Peppers are a lovely vegetable. I’ve always enjoyed bell peppers, a staple in my Dad’s garden for many years. However, in recent years I’ve also come to a good understanding with progressively hotter varieties of chiles, going along with my increased appetite for spicy food. Mexican, Thai, and Chinese just wouldn’t be the same without them. I respect the pepper. I haven’t tried all the varieties, but most of them sound inviting and slightly mysterious (or at least the name of a nice housing development in Arizona): Poblano. Serrano. Cayenne. Sure, I’ll drop in and stay a while.
I mentioned my Dad’s garden. I’ve tried my best to replicate even a tiny fraction of his vegetable paradise on our deck the last couple of years, without much luck. I’ve mainly tried a few varieties of tomato and green bell peppers every year, and I maybe get a few tomatoes and one pepper out of any given plant if I’m lucky, and even then the squirrels or bugs would get to them before I could. When it came time to try again this spring, Gina and I were visiting a local greenhouse that was having a moving sale. We enjoyed digging through what was left on the slightly disorganized shelves, getting plants for our front yard at good prices. As a lark, I picked up another baby pepper plant. The tag for this one intrigued me: it was the Sweet Chocolate Beauty.
It was the best-looking plant left in the greenhouse, so I picked it up thinking I had little to lose. And if the pepper turned out as great as the picture, then I was surely a winner.
Months later, the pepper plant had stayed healthy thanks to some particularly diligent watering and feeding on my part. When you have a jewel this rare on your deck, you have to tend to it. And before I knew it, three little peppers started growing! Sweet chocolate beauties, I was ready!
The only problem was that as these beauties grew and ripened, they were … small. And orange. Neon orange. Decidedly not chocolate looking.
I blamed myself. Surely I should have put the plant in a bigger pot! I should have fed it more! My chocolate beauties were stalling out in some kind of weird orange phase and were never going to fully ripen! More days and weeks went by, and my pepper status didn’t change. It looked like I was stuck with half-formed degenerate peppers. By the time I swallowed my disgust and went to pick them, two of the three peppers had begun to dry out on the plant, so I threw them away. The remaining one looked okay and seemed ripe enough, so I took it to the kitchen and set it aside on a paper towel. The pepper was so small, half the size of my thumb, that I didn’t know what to do with it. I figured I’d wait until I made some kind of salad and then try it out.
Recently, Gina and I made some kind of salad. I had admittedly been putting off using the pepper, partly because I was afraid that it was not truly ripe and would taste sour or something, and partly because I was hoping it would magically turn into chocolate one night. Since it never did, I had run out of excuses. As the finishing touch to my lunch, I cut the little orange pepper in half, cleared out the seeds, and plopped it on top of my bowl of salad.
Lunch was pleasant. We had our normal polite conversation and planned out our afternoon. I ate my sandwich first because I was starving, then I picked around the salad, still avoiding the pepper just in case. Finally, I forked up half of it and tossed it in my mouth, thinking that if it tasted weird I would at least know for sure and then I could give up on growing peppers from a pot on my stupid deck.
I bit down. Instantaneously, a volcano erupted in my mouth, melting my teeth and sending my tongue hiding for cover down my throat. My face contorted as sweat formed on my brow and my nose began to run. I managed to choke out, “This is hot as fire” before spewing flames – and the half-bitten pepper – like a dragon. Gina rushed to the kitchen and poured a glass of milk for me, which I immediately tossed back and let fill the molten lava pool where my mouth used to be. At that point I would have taken a bath in milk or at least dunked my whole head in there.
Gina pointed out what I should have realized all along: this was not the plant I thought I had. Thinking back, there were many many warnings I had chosen to ignore: disorganized plant markings at the greenhouse. Bright orange coloring. The fact that neither squirrel nor insect had touched these peppers. As it turns out, my green thumb worked perfectly, I just had the wrong type of pepper. Instead of sweet chocolate beauties, I got a 100% authentic habanero plant. For some perspective, a habanero is roughly 25 times hotter than the hottest jalapeno. While not the hottest chile out there, depending on which “Scoville pepper scale” image you Google, a habanero usually sits in the top three. And I had just unwittingly let it invade my mouth, raw.
All of this I discovered after my mouth cooled sufficiently for me to function again. Later, I peered out the deck door at the innocent-looking plant. Two more baby peppers had started to form. I squinted across at it, staring it down. I had taken its challenge and survived.
The saddest part? I still don’t know what a Sweet Chocolate Beauty tastes like.