For my entire adult life, I have been a chili-head. There, I said it. I feel better now.
We are a misunderstood tribe, us lovers of hot peppers. We confront consternation at best, and social stigma at worst, when we inquire as to the availability of serranos or habaneros at restaurants. People from cultures widely-rumored to love spicy food stare at us in horror and disbelief when we bring our own death peppers into a dining establishment and proceed to dice ‘em up and add them to our meal.
We are a scattered tribe, existing largely in isolation throughout the Western World, enduring our culinary loneliness with stoicism as we blow our heads off with ghost chilies, Carolina Reepers, etc. We live proudly, yet alone, in our own little corners of Endorphin City.
What place does such a confession and lamentation have in a tequila blog you may ask?
A reasonable question. My purpose here is to provide you with some context in which to judge my actions in two separate instances that brought great social sanction down upon me following the act of making margaritas for friends. I relate this to you unrepentant, seeking no absolution, but nevertheless my tale may prove instructive in terms of maintaining good relations in your life and avoiding friendly fire.
Back in ’92, I had some friends over to the house one night for adult beverages and general merriment. Things were percolating nicely, the music working its way up to Iggy & the Stooges “Search and Destroy,” and my prickly pear cactus nectar margaritas were a big hit. I will admit to being entirely unimmune to the buzz which my compatriots gleefully manifested. We were having a Good Time.
As a crucial aside, I will tell you that I had a very healthy pepper garden out back at this time. The habaneros I grew had none of that unattractive translucence that you often see in the few measly specimens offered for sale at the local grocery store. My peppers were a solid bright orange, magnificent and robust. And they would melt the melt the beard off an Austin hipster at 40 yards.
As all chili-heads will tell you, peppers can be kept in the freezer for years without losing too much of their heat, if kept in a paper (not plastic) bag. And although I was eating peppers from my garden with great abandon, my plants were so prolific that I ended up always having a few peppers stashed away in the freezer for later.
I think you see where this is going.
So as I gathered ice from the freezer to make another batch of margs, my eyes were drawn by some evil impulse to the innocuous-looking brown paper bag in the freezer door. As I rooted through it, I saw one habanero that was small. Very small, really. About the size of a marble.
How hot could it be?
The rationalizations poured through my brain in a torrent. All this will do is put a little “zing” into the drink, I thought, congratulating myself on how reasonable and sound my argument was. And without further ado, I popped the pepper into the blender and cranked it up.
At thing point I should add that no one saw me do it, and I may well have failed to make a full (or any) disclosure to my assembled friends. As I poured the bright pink cactus nectar frozen margaritas out of the blender, there was no visible evidence of the small additive I had included in this particular batch. The drinks were passed around and folks dug in, as it were.
Then the screaming started.
I know you may think this hyperbole, but sadly it is not. I was almost instantly assailed from all sides, cornered in the kitchen and pelted with aggressive and accusatory questioning. Lips were burning. Eyes were watering. Some were spitting copiously into the sink. The fact that, due to supply constraints, this was to be the last blenderful of margs for the night only added to the vehemence and lasting rancor that I experienced.
Sipping my own glass, I had to admit that my lips, too, were burning more than even I could enjoy. There was a very real question in my mind as to whether I could drink this margarita. And I was, far and away, the only chili-head in attendance. And so the entire blender, and all the glasses were emptied into the sink and I suffered great stink-eye as the mood was shattered and people filed out to go home (or at least go somewhere that didn’t poison the drinks). The party was most-definitely over.
It was several weeks before I sensed any normalization in the peace process.
In my defense, I can only say that a pepper that small, even a habanero, would not reasonably be expected to maintain that level of brutal, skin-searing heatonce it was distributed through the volume of a large kitchen blender. It was just the luck of the draw that this particular pepper was a bad motor scooter. Sometimes such is the way when dealing with a product of nature.
Fast forward to 2006, with my friend The Jones over at my place for another night in the studio. I was producing one of his solo albums, and playing on it as well, and it was not unusual for us to have a few beverages during the process……solely to keep the creative juices flowing in interesting directions, you understand. A libationary zen approach, really, to avoid clichés and musical ruts. We were nothing if not zealous in pursing oblique strategies.
During one of these breaks, around 1am, we retired back to the kitchen and The Jones inquired as to whether a frozen margarita might be on offer. I said indeed it was, and that I would whip up a batch while he returned to the studio to finish off some last lyrics for the songwe were working on.
NOTE: About a week before this time, I had received my annual shipment of fresh death peppers from Chiliplants.com, which is a hothouse in New Jersey (of all places!) that sold the largest selection of hot chilies available on the internet. They mainly sold seeds and plants, but for a few weeks each September you could order boxes of fresh peppers, overnighted to your door. To get the ones in the “extremely hot” category, you had to pre-order in January, since they were highly prized by the scattered members of our tribe. And so I had two deep dish pizza-sized boxes in my fridge, full of bhut jolokias, Trinidad Scorpions, chocolate habaneros (dark brown and the size of your fist), African Fataliis, Thai Dragons, Naga Morich hybrids, etc. Each year during this time, I frantically ate as many yummy death peppers as my stomach could handle before they started to get a bit squishy and had to be frozen. At this time, I was right on the cusp of the point where the freezing was going to have to start. But I always preferred using them fresh, because the taste was better.
I think you see where this is going.
Now, I knew that The Jones did not like spicy things. And I may even have had some recollection in my mind of “the incident” back in ’92. But there is sometimes a bit of a sharp edge in the way that The Jones and I conduct our repartee, which is just the way of things with some male friendships, and so I plopped a very small Thai Dragon into the blender and let fly.
The personal animus aimed at me this time far exceeded what I experienced 14 years earlier. Suffice to say that The Jones was Not A Good Sport about it. Copious cursing, spitting and hopping around commenced in the small kitchen. Wild gesticulation ensued. Things got ugly, and dire recriminations were promised. The friendship was strained. He would not drink ANY of it (although I have to say that that this batch had none of the terminal lip burn of the ’92 batch). I thought it was pretty good, actually. But The Jones did not agree. Recording was definitely done for the night, and my friend left in a huff.
If I am unfortunate enough for the subject to come up even today, a dark cloud descends and there is No Humor in The Jones.
So what lessons can be extrapolated from these unfortunate historical tableaus? Is it to never, under any circumstances, put a pepper into your adult beverages in a social situation? Clearly, that can’t be it. However, nature’s wonderful creation that is the chili will not be reigned in……two identical peppers may have wildly different amounts of capsaicin in them. Ultimately, you just don’t know. And yet we cannot allow this natural variability to stifle our mixological creativity or—indeed—our Sense of Fun. And so the true solution seems to be the donning of protective gear, not unlike a lacrosse player, before hitting the “Frappe’” button on the blender. Because life is adventure! Tequila is a playful spirit! Go forth and spice things up! Scoville ho!!