We’re coming into one of my favorite seasons—the time of the year when folks share fresh produce from their gardens. Tomatoes usually show up first, followed by cucumbers, melons, snap beans, sweet corn and a variety of squash. Since I have absolutely no talent when it comes to growing a garden, generous friends are an important asset.
Occasionally, a new friend will offer a hot pepper for my enjoyment. When they do, they usually step back with a sly grin while I take a bite expecting to see me choke, turn red and fall to the floor in writhing agony. Then they watch with amazement as I chew my way through the first one and reach into the bag for seconds and sometimes thirds while I carry on a casual conversation.
What they don’t know, that my long time friends do, is that I have what is often referred to as a cast iron stomach. Maybe it’s a genetic gift or maybe it’s just a lifelong addiction to Twinkies. Whatever the source, I have a digestive system that’s virtually invulnerable from beginning to end. I would say it was absolutely invulnerable were it not for that unfortunate experience thirty years ago when I was young and stupid.
We lived in Pennsylvania at the time, a state rife with vegetable gardens and an unpublicized knack for producing hot peppers that hovered around the high end of the Scoville scale (or at least where the high end was then). For those of you who aren’t hot pepper connoisseurs, the Scoville scale was developed by Wilbur Scoville in 1912 as a method to measure the capsaicin content of a pepper. In other words, it measures the heat.
My friend, Jack, grew hot peppers as a hobby and each year he would entertain himself by bringing some of his prize samples to work and watching the carnage as people tried to eat them. He soon learned that I was a source of limited amusement, which only made him try harder each year to find the limits of my endurance. It became a game with us.
One year, while working the evening shift, I was taking a break at the lunch table when Jack walked in and set a jar of picked hot peppers on the table in front of me.
“This is the year,” he said in a voice that oozed of confidence.
“What year?” I replied feigning ignorance.
“This is the year that I take you down.”
I looked at him with the same sad look of pity that a professional boxer might get when a guy in a bar with “little man’s syndrome” decides to take a poke at him.
“Is that so?” I answered. “Why is it that this year should be any different from the last five?”
“Because this year, sitting in the jar in front of you, I have ‘Jack’s Hades Apples’ and those are the hottest peppers ever grown in the state. They’re a Rocoto/Habanero hybrid and I guarantee that you can’t eat three of them.”
“Guarantee? What about a bet? Are you willing to put some money on the table next to that jar?”
Jack got quiet. He didn’t like to lose money. But, as the grin on my face got bigger, pride took precedence over common sense and he replied, “Sure, I’ll bet you five dollars that you can’t eat three of my peppers.”
“Five dollars,” I taunted. “It doesn’t sound like you’re very confident. How about twenty dollars?”
I could see Jack swallow and a small bead of sweat formed on his forehead as he thought. “Alright,” he said finally. “Twenty bucks, but you can’t drink anything while you’re eating them, I get to pick out the three peppers and if you get up from the table before you finish them, it’s over.”
“Done!” I declared as I reached into my wallet and slapped twenty dollars down on the table next to the jar.
I expected to see defeat in Jack’s eyes when I accepted his bet. I didn’t. What I saw was confidence. Had I been hustled, I wondered. Did he have more heat in that jar than I thought? I was doubting myself and my mind started to race in a desperate attempt to even the odds.
By now, word had started to spread and a crowd was forming around the table. I was feeling something I’d never felt before—panic. Then I saw it, the golden amulet that was going to protect me through the fire. Ten feet away was a vending machine filled with crackers. I walked to the machine, dropped coins in the slot and returned to the table with a package of cheese crackers.
“You can’t have those!” Jack exclaimed as I sat down.
“You said no drinking. You said nothing about eating,” I answered as the word “Check” passed through my thoughts.
Jack scowled as he opened the jar to retrieve my peppers. Carefully he rooted around with a fork, looking for the three largest ones he could find, and one by one he laid them on a paper plate in front of me. Three agents of death and each one had my name written across its forehead.
