Anthony, New Mexico, is a mere crow’s flight from El Paso, Texas, my point of origin. Anthony is where my group from the Society of American Travel Writers stopped to enjoy a meaty and chili-spice-centric luncheon on a ranch known for its pecan orchard. Our adventure was billed as Borderland Eats, with a first stop to Seco Spice to tour the chili pepper factory.
Capsaicin-rich chili peppers and similar spices like smoked paprika are prevalent indigenous ingredients in the cuisine of the Mexican border region but are used and enjoyed everywhere.
We took a van to Seco Spice, a large organic chili pepper producer and supplier. Before we left El Paso, Chef Oscar Herrera hopped aboard the van to share a bit of local background and history on our impending lunch.
Herrera’s passion about cooking began at an early age, thanks to his family, and to Julia Child, whose TV cooking show he watched with awe. Herrera is best known for opening Flor de Nogal, a top-ranked restaurant in neighboring Juarez, Mexico, as well as Taft-Diaz in the Stanton House in El Paso.
Interestingly, Taft-Diaz restaurant is named after U.S. President William H. Taft and Mexican President Porfirio Díaz. Back in 1909, the two leaders met to resolve a dispute over a 600-acre plot of land called El Chamizal, which was created by a shift in the Rio Grande River near California, discovered by surveyors.
Chef intro and history lesson complete, face masks and hair nets were distributed to all of us as we arrived at Seco Spice — before we stepped outside to be met by the olfactory punch of smoked chili pepper. This visit to a fourth-generation-owned chili pepper factory proved especially memorable to my sinuses, and I hadn’t yet entered the building! Once inside, breathing was labored, even with the mask, but I was on a mission to see fresh paprika produced.
Agronomist and Harvest Manager Lucas Ogac explained that Seco’s chili pepper smoking process takes place in nearby Chihuahua, Mexico, because there they’re able to smoke using mesquite wood; in the U.S., paprika is often “smoked” using chemicals. So, the chili peppers are grown and harvested in New Mexico, shipped over the border for smoking, then returned to this New Mexico facility to be dried and ground.
The harvesting and sorting of the peppers is time-sensitive and laborious. The farm’s laborers pick only from 6 to 9 a.m. and then call it a day, due to temperatures hovering around 100 degrees. Pickers are paid between 90 cents and $2 per bucket. Every four days, close to 1,000 pounds of peppers are bagged after they’re picked, dehydrated and milled in steel vats. The spices are then packaged and sold to a variety of chain restaurants, including Taco Bell.
My sinuses were grateful to learn that green chilis, ghost peppers (deemed the deadliest peppers to digest) and habaneros were picked the week prior to our tour.
Watching paprika being produced made everyone in our group hungry for lunch. When we arrived at our lunch spot, however, a ranch a 10-minute drive away from the spice factory, we were put to task at an outdoor table to prepare the cactus salad and Hatch chile corn (off the cob) while Chef Herrera and his team smoked short ribs, sausages and a whole suckling pig to make carne asada.
We dutifully prepped, then toured the ranch, where horses and miniature ponies frolicked behind a posted fence. The ranch is surrounded by nine acres of orchard planted with pecan trees whose trunks are submerged in water as the method of irrigation. These trees produce up to 20,000 pounds of nuts annually, which are harvested in late December and sourced to Whole Foods Markets in El Paso and Albuquerque, some bakeries in Colorado and Utah, and as far north as Idaho.
By the time our tour concluded, lunch was finally ready and served family-style, accompanied by tumblers of margaritas. We dined with abandon, amazed by the flavors and by the culinary collaboration that brings these smoky spices across the borders of two countries and two states: Mexico and the U.S.; El Paso, Texas, and Anthony, New Mexico.