Orange Hot Chili Pepper

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Author: Wes M., Petaluma CA

The year was 2001. I was 16, working my first job at a pizza joint and learning the ways of the kitchen.  Of the many lessons learned on that job, which proved to be true in all the kitchens I've worked in since, the fact that cooks will always mess with each other is a certainty. Also, and this one’s important: if you’re going to be a cook, you gotta know your ingredients.

You had to know somebody to get your foot in the door at this particular pizza joint, meaning one friend would get another friend hired, until there were several little crews among the mostly teenaged kitchen staff. There were the thug kids and the football crew, and then there was my crowd, the punks. We had spiked and dyed hair, a mess of piercings, and loved to play music that unequivocally drove everyone else crazy. Somewhat surprisingly, though, we all got along fine. We had the kind of camaraderie that's battle-formed in the trenches of a slammed kitchen on a busy Saturday night. I say this so it’s clear that the pranks we’d pull on each other weren’t malicious, they were merely the natural outcome of cooks being cooks.

The kitchen manager had been there for years, and was probably the only one to take the job seriously. He had a garden at home and would occasionally bring in some fresh herbs and whip up a truly bomb marinara sauce. One day, he came in with a handful of little orange peppers he’d grown. He wasn’t sure what, but he wanted to use them to make something memorable. My buddy, Rabbit, and I didn’t know what the hell they were or why they were such a big deal, nor did we believe that such a small quantity could make any difference in a sauce.

It turns out, however, that these were habanero peppers. He explained that these little suckerswere hot as hell itself. One usually couldn’t find them at your run of the mill grocery store, so he grew his own. He also explained that the real heat was in the veins and in the seeds, where the oil was stored, and not so much in the flesh of the pepper.

Rabbit and I suddenly had a newfound admiration for these tiny peppers and were more than a little curious to try one. We cut one up into tiny pieces, wearing latex gloves to avoid getting the oil on our hands. We each tentatively took a nibble of just the flesh, and that tiniest morsel did not disappoint. In fact, it was easily one of the spiciest, most painful things I’ve ever eaten. I could tell from the tears in Rabbit’s squinted eyes that he felt the same.

This painful taste test took place about an hour before our coworker, Browner, was due to come in for his shift. Browner was a Senior, was on the varsity football team, and was a mountain of teenage testosterone. The opportunity here was undeniable: we simply had to use these peppers to mess him up. There was no doubt and no hesitation, only an organic understanding of obligation.

The beauty of it was that we didn’t even have to try all that hard. We explained to Browner that these were the spiciest peppers to be had, and that we’d each eaten a whole pepper already (an exaggeration, to be sure). And while we had recovered, we didn’t believe he had the fortitude to perform such a feat. It was no accident that we omitted the detail about the spicy oils being concentrated in the veins and seeds, which one should avoid eating. The challenge to his manhood was really all it took.

He plucked one out of the bag, examined it, and came to the same conclusion we had: it didn’t look so intimidating. He popped off the stem, and tossed the whole thing in his mouth. What ensued was far better than anything we could have envisioned.

The reaction wasn’t instantaneous. He chewed for a minute, and was swallowing right as the effects were setting in.  We stood, watching with wicked grins, as his neck and then his face turned bright red. He gripped the cutting board with white knuckles and grimaced so hard the veins in his overlarge neck bulged. Tears somehow escaped his clamped eyelids and streamed down his face. He was clearly doing all he could to keep it together, and to his credit, he probably lasted a solid 15 seconds or so before the heat surpassed his threshold, at which point he came undone.

The slew of profanity was biblical, and there may still be a dent in the steel hood covering our oven, an innocent bystander to his wrath. We gawked at the spectacle with glee in our hearts, satisfied with our accomplishment. We were still having fun at that point, but it wasn’t over yet.

Browner ran to the three bin sink, and began spraying water into his mouth with the high pressure hose. The manager walked in around this time and immediately realized what had transpired. He mercifully told Browner that water actually increases the heat and that if he wanted any relief, he should try milk, which contains fat and can neutralize the burn. Browner seized a jug of milk from the fridge, ripped the top off, and began guzzling it down. It overflowed out of his mouth and ran in streams down his jaw.

Now, the human body is a pretty smart machine. It knows when something is going horribly wrong, and it knows what to do about it, whether you want it to or not. Browner’s body knew that it had ingested something it absolutely never should have, and it knew that it had to expel the invader post-haste. That Browner had attempted to down a gallon of milk in a matter of seconds probably didn’t help. While I'm sure Browner didn’t want to projectile vomit milk, his body felt it was the best possible reaction, and so that’s what happened.

Eventually the ordeal ran its course (in the kitchen sink...), the crowd which had gathered to watch the spectacle dispersed, and the shift carried on. Much to his credit, Browner worked the rest of his shift, wet shirt and all. He wasn’t even that angry. But we certainly weren’t about to divulge the fact that we’d only eaten a tiny portion of a pepper, or that what we’d eaten was the mildest part of the pepper. He never found out.

The moral of this story is simple. Know your ingredients. Respect the pepper. Plants are powerful things.