Copyright © 2004 Dorian Scott Cole
Everyone has their passions, their traditions, the things without which life would not be complete. Mine is pepper.
My father loved pepper. He also loved potatoes. We had potatoes at every meal, except sometimes breakfast escaped. He especially loved pepper on potatoes. I'm not sure which he liked best, pepper or potatoes. His mother (my grandmother) was a wonderful cook. He apparently learned every way that she knew to cook a potato, and the rest he learned in the Army.
We had fried potatoes, cheese potatoes, shredded potatoes, casseroles with potatoes, French fries, shoe string fries, and his best beloved, fried potatoes. Every potato had to be peeled, and since his wife's place was in the un-liberated kitchen, Mom despised potatoes.
We had potatoes with onions, boiled potatoes, hash (diced potatoes with beef shreds, boiled until saucy), stew with potatoes, potatoes with peppers, but especially fried potatoes. All peppered. Ten years after his passing, my mother still could not stand to either peel or eat a potato.
We had mashed potatoes, baked potatoes, potato cakes... all peppered. He even sliced and fried potato chips. If Mom wasn't around to fix a meal, he made his special: potato slabs sliced lengthwise from a potato, fried, and, of course, peppered.
My father's cardinal rule of food preparation, the mark of the consummate chef, was that food was never properly prepared unless the spice was added during the cooking so it could thoroughly permeate the food. Dad critiqued every meal, typically about the spices, and I'm not sure if he ever actually said that something was good - everything was somehow lacking. This continuously galled my mother, whose father was a respected chef. But Dad was more or less satisfied if the food contained pepper!
Pepper was not the only hot food that my father liked. He also liked chili, with pepper. In fact, every food except fruit and desert was best prepared with pepper. Corn, green beans, tomatoes, all meat, cheese... pepper somehow worked its magic and made it better. Funny, he had never lived in the US Southwest. But each year we also raised peppers - especially the extremely hot, long yellow peppers. They were so hot that if they touched any tender skin, like your lip, or a cut on your finger, they burned like fire forever. I don't know geographically where he got the seeds, but the peppers came straight from the lake of fire.
I love potatoes. I hate pepper. My passion is getting rid of the *@%! stuff. After 18 years of eating *@%! pepper, I pretty well knew my tastes. Eat potatoes by the bushel, leave out the *@%! pepper... which of course you can't extract from "perfectly" prepared food.
Now, pain isn't something that I have any trouble with - I lived with pain that was frequently severe, for years. I have accidents and just dismiss the pain. I have a high pain threshold - it takes a lot to get to me. Maybe I'm missing something here, but food that bites you and causes pain doesn't make sense to me. Life has enough pain - I know I'm alive - I don't eat to hurt.
When my wife and I were first married, I sat down to eat a meal, and to my delight there were fried potatoes. I inhaled several slices before I began to slow down and actually enjoy them. And then I noticed a familiar sensation in the back of my throat. Hot. Pepper. She had peppered the potatoes. I complimented her on the wonderful meal, while I considered that I had a decision to make. Options: 1) Divorce. 2) Take over all food preparation. 3) Get rid of the *@%! pepper.
I realized that, like all things that go wrong in marriage, it was my mistake. We had purchased a new salt and pepper shaker that would keep the salt moisture free. (We still use it.) I hadn't actually considered that the companion pepper shaker might actually be used. I selected 3. When her head was turned, I took the *@%! pepper shaker and hid it. Later I did a thorough search and found the can of *@%! pepper in the cabinet, and hid it, too.
A few days later she noticed that the pepper was missing. She confronted me with the mystery. I looked guilty. I explained that there is only one food in the entire world that I allow pepper in, and she wasn't cooking chili. I came to understand that hiding the pepper was wrong! Her reaction was the same as when I cut the handle, which I didn't like, off of the dishwasher silverware basket. Unfortunately I couldn't fix that one, and now she has reminded me about that error several times a year for over thirty years. It will probably appear on my tombstone, along with all of my other grievous errors. I'm a wicked person.
Pepper! It's turning up everywhere. I go to fast food restaurants and order chicken sandwiches, and they are full of pepper. Don't they know that individual tastes vary, and you can put a pepper shaker on the table and let people pour pepper on their sandwiches to suit the most discriminating tastes? People can tip and then tap the little sprinkler with their finger until just a little peppers out onto their sandwich. Or they can upright the gibber and let it flow forth in an incessant torrent of black fire. People can make seasoning decisions on their own, and actually do it themselves.
