By Stu Burns
Hello, my name is Stu Burns, and I’m a chile addict.
I place the blame for my addiction squarely upon the genes and tongues of my parents. Hot pepper abuse ran rampant in the household where I grew up, in the tiny border town of Salsa Cruda, Texas. It was nothing for Mom and Pop to polish off three bottles of Texas Champagne hot sauce a day, not to mention the huevos rancheros for breakfast, carne adovada for lunch, and chile colorado for supper.
Fortunately for my parents, their chile craving stablized; unfortunately for their son, one hot high led insidiously to yet a hotter one. It started innocently enough for a youngster like me–a dash of Pickapeppa hot sauce on my eggs and potatoes in the morning, a seemingly innocent dose of two ounces of green sauce over my chicken fried steak.
Soon my craving grew and grew like a ravenous, just-hatched vegetarian Godzilla. One sultry night, my parents nearly caught me outside in the family garden gobbling raw serranos fresh from the bush. It was like being a werewolf, except I was more stimulated by chile juice than a full moon. I knew I was hooked–but I didn’t care!
Like most chile addicts, I am a devious genius, so I managed to hide my addiction first from my parents, and later from my wife, Flora Gem, who was from a famous artichoke farming family and so naturally was favorably inclined toward vegetables. I jokingly told her that the reason I ate chile peppers with every course of every meal was that I was a “card-carrying vegetarian” who just happened to also like meat. She was fooled by my con game completely and told me that my underpants embroidered with satin chile peppers were, in her words, “Cute. Weird, but cute.”
But as my used karma would have it, such marital contentment was playing second fickle fiddle to my chile pepper addiction. I began to hoard chiles by the can, jar, and plastic baggie. In no time I was buying chiles by the 40-pound sack and roasting them just because I loved their pungent, peppery smell! Pretty sicko, huh?
Even more sicko was the fact I was going downhill to a downfall. Depression gripped me and soon the heat scale meant nothing as I attempted to exceed the limits of human addictive endurance. I brushed my teeth with Tabasco sauce, gargled with chile oil, and I even dipped habanero snuff. One night I went over the limit: I smoked powered cayenne in the most dangerous ritual known to the hard-core chile addict: “free-basting.”
St. Capsicum, the patron saint of chile addicts, once wrote in a sermon that “every cutworm must grovel in the mud of the ditch before it climbs atop a row and gnaws down a pepper seedling.” That’s what happened to me. I sank to the deepest depraved depths, losing everything except my money and my connections. I had nowhere to turn for love and understanding except my wife. But would she help me?
“Stu,” she said, “I can’t help you until you stop putting Tabasco sauce on my French toast. You need professional help– I’ll call Big Jim and Holly.” She was speaking of Big Jim Peña, our county extension agent, and his wife Holly, who had undergone extensive training in agricultural psychology in Nicaragua and could therefore function as my pungency counselors. They placed me on an authorized “maintenance dosage” of a paltry ten pounds of chile a week while I underwent chile addiction therapy.
Part of that therapy called for me to conduct research to discover the roots of my problem. Was it the environment I lived in–namely, the hottest state in the Union? Or was my addiction genetically linked? I suspected the latter as a cause of the former. Follow me so far? You see, addictions beyond chiles ran rampant in my family. My own mother was a compulsive smoker. My father was a hard-core tomato eater, his red-stained beard forever trapping the tiny seeds.
Could there be a connection? I went to the library, carefully smuggling my bottle of pickled jalapeños past the guards, and discovered the worst: chiles, as members of the family Solanaceae, were brother plants to both tobacco and tomatoes. Evidently, some freaky chromosome-chlorophyll matching in my parents’ mating had mutated into an inherited–and uncontrollable–addiction in me. Digging even deeper, I learned that my addiction was so trendy that it had an acronym: PAS–and a name: Pungency Addiction Syndrome. I also learned that because of this PAS, I was trapped in what was termed a CAP–a Chile- Addicted Personality. In crude gutter slang, I was a “chilehead.”
But that was the good news. The bad news was that I learned chile peppers were also related to the peaceful-looking but deadly nightshade flower, another member of the mysterious family Solanaceae. Nightshade was used by witches in their spells to numb victims and turn them in to intellectual zombies or high school sophomores. I confronted my mother with my evidence and she confessed the horrible family secret: my grandmother had been a certified witch, who had placed a curse of chile addiction on all the male members of my family. Why? Simple–her husband had deserted her for the Jalapeño Queen of Laredo and she was stuck with all the kids.
But I digress. The news of the curse was so depressing to me that I gave it all up and violated my pepper parole. I exceeded my weekly chile maintenance dosage by 17 pounds. Finally, Big Jim Peña knew that he had done all he could; he realized in a fit of mind contortion that my addiction problem had crossed over from medicine and into another dimension, that of cosmic chiles.
So my other healer, Holly Peña, arranged for an audience with her healer, the brightest star on the guru horizon, a holy man with humble beginnings as a revered grower. He called himself the “Hot and Holy One,” and he lived in a cave overlooking the lush chile fields which straddle the winding Rio Grande near Hatch, New Mexico.
Encouraged, I immediately embarked upon my pilgrimage to the Hot and Holy One, and whence traveled to Hatch, where upon I challenged the highest peak visible upon the horizon and finally crawled up to the cave of the sacred guru, who foretold that, in some future time, an editor would forcibly cause me to abandon this absurd writing style and get back to basics. His prophecy proved to be correct–convincing proof of his pungent powers.
The first lesson taught by the Hot and Holy One was that all the stories about witches and genetically-liked pungency addiction were only so much mulch. The second lesson from the Hot and Holy One was revealed as I gazed into his illuminating capsaicinoid crystals. I’ll never forget his words: “In the land where everyone is addicted, no one is.” In other words, if you surround yourself with fellow addicts, everyone is normal!
So I joined The Hot and Holy One and his Natural Chilehead Cult, Inc. Like the Rastafarians in Jamaica, who worship the Sacred Herb, and the Native American Churchians, who experience the Holy Cactus as a sacrament, here at the Natural Chilehead Cult we prove our faith by the ritual consumption of all-powerful pungent pod eight times a day.
I am very happy now that I have conquered my habit and discovered a cult that’s right for me. I hope all the readers of this publication who are closet chile addicts–and you know who you are–will visit me here at the Cult Headquarters Gift Shop and taste our Commune-Grown brand of gourmet chiles. If you can’t visit, write for our free mail order catalog and cult conversion kit.
Live, prosper, and eat more chiles.
The Seven or Eight Warning Signs of Pungency Addiction
According to expert agricultural psychologists Big Jim and Holly Peña, the addict’s loved ones, employers, clergymen, accountants, spouses, chefs, and social workers (not necessarily in that order) should be on the lookout for the following suspicious behavior by the CAP (Chile-Addicted Personality) who exhibits the classic symptoms of PAS (Pungency Addiction Syndrome).
1. Complains constantly about the blandness of foods.
2. Hides his empty cans of serranos en escabeche under the sofa.
3. Carries a flask of pepper vodka and a bottle of Tabasco on the person.
4. Prepares dinners so hot that the guests cannot eat them and the CAP gets it all.
5. Has a garden which produces more pounds of chiles than tomatoes.
6. Smokes dried pepper leaves instead of tobacco.
7. Takes vacations only in the Southwest U.S. and Hunan, China.
7. (Tie) Snorts chile powder through a straw, or worse yet, “free-bastes.”
Illustration by Harald Zoschke