Will it make me cry?”
This question is innocuous enough when it refers to to a movie or a novel or even a particularly heart wrenching video on Facebook, but in this case it was an inquiry about my cooking. Specifically, my chili.
If I made it right, the answer is yes, yes it will. And nothing would make me happier.
Maybe I’m cruel but somehow I think I place the blame for my sadomasochistic palate on my parents. We ate unusually spicy snacks as long as I can remember.
My dad and I would pick radishes from the baked clay of our garden and chill them in ice water. When you took a bite, they were so sharp that at first you didn’t even taste the heat. Once the coolness of the crunchy root and the tang of salt faded, you realized that your mouth was on fire. In the very best way.
Later, my parents bought pepperoncini peppers in giant glass jars, kept in the front of the fridge for easy access. We’d get home from school after walking from the bus stop in the blazing Florida sun, dish out a pile of these pale green firecrackers and plop down to watch the Cubs on WGN. Most were fairly mild, but then every now and then you’d get a winner that made tears spring to your eyes, even as you were reaching for the next one. Heaven.
Even now I’m salivating as I think of these beauties.
Those firey treats set the foundation for the pepper-possessed adult that I’ve become. I’m that person who asks for the salsa that the cooks eat, extra wasabi, habanero hot sauce, please. I sprinkle ghost pepper salt on everything from avocados to eggs. I’m not trying to show off, that’s really how I like it. If I’m sweating while I’m eating, I’m happy.
In my family, that sadly puts me in the minority.
For a while I thought I could convert my boyfriend (and future husband) to the hot side by slowly amping up the heat in dishes that I made. Things seemed to be going fine until one rogue pepper foiled my plans.
Eager to show off my cooking skills, I made a winter staple: chicken chili. The recipe included a single jalapeño pepper and a few other spices, nothing too extreme. I proudly served him a big bowl and he dug in. After the first spoonful he stopped, and let out a small cough.
“Is it OK?” I asked, sitting down to join him with my own serving.
He nodded silently and reached for his water glass, tears welling in his eyes. After a big drink he croaked, “It’s a little spicy.”
I gave it a taste. He was being kind. It was ridiculously hot even for me.
After I apologized profusely, we doused our throats with tall glasses of milk and ordered a pizza, hold the peppers. I was so embarrassed.
I learned to taste every pepper before I put it into a recipe and even though I’ve occasionally been shocked by a particularly pungent specimen here and there, it hasn’t put me off of the hot stuff at all.
My late father-in-law and I shared this delight of spicy foods. His eyes would glint with mischief as he passed the jar of jalapeños my way. Everyone rolled their eyes as we’d giggle conspiratorially and pile them on with abandon.
I hoped those genes would be passed down to my kids, but nobody is raiding the pepper jar in the fridge but me. They actively avoid it all. When my older son was about three he accidentally ate a piece of pepper jack cheese.
“Ahhh!” he cried, sticking his tongue out and frantically trying to wipe it with his fingers. “It’s hot! It gives me a taste injury!”
But there may be some hope. Recently he asked for salsa (albeit mild) to go with his quesadillas. And he liked it. It’s a start.
My husband looks on with a small smile but he’s still a little scared when it’s chili season.
“Will it make me cry?” he asks, looking suspicious when the dish appears.
“Maybe,” I tease, tasting a spoonful. This batch is warm, but nothing lethal. I reach for the jalapeños and add a few more to my bowl. I take another bite and my mouth is on fire.
This essay originally appeared in Fete Lifestyle Magazine, August 2018.