shipping powders back and forth
black goes south
and white comes north
The dependence on the pepper isn’t peculiar to people of Mexican or Indian heritage. There’s nothing in the genes of these people that makes them predisposed to the pepper habit. “Whenever I think of Henri Cartier-Bresson, I see him sitting at the dinner table with a tube of North African red-pepper paste in one hand and a pocketknife in the other . . . ” began a profile of the famous French photographer in an October 1989 issue of the New Yorker magazine. Some Westerners have developed a highly discriminating palate for peppers. Sid, a Michigan businessman, for one. I had heard about him from a total stranger who surprised me in Detroit in 1986 with the tiny silver box he had pulled out of his pocket. The filigreed box seemed to have been designed with something else in mind, perhaps cocaine. But it was full of small dry red peppers, grown in Sid’s backyard.
When I telephoned Sid that summer he said he had planted peppers in a forty-by-sixty backyard plot. He had also planted peppers in two flowerpots that sat just outside his back door. “Sometimes I want to be able to reach one in a hurry,” he said.
Once at a gathering of tweedy gentlemen at a New York club, where the members’ spiciest encounter usually is with the Tabasco in their Bloody Marys, I watched with amusement the fuzzy and warm feelings hot peppers brought out in them. It all started when someone complained that the Tabasco he had just shaken into his drink wasn’t hot enough. “You should try some of the hot sauces in Jamaica,” he said. Another man, who had been to Peru to advise the government there on restructuring its banking system, chimed in: “I once brought these round peppers from Lima. But I haven’t been able to grow the darn things.” The man lived in Tuxedo Park, New York, which has hardly the climatic conditions for the Peruvian pepper. Said another: “There’s this pepper in Bhutan. It’s marvelous in vodka—just drop one in the bottle.” Downing their drinks that Sunday afternoon, the men talked of how they had been smitten by peppers they initially had approached reluctantly during travels in Africa or South America or India. Back in the United States they were still pining with faraway looks for those faraway peppers. A week or so later, I learned, two of the men had exchanged peppers via mail.
—Amal Naj, Peppers