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Dan Conradt: Know your jalapeno threshold

January 6, 2019

The side of the building was discolored by exhaust from the kitchen fan, a gray-white geyser like the plume that comes from the dryer vent on a cold day. It smelled of old grease and sour mop.

I stopped on the sidewalk and read the headline of the newspaper article framed in the café’s front window:

Voted America’s Best Chili! it shouted in “Dewey Defeats Truman”-sized letters. In much smaller print at the bottom of the page was the name of a newspaper I’d never heard of, serving a “don’t blink or you’ll miss it”-sized town that just happened to be somewhere between where I’d come from and where I was going. It made me wonder who voted.

A bell jingled when I pushed the door open, and my glasses fogged up from the moist heat of cooking and the physical force of grease, mop and onions.

A waitress bustled past, expertly balancing half a dozen bowls of chili on a big round tray.

“Sit wherever you like,” she said, breezing past a sign that read ‘Please Wait To Be Seated.’ “Be right with ya.”

There were two empty tables in the place, and I walked past the table for eight in the middle of the room and took the table for two next to the wall.

Nearly buried beneath the murmur of conversation and the rattle of plates and silverware, Alabama was singing “Song Of The South.”

The waitress appeared from out of nowhere, as waitresses tend to do.

“Gitcha somethin’ to drink?” she asked, handing me a menu.

“Just water,” I said. “How’s the chili?”

“Best in America,” she said, poking her pencil toward the newspaper article in the window.

“I’ll try it,” I said.

“Cup or bowl?”

“Bowl.”

“How hot?”

At the bottom of the menu, tiny jalapeño peppers rated the heat of the chili from one pepper (mild) to five (list your next of kin).

“Three,” I said.

“You sure?” the waitress asked, cocking one eyebrow and looking at me skeptically. “It’s pretty hot.”

“No, that’s fine,” I said. “I like hot food.”

She made a note on her order pad and hurried toward the front door to greet a party of six before I could tell her how … when I was a toddler … my mom tried to get me to stop sucking my thumb by coating it with Tabasco sauce. Instead of convincing me to stop, I’d lick the sauce clean, then walk around with thumb extended like a hitchhiker, asking for a refill.

If the waitress hadn’t been busy I would have called her back and changed my order to four jalapeños.

The chili came in a thick white bowl on a matching plate that reminded me of the plates they use at church dinners. Two smaller bowls were filled with shredded cheddar cheese and sour cream.

“Anything else to drink?” the waitress asked.

“No, the water is fine,” I said.

She set the plate on my table and dragged out “OK” in a way that implied “Don’t say I didn’t warn you …”

I leaned over my bowl and took a deep breath. Yankee Candle could make a fortune with a scent like that.

The first spoonful caused one of those involuntary shudders that comes when you’ve tasted something truly spectacular; it might have been better than the chili Mom used to leave simmering in a kettle on cold Sunday afternoons.

Then the three jalapenos kicked in.

By the fourth spoonful my nose was running. By the fifth, my head was sweating. I took my jacket off after the sixth, and by the seventh my eyes were watering.

My face! I can’t feel my face!

I reached blindly for my glass of ice water but … as I would learn later, and for reasons I still don’t understand … water will only make the impact of spicy food worse.

My tongue! My tongue is numb!!

The waitress appeared from out of nowhere and put a glass of milk on my table; I hadn’t ordered milk.

“How’s the chili?” she asked.

“Whhhhaaaa ….”

“I’ll tell the cook!” she said with a smile. She was three quick steps past me when she turned back and patted my forehead with the damp cloth she used for wiping tables.

I drank half the milk in one gulp, then held a big spoonful of sour cream in my mouth until my nose and eyes stopped running. I think it took about half an hour.

I left the waitress a big tip … the milk and the damp cloth were worth it … and drove the next 15 miles with the car windows down and my mouth wide open. The cold air got my face and brain working again, and taught me an important lesson: you need to know your limitations, and my limit is one jalapeno.

Still, I think I’ll stop at the supermarket on the way home. I’m out of Tabasco sauce.

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