Susan is getting her notes together for a talk she plans to give on her book tour. I happened to be looking over her shoulder and spotted a name I didn't recognize.
"Chili coyote," I say. "What's that?"
"Whaddya mean, what's that? It's chili coyote," she says, frowning. "C-h-i-l-i--"
I roll my eyes. "So what is a chili coyote?"
"I can't believe you don't know what a chili coyote is," she says, in the tone that teachers reserve for especially backward pupils. "Especially an interesting herb like this one. Why, it's growing right next to the railroad track, behind--"
"Look, Susan," I say. "I don't care where it's growing. I want to know what it is, and what it's used for, and where it got that crazy name. What is a chili coyote?"
So she tells me. This is a chili coyote. It's a buffalo gourd (Cucurbita foetidissima, if you're fussy about nomenclature).
And she's right. It does grow next to the railroad track, behind the Pecan Springs Enterprise building. It's huge, a sprawling green mass of vines and leaves (in the summer, anyway) that takes up half a vacant lot. If you mistook it for a squash or a pumpkin--you haven't missed the mark by much. They're close kin.
Turns out that while the fruit isn't edible (it is bitter, bitter, bitter), the seeds are. You can treat them like pumpkin seeds, roast and salt and eat them. Medicinally, the root was used to treat headache, chest pains, fevers, toothache, and in childbirth. The leaves were used as an insecticide. And like yucca, it's a soap plant: chop up pieces of root and cook them up for a pot of suds. The dried gourds were used as ladles, scoops, and handy portable containers, just the right size to carry magical stones or bits of food.
"But the name," I persist. "Chili coyote. Where'd that come from?"
It comes, Susan says, from the use of the word 'coyote' as a name for the wild relatives of domesticated plants. In many Indian cultures, Coyote is a trickster who takes a mischievous pleasure in turning things upside down, altering them, just to frustrate people. That's how the earth got coyote tobacco, coyote corn--and coyote gourds. The real coyote marks his territory by peeing on conspicuous landmarks--so the idea here is that Coyote peed on a gourd (or corn or tobacco) and turned it bitter.
"But chili coyote?" I ask again, feeling a little frustrated myself.
Susan says she's still figuring that one out. But here's what she's got so far, from a book called Gathering the Desert, by Gary Paul Nabham. Nabham was also curious about the name, so he asked a Pima Indian. (In Pima dialect, the plant is called chichicoyota.) He was told that Indian women used the fruits to wean their babies, by smearing the bitter juice on their chichis. When the baby tries to suck, he's tricked into thinking that those wonderful chichis have turned bad. A coyote trick. "Chichicoyota," Nabham writes. "Trickster breasts. In English, the're called coyote gourds."
"I'm guessing that chili coyote is a corruption of chichicoyota," Susan says. "Maybe a polite corruption--a way of saying "breast" without saying it. Or maybe somebody had the idea that Coyote peed on a chile pepper and turned it into a chili coyote. Trickster chiles." She grins. "Hey, China. Maybe if you post this in your blog, somebody who's got a better guess will tell us--in time for me to include it in my talk."
Okay, gang, it's your turn. Tell us how the word chichicoyota got to be chili coyote. Susan doesn't leave until the end of March, so you've got plenty of time.