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How I Learned To Respect the Habanero

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Because it's July.

A few years ago my family had a garden. It seemed appropriate at the time. Our children were young. We had a desire to teach them how to garden; how to grow, harvest, prepare and eat their own food. My thought was they would need to know this should an apocalypse come, zombie or otherwise.

(Our ideals have since got the best of us, and where a garden once stood is now a fire pit that gets used slightly more than the garden got weeded, which is to say, not much.)

From my perspective, any garden that doesn't contain the basic ingredients for hot sauce or salsa isn't a garden at all, but a communist collective containing plants forced upon the gardener by a rigid, unimaginative gardening police. It is for that reason that our first garden contained several pepper plants; jalapeños, serranos, and the world famous habanero.

Before we first planted I read about how to best grow peppers; how you pinch off the first few flowers and buds so that the plant grows larger and produces more peppers over its life. Failure to do this means the plant will put all its efforts into growing only those few buds into peppers and your yield will be significantly reduced.

I planted the habaneros wondering whether or not they'd ever mature. We live in Minnesota and it takes 120 days for a habanero pepper to mature. Asking for 120 days, or four full months of decent weather in Minnesota is asking for things to go well, but in our first year, there they were at the end of summer, batches of fully mature, beautiful orange habaneros.

We grew a fair number of jalapeños. I loved to pick them off the vine, wash them, and after eating them fresh, chase them with a beer or five to rinse away the heat.

Having no previous experience with habaneros, I thought I'd try the same thing. I had heard of the heat of the habanero, but I poo-pooed those stories away because I knew I was a man who could handle any type of heat, and a little orange pepper wasn't going to get the best of me.

I was a fool.

I picked a habanero off the vine. I didn't even bother to wash it, but merely brushed the dirt away and popped it into my mouth. The moment my teeth came down, a hundred hot nails sprang from the habanero and shot through the sides of my mouth. My entire head was engulfed in invisible flames and water poured from my eyes. The rest of my body tried to rid itself of my head, as my hands involuntarily reached up and tried to pull it off my neck. This lasted for several minutes; my neighbors not calling the police either because they were laughing too hard or because they did not not know what to tell the 911 operator.

"No, he's trying to pull his own head off his body."
"Yes, his own head".
"No, he doesn't have a weapon or a hatchet or anything. It's just his hands trying... oh, now he's rolled his neck up in his car window."
"I don't know if this is a crime either, but, oh, hell, we're just gonna hang up and watch."

I don't know how many beers I drank in the next hour. All I know is that once I got to the point I could no longer feel my head I felt that I'd finally been successful. My body made peace with itself, at least for the time being.

You might think that I'd learned my lesson; that I'd learn to respect the habanero, but, alas, I am a slow learner, a nincompoop, and that along with being stubborn only meant that I had several more lessons to go.

Once you've harvested the habanero, you've got to figure out what to do with them. Making sauce is an excellent choice and I had several books on the subject. They included warnings about wearing gloves and even goggles, but I scoffed at such warnings. These hands, I thought, had been used to work cows, handle car battery acid (a story of its own), and bashed themselves against football helmets; certainly they couldn't be harmed by a simple pepper.

I began to chop the peppers, sans gloves. It didn't take but a bit to feel the heat from the pepper oil begin to work its magic. My hands began to burn a little, but being the genius that I am, I felt that if I drank beer before starting the process that it might assist in keeping the pain (if there were any) to a minimum.

After chopping the first batch, I began to make the sauce. The recipe called for the peppers to be put into a blender, mixed with lime juice and some vinegar and pulverized into sauce. I put the peppers in and as I blended I noticed several were stuck in the bottom. I shut the blender off, took a wooden spoon and jammed it into the sauce in an attempt to free them. Upon the jamming, a glop of sauce shot straight out of the blender and into my eyeball, and I don't care how much beer, gin, whiskey or battery acid you've drank, when hot pepper sauce gets missiled straight into your eyeball there isn't anything you can do but scream, clutch your eyeball, and, while screaming some more, attempt to wash it out.

