hen I was a boy in Georgia, an old Black man by the name of Buck drove his mule and wagon to town once a week during the spring, summer, and fall to sell hot peppers door-to-door. The peppers were in a brown paper bag about six inches high, three inches wide, and an inch-and-a-half deep.
A bag sold for 15 cents, the price of three Cokes, at the height of the season, and for 25 cents early and late in the season. By late afternoon Buck would finish covering the town of just over a thousand in the 1950 census, and what was to be just under a thousand in 1960. Then he would stop at the two rows of stores across from the courthouse and its monument to the Civil War dead.
On this lawn a couple of Saturday mornings a year, we Boy Scouts scanned the sky with our binoculars, spotting aircraft. When we saw one, which wasn't often because private planes were rare and commercial flights expensive, we cranked the phone and asked Miss Ethyl to connect us to the Air Defense Command in Atlanta. This sensitized us as to the dark threat that we lived under.
Half a dozen houses of the more prosperous citizens took the two remaining sides opposite the court house, including a house made of "white brick," as Mrs. Jordan told us so many times, "special-made from white clay, not red bricks painted white."
Buck bought flour and corn meal and a few canned goods, things he couldn't grow or raise, at Bill Mitchell's grocery store, and sometimes picked up a shirt or towel at Mr. Coolik's dry goods store. Mr. Coolik, the town Jew, kept a low profile as he prospered.
The only Catholic family to ever attempt to settle there was not so lucky, and lasted less than a year. The parents, a Yankee couple looking for a good country town to raise their six children, were unprepared for what was not so much anti-Catholicism as just the feeling that the Catholic religion did not exist.
We had only one white school, first through twelfth grade (with a typical graduating class of 12 students), so when the father of the Catholic family decided to complain about the meals served all his children at school, he had to meet with just one principal. He asked if it would be possible to serve fish on Friday, instead of the normal hamburgers or hot dogs, because meat was prohibited on that day for Catholics.
The principal knew that Friday's lunch was the most popular lunch of the week for us Protestant kids, so he suggested that the six Catholic children bring tuna sandwiches on Friday. The father then asked if something could be done about the hot peppers in the beans, and the principal thought a good solution might be feeding the kids hot peppers at home so they'd learn to like them.
The oldest of the six children was a good-looking 15-year-old girl whose tongue was profane and whose outlook was "free," as they say in Korea. She is said to have gotten any boy she wanted, and to have known what to do with him once she got him. I was a couple of years too young to be involved in this, but I knew the town's girls and mothers did not like her. My main memory of her was a day in the cafeteria when she yelled across the room, "How the hell can you eat these damned hot beans?"
After Buck put his bags in his wagon, he would spend almost three hours behind his mule to get back to his house and his peppers. He wore a wide straw hat on the sunny days and a raincoat on the wet ones, a light jacket in the spring and a heavy coat in the late fall.
Buck's life of frugal comfort depended on consistency in both the delivery and the heat of the peppers, which was considerable but not overbearing. His greenhouse skills that extended the pepper season at both ends aided his success.
No evening meal or Sunday dinner after church was complete without a saucer of fresh hot peppers. You took small bites as you ate, keeping the pepper on the edge of your plate. Peppers seemed to go best with cornbread and pork, fried pork chops or boiled fresh ham or roast pork loin.
When the peppers were the cheapest, housewives would make pepper sauce. They washed the peppers, stuffed as many as they could into a couple dozen small bottles, and then filled the bottles with salted boiling vinegar. Six months or a year later, the sauce was ready for shaking onto turnip, mustard, or collard greens that had been cooked with a big square of "fatback," salted pork fat with the skin, or "rind," intact. To get the full flavor of the fatback, every quarter inch or so the fat was sliced down to the rind so the square spread out like a fan. The vinegar in the pepper sauce helped cut through the coating of fat that glistened on the greens.
A decade later, at Officers Training School in San Antonio, Texas I added another pepper to my repertoire, the jalapeno. We future officers ate better than the enlisted trainees on the other side of the base, even getting our eggs to order at breakfast. I asked the head cook, a portly Chicano sergeant, about the peppers and the boiled eggs that tasted of peppers at the relish table.
"Sir," he said, "or senor, if you permit me this once, they are jalapenos, and contain the soul of the Mexican people. I put them out for the handful of Chicano officer trainees here." I picked up a jalapeno and ate it as he watched, and made a friend who during the next three months often slipped me good cuts of meat or some spicy delicacy usually reserved for the Chicanos.
Weekends in the barrio, which Texas Anglos never appreciated as I did, consisted of cheap bars and cheap restaurants with gloriously hot food. The Chicanas had spicy mouths and free minds, like the Catholic girl who lived for a while in my home town, and they were just as unacceptable for a proper girlfriend, although unlike her, they liked hot beans. Just eight years later, when I lived in West Texas 90 miles north of the Mexican border, Chicano girlfriends were just beginning to become acceptable for Anglos. It was there that I first met young "modern" Chicanas who didn't care much for chilis.
The heat of Buck's peppers was as much a part of my life as the Georgia air, and I took in the heat of the Jalapeno at the same time I experienced Tex-Mex culture. The heat of the little brown Szechuan pepper, however, came to me culturally neutered, from middle-class Chinese restaurants and recipe books. At a Szechuan restaurant in Amherst, Massachusetts patrons scientifically ordered food from "1" (mild) to "4" (extremely hot). The non-Chinese waiter would bring me "4" only after I promised not to send it back to the kitchen.
One Szechuan recipe book told of an old woman years ago travelling to America to join her son. She had no peppers during the lengthy trip, so when she finally sat with her son at a table of Szechuan dishes, the power of the little tobacco-brown peppers scattered throughout the dishes brought both tears and a smile to her face. Another book gave the culinary theory behind Szechuan heat: "At first it might seem that the spicy hotness kills the ability to taste, but then we realize that the peppers raise the level of awareness of the tongue so that it is capable of making finer distinctions." (Continued as "Kochu Part 2.")