Chipil Grows Wild in North Carolina

Jose is with us today helping Stephen in the yard, clearing out the woodshed in preparation for winter, sorting through the detritis of a cluttered garden shed, and making a haul or two or three to the dump.  He and his wife just had a new baby boy, his third, three weeks old.  They named him for the king of birds.  “It’s a Native American name,” he tells me. “Those are my roots.  I am indigenous.”  His high cheekbones and sculpted Mayan-like profile speak to that.  Jose is from Veracruz, Mexico.  It is a place I’ve never been, but he speaks of it fondly.  His parents and some siblings are still there.  He hasn’t seen them since he came to the U.S. some years ago.  I suspect he is not documented, but it’s another version of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”  This is his third boy, age three weeks.  All the children were born here in North Carolina and that makes them citizens.  When we talk about this, I can see Jose is proud.  The two older ones, age seven and eight are getting an education and there is hope that there will be work for them that pays a good wage when they come of age.  Not like home.

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We are talking about food.  “Did you know chipil is growing in my garden,” he says to me, more of a statement than a question.  Chipil is a green leafy herb that grows wild in the Oaxaca countryside.  It is plentiful in our village of Teotitlan del Valle, is gathered and sold in the daily market, and used for flavoring much like cilantro.  “I don’t know how it got there” Jose says.  “Maybe a bird brought it in.”    I think, perhaps, or another immigrant in his neighborhood missed this herb so much that he brought it back with him when he returned and the seeds scattered.  I think of how indigenous people use what is given to them from the land — a centuries, millenia old practice.

Ah, chipil, I say.  The aroma of a mint-like parsley comes to mind.  That’s what is used to flavor tamales and squash blossom corn soup, yes?  “Yes,” says Jose, and I see the faraway look in his eyes.  Are you homesick, I ask.  “Sometimes,” he says.  “But, the work here is good and I am happy to be living here.”  We are grateful for his work, too, and for his company.  He is a bright, handsome young man who gives us a hand when we need it most.

2 responses to “Chipil Grows Wild in North Carolina

  1. Thank you for giving us a window into your life and that of Melchor. I have never heard of chipil. Maybe it grows here, but is regarded as a weed by the non-indigenous people of our part of Mexico.

    This plant may be the same one Diana Kennedy talks about in her book, From My Mexican Kitchen. She spells it chepil, also known as chipilin. There are so many different regional names for the same plants.

    Did you know that Diana Kennedy says, in the same book, that epazote grows in Central Park in NYC? If it grows there, it probably grows in many other areas of the US. Another “weed” I see in the US is verdolagas, purslane, prized by French and Mexican cooks. I wonder what plants we walk right by, never realizing their value.


    • Thanks, Kathleen, for this comment. Yes, the wild things we take for weeds can often be edible. We’ve got pokeweed in NC whose tender shoots are edible, so I’m told. Also, lamb’s quarters can be picked as a green in early spring and steamed or sauteed. I’ve learned about these plants from the organic farmers where I live. I guess the same thing goes for dandelion greens and wild onions and Jerusalem artichokes. The difficulty for many of us is that we are only used to buying from the supermarket shelf, so our food is pretty standardized. Living in Mexico or on an organic farm opens up all kinds of indigenous cooking and eating possibilities as long as our palates are open to the experience. Saludos y buen provecho.

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