A little known fact about hot peppers; the chemical that makes them hot is capsaicin. The more capsaicin, the hotter the pepper. Capsaicin is not soluble in water. When people eat a hot pepper, they think that drinking water will make everything better, but all it actually does is force the capsaicin deeper into your taste buds, thus making things worse. Capsaicin is soluble in alcohol. If your goal is to remove the heat, it works much better if you drink a beer after eating a hot pepper. This did not occur to me as I was clutching my face; instead I forced water into my eyeball making an already unpleasant experience even worse.

Another little know fact is that hot peppers contain oil as mentioned above. If you don't wear gloves while chopping them, the oil gets absorbed into your skin. Absorb enough, and you cannot wash it off no matter how much soap and water you apply. Another handy thing to know; soaking your hands in gin, whiskey, or some other hard libation does not work, it only leads to some damned spicy hard liquor which I hear is all the rage these days. Perhaps that's how it's made.

My hands burned for days after the chopping. If I stuck my finger into my mouth, my mouth burned. Being not a bright sort of fellow, I completely forgot about this condition the first time I used the bathroom. I did not forget again, but going to the bathroom that week was more adventurous than it should have been. (Men will instantly understand that sentence; I shall not attempt to explain it further.)

The chopping only involved the first batch of habaneros. The next I chose to dehydrate, so as to turn the peppers into flakes that could be used in recipes, or sprinkled on chili and pizza. The pepper book warned that the peppers should be dehydrated in a well-ventilated area. In a moment of sheer genius, I decided it would be best to not do this in the house. I would use the garage instead.

Dehydrating takes some time and over the course of that time, the garage door was shut. I went to check on the peppers. Again, unaware of the sheer power of the habanero, I opened the inside door to the garage and and I must have inhaled because that's what humans do as a basic act of survival. My lungs were instantly filled with something I only roughly compare to tear gas and as I fumbled for the button to the garage door opener my eyes began, once again, to register their complaint.

Passers by might have noticed a man stumbling from his garage, choking, snot flowing freely, his eyes red and flowing with tears, his mouth spewing words not fit for children, and said to themselves, "That man has a peculiar form of stupid about him".

My neighbors commented to themselves, "How does he get that drunk so early in the morning?"

I got them back, my neighbors, part by intent, and by part ignorance.

I had them over to watch football. I made some chili. I had some fresh, chopped habaneros available as garnish. They asked, "what is this chopped orange stuff?".
"That's fresh habanero. It is damned hot. It's like brylcreem. A little dab'll do ya."
I watched as one, whom as I considered himself able to handle the heat of the sun in food, put a little more than a dab in his chili. A few minutes later, he ran screaming from the house.
"You don't have enough alcohol here to cure this", he screamed as he ran. A wise man for sure.

A year or more later, the neighbors and I were having some mixed drinks. They didn't have a blender, so they borrowed mine. At first the drinks were fine, but after a bit, the guests began to complain.
"Why are these drinks so spicy?"
Then in a couple of minutes, "What did you do to us?"
Their faces were reddening. Their eyes were tearing. I knew the signs.
It occurred to me that the blender I had used with the habaneros was plastic. The oil from the peppers had penetrated the blender and stayed there, waiting to be unleashed upon an unsuspecting crowd.
They formed an angry mob. The blender was destroyed. I was threatened with banishment, at least until the next week, and then, by god, I had better have a new glass blender.

There is a beauty in the habanero. In some cases its heat is instant, the reaction violent; pepper spray being the commonly known usage.
The habanero can be tamed in food or sauce, but only for so long. It is patient. It's not going anywhere. It understands that once you've swallowed there's no going back. Once it's there, it unleashes itself throughout your nervous system, engulfing you in flames. You pant, you might even tear at your clothes, and as you down cold water it laughs, knowing full well what it's doing to you. Once you've recovered, it waits some more, then burns as it says goodbye.

Respect the habanero, my friends, or suffer the same fate as I.