhuacle from the vendors at the Abastos market in Oaxaca City, if it’s too much trouble for you to produce your paperwork. This round of poker started as soon as I left his house last November, but was coming to a head when I called three other farmers and started negotiations to buy their chiles. Gossip in a small town spreads like a wildfire and sure enough, Felix’s paperwork was submitted and approved within days of those phone calls.

My goal in round two of “poker for chilhuacles” was to have Felix drive the 2 ½ hours from Cuicatlan to Oaxaca City with an assortment of the 1½ tons of chilhuacle that he had. This would insure that the price would not go up and that Felix had something to lose (two days of packing chilhuacles and driving to and from Oaxaca) if he didn’t negotiate in good faith. As you might well imagine, this didn’t set well with Felix. His excuses for not coming to Oaxaca City ranged from family matters to he was very busy to what if I don’t buy and you’re wasting my time. To which I would reply, people jump into collective taxis every morning with chickens, turkeys, flowers or whatever with no guarantee, when they get to the Abastos, that they will sell anything, but they do it.

This round went on for a while, with retorts from Felix such as: I had enough time to visit the Mixe region on my last visit, but no time for Cuicatlan…How could this be? I would simply reply that I would pay for the gas if that helped. I knew Felix had more chilhuacles than any other farmer and probably more than all of them put together. I also knew that Felix never visited the Abastos and really couldn’t be sure if chilhuacles were being grown to north of Mexico City and being sold there. Having those two cards in my hand, I played the last first. I knew Felix’s answer to this card; go ahead and buy inferior chilhuacles that don’t taste the same. I’m sure it was hard for him to say that, knowing that he needed the money to replant chilhuacles in the weeks to come. This left me with the final card to play, better known as the wildfire card. Again, I got on the phone and called two farmers to see if they would bring me and assortment of 400 kilos of chilhuacle to look at. Of course, was their reply and I knew that meant one thing… Since they didn’t have the kind of quantity and quality I was asking for, they would call Felix to see if they could buy from him. Felix would immediately know why these other farmers were calling, namely that I had called them, looking for someone else to buy from.

It was time for Felix to put out the fire and lay down his cards. He would be in Oaxaca City on Tuesday morning at Roberto’s house with an assortment of his finest chilhuacles for me to look through. I’m pretty sure he realized by now that my position was fair; it was too risky for me to buy in Cuicatlan and expect the right weight and quality would show up in Oaxaca City.

After a good breakfast, the buying started. I bought close to 170 kilos of red, black, and yellow chihuacles, with Chris photographing everything as usual. Felix’s response to my selection started the next round of “poker for chilhuacles”. “That’s all you’re going to buy?… I thought you were going to buy closer to 250 kilos…”, he said. “No”, I replied, “I still have to buy pasilla de Oaxaca chiles, that will make up the other 80 kilos”. “Well, this will only allow me to plant a couple hectares, but this will keep the price of the chilhuacles high”, said Felix. “This is true”, I said, “Unless the other farmers plant more aggressively this year, seeing that I might buy from them next time, if they have the quantity and quality that I’m looking for”.

Felix and I shake hands; I give him a copy of our book, Zocalito to the Source, and a Zocalito t-shirt, which puts the icing on the 62,000 pesos I just handed him. I too, am completely satisfied with the price, quality and negotiations that has set the standard for future “poker for chilhuacles” games.

Photos by Chris Guibert