Smokey the Bear changes his tune: Bring on the fire!
In the Central African forest where I used to watch gorillas, a certain machismo reigned in camp. We were inclined to manifest it by working double shifts, dusk to dawn, tracking the animals. Or by putting a little duct tape on our scratches and going back to work in the swamp. Or, in the classic manner, through our capacity to endure hot sauce.
At the edge of camp grew a hot-pepper bush, brought in by some sainted soul. The chilis were tiny, red and hot, like bird’s-eye peppers. I learned that if I stuck one in my cheek as I left in the morning, it would keep my mouth entertained and the hunger at bay for a long while. I grew to love them, and the dried red chilis that are the ubiquitous table condiment in Central Africa. As we ate an awful lot of beans and rice, spice was our salvation. When I left the forest, I wanted to make sure I had a good supply of those special dark-red chili flakes, and I decided they’d make a good present for my loved ones. (People expect arts and crafts when you come back from Africa, but the forest I lived in wasn’t the crafty part. It was the thick, leafy, uncivilized part. I suppose I could have brought raw teak logs, except for the 35-pound weight limit.)
I emerged from the forest and found my way to Bangui. The morning of my flight back to New York, I hired a local guy to go find me a big bag of dried pili-pili flakes at the market.
He came back with a bag full of fresh peppers. Something like a Scotch bonnet, but hotter, if possible. How was I supposed to get this into the U.S., I asked him? He shrugged. I paid him. I took the bag. I figured I might as well carry it until someone took it away.
At some point, I became aware that crushed-pepper juice was leaking through my skirt and onto my thigh. And it was becoming uncomfortable. This is how hot the peppers were: By the time I got onto the plane, an hour or two later, I had to get burn dressings from the flight attendant.
I was prepared to surrender the peppers on reentry, but I suspect the customs dogs are more interested in cocaine than hot peppers. I landed in a tiny apartment in Midtown with peppers still in grimy market bag, and thanked my hosts by smoking them out of their home with enough capsaicin to kill a Texan.
If you dare, you may recreate the sauce … Continue reading