“Mikey’s Late Night Slice” in Columbus, Ohio, offers a pizza called “Fiery Death with Hate Sausage”, topped with three of the world’s hottest peppers: Carolina Reapers, Trinidad Moruga Scorpions, and Bhut Jolokias. You must sign a waiver before Mikey’s serves you a slice of Death, acknowledging, “you’re an idiot”, and absolving the restaurant of any responsibility for the unpredictable aftereffects. According to one taster, “It was pretty miserable. My eyes welled up, my nose ran, and no drink could wash away the pain.” Sounds like my kind of heat.
It all started with the tabletop pepper shaker. Salt’s brother-of-another-color stood quietly to the side in my childhood, hoping for the same constant attention given to his savory companion. If pepper was used at all in my day, it was nothing more than an obligatory shake; a decoration of the food versus a yearning of the taste buds.
Forty-odd years later, the pepper mill has become the king of the spice rack – my go-to final flourish before deeming a meal ready-to-eat. My pepper mill is always cranked to the furthest setting to the left, so the dozens of corns fall out of the bottom virtually intact. When I refill my pepper mill and spill a few of the little guys onto the counter, I scoop them up and pop ’em into my mouth like candy. My family has learned to pass the pepper before I even ask for it.
I blame my parents, of course (something I seem to do with increasing frequency these days). My dad peppered everything on his plate – still does – and kept shaking away until his food literally disappeared under a blanket of black. My dad was the guy at restaurants who mercilessly trapped the poor fellow who politely asked, “would anyone like ground pepper”? My dad would always add, “you can be generous…”, and several minutes of grinding ensued. My dad also had violent (but apparently enjoyable) fits of sneezing, sometimes seven or eight in a row. I never made the association with pepper, but now I wonder. I can still hear him concluding a sneezing session with the word “marvelous“.
My mom, who graduated from the Emily Post School of Etiquette with honors, commanded a family dining table to rival the tightest ships. Every placemat, utensil, plate and bowl were in perfect symmetry. The meal began with a table grace, and concluded with “please may I be excused?” In her world, “please pass the salt” meant passing the salt along with the pepper shaker, and with two hands instead of one so you couldn’t eat at the same time. Thus, the pepper arrived at my plate whether I wanted it to or not.
Sometimes I think my hankering for pepper is borderline-addictive. Eventually the “shaker” no longer sufficed, as the pepper only came out in little bits. Once I discovered the “mill”, there was no going back. A handful of turns became ten, then fifteen; my food turning as dark as my father’s. As it turns out, pepper was my gateway spice. In the last several years I’ve discovered “red pepper flakes”; a significant leap in heat from peppercorns. I used to shy away from those little plastic vials they include with pizzas. Now I ask for two or three more.
Lucky for me, pepper (and all things spicy) appears to be a healthy habit. According to an article by Dr. Joseph Mercola – an osteopath and proponent of alternative medicine – a full ounce of pepper provides most of the manganese, Vitamin K, and potassium we need in a given day, and even a good dose of iron or fiber. Mercola then missteps when he acknowledges “…it’s true one would not have that much pepper in a day…” Apparently, he hasn’t met me.
Pepper is described as a “stealth antioxidant”, discourages intestinal gas from forming (no wonder my wife peppers my food), and somehow aids in the breakdown of fat cells. Finally, black pepper has much in common with cannabis, with aroma molecules functioning as “cannabinoids”. To be clear, we’re talking about the therapeutic benefits of cannabinoids here. Pepper isn’t playing with my brain cells (I don’t think), but it does help to reduce inflammation.
My children are destined to a life of pepper – I’m sure of it – and not because I turn my food black like my father or pass the shakers as a pair like my mother. In high school, my daughter prepped for her team’s volleyball matches by “peppering” with another player (hitting the ball back and forth to warm the hands). Now, she carries pepper spray in her purse. One of my sons went to college in Waco, TX, where Dr. Pepper was invented in 1885 and vended on campus without a Coke or Pepsi in sight. More recently, I’ve seen my children reach for the hot sauce (instead of the mild) at Mexican restaurants. You see, it creeps up on you quietly. Next thing you know they’ll be asking me to take them to Mikey’s Late Night Slice.