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An Upper Valley Man Called Tex Makes Some Serious Salsas

  • Jeff Bartlett, of White River Junction, Vt., adds jalepeno peppers to two 22-quart pots of his medium-hot salsa on the deck of his home on Sept. 29, 2017. Once a week, Bartlett cooks about a dozen cases of salsa over a 12-hour period. Jeff and Lori Bartlett started selling four varieties of Tex's Best Salsa in stores in August. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Jeff Bartlett, of White River Junction, Vt., stirs a 22-quart pot of his medium-hot salsa on the deck of his home on Sept. 29, 2017. Bartlett said he found slow-cooking over a 12-hour period yields the best-tasting salsa. Jeff and Lori Bartlett started selling four varieties of Tex's Best Salsa in stores in August. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Lori and Jeff Bartlett, of White River Junction, Vt., started selling four varieties of their Tex's Best Salsa -- Habanero Hot, Jalepeno Mild and Medium, and Ghostly Hot -- at area stores in August 2017. Jeff Bartlett is wearing an apron his mother made for him, and is his favorite to use while making salsa. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Jeff and Lori Bartlett, of White River Junction, Vt., started selling four varieties of their Tex's Best Salsa -- Habanero Hot, Jalepeno Mild and Medium, and Ghostly Hot -- at area stores in August 2017. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Jeff Bartlett, better known in these parts as “Tex,” grew up in the town of Levelland, not far from Lubbock in the Texas Panhandle.

Bartlett left Texas many years ago but, to modify an old adage, you can take the boy out of Texas, but you can’t entirely take Texas out of the boy.

And, in Bartlett’s opinion, one thing that Texas does better than New England is salsa.

So Bartlett, who lives in White River Junction with his wife, Lori, and their two teenagers, is making and selling his own salsa, which comes in four flavors.

There are the usual mild and medium, and hot, which uses the habanero chili. Then there’s the fourth salsa: Ghost, a pepper that, on the Scoville heat unit scale, is considered one of the hottest in the world, along with the ferocious-sounding Naga Viper and the lethal Carolina Reaper. Not for the faint of heart or palate.

“I got tired of going to the store and getting salsa I didn’t like. They don’t have the flavor and they don’t have the heat level,” Bartlett said on a recent Saturday, his usual cooking day.

The mass-produced mild salsas found in supermarkets are best reserved, Bartlett opined, for “little old ladies and children.”

Another thing: Don’t try giving Bartlett a salsa that contains cilantro. Like eating soap, he said, although, in the interest of sales, he will begin making some salsas that contain it. Also not meeting with his favor: a salsa that is too watery.

No wonder Bartlett decided the only way to get a salsa to his specifications was to cook it himself.

“What’s the use of eating it if it ain’t  got no flavor?” Bartlett groused.

To get the right consistency and intensity of flavor he cooks his salsas for 12 hours, which gives them a chunkier, meatier consistency. The ingredients are straightforward: tomatoes, green bell peppers, onions, whole garlic cloves, hot peppers, cider vinegar and salt.

He started with fresh tomatoes but the cost and labor involved in peeling them proved prohibitive. And once the tomatoes cook down, it doesn’t matter whether they started out as freshly picked, he said. Now he uses canned tomatoes. He waits to add salt until near the end of the cooking process because it pulls the juices if you put it in too early, he said.

The Bartletts have lived in White River Junction since 1991. He is a telecommunications specialist for Altura, based at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center; she is an employment consultant working with people with disabilities, and also the marketing and sales force for their nascent business. Their twin boy and girl are students at Hartford High School.

Bartlett, a tall man with a beard, has a distinct twang, although he said one of his brothers told him that after his decades in New England he’d lost his true Texan accent; the word “Yankee” may have crossed his brother’s lips.

Bartlett calls himself and is called Tex. As if to emphasize the moniker, a sizable collection of cowboy hats hangs from the ceiling in the living room.

“I always wear a hat except when I sit down at the dinner table,” Bartlett said.

Now in his early 60s, he grew up on a cotton farm in Levelland and worked the fields as a kid, along with his siblings. He left at 18: “I finally got done with that nonsense.”

The Bartletts have done taste testings at local markets and co-ops in Norwich, Hartland, Woodstock and South Royalton, where they serve up their four salsas with chips.

“He’s the mastermind: I’ve just come along for the ride,” said Lori Bartlett. “He loves being in the backyard, cooking on the grill.”

Most consumers head for the mild and the medium, but there is a market for the hotter salsas. The Ghost salsa is preferred, at least in the Bartletts’ anecdotal survey, by chili-consuming young men who compete to see just how much heat they can tolerate without calling 911.

For the record, I tried the Ghost salsa twice. The first time it didn’t strike me as so intolerably hot that I couldn’t eat it. In fact, I felt a little smug: This is hot? Bring it on.

The second time, however, the heat built and built until my stomach felt as if it were a Saturn rocket on the verge of lift-off; my theory is that I got a few of the seeds, which is where the heat is.

As the old saying goes, If you can’t stand the heat ...

The Bartletts are toying with the idea of making their own chips to go with the salsas. For now, one of the rooms in their basement has been turned into Salsa Central, with cases of salsa sitting on shelves. And they head out to local markets whenever they can, where the tangy smell of homemade salsa announces itself.

“I just want you to try it; it’ll sell itself,” Bartlett said.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.