I’m still shocked by the number of people who suggested I didn’t know what I was doing. The first such skeptic just happened to be the Texanist, my housemate that winter of 1995, who was then known to the greater world simply as Dave. When I informed him of my plan—to create a habanero relish, store it in small glass bottles, and give it to friends as Christmas presents—the budding expert on All Things Texan asked to be removed from my gift list. Even then, it should be noted, the Texanist was weak of neither heart nor belly; many were the late-night serrano-eating contests fought in our kitchen. Yet on the evening dedicated to preparing the concoction, he opted to evacuate. “You’re an idiot,” he said, heading for his girlfriend’s house.
The recipe’s author was equally doubtful. I’d encountered the relish at a long-forgotten interior Mexican food place in Austin called El Rinconcito, prepared each morning by a chef of alleged Latin origins. When I called him, he ticked off three ingredients—habaneros, olive oil, and garlic—and simple directions: purée the peppers, mince and warm the garlic, then flash-fry the peppers. He suggested four utensils: a blender,