The disease is spreading. Chicken tenders now get peppered. In one popular restaurant, nearly everything on the menu gets peppered. I think that what has happened is indirectly related to the Southwest influence, with the growing popularity of restaurant chains and fast food chains featuring the hot delicacies of the Southwest. The chefs who create these delicacies have discovered that if you put enough *@%! pepper on the food, then people can't taste it and so don't know that the food is tasteless. *@%! pepper is the perfect cover.
I know that chefs have major problems with cooking. Take steak, for example. My mother, having learned from her father, always smothered the stuff in mushroom gravy, and it was delicious. The Navy fried steak to the texture of sole leather. Whenever steak was on the menu, I headed for the geedunk (kind of like a fast food place) and got a hamburger.
I got to spend a month mess-cooking in the Navy, and got my turn preparing the leather. Everyone wanted their steak prepared for their tastes. Some even brought a salt and pepper shaker through the line with them and asked me to do the honors - I did, but it was against policy. Steaks - all food - are cooked "uniformly." One sailor wanted his cooked "rare." I asked him how rare? He said, just wave a cigarette lighter under it, and then pass it to him.
I have never understood this love of rare meat. I was raised on a farm with animals. We raised them, and we even butchered a few for our own use. I was often petting them, more often chasing them when they got out, sometimes wrestling them to the ground, and sometimes getting stepped on or butted - I knew these animals up close and personally. I knew their diseases. I knew their shots. I knew their parasites. I knew the conditions animals were sometimes in when they reached the slaughter house - sick and being disposed of... into the food system. If I was going to eat an animal, I wanted it to be cooked until it was something else. Heat changes the chemical composition of blood and meat through rapid decomposition, killing everything that is alive in it, and breaking it down into something that won't hurt you, so it is not even an animal anymore. For ancient people, cooking meat was a major step toward being civilized.
It is more sporting, and you get fresher meat, if you simply stop by a ranch, catch a steer, and bite it. OK, obviously I'm biased. At banquets I typically send the uniformly medium rare steak back and ask the chef to "cook it," and if he doesn't know how I will be glad to come back and show him.
The reason I add "show him how to cook it" is because typically when you send steak back, the insulted chef snubs you by sending it back to you only slightly less pink inside, with a badly blackened exterior. (They do this even if you originally order it well done.) You have to get two steps ahead on the insult game to keep chefs in line. Thankfully they don't pepper it. I have had food poisoning many times, but never from steak. I can't say the same for those others who died or spent weeks in the hospital, or who just worry about the effects of all those medicines they ingest that are given to cattle for growth.
Pepper! The growing menace of *@%! pepper is quickly growing out of control. Soon, chefs will be getting snobby about it. If you ask them to prepare food without pepper, undoubtedly they will look down their noses at you like you were some uncivilized barbarian quite lacking in taste, take the food to the kitchen where they will scrape off the breading, and then send it back with a bottle of common ketchup. It's going to get ugly.
A few days ago I purchased some nice safe ice-cream. It was Jack... something. After eating several bites, I noticed something very peculiar... but somehow familiar. My throat was getting hot. I dismissed it - perhaps I had a sore throat and hadn't noticed. But the more I ate, the hotter my throat got. Finally I grabbed the ice-cream box from the freezer and looked at the ingredients. *@%! pepper! Some *@%! *@%! put pepper in the ice cream, and then had the gall to sell it without even putting it on the package in plain sight! Maniacs! Sadists!
This is a genuine food emergency! Our food supply is steadily being contaminated by *@%! pepper. We have to raise the alarm immediately and get this under control. The people who create new food dishes obviously don't have a clue how to cook, and are using pepper to cover up poor tasting food. If we don't stop them, we'll be finding *@%! pepper in our ice cream... . Wait! We already have that. Oh, I know, it will be in our bottled water to cover up the fact that the rain collects the pollution out of the air before it goes into the stream, the animals urinate in the stream, and the water lacks minerals, and it is neither filtered nor chlorinated to kill germs. Oh, I've rattled the entire Southwest and Mexico, insulted the meat eaters, incurred the hatred of the bottled water crowd, so now I suppose everyone will be mad at me. All over *@%! pepper - I said it was my passion. Rats - there must be some safe, innocuous food that we all hate that I can talk about not putting *@%! pepper in. Garlic! No. Uhhh, happy eating, I'm out of here before the lynch mob starts.
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