My Dad was a professional boxer when he was young and he told me once what it felt like just before the start of a bout. He said an eerie calm would settle over him like he was seeing and hearing the world through a thick veil. Then, just as the bell rang, the adrenaline surged and the veil lifted. From that point forward, there was no pain and no fear; nothing mattered but winning. Maybe that’s how it is with boxing but, when you’re getting ready to eat three hot peppers from Hell, there’s fear involved and a lot of sweating.
I opened the crackers and put one in my mouth, chewing it but not swallowing. Tentatively, I reached out for the first pepper and picked it up. I swear that it seemed warm to the touch. Just as I was about to pop the pepper into my mouth, I glanced at Jack expecting to see a look of guarded anticipation. What I saw was amusement; he was smiling and he was still sure that I was going to lose.
I needed a hold card, one last bit of insurance to see me through. I made an instinctive decision. In went the pepper and I swallowed it whole. Jack watched in amazement as an inch and a quarter ball of white hot heat slipped past my tongue and down my throat. I sat for a minute to see if I was going to live.
As the crowd watched, I ate another cracker, popped another pepper into my mouth and swallowed. Again I survived with minimal effects. Now Jack was beginning to sweat and I was doing the smiling.
I ate a third cracker, picked up the last pepper and then paused as I watched Jack’s face while I rolled the pepper around between my fingers. The crowd silenced and I waited until the tension in the room was palpable before popping the pepper in my mouth and swallowing it in one smooth motion. I missed a bit this time and nicked the pepper with a tooth, letting the juice and a few seeds escape. It was hot, hotter than anything I’d eaten before, but through sheer force of will I squeezed the pepper down and grinned at Jack as I retrieved the money on the table and sat back in my chair. Checkmate!
“I didn’t think you could do it,” Jack said glumly.
“I wasn’t so sure myself,” I replied as I stood up from the table and headed back to work. As I walked away, I glanced back toward the table and smiled as I watched Jack stare at the jar of peppers and slowly shake his head. Jack really hated to lose.
About two hours later an odd sensation began in my stomach. Within minutes it erupted into a pain like nothing I’d ever felt before. My eyes wouldn’t focus and I couldn’t stand without help. I tried drinking something, but that only seemed to make things worse. One of my friends asked if I wanted to go to the emergency room and I thought about it for a minute. How would I explain to a doctor that I had been done in by a small round pepper? “No, it’ll pass,” I said.
It took an hour, but eventually the agony subsided. My cast iron stomach had prevailed. Eleven o’clock came and I left work richer, but also wiser in that I now knew where the line in the sand was drawn. I knew the limits of hot.
I don’t know about the rest of the world, but the first thing I do when I get up in the morning is visit the bathroom. The next day I stayed true to form. Linda was at the other end of the house making breakfast for the kids when she heard a bloodcurdling scream coming from the bathroom. To this day, she’s never said what horror she expected to find when she opened the bathroom door that morning. Whatever it was, that wasn’t what she saw. What she saw was a grown man sitting in agony on the toilet with tears streaming down his face and clutching his stomach. I had forgotten a basic rule of physics—what goes in, must come out.
She asked me what was wrong and between the tears, sobs and screams I managed to tell the tale. I expected that she would do some sort of inborn wife/woman/mother magic and make the pain go away. That wasn’t exactly her response. If memory serves, her words were, “You’re an idiot.” Then she closed the door and went back to breakfast.
The next year, Jack came in with another jar of peppers and plopped it on the table in front of me. “Double or nothing?” he said as he dropped forty dollars on the table.
I took a last sip of my drink, smiled, stood up and walked away.
“Fifty dollars!” he called out. I kept walking.
“A hundred!” he offered as I turned a corner.
I may be an idiot, but I’m a trainable idiot and as I’ve said before, a man has to know his limitations.