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, a skillet, a metal spoon, and a surgeon’s mask.
“A surgeon’s mask?” I asked.
“Absolutely,” he said. “The habanero is the hottest pepper in all the world. Surely you understand that you can’t breathe the fumes while it cooks.”
“Actually,” I corrected him, “the world’s hottest chile is the Indian ghost pepper. I know what I’m doing.”
That evening, two curious friends stopped by to drink beer and observe. I lectured while working, at one point holding up a single orange pepper about the size of a thumb. “The genus species name for this little jewel, Capsicum chinense, is actually a misnomer,” I explained. “In fact it isn’t Chinese at all. Rather, it is native to the Americas. Thus the common name, which translates literally to ‘from Havana,’ tells the truer tale.” They nodded. “Its spiciness is measured in Scoville heat units, or SHUs. On that scale, this habanero should rate around 350,000 SHUs, making it the rough equivalent of one hundred forty jalapeños. It’s a very dangerous pepper, friends, and the primary ingredient in many pepper sprays, which may be why the checker at Central Market alerted security when I tried to buy these two pounds of them this afternoon. I assured them my intentions were honorable.” I cut off the stem, dropped the pepper in the blender with a quarter of a pound more of its kind, secured the lid, and punched “purée.” Once it was ground to a glowing orange pulp, I removed the lid. The kitchen filled instantly with a sharp, burning odor that produced breathless gasps and tears. The friends fled.
After a historically unpleasant bathroom break (note: sometimes washing your hands before relieving yourself is even more important than washing them afterward), I finished puréeing, heated the oil and garlic, and dumped the peppers into the skillet. At this point, I realized the chef had made a grievous error. A standard-sized skillet will barely hold two pounds of mushed peppers; flash-frying was impossible. For thirty minutes I stood stirring at the stove, my view blurred by a thick gray mist and the fact that my contact lenses seemed to be melting to my eyeballs. Undaunted, I pressed on, eventually filling fifteen bottles with the blessed relish and calling it a night.
I spent the next day at the kitchen table compiling a list of recipients, occasionally glancing with pride at the bottles on the counter. But the day after that, I discovered another of the chef’s oversights, this one irreversible. Apparently he wasn’t aware that the relish required refrigeration. My bright orange globs had sprouted dull gray whiskers.
As if that disappointment wasn’t enough to ruin the holiday season, a few days later my childhood asthma, which hadn’t attacked in more than ten years, returned with a vengeance. Within a week I’d wind up in the pulmonary unit at Seton Medical Center, where a team of doctors ran me through a battery of tests, including a long stretch locked inside an airtight chamber that resembled Houdini’s famous Chinese Water Torture Cell. The docs were baffled, eventually suggesting I’d suffered “an inhalation injury.” That, however, was as specific as they got. I stayed bedridden for weeks and ended up missing Christmas with my family.
But the holiday wasn’t a complete loss. One friend got a bottle before it all spoiled. A fellow pepper-belly, she kept it in the freezer, occasionally putting a couple of drops into her tortilla soup. She said it produced a magnificent, smoky taste and an addictive burn. I think of her and that relish almost every Christmas—and on certain mornings when I’m taking my daily puff of Advair. The memory always makes me smile.